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LA Stage Times

Sheryl Kaller Explores Faith vs. Family in Next Fall

by Deborah Behrens | November 2, 2011

Betsy Brandt, Geoffry Nauffts and James Wolk in “Next Fall”

Sheryl Kaller believes in gratitude. After all, how often does a director get to travel with a play from reading to workshop, Off-Broadway to Broadway, earn a Tony Award nomination in the process and then helm its West Coast premiere?

“How lucky am I?” she laughs on a mid-October night in Westwood, as the thermometer hovers around 85. She’s seated outdoors at a California Pizza Kitchen mere blocks from the Geffen Playhouse where Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall opens November 2. It’s the third week of rehearsals and things are going well.

“It was a good day today,” Kaller offers. “I got to wake up, speak to my children who are in two different states right now and walk to rehearsal in Los Angeles. Not even drive a car! Walk to rehearsal and work with people that I respect and admire. I aspire to feeling like I feel today every single day.”

“Humbled” and “fortunate” are regular parts of the Long Island native’s vocabulary, whether speaking about future project opportunities or that morning’s scene work triumphs. Appreciating life’s moments of grace is something Kaller says she gleaned from her long journey with the play.

Sheryl Kaller

“I try to start every single day in gratitude. I’m grateful to be walking to rehearsal today with such talented actors, so let me be the best I can be because of that. I’m grateful to be sitting outside in Los Angeles at 10 at night and not be in the cold. The simplicity and complexity of gratitude is what I’ve been working on and I learned that from doing Next Fall.”

Of course the sunny mood that accompanied that period two weeks ago ended abruptly at the Geffen on Monday afternoon, when the theater’s founder and producing director Gil Cates collapsed and died in a nearby UCLA parking lot. Because of the shock and sadness surrounding Cates’ death, there will be no opening night pre-show or post-curtain celebrations for Next Fall.

“I’m so grateful for all the loving guidance that Gil gave to me and this production,” said Kaller via phone today. “The idea of his not being here is saddening, but it is an honor to celebrate his life with this play.”

Next Fall itself is hardly about blissful good times. It charts the five-year evolution of an odd couple pairing — neurotic 40ish atheist Adam with the much younger and hotter devout Christian Luke. Luke not only believes homosexuality is a sin, which can be absolved at the pearly gates, but he thinks hypochondriac Adam will go to hell for not accepting Jesus as his savior. How and why they remain together despite their polar opposite religious viewpoints form the central intellectual crux of the piece.

The comedy/drama opens in a New York City hospital waiting room where Luke lies in a coma, then travels back and forth in time to reveal pivotal relationship moments between the two, as well as other friends and family members. These include Holly, Adam’s friend and candle store owner; Luke’s pal Brandon, a Christian who doesn’t accept their relationship; and Luke’s divorced parents — Butch, a born-again fundamentalist and Arlene, a Southern belle with a wild gal past. For Kaller, family is the show’s dominant theme.

“Yes, there is religion in this play,” she explains. “Yes, it’s the love story of two men so we have the same-sex theme going on. But it’s about family. It’s about what we expect from our family. It’s about what we don’t get from our family. It’s the fear of our families not loving us. It’s the fear of our families loving us too much. It’s about acceptance and love and all within a family, blood and not blood. More than any other play I’ve ever worked on and almost more than any other play I’ve ever seen, this is about family. I feel incredibly fortunate to bring my experiences and my heart to this play from a mama’s point of view.”

Geoffrey Nauffts and James Wolk in “Next Fall”

The Geffen production marks a reunion for director Kaller and playwright Nauffts, who is an actor, writer and until just recently, the artistic director of New York’s Naked Angels theater company — whose roster includes Jane Alexander, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jon Robin Baitz, Joe Mantello, Theresa Rebeck and Marisa Tomei. Nauffts has significant Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring credits, as well as stints in numerous television series. He directed Stephen Belber’s Tape for Naked Angels in New York, LA and London. Nauffts was also a writer on Brothers & Sisters for two years and is collaborating with Elton John on a score for the screenplay Showstopper.

Kaller has directing credits with a wide variety of leading nonprofit theaters on both coasts. She has developed new plays with writers such as Christopher Durang, Peter Melnick, Regina Taylor, Dick Beebe and Alan Menken. It was her work on Durang and Melnick’s new musical Adrift in Macao at Primary Stages in 2007 that in part led Jenny Gersten, the former Naked Angels artistic director who is now heading up Williamstown Theatre Festival, to suggest Kaller for an initial reading of Nauffts’ new play later that year.

Nauffts and Kaller have been simpatico traveling companions since that first reading. They’ve taken the play through a subsequent workshop, the Naked Angels world premiere production at Playwrights Horizons in June 2009 and the March 2010 Broadway transfer to the Helen Hayes Theater — all with the original cast intact. Via those various incarnations, the play garnered the Outer Circle Critics’ John Gassner Award” in 2010 for best new American play, then picked up 2010 Tony Award nominations for best play and direction, alongside others including the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new Broadway play.

The Geffen outing is the duo’s first time revisiting the piece with a new group of actors and the first time Nauffts is tackling the part of Adam. Patrick Breen, the playwright’s friend of 30 years and fellow Naked Angels company member, played the role through both NYC runs without missing a show. Kaller says Breen felt Nauffts needed to do the role and gave him his blessing. The Geffen ensemble also features James Wolk (Lonestar) as Luke, Lesley Ann Warren (Victor/Victoria) as Arlene, Jeff Fahey (Lost) as Butch, Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad) as Holly and Ken Barnett (Atlanta) as Brandon.

Ken Barnett and Lesley Ann Warren

Working with Nauffts on the character he created was one of the biggest reasons Kaller decided to explore the play again after its successful NYC life.

“What’s been so great for Geoff and me is we have such a shorthand,” she enthuses. “We have this magnificent collaboration and now it’s just being flushed out even more deeply. Like I found today. I gave him a note on a certain scene and I said, “˜You always gave me that note. Now I’m giving it back to you.’ And he’s like, “˜Oh, you’re right.’ And I said, “˜No, you’re right. It’s your note. It’s just coming back to you.’ I think what’s been most surprising to him is that the moments the actors felt were difficult, he’s finding difficult too, so that’s been really fun.”

The other reason to do it was the opportunity to work at the Geffen. “I came to see a play at the Geffen with my dear friend and collaborator Suzi Dietz a couple of years ago, and I said, ‘All right, if I ever direct Next Fall outside of New York, this is the theater I want to do it in.’ Suzie connected Geoffrey and me to Randy Arney and we all had a breakfast meeting at Hugo’s. Later we got word that the Geffen wanted to do it. So that was how that came about.”

Walking Her Talk

Clad in her signature Dansko clogs, khaki Capri-length cargo pants, t-shirt and vest, with her curly dark brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, Kaller looks more like a Berkeley earth mother than one of theater’s more sought-after directors. She is respected by peers for her grounded walk-her-talk authenticity and generous collaborative style in a field noted for controlling egos.

The last time LA audiences saw her was when Kaller directed the new musical Dangerous Beauty, which re-opened the Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year. (Full disclosure: LA STAGE Times covered the show as an embedded spectator from its first production meeting to closing night. See Dangerous Beauty Diaries I, II, and III.) Kaller had been part of its 10-year development since a 2005 reading at the Rubicon Theatre.

James Wolk and Jeff Fahey

“I had a wonderful creative team,” she says of the experience. “I think the theater community out here is beyond terrific. It was such a pleasure to help rejuvenate the Pasadena Playhouse. I feel like we were really embraced by our audiences. It was our first production of a really, really difficult nut to crack. I think we got what we needed to get from it and learned a lot. Developing a new musical is such a crap shoot and you have to be in it for the long haul. I’m so proud of what we did. As far as the future, that’s really up to the writers and how they want to push the play forward.”

Returning to LA to do Next Fall feels timely to Kaller, given California’s current court battle over gay marriage.

“It feels pretty significant to do the play here because of Prop. 8. When we performed it in New York, gay marriage was not passed. It was subsequently passed after we closed and now we are here in a state that had it and then took it away. Gay marriage is still a moving target in 2011. People who love each other can’t enter a hospital room if the state doesn’t deem it okay. It’s one of the reasons why this play is so relevant and so freaking sad. It just makes me so sad.”

Kaller says doing shows such as Dangerous Beauty, which advocates a woman’s right to choose her own destiny, or Next Fall, which champions the acceptance of gay relationships despite religious teachings, is not about preaching to the converted. For her it has to do with theater’s ability to transform those who come holding a different point of view.

“We all know that women drag their husbands to see plays,” she explains. “I cannot count on a hundred hands how many older dudes sat in both of those [NYC] theaters silently thinking, ‘Are you kidding me, wife? You are taking me to see a play about religion? About gay boys and about love? No thank you.’ They sat there with their arms crossed. Within the first five minutes of the first scene, they were open vessels and by the end of the play, they were on their feet or weeping. It was unreal.  Or being stopped in Times Square by young men coming over to hug and kiss me, saying, ‘Thank you. I brought my parents to this play so that I can come out.’ I mean it still slays me.”

James Wolk and Geoffrey Nauffts

Various religious leaders were invited to the show and had their own revelations. “A Catholic priest came to see Next Fall who had gay members in his church. He never understood how someone could not believe that Jesus is our Lord God. He never understood how people couldn’t understand that. He came to see the play but was not planning to sermonize on it. He wound up giving three sermons at high mass the following Sundays and not sermons about Luke, the Christian character who believed in Jesus. He wound up giving sermons about Adam, the atheist, and how seeing Adam in Next Fall opened up his eyes to what the church is responsible for and to whom.

“I could go on and on and on. The only theater I’m interested in doing is this kind of theater, and it might keep me in the poor house,” she laughs.

New York to LA

While Kaller admits there were significant re-writes between the Off-Broadway and Broadway production, the minor “shavings” underway in the LA production have less to do with revisions she wishes they’d done in New York and more with specific word enhancements for the new cast. The Geffen production is its own entity and not to be perceived as a chance for a “do-over.” In fact, Kaller says she was content to never direct the play again.

“I sat at the closing performance on Broadway and said I wouldn’t change a second of this thing,” she states. “Anything that any actor is doing, anything that I did, anything those designers did, I wouldn’t. I’ve never felt that about anything I’ve ever worked on ever, ever, ever, never, ever! What a privilege to be able to take a play on again and discover it with that confidence. Now a whole new group of actors are in the room and it’s different. It’s different because it’s different. It’s not different because anything was wrong or I wanted to do anything differently from the last time.”

Kaller feels indebted to the New York cast for the year they spent working together on Next Fall. “I get to bring everything that they brought to it, everything they taught me and I taught them, and our shared experience. Now with new actors I get to see number one, how sturdy the play is and two, what new people can offer to it. These LA actors are just extraordinary and they are all theater rats.”


Ken Barnett and Geoffrey Nauffts in “Next Fall”

New York Times critic Ben Brantley gave the play high marks for both the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Kaller doesn’t read reviews “because I give the good ones just as much power as I give the bad ones.” Nevertheless when told that Brantley said her direction was “if anything, more fluid and organic” and that the play “achieved the tricky and necessary feat of retaining its subtlety while increasing its clarity in making the transfer to Broadway,” she acknowledges the praise.

“Thank you, Mr. Brantley,” she says with a smile. “That was the goal.”

It is hard then not to read her what is certainly one of Brantley’s most laudatory ledes: “A flourishing member of a precious and nearly extinct species has been sighted on Broadway, looking remarkably vital and sure of itself for a creature so often given up for dead. Next Fall…is that genuine rara avis, a smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary New York comedy. The question is whether theatergoers will recognize that Next Fall embodies something they’ve been sorely missing, perhaps without knowing it, for years.”

“Wow, that’s the first time I’m hearing this. It’s the first time I hear this,” Kaller declares, sitting back to take it in. “I agree with him!” she laughs and begins to blush. “In revisiting this play, I agree with him wholeheartedly! That’s a nice opening paragraph,” she admits after a beat, her face displaying some emotion.

Upon pointing that out, Kaller laughs self-consciously. “I know! You can see I never heard that!”

“It’s the gift that Geoffrey Nauffts gave us with this play,” she continues in earnest. “I think its one of the biggest reasons why it’s so fulfilling at every turn. I’ve questioned myself subsequent to doing this play and now doing it again. I’ve absolutely questioned how much more theater do I really want to do, because I don’t know how much better it’s ever going to get, ever. It’s this fortunate experience of working on a play that is deserving of all the time and talent it’s been given.”

Lesley Ann Warren and Betsy Brandt

Now that the show has migrated to the Geffen, what does she hope will be said about the directing in this latest incarnation?

“That’s a great question. I feel like we started getting a lot of that magic in the room here so I’m excited about that. I think as always with this play, it has to take the front seat. In New York, my job was to direct in a way so my hand wasn’t shown. I am so fortunate to have gotten the Tony nomination for a play that wasn’t fancy directing, which you have to do sometimes on purpose. I’ve done that before. So I want it to occupy the front seat once again because that means I’ve done my job right.”

As for what she wants people to take away from the evening, Kaller is clear.

“I want people to talk. I don’t wanted it to be a sorbet, I want it to be a meal. I want it to linger. I want to pose enough questions and explore enough on the stage that we elicit discussion.”

A New Empty Nester

With both daughters now in college, Kaller and her husband are empty nesters for the first time, and the call of the open road beckons.

“I would like to do a lot of traveling,” she admits. “I’m interested in working in different cities now. [Since the Tony nomination], I’m definitely getting a lot more offers. For the most part all I have to do is get someone to make a phone call and at least I’ll get the opportunity to talk to the artistic directors.”

Future in-the-works projects include The Great Game on Broadway, a new Billy Porter play, Nick Blaemire’s new musical Finding Robert Hutchens, David Solomon’s Margaret and Craig about female impersonator Craig Russell starring Mario Cantone, a straight-to-Broadway play and something of her own creation.

James Wolk and Geoffrey Nauffts

“I’m really exploring the idea of underscoring old plays on stage with a live band. I’ve never worked on revivals before but I’m a huge Brecht freak. So I’m really interested in doing Caucasian Chalk Circle and setting it in a particular time and place that I am not at liberty to say right now.”

While in LA, Kaller is also pursuing television opportunities. “I would also like to add some zeros to my paycheck and direct some television. I’m going to observe on some sets. I’m excited to learn how to do it.”

Kaller knows her gender places her in a very rarefied but highly competitive talent pool. “I could get really caught up with male directors having way more opportunity than female directors. But I aspire to not chase after what I don’t have. I aspire to chase after what I want and celebrate what I have.”

Next Fall, presented by the Geffen Playhouse. Opens tonight. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Dec. 4. Tickets: $47-77. Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles. 310-208-5454.

***All Next Fall production photos by Michael Lamont

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A letter from the CEO of LA STAGE

by | January 31, 2014

LA STAGE Times is going on hiatus.

For over twelve years, we’ve championed arts journalism with a paid, professional staff at LA STAGE Alliance. In fact, it was a point of pride that we paid our feature writers and our editors. Yet, as strongly as the program delivered on mission, it never delivered on revenue or financial support. Until such time that we can create a self-sustaining model for this program, we will pause publication.

We’ve had offers of pro-bono support to keep the site running, but feel strongly about compensating our artists and don’t want to exploit the work of our colleagues. We thank Deborah Behrens for her tireless efforts as Editor-in-Chief, Don Shirley for his analytical column and dogged editing of his fellow writers, Julio Martinez for his historical insight and breaking news, Connie Danese for her opening night coverage, Steven Leigh Morris for his insight and all of our contributors for their efforts to help us achieve our mission of building awareness, appreciation and support for the performing arts of Greater Los Angeles.

During this hiatus, LA STAGE Times will remain live and searchable, so readers may still access the wealth of in-depth theatre coverage we’ve assembled over the years.

Inquiries should be directed to Terence McFarland, CEO LA STAGE Alliance at

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A Final Curtain Call

by | January 31, 2014


Ethel Barrymore had a signature Broadway curtain-call line she delivered each night, which originated from her role in 1904’s Sunday by Thomas Raceward. “That’s all there is — there isn’t any more.”

And thus LA STAGE Times goes on hiatus and my time as Editor in Chief comes to an end. It’s been a great run; one which for me began 13 years ago as a contributing writer for LA STAGE magazine in 2001, followed by managing editor of the website in 2010 and then Editor in Chief in 2011.

I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished since the print version went online in mid-2009.  Visits to the site quintupled and unique visitors sextupled. Each story gained national exposure via our RSS feed to aggregate site In the past two years, outstanding work from our writers garnered nine nominations from the Los Angeles Press Club in both the 5th and 6th National Entertainment Journalism Awards plus the 55th Southern California Journalism Awards. We took home two first place awards and one second place in categories populated by national media outlets. No small feat for a non-profit arts journalism site.

Our stories were both noted and respected. Emerging artists to theatrical legends thanked us for our research and knowledge base. A-list celebrities tweeted links to their followers while intimate theaters mounted poster-size features in their lobbies. Occasionally we even scooped our major media brethren.

None of which would have been possible without the dedicated contributors I’ve had the pleasure to work with these many months. From seasoned pros to recent graduates of the Arts Journalism Master’s Program led by Sasha Anawalt at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, each drove all over LA county (and sometimes Ventura, Riverside and Orange as well), conducting in-person interviews and crafting in-depth stories about LA’s vast theater community. I can’t thank you enough for your commitment and friendship. And thanks also to countless other artists who wrote about their personal creative journeys via our First Person columns.

I want to acknowledge our longtime columnists Don Shirley, Julio Martinez and Connie Danese, plus recent additions, Dani Oliver and Steven Leigh Morris. Julio’s LA STAGE Insider became a must-read destination for breaking news and historical LA theater tales while Connie’s opening night dispatches earned a devoted following. Don’s deep legacy covering LA’s theater scene makes him one of the most respected voices in our community as well as a wicked fact checker and copy editor (just ask the writers.) His contribution to the journalistic integrity of this site cannot be praised highly enough. He taught me so much and I will miss our lively debates.

My thanks also to colleagues Dany Margolies and Lynne Heffley who stepped in upon several occasions with their editing and Photoshop expertise in Don’s absence.

To Dani Oliver, assistant editor and photo editor plus my partner in the daily post trenches. Her artistic and tech savvy dramatically expanded the graphic possibilities of each story as well as their social media delivery.  If people only knew how much time was spent obtaining the perfect mix of production and historical photos or the lengths we went to locate them. Both of us had big dreams for the next phase of this site and I will miss our shared camaraderie.

To photographer Eric Schwabel, who started out shooting cover stories for the magazine and continued to do features when we went online. From “Faces” shots of Ray Bradbury and Kirk Douglas to more elaborate shoots with Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, he brought us his A-game on a 99-seat theater budget. Celebs loved his work, told their fans and boosted our traffic.

Kudos to all my publicist and marketing colleagues working both independently and on staff at the theaters. No one knows more than I do about how hard you work for your clients or in-house shows. I’ll miss those wee hours emails wondering why we’re both still up and whether hopping a late flight to a warm tropical climate might just solve everything.

To Doug Clayton and Terence McFarland for believing in an arts journalism site and keeping it afloat when logic suggested otherwise. And the rest of the LASA staff — Julie Briggs, Mark Doerr, Crystal Diaz and Mandi Homes — with whom I’ve shared this wild adventure and who give 150% daily for LA’s theater community.

A seminal theater experience for me was watching Kathy Bates in the 1986 Mark Taper Forum production of Marsha Norman’s night, Mother. Fast forward nearly 30 years later to another transcendent evening, though not nearly so gut-wrenching, at the Ahmanson Theatre last week attending Christopher Plummer’s charismatic one-man show, A Word or Two. Both indelible high points.

In between, I’ve seen more than 700 shows, most of them during my time with LA STAGE. It has been a profound gift to witness live performance on this scale. Not to mention interviewing and covering the incredible artists dedicated to creating it.

I would not be penning this farewell if it were not for one man, our late Editor Emeritus Lee Melville. He introduced me to L.A.’s theater community when I moved back from San Francisco in 1998, assigned my first cover story in 2001, championed my Ovation Award voter application and paved the way for me to succeed him as Editor in Chief.  He was my mentor and without his encouragement, I never would have met any of the amazing people I’ve interviewed nor become as widely connected to our community as I am today. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

Maya Angelou once wrote, “Sometimes we think we have found the place, the niche, and my instinct is that we should keep on our traveling shoes, that we are in process, every one of us, and we should keep on the traveling shoes and be ready.” A new road beckons. May we meet again somewhere upon it.

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Remembering Joseph Ruskin and Billie Burke

by | January 30, 2014
Joseph Ruskin

Joseph Ruskin

IN MEMORIAM…While this column was on hiatus during the holidays, noted film, television and stage actor Joseph Ruskin died on December 28, 2013 of natural causes at age 89. A veteran of 124 TV episodes and 25 feature films, Ruskin actively participated in LA theater, including a stint as artistic director of Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. He frequently performed at Center Theatre Group, including the American premiere of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer at Mark Taper Forum (1968). More recently, he performed in International City Theatre stagings of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing (2004) and Israel Horovitz’s Park Your Car in Harvard Yard (2008), as well as UCLA Live’s Medea, starring Annette Bening (2009). Born in Massachusetts, Ruskin studied at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University), making his professional debut at Pittsburgh Playhouse. Active in both Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity Association, Ruskin served as a vice president in both unions. His final stage performances were as a member of Antaeus Company, appearing in You Can’t Take it With You (2012) and The Crucible (2013). A public memorial service for Joseph Ruskin was held last Sunday at Harmony Gold Theatre in Hollywood…

GIFTS AND GRANTS…Last Saturday, Chance Theater in Anaheim not only celebrated the opening of its new flexible mid-size theater, but the space got a new name. California Arts Council chair Wylie Aitken made a $250,000 contribution in order to name Chance’s new home after his wife.  The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, at 5522 E. La Palma Ave, Anaheim, will be officially dedicated at a later date TBA.  Founded in 1999, Chance Theater was the recipient of three 2013 Ovation Awards, including best production of a musical (intimate theater) for its staging of Triassic Parq: The Musical…Pasadena’s classical repertory company, A Noise Within (ANW), has received a three-grant windfall — $75,000 from Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and $50,000 each from the Rose Hills and S. Mark Taper foundations — $175,000 in all. All three grants will be utilized for the continuing support of ANW’s ongoing performance and outreach programs.  Founded in 1989 by co-producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, ANW is currently in the midst of its 2013-14 season, continuing with Molière’s Tartuffe (Feb 15-May 24)…

AROUND TOWN… The original Broadway 2009 cast of the Kneehigh production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter — led by Tony-nominated Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock — is sojourning at Wallis Annenberg Center’s Bram Goldsmith Theater for a 43-performance run, adapted and helmed by Kneehigh joint artistic director Emma Rice. Opening Feb 19, UK-based Kneehigh’s staging utilizes film and music to provide a highly theatrical setting for Coward’s “classic, timeless tale of illicit lovers”…Whitmore Theatre in NoHo is hosting  Porters of Hellsgate’s take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, starring and helmed by Porters artistic director Charles Pasternak, opening Feb 15…Wasatch Theatrical Ventures is reviving Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee — inspired by the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial — helmed by Kiff Scholl, opening Feb 8 at Grove Theater Center in Burbank…Watts Village Theater Company (WCTV) is launching its 2014 season with a free reading of In the Absence of Light, scripted by WCTC artistic director Lynn Manning, Feb 22, at Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club…Also performing from the written page, Eclectic Company Theatre in Valley Village is presenting  A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer — a staged reading of writings to stop violence against women and girls — edited by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle, performed on Feb 14…

Ross Golan

Ross Golan

PREMIERES…As the final premiere of its 50th season, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is presenting Five Mile Lake — “an intimate look at life in a small town” — scripted by Rachel Bonds, helmed by Daniella Topol, opening Apr 13 on the Julianne Argyros Stage, anchoring the 17th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival…IAMA Theatre Company is offering the LA premiere of The Recommendation — focusing on “the meaning of friendship and where loyalty has its limits” — written by Jonathan Caren, directed by Laura Savia, opening Feb 8 at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood….Theatre of NOTE launches its 2014 season with the LA premiere of Disassembly,  a comedy about an accident-prone man, by Steve Yockey, helmed by Tom Beyer, opening Feb 21…Theatre by the Blind is presenting the premiere of Sit — inspired by and starring blind actress Sheila Walker — scripted and helmed by Lindsay Nyman, opening Feb 21 at Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica…The premiere outing of Ross Golan’s solo song cycle/folk tragedy The Wrong Man, helmed and choreographed by Lee Martino, is extending its run through Mar 16 at Skylight Theatre in Hollywood… And across the pond, Steven Sachs’ award-winning two-hander Bakersfield Mist — which premiered in 2011 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood — will make its UK debut, starring Tony nominee Kathleen Turner and Tony winner Ian McDiarmid, opening May 10 at Duchess Theatre in London…

Billie Burke

Billie Burke

INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke is born August 7, 1884, in Washington, DC, but never lives in the capital. The daughter of internationally renowned circus clown Billy Burke, Mary spends most of her youth on the road, touring Europe, eventually settling down in London. By then, Mary has acquired the nickname, “Billie,” which she adapts as her stage name when she moves to New York in 1910.  Over the next four years, Billie Burke stars in four Broadway shows, as well as a supporting role in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Amazons. It is her performance in this latter play that attracts the personal attention of theater producer Florenz Ziegfeld, whom she marries in 1914. Two years later she stars in the silent film, Peggy. Following the birth of her daughter, Burke decides to go into semi-retirement, devoting herself to being a mother and wife. But in 1929, Ziegfeld’s finances are decimated by the stock market crash, which also greatly affects his health. To raise money, Burke returns to acting, moving to Hollywood, where she quickly establishes herself in such popular films as A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). When Ziegfeld dies in 1932, Burke also returns to her first love –live theater — starring in The Marquise at El Capitan. During the ensuing two decades, Burke divides her time between stage and film work. A film highlight is her role as Glinda the Good Witch in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). She appears on many local stages, including Hollywood Playhouse, Biltmore Theatre and the Wilshire Ebell. In 1948, Burke joins the ensemble of Family Theatre, performing radio dramas.  One highlight is her performance in Stage Struck (1954). In 1958, Burke is cast in Mel Dinelli’s suspense thriller, The Man, opposite ingénue Gigi Perreau, scheduled to open at the Huntington Hartford in Hollywood. Unable to continue due to illness, Burke is replaced by another show biz legend, Dorothy Gish. Although Burke continues to perform infrequently in television and film, she does not return to live theater. Billie Burke passes away on May 14, 1970 and is buried in Valhalla, New York, next to her husband…

Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review (AIR) celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret on KPFK Radio (90.7FM), airing Friday, January 31 (7 to 7:30 pm).


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Productions Propagate. Plummer, Passion Play and Porter.

by | January 27, 2014

Professional theater in LA is growing, not shrinking — at least in terms of numbers of productions.

Two years ago, I asked Actors’ Equity how many productions occurred in Greater LA on Equity contracts and how many had instead used the 99-Seat Plan (which is available only within the LA County borders) in the previous year. The 2011 stats, as reported by Equity, revealed 216 shows on Equity contracts and 371 on the 99-Seat Plan.

In 2012, those figures grew to 230 productions on Equity contracts and 402 on the 99-Seat Plan.

In the just-completed 2013, Equity reports 236 shows on contracts and 392 on the 99-Seat Plan. In other words, the number of 99-Seat Plan shows was down slightly from the previous year, but the number of contract productions continued to grow — and both numbers were higher than in 2011.

This year, at my request, Equity explicitly checked and then confirmed that the 236 contract-signed shows in 2013 occurred not in the entire “Greater LA,” which might also have included Orange and Ventura counties, but only within LA County — the same territory that’s also covered by the 99-seat plan. This coverage of precisely the same area makes the comparison between the number of contracts and the number of 99-Seat Plan shows closer to comparing apples to apples. And it makes the growth in the number of contracts more impressive, when you figure that productions at South Coast Repertory or the Rubicon Theatre aren’t included in those 236 contract shows — even though these OC and VC companies are likely to draw talent from the vast pool of Equity members who live in LA.

Perhaps these numbers simply reflect the gradual recovery from the recession. But whatever they reflect, it would be handy to have figures like these in the back of your brain, for easy recall the next time you hear someone moaning about “theater is dead” or saying the phrase “theater in LA?” with a pronounced question mark.

However — yes, there’s usually a “however.” This past week, as I made my rounds of new productions, I was struck yet again by one of the remarkable ironies of LA theater — too often, the smallest shows are in the biggest theaters and the biggest shows are in the smallest theaters.

Christopher Plummer in "A Word or Two." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Christopher Plummer in “A Word or Two.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The extremes of this fiscal-driven irony were most apparent as I watched Christopher Plummer’s solo A Word or Two at one of the biggest theaters in town — the Ahmanson — and then saw the LA premiere of the 15-actor, three-act, three-hour, three-country, three-era Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre.

The bigger theaters pay actors something approaching a living wage (and in Plummer’s case, considerably more, I’m sure). But like nearly everyone, these companies sometimes have to economize. And one of their most convenient options is to hire fewer actors, which is accomplished by presenting small-cast shows — even if these shows sometimes feel a bit stranded on the relatively large stages and even if those in the back rows have to strain to see the actors’ faces.

The smallest theaters pay actors only token fees. But as long as the actors are willing to play for hardly any pay, these companies obtain the freedom to tackle huge texts — even if these productions might look cramped on the relatively tiny stages, even if contract-free actors sometimes feel free to desert the production in order to accept more lucrative gigs.

Anyone who comes up with a brilliant plan to make sure that all worthy plays land on LA stages that are appropriately scaled for the maximum aesthetic effect deserves a Nobel Prize — well, at least an Ovation — for stage economics.

In Plummer’s case in A Word or Two, the play centers on his own personality and his own background, both of which appear to be big enough to fill the Ahmanson — although I can’t speak for those spectators who are in the rows most remote from the stage. But even if they can’t see his face very well, I trust that they can probably hear his amplified words. The text is much more charming than his previous solo effort at the Ahmanson, Barrymore.

And if those in the back rows give up trying to see Plummer’s facial nuances, they can still admire designer Robert Brill’s leaning tower of books, which dominates the stage even more than Plummer himself. In fact, Brill’s set looks as if it would be so impossible to erect on most of LA’s smaller stages that it alone almost aesthetically justifies the decision to stage A Word or Two at the Ahmanson.

Of course, I have to note once again that whatever the considerable merits of both A Word or Two and I’ll Go On at the Kirk Douglas, the Center Theatre Group programming right now looks unduly skimpy, as two of its three stages are simultaneously used for one-older-man shows, while the third venue is vacant. But that monopoly for male soloists who are older than 60 will end soon, when Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike opens at the Taper, with a cast of four women and two men.

Shannon Holt, Beth Mack, Tobias Baker, Amanda Troop, Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, John Charles Meyer, Dorie Barton and Brittany Slattery (under table). Photo by Enci.

Shannon Holt, Beth Mack, Tobias Baker, Amanda Troop, Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, John Charles Meyer, Dorie Barton and Brittany Slattery (under table). Photo by Enci.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bart DeLorenzo and Evidence Room are introducing Ruhl’s intricate Passion Play to LA at the 99-seat Odyssey, which is co-producing it.

I recently wrote that Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play was her masterpiece of her plays that I had seen, although I noted that I hadn’t yet seen Passion Play. I also expressed my astonishment that In the Next Room was finally introduced to LA County by the little Production Company at the tiny Secret Rose Theatre — which makes the Odyssey look almost gargantuan by comparison — and not at one of the CTG venues or the Geffen or any of our midsize theaters.

Now that I’ve seen Passion Play, I still see no reason to change my opinion that In the Next Room is better. But Passion Play is more ambitious — so ambitious, in fact, that it’s also much more difficult to pull off. DeLorenzo and company do a good job, but I couldn’t help but suspect that it might be more powerful in a larger, better-endowed theater with more money, rehearsal time and other resources.

Passion Play is built around the tradition of passion plays — theatrical productions that are usually played outdoors for huge audiences. However, Ruhl’s work probably shouldn’t be presented in a massive amphitheater. She’s more interested in what’s going on behind the scenes of these ritualized productions, which are presented year after year, often with the same casts of not-quite-professional actors.

So she takes us to three of them, beginning with one in northern England in 1575, jumping to Oberammergau in 1934 Germany, then landing in 1969 at a fictional facsimile of Spearfish, South Dakota’s Black Hills Passion Play (which recently closed after nearly seven decades).

The same actors play similar characters in all three settings, but with fascinating differences that reflect the changing centuries and historical circumstances. Most of these characters are personally involved in producing the passion plays, but each production also attracts an official visitor from the area’s and the era’s reigning state power — Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan (who shows up not for the 1969 production that begins the third act but in its later depiction of the rendition in 1984, when he was the president). Shannon Holt digs into all three of these disparate bigwigs at the Odyssey.

The third act, perhaps because it’s closer to contemporary American audiences, is drawn-out more than the other two acts, not always successfully. Parts of it feel like unnecessary digressions from the focus that Ruhl otherwise has maintained. This is the main reason why the more cohesive In the Next Room is a better play.

Still, Passion Play tackles so many issues through such an ingeniously created prism that it certainly deserves your attention — and, like In the Next Room, it should have received the attention of the larger LA institutions that might have brought it to wider audiences with the benefit of larger budgets and more expansive (and expensive) scenic resources.

Maria Tomas, Vincent Guastaferro, David Fraioli and Jonathan Kells Philips in "On The Money." Photo by Tim Sullens.

Maria Tomas, Vincent Guastaferro, David Fraioli and Jonathan Kells Phillips in “On The Money.” Photo by Tim Sullens.

By contrast, it would be hard for even this midsize theater advocate to contend that a claustrophobic thriller as tightly wound as Kos Kostmayer’s On the Money belongs in a bigger space than the 99-seat Victory Theatre in Burbank, where I first saw it in 1983 (when the playwright’s first name was John instead of Kos) and where it has now returned. It helps for the audience to feel as close as possible to the New York barroom where On the Money takes place, and we feel like flies on the wall at the Victory.

The play examines three of the bar’s employees — all of them hard-pressed financially for different reasons. One of them hatches a plan to hire a thug to stage a late-night robbery of the bar and split the proceeds. The bartender resists the idea, until the pugnacious owner drives him into the pro-robbery camp. Of course, not everything goes according to plan.

The 1983 production won awards. The current revival is directed by Victory co-artistic director Tom Ormeny, who played the bartender for five months 30 years ago. It’s a barnburner.

Although the prospect of petty street crime in New York isn’t as intense as it was in the ‘80s, the prospect of underclass resentments of the wealthy is perhaps even more pervasive now, and the dangers of guns brought into public places is reinforced in just about every news cycle, including this weekend’s.

A Word or Two, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand, downtown LA. Tue-Thu 8 pm. Sat-Sun 3 pm except Sat Feb 2, 1 pm. Closes Feb 9. 213-972-4400. 

Passion Play, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Wed Feb 19 and March 5, 8 pm. Thu Feb 13, 27 and March 13, 8 pm. Closes March 16. 310-477-2055.

On the Money, Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes March 2. 818-841-5421. 

LA’s midsize theaters, of course, offer a happy medium between the more expensive contracts of the large theaters and the for-peanuts pay of the small theaters, while usually preserving much of the intimacy of the latter.

Jennifer Shelton, Lindsey Alley, Marc Ginsburg with Brian Baker on piano in "Let's Misbehave." Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Jennifer Shelton, Lindsey Alley, Marc Ginsburg with Brian Baker on piano in “Let’s Misbehave.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

The week’s newest offering at a midsize theater is Let’s Misbehave, a four-actor musical based on Cole Porter songs but with a slender book — a Mamma Mia! for Porter fans instead of Abba fans. It’s at International City Theatre.

Ideally, there should be more Porter fans in the world than Abba fans, and ICT’s venue in Long Beach indeed appeared to be more filled than usual on Sunday afternoon. Of course, the average age at a matinee at ICT is old enough that one of the reasons for even yours truly to go there in the afternoon is to feel young in comparison to most of the audience (although certainly not in comparison to the cast).

Librettist and co-conceiver Karin Bowersock imagines three friends at the end of a summertime party in New York in the mid-‘30s, closing the door after the other guests depart and then beginning the gossip as well as the beguine. They do so in song and dance, including a few Porter songs I don’t recall ever hearing. They receive sterling support from onstage pianist Brian Baker, who is magically ready to accommodate their every whim (at one point, as the wee hours come and go, they discuss his overtime arrangements).

But the catch is that it gradually becomes clear that Walter (Marc Ginsburg) is in love with Alice (Jennifer Shelton), although hostess Dorothy (Lindsey Alley) has her own unexpressed yearning for Walter. Can this three-way friendship survive?

We never learn why these three are so tight to begin with, but who cares if they express their current thoughts and feelings through more than 30 of Porter’s songs? Which they do, with admirable precision and grace. Todd Nielsen directed and choreorgraphed, with musical arrangements by co-conceiver Patrick Young and music supervision by Darryl Archibald.

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in "God of Carnage." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in “God of Carnage.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Speaking of misbehaving, La Mirada Theatre — a large theater, not a midsizer — has revived God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s surefire demonstration of how adults can engage in social carnage while ostensibly discussing how their children have misbehaved.

The director is Michael Arabian, and he has brought Hugo Armstrong, whom he directed in Waiting for Godot at the Taper, to play what may now be identified for a long time as “the James Gandolfini role”.  Armstrong is terrific, but so is Maura Vincent as his prodding wife, who initiated this disastrous session. Ditto for Jamison Jones, as the corporate lawyer whose incessant cell phone conversations drive everyone else crazy, and Amy Sloan as his wife, whose delicate digestive system is soon transcended by a indelicate impatience with just about everyone else in the room.

Let’s Misbehave, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 16. 562-436-4610.

God of Carnage, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 16.  562-944-9801.

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The cast of DOMA's "Dreamgirls" and

LA Stage Times

Dreamgirls, Fantasticks Lead LADCC Nominations

by | January 27, 2014
The cast of DOMA's "Dreamgirls" and

The cast of DOMA’s “Dreamgirls” (photo by Michael Lamont) and the cast of South Coast Repertory’s “The Fantasticks” (photo by Benjamin Horak/SCR).

Two musical revivals tie for the most nominations for the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for achievements in 2013.

Tied with six nominations each are Doma Theatre’s revival of Dreamgirls at the Met Theatre and South Coast Repertory’s version of The Fantasticks. Close behind, with five nods, is Center Theatre Group’s premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Productions with four nominations each are Center Theatre Group’s imported Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at the Ahmanson Theatre, the Son of Semele’s in-the-round production of Our Class at Atwater Village Theatre, 3-D Theatricals’ revival of the dark musical Parade at Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium, Theatre at Boston Court’s Shakespeare adaptation R II, Fountain Theatre’s revival of The Normal Heart and 24th Street Theatre’s Walking the Tightrope.

The group also announced several special awards:

  • The Ted Schmitt Award for the premiere of an outstanding new play will be awarded to Kemp Powers for One Night in Miami … The award is accompanied by an offer to publish by Samuel French, Inc.
  • The Polly Warfield Award for an Excellent Season in a small or midsize theater will go to Actors Co-op. The award is accompanied by an honorarium, funded by the Nederlander Organization.
  • The Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence has been won by LA Theatre Works. The award is accompanied by an honorarium, funded by The Knitting Factory Entertainment Company.
  • The Joel Hirschhorn Award for outstanding achievement in musical theater goes to David Elzer. The award is accompanied by an honorarium, funded by an anonymous donor.
  • The Milton Katselas Award for career or special achievement in direction will be awarded to Bart DeLorenzo. The award is accompanied by an honorarium, funded by The Beverly Hills Playhouse.
  • The LADCC announced the creation of a new award, The Kinetic Lighting Award for outstanding achievement in theatrical design. Kinetic Lighting is a rental company that supplies and supports the theater community throughout Southern California. The inaugural recipient of the Kinetic Lighting Award is Angela Balogh Calin for her sustained achievement in costume design.

The awards will be presented on Monday March 17 at the Colony Theatre, with appetizers and a no-host bar at 6:30 pm and the ceremony at 7:30 pm. Currently scheduled to host is James Roday of Red Dog Squadron. Tickets are available here.

The 2013 nominees in the still-competitive categories are:

  • A Family Thing, Chris Fields and Lauren Bass, Echo Theater Company at Stage 52
  • One Night in Miami…, John Perrin Flynn and Roxanne Hart, Rogue Machine Theatre
  • Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble, Atwater Village Theatre
  • The Nether, Center Theatre Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre
  • The Scottsboro Boys, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre
  • Walking the Tightrope, Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams, 24th Street Theatre
  • We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Joseph Stern and Matrix Theatre Company,  Matrix Theatre
McCulloh Award for Revival
  • A View From The Bridge, Valerie Havey, Julianne Figueroa, Sara Newman-Martins, Robert Cannon, and Marilyn Fox, Pacific Resident Theatre
  • Dreamgirls, Mike Abramson and Dolf Ramos, DOMA Theatre Co. at Met Theatre
  • The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • The Normal Heart, Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs, Fountain Theatre
  • T.J. Dawson, Parade, 3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium
  • Amanda Dehnert, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, Theatre @ Boston Court
  • Jessica Kubzansky, R II, Theatre @ Boston Court
  • Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre
  • Todd Nielsen, Master Class, International City Theatre
  • Johnna Adams, Gidion’s Knot, Furious Theatre Company at Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse
  • Allen Barton, Years to the Day, Skylight Theatre Company at Beverly Hills Playhouse
  • Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Motherfucker With the Hat, South Coast Repertory
  • Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre
Writing (Adaptation)
  • Richard Alger, Track 3, Theatre Movement Bazaar and Bootleg Theater at Bootleg Theater
  • Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, Theatre @ Boston Court
Musical Score
  • John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre
Music Direction
  • Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre
  • Corey Hirsch, A Man of No Importance, Good People Theater Company at Lillian Theatre
  • David Lamoureux, Parade, 3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium
  • Chris Raymond, Dreamgirls, DOMA Theatre Co. at Met Theatre
  • Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse
  • Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre
  • Tina Kronis, Track 3, Theatre Movement Bazaar and Bootleg Theater at Bootleg Theater
  • Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater
  • Rae Toledo, Dreamgirls, DOMA Theatre Co. at Met Theatre
Lead Performance 
  • Tony Abatemarco, Red, International City Theatre
  • Gigi Bermingham, Master Class, International City Theatre
  • Tim Cummings, The Normal Heart, The Fountain Theatre
  • Mary Bridget Davies, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse
  • Dana Delany, The Parisian Woman, South Coast Repertory
  • Constance Jewell Lopez, Dreamgirls, DOMA Theatre Co. at Met Theatre
  • Perry Ojeda, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • Nicole Parker, Funny Girl, 3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium
  • Jeff Skowron, Parade, 3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium
  • Paige Lindsey White, Walking the Tightrope, 24th Street Theatre
  • Michael Yavnieli, Years to the Day, Skylight Theatre Company at Beverly Hills Playhouse
Featured Performance
  • Christian Barillas, The Motherfucker With the Hat, South Coast Repertory
  • Sabrina Elayne Carten, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse,
  • Nate Dendy, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • Michael Nehring, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre
  • Welton Thomas Pitchford, Dreamgirls, DOMA Theatre Co. at Met Theatre
  • Elizabeth Regen, A Family Thing, Echo Theater Company at Stage 52
  • Patrick Stafford, Red, International City Theatre
Ensemble Performance 
  • One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine Theatre
  • Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre
  • The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre
  • We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre
Solo Performance
  • Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum
Set Design 
  • Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre
  • Danny Cistone, Cops and Friends of Cops, Vs. Theatre
  • Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre
  • Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within
Lighting Design 
  • Ken Booth, PericlesPrince of Tyre, A Noise Within
  • Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre
  • Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre
  • Jeremy Pivnick, R II, Theatre @ Boston Court
Costume Design 
  • Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre
  • Shon LeBlanc, Parade, 3–D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium
  • Sharon McGunigle, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre
  • Michael Mullen, Dreamgirls, DOMA Theatre Co. at MetTheatre
Sound Design 
  • Peter Bayne, The Normal Heart, Fountain Theatre
  • John Zalewski, R II, Theatre @ Boston Court
  • John Zalewski, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre
  • John Zalewski, Walking the Tightrope, 24th Street Theatre
Video Design 
  • Adam Flemming, The Normal Heart, Fountain Theatre
  • Matthew G. Hill, Walking the Tightrope, 24th Street Theatre
  • Kaitlyn Pietras (Projection Design), R II, Theatre @ Boston Court
  • Jason Thompson (Projection Design), Heart of Darkness, Actors’ Gang
Movement/Fight Choreography
  • Ned Mochel, Cops and Friends of Cops, Vs. Theatre
  • Nenad Pervan, Tender Napalm, SIX01 Studio
Illusions/Magic Design
  • Jim Steinmeyer, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory
  • Johnny Thompson, Play Dead, Geffen Playhouse


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LA Stage Times

Connie Chats on Opening Night: Totem

by | January 24, 2014
Connie Danese

Connie Danese

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, written and directed by Robert Lepage, is open under the Cirque’s famous blue-and-yellow big top at the Santa Monica Pier. On this opening night in January, Cirque apparently enlisted the Weather God as co-producer in charge of atmosphere, because it felt as if we were celebrating by an ocean in the tropics.

Soleil is French for sun or sunlight. Like the English equivalents, it can be used to indicate people who bring light to others by brightening their everyday life. Maybe that’s why the universe conspired to ensure our traditionally cold winter weather would cooperate with Cirque’s delightful mission. Given the current situation on the East Coast, opening night on a pier at the Hudson River would not compare. The dry, warm nighttime air was an odd but welcome perk as celebrities arrived without boots, umbrellas or windbreakers.

Kristin Bauer (HBO’s True Blood) is a staunch animal activist who also works to promote programs that do not test cosmetics on animals. “As a big animal lover, I’m so happy this is a non-animal circus; everyone performing volunteered to perform. I see all the Cirque shows. I think they’re amazing. You can’t imagine what they’ll do next, so I always expect the unexpected.”

Kristin Bauer

Kristin Bauer

Another Cirque fan, Dot Jones (Glee) mentioned her affinity with animals. “What I love about Cirque is that it’s all people, no animals.” Jones recently celebrated her birthday by going to Vegas and seeing her favorite Cirque production again. “I went two weeks ago, and it was my fifth time seeing O. I’d see all of them every day if I could.

“When you think of the quality of athleticism these kids have…and I say kids cause I’m old; I’m 50.” She laughs, “There are a lot of Olympians in the company and not just from the US but all over the world. They’re beautiful and elegant and breathtaking. O is one of my favorites. I love the water and the diving. If you haven’t seen it, you must. My favorite part is watching the acrobats. I admire their strength because I grew up in theater and was a power-lifter so it takes me back — makes me wish I were still in that kind of shape. They’re inspiring.”

I interviewed Neil Patrick Harris at two earlier Cirque shows, Ovo and Iris. This time Harris and his fiancé David Burtka each carried one of their beautiful twins Harper and Gideon onto the Red Carpet.

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.

The proud dads posed for photos with the children, but Harris understandably wasn’t stopping to “chat”. He is a big fan of Cirque but also a dad who dashed up the aisle during Act One carrying one of the children who apparently needed to “go”; they quietly returned at an opportune moment and seemed to be enjoying their family night.

The Harris/Burtka clan was seated directly in front of me and behind Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), who also posed on the carpet but didn’t “chat”. I’ve  seen him play so many scary-bad-guy roles, but I was nevertheless surprised that he projects a commanding, stern image in person — even at a circus — or maybe that’s just a good way to avoid a microphone. Liotta was dressed all in black and stopped for photos, but his eyes seemed to project “don’t ask” to nearby reporters, and we didn’t.

Mario Lopez (Extra) was apparently on a child-free “date night” with his lovely wife, Courtney Mazza. Lopez, who is also a dancer, said, “Unfortunately, I’ve never done gymnastics, but one of our kids will soon be taking classes and my wife has done it, so we love the acrobats.”  What does he like best about Cirque? “ We love the music and storytelling. It’s just magical and takes you away, right? I come back to all of them and always look forward to seeing the newest. We have no idea what this one is about, but it’s always a heck of a show.”

Beautiful actress Jaimie Alexander (Thor) arrived with boyfriend Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) who brought his two daughters (with ex-wife Jennie Garth) to see the show. Alexander wasn’t “chatting” but Facinelli introduced his youngest daughter, Fiona. “It’s her first time at Cirque and we’re all very excited to be here.”

Carrie Ann with "Totem" performers

Carrie Ann Inaba with “Totem” performers

Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing With The Stars) smiled for cameras then completely surprised everyone when she suddenly dropped down into a split while posing with Cirque cast members. “I love Cirque. I toured with Madonna in ’93 and did one of those pole things at the top of the show. Cirque called me for an audition at one point and I remember being really, really flattered. It’s a high point in any performer’s career to be called by them. It was to do the pole stuff — not acrobatics or gymnastics.” Inaba slyly grinned, “I learned from a stripper, so it was a really interesting act I did for Madonna’s tour called The Girlie Show.”

Inaba is consistently fascinated by Cirque. “There’s this mystique and always a storyline that allows you to add your own interpretation. I love it because it’s different each time and there’s so much space in the story that you can add your own ideas. Anyone who has a creative inkling will find this a fun, exciting and never boring experience.”

When judging Dancing With the Stars, Inaba is often brought to tears by the beauty of certain dances. She laughs, “Always.” Does Cirque ever affect her that way? “Oh yes. Mystere moved me to tears every time I saw it. When that stage opens up and you see the creature kind of walking through with the four legs, I cry every single time; it’s magic. Every time I see something at Cirque du Soleil it’s always a magical night.”

Allison Janney

Allison Janney

Allison Janney (CBS, Mom) gets more beautiful with the years. Her newer look with long straight hair is fantastic. She dressed in tight pants, ankle boots, and sweater, with a perfectly tied soft scarf draped around her neck. “I’m always excited to see something at Cirque du Soleil,” she said. “It’s always a perfectly magical night.” During the show, while performing an impossibly difficult segment of a routine, one of five synchronized cyclists missed catching a bowl on her head — more than once. They were nevertheless awesome, and at the end Janney showed her deep appreciation of the performers by being first to leap to her feet and applaud those incredible ladies.

Cavorting on the red carpet with magnificent Cirque acrobats, Jason Alexander (Tony winner, Seinfeld, the last artistic director of Reprise) seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. “These shows are all so different. You can’t believe human beings can execute those moves. And, they execute on every level, not just the performers but the machinery and technology and design is extraordinary. It’s one of the most imaginative companies. You keep thinking wow…wow.”

Alexander returns often, because “It makes you feel like a kid again. I couldn’t do that on my best day”, he laughs, “nor would I try. This is a circus that can always bring me way back in time and make me remember how I felt when I was about seven or eight years old. I’m excited to see this new one. I have no idea what it’s about.” I explained that it depicts mankind going from the amphibian state to men with cellphones. “Ah, somewhere in there I must fit in, I’m sure. I’ve got to be somewhere in that hierarchy.”

Get in touch with your inner child and experience the very special magic of Totem at the Grand Chapiteau on the Santa Monica Pier through March 16.

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**All photos by Matt Beard.

CHAT CITE: “Children see magic because they look for it. ” Christopher Moore

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LA Stage Times

Cat, Ugly Steady, Women’s Festival, Sarah Bernhardt in LA

by | January 23, 2014
Hector Rodriguez and Josefina López. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Hector Rodriguez and Josefina López. Photo by Ed Krieger.

PREMIERES... Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights is premiering A Cat Named Mercy, by artistic director Josefina López, funded by a 2013 grant from the California Endowment mandating her to write a new play about health care and the Affordable Care Act. The production, which focuses on the tribulations of an uninsured Latina vocational nurse in desperate need of an operation, is staged by Hector Rodriguez, opening Jan 31…Ensemble Studio/LA (EST/LA) is presenting the West Coast premiere of The Ugly One — “a comedic tale of a successful engineer who after decades of contentment is suddenly confronted with the news that he is, in fact, unspeakably ugly” — by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, English translation by Maja Zade, directed by EST/LA artistic director Gates McFadden, opening Feb 15 at the Speakeasy at Atwater Village Theatre…Steppenwolf Theatre co-founder Jeff Perry helms the LA premiere of Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain —  “about two Chicago police officers whose inner need to serve and protect consumes them — and also rips them apart” — starring Thomas Vincent Kelly and Sal Viscuso, opening Feb 22 at Odyssey Theatre in West LA…Sierra Madre Playhouse is presenting the West Coast premiere of the period tuner, Battledrum — depicting the stories of three drummer boys serving in the Union Army during the Civil War — wrought by Doug Cooney (book and lyrics) and Lee Ahlin (music), staged by Christian Lebano, opening Mar 7…Acme Comedy Hollywood is hosting Washington D.C.-based City in a Swamp Productions’ premiere of the political satire, Obama Spy Drama, by Nicholas Zill, with additional dialogue by Derek Jeremiah Reid and Karen Zill, directed by Caitlin Hart, opening Feb 15…      

Tia Maza

Tia Matza

LA WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL…Now in its 21st year, Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival (LAWTF) — exec-produced by co-founders Adilah Barnes and Miriam Reed — continues its mandate “to showcase the works of multicultural and multidisciplinary solo performers from around the globe,” March 27-30, at Electric Lodge in Venice. The schedule includes an opening night gala featuring performances by dancer Ingrid Graham (The Passage) and aerialist Tia Matza (Grief and Grace). The Mar 28 schedule includes performances by Tracy Silver (Motion Cures), Sofia Marie Gonzalez (Bully-Mia) and Katie Rubin  (Why I Died, A Comedy! ). The Mar 29 matinee lineup includes Cynthia Ling Lee (Rapture), Ansuya Nathan (Long Live the King), Marlene Ondrea Nichols (Dress Kiss Me) and Lisa Marie Rollins (Ungrateful Daughter).  Evening performances feature Dacyl Acevedo (Will Work For), Jozanne Marie (Beautiful) and Anita Noble (Polly Bemis).  The Mar 30 matinee lineup includes Estela Garcia (Remedios Varo: La Alquinista), Jennifer S. Jones (Appearance of Life) and Ciera Payton (Michael’s Daughter).  LATWF closing night schedule features Karen Bankhead (Etta Mae Humphries: And the Rest Is History), Mwanza Furaha (Excerpts from Cabaret Underground) and The Lindz (WASP).

Patricia Ward Kelly

Patricia Ward Kelly

AROUND TOWN…Originally scheduled for only one performance, Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera, by Elizabeth Searle (libretto) and Michael Teoli (music) in 2011,  is now offering two concert dates, Feb 4 and 5, at Hollywood’s King King Club, choreographed and helmed by Ovation Award-winner Janet Roston. Proceeds will support Celebration Theatre…Currently in the midst of a national tour, the tribute show, Gene Kelly: The Legacy,  An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly, is stopping over at Pasadena Playhouse for two performances, Mar 1 and 2…Later that month, Santa Monica Repertory Theater is presenting The Memorandum, Vaclav Havel’s 1965 comedic sojourn within the nightmare of corporate bureaucracy, translated by Vera Blackwell, helmed by Jen Bloom, opening Mar 21 at Santa Monica’s Miles Playhouse… The Production Company — housed at NoHo’s Secret Rose Theatre — is christening a new studio space dubbed The Production Company Workspace at 14731 Oxnard St. in Van Nuys. The space will be inaugurated with a new “Radio Style” playreading series, beginning with the debut of The Blur — focusing on how we are changed when we bring children into the world and what are the repercussions of skipping parenthood — scripted by Dean Farrell Briggeman, performing Jan 26 and 27 onlyDoric Theater at the Complex in Hollywood is hosting the cross-gendered dark comedy, Daddy, scripted by Olivia Ross Peterson, helmed by Gina Young, four performances only, beginning tomorrow, Jan 24…And as a highlight of its special Valentine’s Day Weekend lineup, El Cid in Silver Lake is presenting Victory Variety Hour  — “a risqué midnight burlesque” — featuring Penny Starr, Jr. and company, Feb 14 and 15…

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt

INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…On April 15, 1906, the Los Angeles Herald reports that Madame Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) has decided to venture south of San Francisco for the first time during her latest tour of the US. The problem is to find a suitable Los Angeles venue to host the acclaimed French tragedienne and her 60-member company for three nights of performances, prior to continuing on to Salt Lake City. None of the established downtown LA theater houses want to take on the burden of dealing with this temperamental diva and her unwieldy troupe.  There is talk of putting up a large tent that would seat 7000, but the fear is that the acoustics would not be satisfactory.  Riding to the rescue is entrepreneur/real estate developer Abbot Kinney who offers his sumptuous seaside Venice Auditorium, located an hour’s train ride from downtown LA. Anticipating some resistance from local theatergoers, Kinney throws in round-trip transportation for the price of a reserved seat.  Performances are scheduled for May 17-19. The Bernhardt Company arrives by train on May 15, with Madame occupying a luxurious sleeping car that has been loaned to her by the Vanderbilts of New York for her American tour.  Acknowledging the attention and respect that has been paid to her, Bernhardt invites Kinney to dine with her in her car each evening of her stay. Following her closing night performance of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, she promises her host she will always come back to Venice whenever she tours to the West Coast. The Bernhardt Company does return to LA in March 1913 but does not perform at Venice Auditorium, instead taking up residence at downtown’s Orpheum Theatre. However, Madame does conscript an entire floor of Venice’s King George Hotel. To guarantee she makes her call time, there is always a taxi waiting for her at the entrance to the lobby to whisk her to the theater. On the evening of March 12, Madame tarries too long enjoying a Venice Beach sunset, forcing her taxi driver to scurry at the breakneck speed of 18 mph. At the intersection of Washington and Crenshaw Boulevards, her taxi collides with another vehicle. Although suffering from an injury to her right knee, Bernhardt insists that she be taken to the theater, where she is once again performing in La Tosca. Sarah Bernhardt just might be the first celebrity to be injured in a reported automobile accident in LA…

Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review (AIR) celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret on KPFK Radio (90.7FM), airing Friday, January 24 (7 to 7:30 pm).

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THE ARTS FIX: Criticism news, grants, and LA STAGE goodbyes

by | January 21, 2014

Five small bits for your LA arts fix. 


In response to recent cuts in theatrical criticism coverage at LA Weekly and Backstage, the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris has just announced that he will launch an independent, community-funded digital criticism publication in February. According to a proposal letter, the site (which will keep the Weekly’s and Morris’ Stage Raw brand) “will consist of eight capsule reviews (300-400 words — slightly expanded from the current 200-word count), plus long-form features, profiles, essays, quizzes, a gossip column and humor, written by Morris and his team.”

The proposal letter — signed by publicist and producer David Elzer and Boston Court executive director Michael Seel — also details a community-wide fundraising effort to raise $31,000, the total cost of running Stage Raw for the 2014 calendar year. This method would be temporary; the letter implies an impending effort to work with local nonprofits to obtain future funds through grants and other more stable channels.

I spoke briefly with Morris about the challenges of community fundraising. He cited the impassioned conversation among members of LA’s theater community about the need for professional criticism. “The sentiment is that the need for this is strong,” said Morris.

He said he is aiming for three months to achieve the initial goal of $31,000. “We hope that it matters. But if people feel that it doesn’t matter, it won’t launch.”

Morris also says that he’s looking to bring on a site designer, and is completely open to bringing on new people to write for Stage Raw.

If you’d like to contribute to the Stage Raw campaign, contact David Elzer at


Directors Lab West applications are now open. I’m a DLW alum, and I thoroughly encourage any and all directors to apply. It’s a week of workshops, lectures, experiences and networking that you won’t want to miss.

Applications are due Friday, February 28 at 5 pm PST.


Three Clubs, a Hollywood Fringe Festival venue, is opening its doors to showcase its performance space to potential Fringe participants. The open house will occur on Sunday, January 26 at 7 pm. And yes, it’s more than just a show-and-tell; there will be food, drinks, a “Best of Fringe” cabaret and variety act, and a special showing of The Devil and Billy Markham. At 9 pm, it’ll be a straight party. RSVP to for happy-hour pricing all night.


Theatre Communications Group has announced its first round of Audience R(Evolution) grant recipients. Congratulations to Pasadena Playhouse, which will add a Latino Community Taskforce to its Theatrical Diversity Project, and Cornerstone Theater Company, which will add “Community Connectors” — past participants of Cornerstone’s collaborative play-making process — to its audience engagement program, Creative Seeds. To see all recipients, check out TCG’s website.


And in LA STAGE news, I just want to add a note to mention that last Friday was Doug Clayton’s last day at LA STAGE Alliance. He was at LA STAGE for nine years, and he was responsible for the development and operations of many of our past and current programs. On a personal note, he hired me (alongside half of our current staff), and I speak for all of us in saying that he will be tremendously missed. Thanks for all your hard work, Doug Doug.

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Mayor Garcetti, Schlomo, the Afterlife, the Scots, the Greeks

by | January 20, 2014

Mayor Eric Garcetti “was proud to host the Los Angeles arts community at City Hall to hear ideas about showcasing LA as the Creative Capital of the World,” according to his Facebook page. His social media writers were referring to his appearance before a roomful of arts and foundation leaders last week.

The Facebook post didn’t take note of the other half of Garcetti’s message — that he won’t provide any additional city money for the arts. But he intends to help raise private money for them, as part of his “showcasing” efforts.

I didn’t hear him mention LA theater except in this brief snippet: “Don’t come to me with ‘My theater company needs [fill in the] blank. We need you to think broadly’.”

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti sharing some of his thinking about municipal arts policy for an audience of local arts leaders Tuesday at City Hall. Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti sharing some of his thinking about municipal arts policy for an audience of local arts leaders Tuesday at City Hall. Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.

After Garcetti spoke and then answered a few questions from the audience, he left. But his staff then divided the audience into two groups, who stayed for another hour in order to consider two questions — what can the city government do to help transform LA into a “cultural destination” and what should Garcetti look for in a new general manager for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs? The participants then wrote suggestions on post-it notes which were collected, mounted around the perimeter of the room, and publicly summarized by staff members.

Garcetti’s decision not to keep the popular Olga Garay-English in the Cultural Affairs job had encountered some criticism from arts leaders, so I kept expecting that someone would answer the second question by suggesting that he simply re-hire her. From my reading of the post-it notes, I didn’t notice anyone being so bold. But one of those who had been quoted as critical of his decision later told me that she hadn’t even been aware of the mayor’s event.

Anyway, I’m glad that Garcetti has the arts on his mind, as well as his many other issues. From my vantage point, it would be even better to hear with more specificity that he occasionally has the vast but oddly obscure terrain of LA theater on his mind. In comparison to the visual arts and classical music in LA, non-profit LA theater and dance need all the publicity and financial support they can get.

TALES FROM EAST HOLLYWOOD: If  LA is the city “where creativity lives,” as Garcetti maintains, it would be great to see LA theater deal more often with LA itself. So let’s talk about Timothy McNeil’s new play The Twilight of Schlomo, produced by Elephant Theatre Company at Elephant Space — which, I would guess, is located about one mile west of where it’s set, in the district that Garcetti represented when he was on the city council.

This production of Schlomo marks not only one play about LA but also the culmination of McNeil’s Hollywood Trilogy, which also included Elephant productions of Los Muertos (2005) and Anything (2007)  — all of them directed by David Fofi, and all of them set in the same apartment building, near Santa Monica Boulevard in east Hollywood.

Jonathan Goldstein and Danny Parker-Lopes in "The Twilight of Shlomo." Photo by Joel Daavid.

Jonathan Goldstein and Danny Parker-Lopes in “The Twilight of Shlomo.” Photo by Joel Daavid.

Yes, east Hollywood. One of the things I like about McNeil’s work is that he isn’t writing about the generic “Hollywood,” which gets excessive worldwide attention all the time, or even the clearly demarcated and higher-income West Hollywood. He’s writing about his own small corner of east Hollywood and “its remarkable diversity,” he told me in an email.

And so diversity is part of the fabric of Schlomo. The title character — more commonly known as Richard (Jonathan Goldstein) — is a son of Holocaust survivors, and his offstage neighbors include a Russian heroin dealer, a couple from Texas (Nikki McCauley and Danny Parker) and a transvestite hooker. The Russian heroin dealer was the leading character in Los Muertos (and was played by McNeil himself), and the transvestite was one of the leading characters in Anything.

McNeil’s devotion to his enclave isn’t necessarily because it’s a place where cultures mix gracefully around the communal campfire to the strains of “Kumbaya.” No, it’s a depressing neighborhood, where the thin walls of Richard’s apartment allow him to hear the husband who’s beating his wife next door.

Richard is a sad sack — a former standup comic who wrecked his career with the help of acid. He now sells wine, not very successfully, although he personally seems to prefer the illegal addictive substances.  He’s on the cusp of 50 with a paltry $450 as his financial cushion. His only steady female companion is a prostitute (Kelly Hill, alternating with Vera Cherny) — much more educated than he is — who visits twice a week. About the only accomplishment in which he can take any pride is that she still gets orgasms during their sex.

Nikki McCauley and Jonathan Goldstein

Nikki McCauley and Jonathan Goldstein

Then, without warning, his 25-year-old stepdaughter (Lilan Bowden) — from one of his two former marriages — knocks on the door, looking for a place to stay. We gradually learn why she has returned to her childhood turf of LA. One of the reasons — not the most important, as it turns out, but certainly the most unexpected — is that she wants to become a Jew. Richard long ago abandoned his Jewish roots and doesn’t think much of the idea, but he allows her to sleep on his couch. (By the way, according to the script, the stepdaughter is Chinese-American — yet another ingredient of the cultural diversity in this play, but one that wasn’t clear to me as I watched it).

Schlomo goes down dark paths. Surprisingly enough, however, it builds to a tense climax followed by a plausible ray of emotional hope breaking through the pervading gloom. This is a masterful and moving achievement.

It’s difficult for a trilogy to feel like a trilogy when the second and third installments are separated by a production gap of seven years. Periodically I also think of Tom Burmester’s War Cycle that was so successful on the small-theater level, produced by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble; it has yet to be picked up by a producer at a larger theater. Are these remarkable small-theater trilogies destined to fade into oblivion without ever receiving wider audiences?

Now it’s time for LA’s midsize or larger theatrical institutions to investigate the possibilities of presenting the entire McNeil and Burmester trilogies on larger stages — not big stages, because the intimacy is important, especially with McNeil’s — but stages that would provide the actors with Equity contracts.

The Twilight of Schlomo, Elephant Place, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Closes Feb 9. www.plays411/schlomo. 323-960-4442.

ADVENTURES AFTER DEATH: I’ve seen three plays recently that offer glimpses into an afterlife. Let me begin with the two by LA playwrights before I end with the one that’s the most satisfying of the three — an import from Scotland at Broad Stage.

Armin Shimerman, Larry Cedar and David Melville in "Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson"

Armin Shimerman, Larry Cedar and David Melville in “Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is an awfully long and cumbersome title for a very light-hearted and rather brief play by Real Time With Bill Maher executive producer Scott Carter, in which he imagines the three titular luminaries arriving in quick succession in a room in purgatory. It’s at NoHo Arts Center, which co-produces with Independent Shakespeare Company and Efficiency Studios.

Because of the different eras in which they became famous, Jefferson knows nothing of Dickens and Tolstoy, and Dickens apparently hadn’t heard much about Tolstoy. But soon, as they try to figure out why they’re in this room together, they learn more about each other, including the fact that all of them attempted to write their own gospels. They also learn that they have contrasting, even clashing personalities. (Carter’s written script is preceded by quotes from the famous, including Dickens and Jefferson but not Tolstoy, that include the word “discord”).

The play proceeds trippingly enough, thanks to the characters’ quick exchanges and their eventual realization that they have to acknowledge their own flaws as well as their bragging rights. But it only barely transcends the depth of an elongated comedy sketch or the old Steve Allen TV series Meeting of Minds.

The title characters are played by luminaries of LA theater: Larry Cedar as Jefferson, David Melville as Dickens and Armin Shimerman as Tolstoy. They generate a lot of fun with their lively performances, accompanied by equally zippy design by Jeffrey Elias Teeter, Cricket S. Myers, Ann Closs-Farley, Luke Moyer and Takeshi Kata.

Gina Yates, Julia Silverman and Cyrus Alexander in "Mom's Gift." Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Trisha Hershberger, Gina Yates and Julia Silverman in “Mom’s Gift.” Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Also entering the afterlife sweepstakes in NoHo is Phil Olson’s Mom’s Gift, in an extended Group Rep production after opening before the holidays. The ghost of a dead woman assumes a Blithe Spirit-like position in her own previous home. Her presence is known only to her older and somewhat alienated daughter. Meanwhile, her widower is beginning to court the home-care aide who assisted the deceased before she died, and the younger daughter is beginning to talk about marrying a loser. The older and brainier daughter — who is the only one who can see and communicate with Mom — has seemingly closed her mind to marriage and creating a family of her own.

Olson attempts to combine snappy wisecracks with some complicated plot machinations that result in heartstring-plucking as the play goes along. Eventually the plotting and plucking go over the top, but the play generates a fair share of hearty laughs along the way.

Speaking of plays that attempt to blend thoughts about the afterlife with a story of a smart single woman who is holding back from engaging entirely with her current life, Broad Stage is currently presenting The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an immersive touring production from the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s considerably more audacious, haunting and enjoyable than Mom’s Gift.

The Broad’s smaller black-box Edye space has been converted into a cabaret configuration. A cast of five moves nimbly around the entire room, designed to resemble a small-town pub in Scotland.

To be more precise, David Greig’s script is set in Kelso, in the Scottish Borders area, southeast of Edinburgh, during the snowy winter solstice of 2010.  Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) is a young scholar who has recently written about the “topography of hell” as revealed through old ballads from the area. She arrives at an academic conclave in order to present her paper, but she becomes distracted as she speaks.  She’s soon swept up in a wild tale that takes her first to a raucous pub and then to a somewhat quieter but strangely menacing bed-and-breakfast.


Prudencia in “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.”

The production is anchored and enormously enlivened by its music. One of the actors, Alasdair Macrae, is also the composer and musical director, and the cast doubles as the band. All five actors sing and take turns at playing instruments that range from banjo to harmonium to the Border bagpipes (which have no mouthpiece), with Annie Grace handling most of the loveliest vocal solos and the bagpipes. The music is mostly rooted in the folk tradition that’s discussed (and satirized) by the academics in the play, but the play also endows the Kylie Minogue hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (by Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis) with a power and poignance that you never would have imagined.

The audience participates with such gestures as tearing up napkins and then throwing the pieces up to create “snow,” with a few individuals selected for somewhat more active participation. The staging by co-creator Wils Wilson creates an intoxicating sense of the importance of seizing the brief day, even if it takes place on the shortest day of the year in darkest Scotland.

In the interests of full disclosure:  I initially arrived late and missed the opening. So I returned to another performance to make sure I saw everything — and I’m glad I did.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Feb 23. 818-508-7101 ext 6.

Mom’s Gift, Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 2. 818- 763-5990.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat- Sun 2 pm, Sat 7:30 pm Feb 1 and 8 (but not next Sat). 310-434-3200.

THE REDUCED GREEK DRAMA COMPANIES: Broad Stage is also currently presenting An Iliad on its mainstage. Actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson boiled the Homer epic down to a one-act performance for solo actor and one instrumentalist. O’Hare himself is the actor at the Broad, and he displays extraordinary virtuosity in his role as the poet who both tells and enacts the story.

Denis O'Hare in "An Iliad." Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

Denis O’Hare in “An Iliad.” Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

But whenever something as big as the Iliad is condensed into something as small as a one-man show with one musician providing accompaniment, I get the feeling that it’s a showcase as much as an epic. Although it uses the Broad’s big stage for a lot of movement on O’Hare’s part, it sounds like something that you might have heard in a small, cool, beat-era club during the early ‘60s — with some passages employing  up-to-date lingo that might be heard in a small club in 2014.

Compare An Iliad to I’ll Go On, Barry McGovern’s Beckett solo at Center Theatre Group‘s Kirk Douglas Theatre, staged by Colm Ó Briain for Gate Theatre. McGovern’s source material is a trilogy of early Beckett novels. The subject is the innermost thoughts of one man — not the outermost actions of the cast of thousands who participate in the Iliad.  Beckett’s novels lack the dramatic sensibility of, say, Waiting for Godot, but the solo format seems very appropriate for the subject matter. Although massive trimming has occurred here, apparently no updating has taken place. As I wrote last week, my own experience of watching I’ll Go On was somewhat handicapped by the immediate proximity of a cougher to my left, but I had no doubts about McGovern’s almost literally breathtaking performance.

Tim Settle and Simon Donaldson in "Jason and the Argonauts." Photo by Neil Thomas Douglas.

Tim Settle and Simon Donaldson in “Jason and the Argonauts.” Photo by Neil Thomas Douglas.

An Iliad isn’t the only reduced adaptation of a Greek classic in town, nor is Prudencia Hart the only Scottish show in town. At the Wallis in Beverly Hills, the Scottish company Visible Fictions is presenting a 65-minute touring version of Jason and the Argonauts, by Robert Forrest, directed by Douglas Irvine, performed by Tim Settle and Neil Thomas, designed for audiences “eight years old and above” (although quite a few of the kids in the audience appeared to be younger than eight).

In fact, the show is designed to replicate children’s play-acting, complete with the use of action-figure dolls to represent some of the many characters. Settle and Thomas take turns playing Jason and other characters and also move Robin Peoples’ large set piece, somewhat reminiscent of Mother Courage’s wagon, around the stage — most of the time it represents Jason’s ship.

The kids around me seemed to eat it up. Adults who don’t have kids in tow might be a little less impressed than the parents in the crowd, but just about anyone should be eager to get the first theatrical glimpse of the Wallis’ second and smaller stage, which appears to be a black box capable of many interesting transformations to come.

An Iliad, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Wed and Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes Feb 2. 310-434-3200.

I’ll Go On, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. No matinee on Jan 26, no evening performance on Feb 2. Closes Feb 9. 213-628-2772.

Jason and the Argonauts, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Thu-Fri 7 pm, Sat 3 pm and 7 pm, Sun 2 pm and 5 pm. 310-246-3800.


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Homeless Angels, Kinky Boots, LA Opera and Dance News

by | January 16, 2014
Xavi Moreno

Xavi Moreno

COMPANY OF ANGELS SEEKING NEW HOME...When prolific downtown LA developer Izek Shomof closed escrow last September on his purchase of the historic 107-year-old Alexandria Hotel, located on the southwest corner of 5th and Spring Streets, he said he planned to keep the integrity of this former luxury lodging. In a Sep 23 interview in DT News, he declared, “That’s why we bought it — because we want to preserve it. We’re not changing what makes it historic.” Yet his plans do not include continuing the seven-year residency of the 55-year-old Company of Angels. “Back in September, we were told we had 30 days to vacate,” recalls CofA producing director Xavi Moreno. “Our lawyers got that extended to January 1.”  CofA is still residing in its third-floor space at the Alexandria and has yet to receive an official eviction notice. “We don’t know where we stand,” Moreno admits. The company is in touch with city officials about finding a new space, and “we met with Jose Luis Valenzuela [artistic director of LA Theatre Center, which is across the street from the Alexandria] and the LATC staff on a proposal to be at LATC for eight months — to hold meetings for our playwrights group, meetings for company members, as well as holding readings and to work on plans to celebrate our 55th anniversary. We are hoping to reach out to former members such as Leonard Nimoy and Richard Chamberlain.” In the meantime, CofA continues its work with community organizations, such as the Women’s Center in downtown LA. Moreno adds, “Our upcoming productions will be held either at LATC or these community organizations. Right now we are aiming at doing our 10-minute play festival in the spring. We’ll see.”

Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper

PANTAGES 2014-15…Kinky Boots is coming to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The  LA premiere of the 2013 Tony winner for best musical, wrought by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper (score), helmed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, will open Nov 11. But the 2014-15 lineup at the Pantages will begin earlier, with the 2005 Tony-winning jukebox tuner Jersey Boys, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe and choreography by Sergio Trujillo, helmed by Des McAnuff, opening Oct 1. Next up is the 2013 Tony-winning best musical revival, Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, as helmed by Diane Paulus, opening Oct 21.  Wicked will return on Dec 10, followed by the LA premiere of Newsies, created by Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book), helmed by Jeff Calhoun, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, opening Mar 24, 2015, The last two slots in the season will be occupied by the LA premiere of Motown The Musical,  with book by Berry Gordy, helmed by Charles Randolph-Wright, opening Apr 28, 2015; and Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Laurence Connor, opening June 10, 2015.

LA OPERA 2014-15…LA Opera has organized its 2014-15 season, created by general director Plácido Domingo, in collaboration with music director James Conlon and president and CEO Christopher Koelsch. The upcoming season features six mainstage productions, mostly staged at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Additional performances will take place in other venues through an expansion of the Company’s Off Grand initiative. The season opens with a revival of LA Opera’s 2006 roaring-’20s production of Giuseppe Verdi‘s La Traviata (Sep 13–28), conducted by Conlon, directed by Marta Domingo, featuring Domingo as Giorgio Germont. Director Barrie Kosky helms a theatrical pairing of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (Oct 25 – Nov 15), conducted by Steven Sloane. Florencia en el Amazonas by the late Mexican-born composer Daniel Catán (Il Postino), follows, guided by resident conductor Grant Gershon  (Nov 22-Dec 20). The 2015 portion of the season will be devoted to the “the Figaro trilogy” of operas based on the comedic works of French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais: John Corigliano‘s “grand opera buffa,” The Ghosts of Versailles (Feb 7– Mar 1, 2015); Rossini’s popular The Barber of Seville (Feb 28-Mar 22, 2015); and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Mar 21-Apr 2, 2015). Off-site productions include: Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood, performed at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Mar 2015; a mashup of opera and the 1961 movie Hercules vs. Vampires, featuring a score by composer Patrick Morganelli and performers from Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April 2015; and the West Coast debut of Dog Days by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, based on a Judy Budnitz short story about a dystopian future in middle America and presented in partnership with REDCAT, performed in June 2015…

Benjamin Millepied

Benjamin Millepied

LA DANCE PROJECT MOVES INTO THE ACE…When opulently ornate United Artists Theatre opened in downtown LA on Dec 26, 1927, premiering the silent film, My Best Girl, starring UA co-founder Mary Pickford and future husband Buddy Rogers, it was a dedicated movie palace that eventually followed the same time-ravaging fate as the other stately downtown theaters. Located at 929 S. Broadway, the edifice has been revitalized into the 13-story residential Ace Hotel, which opened Jan 6. The building’s 1600-seat auditorium has morphed into The Theatre at Ace, now serving as the home of LA Dance Project, created in 2012 by choreographer by Benjamin Millepied. The company makes its Ace debut on Feb 22 with the US premiere of Reflections, choreographed by Millepied. A fall program is being planned (TBA).  LA Dance will utilize LA Theatre Center, at 5th and Spring Streets, for office space. Former New York City Ballet member James Fayette has been tabbed to be company manager…

FIRST RESPONDER TALESAbout…Productions (AP), in association with Inner-City Arts, is presenting First Responder Tales #1 — the first event in a four-part symposia series for Los Angeles theater practitioners.  AP producing artistic director Theresa Chavez defines First Responders as “trend setters who often blur lines between art, education, and activism. Entrenched in their self-defined communities, they create work and programs that respond to the immediate issues, concerns and interests of these communities. Most importantly, they have chosen to work at the scale that allows them to have this direct engagement.” Featuring an opening presentation by John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, followed by discussions in large and small groups, this first event is scheduled for next Wednesday, Jan 22 at Inner-City Arts in downtown LA…

Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok

PREMIERES…Pico Playhouse in West LA is hosting the West Coast Jewish Theatre’s LA premiere of The Whipping Man — about an end-of-the-Civil-War reuniting of a wounded Jewish Confederate officer with two of his former slaves — scripted by Matthew Lopez, helmed by Howard Teichman, opening Feb 8…Wendy Graf’s Closely Related Keys — focusing on an upwardly mobile African-American attorney who discovers she has an Iraqi half-sister, staged by Shirley Jo Finney — premieres Feb 22 at the Lounge in Hollywood…Fountain Theatre is presenting the LA premiere of My Name is Asher Lev — the story of a young Jewish painter’s struggle to become an artist, against the will of his parents and the traditions of his community, based on the novel by Chaim Potok, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, helmed by Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs, opening Feb 22…

Kate Steele

Kate Steele

AROUND TOWN.. Following its European tour and US debut at 54 Below in New York, Siddhartha, the Musicalinspired by the novel by Herman Hesse, scripted and helmed by Isabella “Isabeau” Biffi, with music by Isabeau and Fabio Codega — is having two concert performances at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz Restaurant in Bel Air, Jan 27 and 28. Performances are in Italian with English narration.  Producers are Gloria Grace Alanis, Fabrizio Carbon and Broadway vets Marc Routh and Simone Genatt Haft (Broadway International Entertainment)James MarstersKate Steele and John Vickery head the cast when LA Theatre Works (LATW) presents Oscar Wilde’s controversial 1891 biblical drama, Salomé, recorded before a live audience for future radio broadcast, helmed by Michael Hackett, opening Jan 20 at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater…Scripted in 2000, Adam Rapp’s one-person Nocturne — about a former piano prodigy who accidentally killed his sister — opens Feb 8 at the Other Space @ the Actors Company in West Hollywood, starring George Regout, helmed by Justin Ross…And the Visceral Company is encoring Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite, “six strange tales of monsters, mayhem, and cosmic horrors” conceived and helmed by Dan Spurgeon, adapted from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, opening Jan 31 at Lex Theatre in Hollywood…

Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review (AIR) celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret on KPFK Radio (90.7FM), airing Friday, January 17 (2 to 2:30 pm), spotlighting actor/director Gigi Bermingham.


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LA Stage Times

THE ARTS FIX: Playing with pins of interest

by | January 14, 2014

Five small bits for your LA arts fix.

Among other things, I run the social media accounts at LA STAGE Alliance. The internet is a bit of a a hobby horse for me, and social media subsequently falls into the category of “internet stuff” I like understanding and exploring and tweaking and testing. Unfortunately, my interest in the inner-workings of social media don’t often propel me to use it as it should be used: socially. I deleted my personal Facebook account over two years ago because I felt that, by using it, I was doing more projecting than interacting. For me, it seemed more like shouting into space (and listening to others do the same) than actually sharing and, well, being social.

That was a disclaimer about my own attitude. That said, I quite enjoy using Facebook — particularly for an organization. It lets me interact with the community and our constituents, and it allows me to give LA STAGE a face so we’re not just a dark void of an institution: intangible and impersonal. I’ve actually made some strong connections with individuals by using LA STAGE Alliance social media accounts. I’ve put names to faces and faces to names, and it’s given me an “in” when I’m meeting the community in-person for the first time.

In the spirit of this type of connection, I’ve been browsing other social platforms to find additional conversations that are happening online. So today, here are five LA-centric Pinterest accounts about the arts you may want to check out.


LACMA has a pretty extensive Pinterest account; it features art from the museum in different types of boards. Here’s one of my favorites: the “Mom” board.

Theatre Unleashed

I love how Theatre Unleashed uses its account. It’s got show inspiration, photos of its own space, and some fun random ones. Definitely follow-worthy.

Expressing Motherhood

Pinterest’s demographics is overwhelmingly female and its user group base is full of mothers. It’s no surprise that LA STAGE Alliance member organization Expressing Motherhood has joined. Its boards are chalk full of personal style pins by director/producer Lindsay Kavet.

Theatre West

Theatre West tends to kick butt on social media in general, so I wasn’t shocked to find that it has a Pinterest page. Love the diversity of the pins.

KPCC Radio

Radio may be faceless, but KPCC makes some spectacular visual collages. It has a wide range of fab LA-based images that’ll make you proud to be a Californian.


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Carmen Zapata’s Downtown Dream Deferred. Felder’s Lincoln Redux.

by | January 13, 2014

The main stage of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Lincoln Heights is named after the group’s co-founder Carmen Zapata, who died on January 5. But Zapata wasn’t always satisfied by the theater company’s home base in a former jailhouse, with fewer than 100 seats, on an obscure street in the largely Latino (or, as she would say, Hispanic) neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.

She had bigger dreams, which involved downtown LA and Olvera Street. So, during the 1990s, as LA theater was experiencing a wave of interest among small companies about moving up to midsize status, BFA frequently staged productions in the midsize venues at Los Angeles Theatre Center, in the heart of downtown LA — in addition to its productions in Lincoln Heights.

Carmen Zapata

Carmen Zapata

The experiment started with Edit Villarreal’s My Visits With MGM (My Grandmother Marta) in 1992. The following year the BFA scheduled two of its three full productions at LATC, even using LATC’s largest, 499-seat venue. It then used LATC for one production per year until 2000, when it again did two productions there. However, in 2001, after an initial announcement that two shows would again take place at LATC, that plan was scaled back to only one — and then, in subsequent years, to none.

LATC wasn’t the ultimate destination in this effort. Zapata wanted BFA to have its own 300-seat venue in the Olvera Street neighborhood, the “birthplace of LA” that’s a little more than a mile to the northeast of LATC. There, the plan was for BFA to operate on Actors’ Equity contracts similar to those it had begun using at LATC. The company received $250,000 in seed money for this project from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1994 and also announced that its goal was to raise $7 million by 1998. That didn’t happen.

In 1992, BFA’s second production at LATC had been staged entirely in English, breaking from the group’s normal pattern of presenting some performances in Spanish and others in English. However, in the years since then and especially in the 21st century, Spanish performances gradually dominated the BFA schedule until there didn’t seem to be many performances in English. Zapata said the Spanish performances were much better attended — especially as BFA returned to doing all of its shows in Lincoln Heights.

Long before she died, Zapata had told Sylvie Drake of the LA Times that “I don’t want it [BFA] to die when I do.” So it’s gratifying to be able to say that BFA’s 2014 season is announced. And I was surprised to read that the first production since Zapata died, Lope de Vega’s La Dama Boba, will include English supertitles, when it opens next month. Actually, the BFA’s marketing manager Luis Vela tells me, the company has been using supertitles for about two years. I really should get to Lincoln Heights more often. If the presence of English supertitles were more widely known, BFA might attract some theatergoers who used to see its productions at LATC but haven’t been to BFA lately.

I haven’t been back to BFA in quite a while, and it isn’t only because I don’t feel confident enough about my own rudimentary Spanish skills — it’s also because I write for an English-language website. If a production in any language other than English lacks English supertitles or headset translation, I imagine that it might be of limited interest to a primarily English-reading audience.

Carmen Zapata, Margarita de Cordova, Maria Rubel, and Karmin Murcelo

Carmen Zapata, Margarita de Cordova, Maria Rubel and Karmin Murcelo in LATC’s 1997 production of “The House of Bernarda Alba.”

But English supertitles help draw non-Spanish-secure theatergoers to Spanish-language performances, judging from several of the supertitled international performances I saw at Radar L.A. in September. Of course most of those supertitled Radar L.A. performances took place at LATC, which is a familiar site to many LA theatergoers, especially when compared to the BFA location at 421 N. Avenue 19. LATC is in one of the liveliest neighborhoods in LA right now — an area that attracts a lot more pedestrian traffic than it did when BFA performed there in the ‘90s and a lot more than Avenue 19 is ever likely to attract.

And because LATC is also the home of the Latino Theater Company, which works primarily in English, a lot of non-Spanish-speaking theatergoers associate it as the place to see Latino theater. I doubt if many of these theatergoers would be likely to find their way to Avenue 19, even if they do hear that BFA offers supertitled performances.

At this point, I don’t know if BFA actually has any burning interest in reaching wider audiences. Zapata, who was the producing director and more recently the president emeritus as well as an actor with many Hollywood credits, was BFA’s primary ambassador to the wider theater world and to the wider world of LA in general, back in the day when BFA maintained a higher profile. The longtime artistic director, co-founder Margarita Galban, traditionally stayed out of Zapata’s limelight. And of course in these situations, it is the board of a nonprofit institution that frequently makes the decisions about what to do next.

I also don’t know the details of why Zapata’s dream of opening an Olvera Street space never got off the ground. However, it remains a very appealing dream. Last summer I saw an alfresco production in that neighborhood, Downtown Repertory’s Dido Queen of Carthage, in the courtyard of the Pico House, across the plaza from Olvera Street. This young, scrappy “and thoroughly broke” company (as it describes itself on its website) has been doing bare-bones summer shows there since 2010, with some help from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Carmen Zapata and Maria Rubel in LATC's 1999 production of "Blood Wedding."

Carmen Zapata and Maria Rubel in LATC’s 1999 production of “Blood Wedding.”

After the show, as I walked to my car, I was struck by the loneliness of the adjacent cityscape. It was a Friday night in the summer, and I was in the place where the city of Los Angeles was created in 1781 under Spanish auspices — an attractive plaza that’s designated as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Yet the equivalent plaza in just about any Spanish or Mexican town and many an American town that’s much smaller than LA would have been more active on a typical summer night on a Friday.

Although the plaza comes alive for special events, and of course Olvera Street itself attracts a lot of daytime tourists, this area should draw people every evening, especially during the summer. Those of us who see theater as a vital public forum can’t help but wish that theater had a more active role there — and not just Downtown Rep, but also a theater company with programming that somehow reflects the city’s Spanish/Mexican roots and with a budget that can pay its actors more than a pittance.

Twenty years ago, Carmen Zapata was determined that BFA should be that company. Now it’s time for another dreamer — or, even better, many such dreamers — to take up her cause. A memorial service for Carmen Zapata will be held Tuesday, 6-9 pm, at LATC, 514 S. Spring Street, LA.

GREAT COUGHING PERFORMANCES (Part 2): Last week I wrote about coughing and other distractions in the theater. Last night, at the opening of Center Theatre Group’s I’ll Go On at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the woman seated to my left began coughing almost immediately as the show began — deep coughs, separated by shallow wheezing. I tried to keep my face turned in the opposite direction, which fortunately was also the direction that I would have used anyway, in order to best see the soloist, Barry McGovern, as he performed Beckett.

During the intermission, after the woman had made an exit, I discussed my plight with the sympathetic theatergoers to my right. We harbored hope that the cougher would take it upon herself to leave the premises and go home — she didn’t appear to be with someone else, so it wouldn’t have been socially awkward for her to leave.  I also used the intermission to inquire about the possibility of any empty seats elsewhere, where I might have moved. But I concluded that I couldn’t know with any certainty which seats might be empty in the second half until it would have been too late to move from my assigned seat — which was in the fourth row center.

Barry McGovern in "I'll Go On." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Barry McGovern in “I’ll Go On.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The location of our seats was so front-and-center that if the cougher had tried to leave during the performance itself, she would have created a much bigger scene that she was already creating with her coughs. Actually, except for my proximity to her, it was a great seat, especially at a solo performance. I was loath to move without knowing whether she was coming back or where I might go. Sure enough, she returned, just as it became far too late for me to cast about desperately for another seat. In the second half, she allowed a few sustained passages to proceed without interruption, so I could concentrate on McGovern and Beckett for a while, instead of her. But periodically she erupted again.

The highlight of her performance occurred when she coughed loudly immediately after McGovern uttered the phrase “putrid mucus” (it was from this sentence: “All the stories I’ve told myself, clinging to the putrid mucus, and swelling, swelling, saying, Got it at last, my legend”). I couldn’t help but wonder WWBD — what would Beckett do, if he had been seated next to this woman, especially at a performance of his own work? He probably would have thrown baleful glances at her but also — deep inside — he might have found the situation oh so futile and therefore darkly comical. And he might have written about this woman in his next play.

GOING ON TO THE GEFFEN: I’m hoping to write something about I’ll Go On (as opposed to my personal experience in the fourth row at I’ll Go On) next week, but in the meantime, I want to turn to the Westside’s other big-deal theater, the Geffen Playhouse, which also is offering a solo show. Oddly enough, it closes tonight — on a Monday. Hershey Felder is back, this time in Abe Lincoln’s Piano, a new musical play — or so it’s titled and subtitled on the program. Nowhere is it mentioned that Felder starred in Lincoln —  An American Story for actor and symphony orchestra at the Pasadena Playhouse not even two full years ago. The Geffen show appears to be a scaled-back rewrite of the Pasadena show.

Hershey Felder in "Abe Lincoln's Piano." Photo courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse.

Hershey Felder in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.” Photo courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse.

The good news is that less is more, in this case. In Pasadena, Felder abandoned his usual piano in order to sing, accompanied by an onstage orchestra, and he appeared not as Lincoln or even very much as Felder but most prominently as Dr. Charles Leale, a doctor who tended to Lincoln in the aftermath of that terrible night at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. He wore a facsimile of Leale’s uniform.

At the Geffen he’s back to being Felder, playing the piano and wearing an all-black bohemian outfit and a longish haircut, as he again tells Leale’s story, which supplements his own story about how and why he became so fascinated with Leale’s story. He still sings, but not as often as he plays the piano, and no orchestra accompanies him. It’s a better show.

Not a great show — the narrative meanders and never acquires the urgency of, say, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek’s piano-based production that Felder directed at the Geffen and Laguna playhouses. But Abe Lincoln’s Piano allows us to experience Felder’s natural talents more thoroughly than did its previous incarnation as Lincoln — An American Story, with only a fraction of the first version’s pretentiousness.

Abe Lincoln’s Piano, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tonight, 8 pm. 310-208-5454.   

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Danton Stone (as Ron), Brighid Fleming (as Juliana), and Tim Meinelschmidt (as Phil)

LA Stage Times

Fleming Rides Rudnick’s Tale of a Day Trader and His Daughter

by | January 10, 2014
Danton Stone, Brighid Fleming, and Tim Meinelschmidt in "Day Trader." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Danton Stone, Brighid Fleming, and Tim Meinelschmidt in “Day Trader.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

During a rehearsal of a key confrontational scene in Eric Rudnick‘s Day Trader, teenager Brighid Fleming — playing 15-year-old Juliana Barlow — holds her own against Danton Stone, the actor who plays her 49-year-old father Ron.   As Juliana, Fleming — probably the youngest actor ever to win an Ovation Award — is protesting the type of parental pressure children are forever being told is for “your own good.”

When Ron tells his daughter she’s a “well of disappointment” to her mother, the failed scriptwriter is really psychologically describing himself, even as he accuses Juliana of a crime while seeking to scam her. Fleming, however, is subtle enough to suggest that her shrewd character smells a rat — and won’t go gently into that good night.

Welcome to the morally compromised universe of Day Trader, a thriller that boasts more twists and turns than Maui’s fabled road to Hana. Ron Barlow is a failed scriptwriter facing the big 5-0. Playwright and co-producer Rudnick believes many aspiring artistes in Hollywood’s milieu “will recognize themselves” in the characters on display in the premiere of his play, on Thursday at Bootleg Theater.

Danton Stone, Eric Rudnick, and Brighid Fleming

Danton Stone, Eric Rudnick, and Brighid Fleming

While economic survival often preoccupies hopefuls reaching for stardom’s brass ring, it isn’t Ron’s worry. He’s married — although unhappily — to a millionaire. Brenda, the so-called “Iron Lady of Hancock Park,” tightly grasps the purse strings and an ironclad pre-nup. Throughout the two-act play, Brenda’s offstage presence will be projected on the set as, literally, an ominous shadow. Although Brenda never actually sets foot on the stage, she looms over the proceedings by passing notes to Ron. It’s a writer’s wry way of lampooning (and harpooning) those suits who think they can tell scribes what to write, simply because they have money.

The bar has been set low for Barlow, whom, Rudnick stresses, “wants something of his own, something to call his.” To this end the increasingly despairing has-been (if, indeed, he ever was) scribbler turns to day trading. Ron commiserates with his neighbor Phil (Tim Meinelschmidt), another wannabe wordsmith.

During a rare night out on the town with Phil, Ron encounters the femme fatale Bridget (Murielle Zuker, who appeared as a droll Frida Kahlo in The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy at the Odyssey Theatre), who seems to be a would-be actress waiting on tables. Despite the fact that the first two letters of her name are the same as Brenda’s, Ron believes Bridget is the ticket to the fulfillment of his sexual yearnings and cravings for financial independence. But oh what a tangled web these dramatis personae weave as they proceed to practice to deceive.

From Nether and Dark to Day

Fleming relates to Day Trader’s Juliana, describing her as “very different, very edgy and very smart. She doesn’t really go by teenage rules [and] is very intuitive; she picks up on things really quickly. She’s really smart and witty and uses that to her advantage.” Juliana attends an elite private school and is a year older than Fleming.

Danton Stone, Murielle Zuker and Tim Meinelschmidt

Danton Stone, Murielle Zuker and Tim Meinelschmidt

Regarding the dad-daughter interplay that’s arguably at the heart of the play, Fleming says Juliana “has a kind of friend relationship with her father. They interact with each other as friends more than mother–”  Catching her Freudian slip, Fleming laughs and continues: “Mother! Wow! Father and daughter, which is in some ways unhealthy. But in some ways it makes their connection stronger — in her eyes anyway, but maybe not necessarily his.” Fleming’s own father, who had been a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories, died when she was seven, when the family was living in Albuquerque.

As for Juliana’s interaction with Ron’s onstage extramarital lover (Zuker), Fleming gushes: “I love playing with her! She’s fun to work with… because she goes along with my remarks and with what I’m doing with her. So she’s in her own way witty and smart, too, so I find her fun…” Fleming adds that by the end of Act 2, Juliana is “in charge” of the woman who is a decade or so her senior.

Rudnick believes the jury is still out on the precise nature of Juliana’s relationship with Bridget — which, the playwright says, “I leave up to the audience” to determine.

Fleming finds parallels between her current character and the role she played in her last theater outing. “Juliana is definitely similar to Gloria in Wait Until Dark,” which opened last October at the Geffen Playhouse with a decidedly film noir-like slant. Fleming portrayed a spunky neighbor who assists the blind Susan (Alison Pill) when she is besieged by murderous scamsters and schemers. Day Trader has a decidedly “Hollywood noir” vibe.

The acting bug bit when Brighid was three after experiencing Seussical the Musical during a New York trip. Fleming went on to move from Albuquerque to LA and study acting with David Wells. She portrayed a virtual character, the coquettish Iris, in The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s drama which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last March. That production scored seven Ovations — the most for any 2013 production — including Fleming’s featured actress award.

Brighid Fleming in "The Nether" and "Wait Until Dark."

Brighid Fleming in “The Nether” (photo by Michael Lamont) and “Wait Until Dark” (photo by Craig Schwartz).

“It was unbelievable; I knew that I was nominated, but didn’t think I’d win,” confesses the 14- year-old, who learned of her accolade when the Wait Until Dark cast gave her a round of applause backstage during the Nov. 3 performance. Fleming explains that her Nether part “was an avatar of a 65-year-old man… It was great to be able to play such a good character ’cause there aren’t a lot of roles like that for girls my age. Especially child avatar prostitutes, which is definitely different! …I had Victorian garb, including corsets.”

In 2009’s action-packed movie Gamer, Fleming says she played a somewhat similar role in that Delia, “Gerard Butler’s daughter, had been kidnapped by Michael C. Hall, who put a kind of drug or virtual thing in me that made me completely brainwashed, like an avatar. Completely straightforward, no emotion, until the end.” Her current big screen role is as Eleanor in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire co-star in the convict-on-the-lam drama.

“I got to meet Kate Winslet and she hugged me — it was like the best moment of my entire life!” proclaims Fleming, who blushed after the embrace with the Titanic star, which made her feel like, well, “king of the world.” The day following her interview for this piece at the Day Trader rehearsal, the busy young actress — who was on school break — was scheduled to appear in an auto insurance commercial.

Danton Stone’s LA stage debut

The teen thesp calls her Day Trader adult co-stars “hilarious, so fun to work with. It’s really encouraging to have actors that are so good to be working across from.”

The artist Fleming matches wits with has formidable stage and screen credits, and this is not the first time Danton Stone has played opposite a fair-haired ingenue. When Claire Danes was around Fleming’s age, Stone had a recurring role in My So-Called Life, the mid-1990s television series that launched Danes’ award-winning career. On the big screen Stone has also acted with Nastassja Kinski in 1984’s Maria’s Lovers, Daryl Hannah and Dudley Moore in 1990’s Crazy People, Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss in 1991’s Once Around. In the early ’90s Stone played Jerry Bowman on the Roseanne sitcom with Roseanne Barr, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf.

Danton Stone and Tim Meinelschmidt

Danton Stone and Tim Meinelschmidt

Although Stone has worked in TV and movie productions shot in Hollywood, the Manhattanite recently relocated to the City of the Angels — and Day Trader marks his LA stage debut.  His roots are in the New York theater world, where he co-starred with Metcalf as the drug dealer Joe in Circle Repertory Company’s 1984 revival of Balm in Gilead. The Circle Rep-Steppenwolf co-production was directed by John Malkovich and written by Lanford Wilson. The Pulitzer-winning dramatist wrote roles specifically for Stone to play, including Wes Hurley, the composer in 1978’s Fifth of July and Don Tabaha, the half-Navajo medical student in 1982’s Angels Fall. Stone was also in Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, as well as Broadway versions of Fifth of July with Christopher (Superman) Reeve in 1980 and 2001’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Gary Sinise.  

The Washington, DC-born Rudnick was raised at Massapequa, Long Island. After attending a community college in upstate New York, he studied acting with Richard Pinter at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which follows the Sanford Meisner tradition. Then at the Atlantic Theater Company, Rudnick sat in on a class taught by David Mamet. He also worked at Playwrights Horizons, the Harold Clurman Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theatre in LA, where Rudnick relocated in 1999 and continues to pursue both acting (he is the understudy for Day Trader’s Ron Barlow character, who is roughly Rudnick’s age) and writing for the stage and big and little screens. In 2003 he wrote and appeared in Edge of Allegiance, a political spoof of the Bush presidency; the play, which ran at the Met Theatre, is now a web series helmed by Day Trader’s director Steven Williford.

Hardly a lounge

During the three-and-a-half-hour rehearsal this reporter observed one December night, at the Lounge in Hollywood, Fleming and Stone went over three different father-daughter scenes full of Rudnick’s thrust and parry dialogue. Still early in the experimental stage, the actors had a good-natured, free-flowing interchange with each other and their stage manager Ash Nichols, who sat behind or beside a table facing the stage with a computer on it.

Murielle Zucker and Danton Stone

Murielle Zuker and Danton Stone

At various points during the rehearsal, Williford joined the thesps onstage to work on the blocking with them, taking the actors through their paces as he hit upon a way to further dramatize the parent-child confrontation. Suddenly Williford exclaimed: “Oh, fuck me! I just had an idea!” His brainstorm not only justified Juliana’s sudden physicality (which isn’t in the script per se) but explains it, as he expands the mise-en-scène to include Brenda’s shadowy offstage presence.

Rudnick calls himself “the kind of person who enjoys collaboration. So there’s already been moments during the rehearsal process where the actors or director have come up with ideas that change meanings or heighten things. I’m all for it — because the script is a blueprint, as much as the script has gone through changes and I’ve had 12 readings over the last five years… This part of it is so much fun, because you get to decide with great actors and a fantastic director… The way [Williford] works with actors is so good and he brings out the best in everybody. Having this winning team is the best — the rehearsal is such a fun process because who the hell knows what’s gonna happen by the time we get done.”

Day Trader, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA. 90057. Previewing now, opens Thursday, January 16. Thu-Sat 7 pm and Sun 2 pm. Through February 16. Tickets: $25. 213-389-3856

**All Day Trader photos by Ed Krieger.

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by | January 9, 2014
Carmen Zapata

Carmen Zapata

IN MEMORY OF CARMEN ZAPATA…During the mid-1980s, I toiled as a feature writer and columnist for Drama-Logue. One morning, I received a phone call.  The voice at the other end of the line got right to the point. “This is Carmen Zapata of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (BFA). How come you never write about what we are doing? Aren’t you a Latino?  Come down to Lincoln Heights jail and let’s talk.” For the next three years, I served as publicist for BFA and during that time I was schooled in what it means to have a focused work ethic. Born of Mexican and Argentine parents,  Carmen Zapata had danced in Oklahoma! on Broadway (1946), acted in Theodore Apstein’s The Innkeepers, directed by Jose Quintero (1956), and toured the US as a comic during the early ’60s. Moving to LA, she launched herself into TV and film work, but campaigned against ethnic stereotyping, co-founding the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee with actors Ricardo MontalbánEdith Diaz and Henry Darrow (1972). In 1973, she joined Cuban-born director Margarita Galban and Argentine set designer Estela Scarlata, co-founding BFA, “dedicated to bringing the Hispanic experience and culture to the Southern California community via the medium of bilingual stage productions.” She  negotiated a lease of the former City of LA Lincoln Heights jail and courtroom for $1 a year, converting the space into offices, rehearsal spaces and a 99-seat home theater. Her office was the former drunk tank. Zapata proved to be a relentless promoter and fundraiser. After an initial minuscule budget of $5,000, BFA enjoyed a $300,000 operating budget by the mid-’80s. Production highlights included Galban-helmed stagings of two works by Federico García LorcaThe House of Bernarda Alba and Blood Wedding — both sporting new English translations by Zapata and Michael Dewell. In 1982, BFA was honored with Drama-Logue Publisher’s Award “for outstanding contribution to Southern California theatre.” In 2003, Zapata  received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for her contributions to live theater. In declining health during the late ’90s, she was honored by BFA with the status of president emeritus. On January 5, she died at the age of 86 in her home in Van Nuys. A memorial service will held at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), 514 South Spring Street, on Tuesday, January 14, beginning at 6 pm…

Cornerstone Company

Cornerstone Theater Company

CORNERSTONE 2014...Now in its 27th season, Cornerstone Theater Company is moving confidently into the new year, appointing Megan Wanlass — currently executive director of SITI Company in New York — to be Cornerstone’s new managing director, joining the company later this month. Wanlass will partner with Michael John Garcés, whose contract as artistic director has been renewed through June 30, 2016, his 10th season with Cornerstone. Wanlass has been a member of Anne Bogart‘s SITI Company since 1995 and its executive director since 2000. She is also currently serving on the board of Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Cornerstone, a multi-ethnic, ensemble-based theater company that is nationally renowned for its community-engaged work, is currently in year four of The Hunger Cycle (2011-2016), a nine-play series on issues of hunger, justice and food equity. Shishir Kurup’s Bliss Point — an exploration of addiction in collaboration with recovery centers — is scheduled to debut in May (venue and date TBA), helmed by Juliette Carrillo.  Cornerstone’s The Tempest, scripted by company co-founder Alison Carey, is scheduled to tour California beginning late summer (dates and locations to be announced). Cornerstone was recently awarded a New California Arts Fund grant of $750,000 from the James Irvine Foundation “in support of its long-term efforts to deepen community engagement.”…

ECHO THEATER IN ATWATER…After 16 years of wandering through LA’s theatrical wilderness, Echo Theater Company is taking up a year-long residence within Atwater Village Theatre (AVT) — offering a season of three premieres and the holiday season revival of Stories of the Season. Echo’s AVT sojourn begins with Firemen, “exploring an unthinkable love relationship,” scripted by Tommy Smith and helmed by Echo artistic director, Chris Fields, opening Feb 8. Larry Biederman will helm Mickey Birnbaum’s Backyard, set against the subculture of backyard wrestling in a low-income San Diego neighborhood, (opening TBA).  Better, Jessica Goldberg’s “gentle examination of family and mortality,” helmed by Jennifer Chambers (opening TBA) completes Echo’s season of premieres.  Stories of the Season by Robert Alan Beuth and Robert George Harrison, which premiered in 1992 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, offers audience-interactive tales “from around the world and across the ages,” helmed by co-scripter Beuth. (opening TBA)…

Lee Martino

Lee Martino

SKYLIGHT AND VAGRANCY ANNOUNCE 2014Skylight Theatre Company in Los Feliz plans to present four premieres during 2014, beginning with The Wrong Man, a noir-ish solo tuner, conceived and performed by Ross Golan, helmed and choreographed by Lee Martino, opening Feb 8. The season continues with: Pray to Ball — a faceoff between two star college basketball players over the volatile subject of Islam — scripted by Amir Abdullah, helmed by Bill Mendieta, opening Mar 28; The Sexual Life Of Savages by Ian MacAllister-McDonald — considering the consequences of probing too deeply into the past sexual activity of your new-found love — opening June 14, (director TBA); and a new work still to be selected, opening Aug 23…The nomadic ensemble The Vagrancy is committed to a year-long season of eclectic stagings, beginning with a staged reading of Michael Jackson is Dead [Hee-Hee] by Rachel Skytt, Jan 26 at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood. An evening of quick-turn-around-one-time-only fare, Within 24 Hours, is being offered Apr 12 (venue TBA). The LA premiere of Tommy Smith’s The Wife — “a wicked web spun between a young black girl, her lonely, drug-addicted mother, a hip, dangerous professional and a Hasidic couple” — helmed by co-artistic director Sabina Ptasznik, plays June 5-29 at Asylum Lab (in conjunction with Hollywood Fringe Festival).  Blossoming — a play reading series — offers new works by playwrights Boni B. Alvarez , Chelsea Sutton, Annette Lee, Donald Jolly and Cort Brinkerhoff, July 19 and 20, venue TBA. Vagrancy’s season closes with Euripides’ Medea, conceived, adapted and helmed by co-artistic director Caitlin Hart, opening Oct. 11 at Studio/Stage…

JANUARY PREMIERESElephant Theatre Company in Hollywood is presenting the premiere of Timothy McNeil’s The Twilight of Schlomo — “exploring how our simplest choices sometimes have far-reaching effects for those around us, and how redemption might never be too far away” — helmed by Elephant artistic director David Fofi. Opening Jan 11, this is the final chapter in McNeil’s Hollywood Trilogy — including Los Muertos (2005) and Anything (2007), both helmed by Fofi… In Pasadena, Theatre @ Boston Court is offering the Southern California debut of Octavio SolisSe Llama Cristina — “a gritty, poetic look at the uncertainty of life and our desperate need for belonging” — helmed by Robert Castro. Opening Jan 25, this is the play’s final stop of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere”, which included productions at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and Kitchen Dog in Dallas…

Francois Villon

Francois Villon

FEBRUARY PREMIERES…Padua Hills Playwrights is debuting Murray Mednick’s Villon — inspired by the tempestuous life of medieval poet François Villon.  Helmed by Mednick, the production opens Feb 15, a guest production at Odyssey Theatre in west LA….Stefhen F.D. Bryan’s solo show, Doodu BoyA Memoir, dramaturged and helmed by Jared Scheib, opens Jan 19 at Santa Monica Playhouse…And East West Players (EWP) continues its 48th season with the premiere of Madhuri Shekar’s A Nice Indian Boy — a comedy about love — helmed by Snehal Desai, presented in association with L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, opening Feb 26 at David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo…

IN SUPPORT OF…Celebration Theatre is putting on a show for those generous souls who financially supported the company during its 2013 year of transition. For one night only, Portrait Of An Artist spotlights actress Linda Lavin, sharing “in detail, the story of her life and career,” interviewed by husband Steve Bakunas, as he paints a portrait of her, Feb 1 at Celebration Theatre @ Atwater Village…Theatre of NOTE is spotlighting its 19th Annual Hollywood Performance Marathon, featuring over 50 performers — including Kirsten Vangsness, Tom Lenk, Bill Brochtrup, Taylor Negron and others — on Saturday, January 18, beginning at 3 pm. All proceeds benefit Theatre of NOTE…

Barbara Minkus

Barbara Minkus

AROUND TOWN…A quartet of noted talent — Barbara Minkus, Marcia Rodd, Ronnie Schell, John Shull — perform the comedy revue Don’t Leave It All To Your Children, scripted and helmed by Saul Ilson, on Sunday afternoons, opening Jan 19 at Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks…Long Beach Playhouse starts off the year with a mainstage revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 comedic thriller Deathtrap, helmed by Gregory Cohen opening Jan 18…Not to be outdone, Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills is launching 2014 with a revival of Lucille Fletcher’s 1972 whodunit, Night Watch, focusing on the tribulations of a rich Manhattanite who insists she sees dead people, helmed by Bruce Gray, opening Jan 30 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre…Actors Co-op in Hollywood continues its 2013-14 season with Lee Blessing’s 2005 two-hander, Going To St. Ives – a psychological pas de deux between the mother of a brutal African dictator and an English eye surgeon — starring Nan McNamara and Leslie Thurston, helmed by Linda Kerns, opening Feb 7 at the Crossley Theatre (on the campus of 1st Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)…

Madeline Puzo

Madeline Puzo

INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…When Center Theatre Group opens 765-seat Mark Taper Forum in 1967, one of its principal mandates is the “development of new plays and voices for the theatre.” In reality, space and scheduling limitations of the venue require that additional outlets be found to adequately devote the time and theatrical informality needed for experimentation and development. Over the years, such spaces as 95-seat [Inside] the Ford Theatre in Hollywood, Actors’ Gang in Hollywood, Ivy Substation in Culver City and downtown-adjacent Evidence Room are utilized by CTG to cultivate new works. In 1981, associate producer of MTF, Madeline Puzo, inaugurates a Sundays-only “literary cabaret” series at CTG’s neighbor, Itchey Foot Ristorante, located at 801 W. Temple Street. The restaurant’s Italian-tinged dining fare can be ordered prior to and after performances, but not during. The debut production, A Christmas Memory — adapted by Puzo and director Michael Peretzian from two short works by Truman Capote –– establishes the production style for the cabaret series. They are modest affairs, usually starting at 5 pm, utilizing simple lighting, rarely featuring more than three actors reading from literary texts instead of plays. Quite often, Itchey Foot readings are chosen in conjunction with Taper mainstage productions. In the 1983 edition of California Theatre Annual, LA Times theater writer Sylvie Drake proclaims, “This series of concert readings designed to complement the Taper’s main season, proved in many ways richer than the season they complemented.” Highlights from Itchey Foot’s cabaret evenings include: A Personal History of My Car, featuring actor-writers Spalding Gray and Marshall Efron (1984); Poets in Their Youth by novelist Eileen Simpson, adapted by Jeremy Lawrence (1985); Studs Terkel’s The Good War, adapted by Robert Egan and Brian Kulick and featuring Helen Hunt, Michael Lembeck, Haunani Minn, Brian Mitchell and B. J. Ward, accompanied by Billy Barnes (1987); Larkin – based on the poetry of Philip Larkin, adapted and helmed by Ron Hutchinson, featuring William Glover and Cristine Rose (1988); The Joy Luck Club, an excerpt from Amy Tan’s novel, adapted and helmed by Brian Nelson (1989); Endesha Ida Mae Holland‘s autobiographical tale, From the Mississippi Delta, helmed by Shirley Jo Finney (1990); The Fever, written and performed by Wallace Shawn (1990);  and Cabaret Verboten, conceived by Jeremy Lawrence, inspired by the art of George Grosz, helmed by Steven Albrezzi, featuring Roger Rees, Paul Kreppel, Bebe Neuwirth and Harriet Leider, accompanied by pianist Nathan Birnbaum (1991). CTG’s Sundays at Itchey Foot cease in 2002. In 2004, CTG moves its “second stage” activities to recently opened Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.  The site of former Itchey Foot Ristorante is now part of a redevelopment residential project…

Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review (AIR) celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret on KPFK Radio (90.7FM).


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LA Stage Times

Classical Gas: Reviews of our Most Important Plays by College Students

by | January 8, 2014

Classics are classics because they endure for generation after generation, right? The question, then, is whether they endure because they are eternal.

There’s been exhaustive and exhausting debate on the virtues and sacrilege of “concept” directors remaking classic texts for contemporary audiences — shifting the plays’ eras or adding, say, electric guitar riffs to Christopher Marlowe’s speeches, even changing a play’s structure and words. This kind of meddling thrills the jaded and infuriates classicists.

But this debate is largely beside the point, which is reaching a new generation of theatergoers. That reach is quite the challenge. Though a new generation of theatergoers may be enshrined in the imaginations of our more visionary directors and playwrights and ensembles, in the real world they don’t actually exist.

Let’s say they barely exist, a trickle of graduates from drama schools such as Yale, NYU and CalArts. There’s probably no need to drag out the tired tropes, supported by considerable evidence published by the NEA, of aging audiences and the growing lack of interest by the young in attending live performances — thanks in large part to cuts to arts programs in public schools over the past 20 years. There’s no hyperbole in saying that we’ve lost a generation of audiences. So where does this leave our classics?

They’re waiting to be rediscovered, and possibly reinvented.

Young audiences, wherever they may be, are not a statistical blob who all think the same way. They have a huge range of backgrounds and experiences and are capable of interpreting and misinterpreting  — just like the rest of us — any author’s or director’s intent.

The Introduction to World Theater course I teach at California State University, San Bernardino tries to engage the interest of 20-year-olds in the theater. These students are not necessarily theater majors, but members of the general university community. They are ethnically diverse, attending university often while working as baristas or interning in hospitals. More often, they’re the first generation in their families to attend any college at all. The class contains a sizable proportion of Latino students, and a trickle of very polite young men from Dubai and Kuwait. How can our theaters woo them? Maybe first by knowing them?

The class is huge, about 50 people. Half of them have never attended a play. Of the half that have, almost all of those have attended a high school or university production, or a Broadway-style musical, either on Broadway or at one of the large touring houses such as the Pantages or Ahmanson.  Almost none have heard of Arthur Miller, or have walked into a professional non-profit theater, such as South Coast Repertory, the Taper, or the Pasadena Playhouse. As for our 99-seat-or-less venues in LA — don’t ask.

Here are excerpts from some of the reviews they wrote of world classic plays. They read the plays, and also viewed some cinematic version of them. This is also a lesson for critics who presume that we reveal something about the plays, when the plays actually reveal something about us. Let’s start from the beginning.

Christopher Plummer in "Oedipus the King."

Christopher Plummer in “Oedipus the King.”

Oedipus the King, Sophocles
1968, directed by Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, with Lilli Palmer, Orson Welles, Cyril Cusack and Donald Sutherland

“I did not like how everyone was in robes and togas, the very typical Greek attire seen in plays. I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little twist on the cast’s wardrobe. The setting was not as luxurious as I would imagine.”

“I enjoyed reading the play more than seeing the film. The film was boring and the music was tacky and so was the set. The costumes just weren’t enough. I thought Oedipus was ruling a great city, not a village of 12 people. That’s what it looked like in the film. It is a great play with the wrong setting and time for it to be filmed, though it’s more appropriate now to make a film than to perform a play.”

“Christopher Plummer, the actor who plays Oedipus, does a great job playing his short-tempered, egotistical character down to the smallest detail. Though there is little to no music in the play, the strong silences, and breaks in the silences, create an intense, courtroom-like environment.”

“One thing I would change would be Oedipus blinding himself. Oedipus shouldn’t have punished himself because of fate.”

“Although I enjoyed the storyline, I did not enjoy the film: the sound, the quality, the characters, the costumes, the ‘blood,’ the music, etc. However, I believe that the playwright, Sophocles, got his point across.”

Woodcut illustrations from Duffield & Co.'s 1904 edition of "Everyman."

Woodcut illustrations from Duffield & Co.’s 1904 edition of “Everyman.”

Everyman (anonymous, medieval morality play, no film version was seen)

“I would like to start off by saying the play Everyman bored me to tears. I do understand the intent of the story, and that is to portray a valuable message. As a person who has been going to church all my life, Everyman was more of a repeat of Biblical teachings rather than something new and exciting.”

“The play instilled fear in me, making me think what if I did die today? What impact have I made, if any? The play indeed is very powerful, revealing that wealth and material things should not be the center of our universe.”

“In Christianity, we believe in only one God who judges us at the end of our life.  The play shows the meaning of how to live your life, doing right for others and not always thinking of yourself.”

“Along with many others I am sure, I can personally connect to this play because I do feel that I have strayed from the path of God in some ways.”

“The play has great allegorical meaning and action, but the ideas are too simple. It would be perfect for a religious kindergarten class. Thousands of years of war have proven that man is naturally evil. . . The play lacks universal appeal.”

Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling in "The Cherry Orchard."

Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling in “The Cherry Orchard.”

The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
1999, directed and adapted by Mihalis Kakogiannis, featuring Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates and Katrin Cartlidge

“All in all, I did not care for the play much simply because it does not have a life lesson to be learned from it.”

The Cherry Orchard had a hopeless romantic story that grasped my attention because I am a sucker for love stories.”

“The play reached me in a personal way, even though it was foreign.”

“My favorite character in the play is [the “eternal student”] Trofimev. Even though people make fun of him, and he has no money, he knows what are the truly important things in the world. A quote I really like from him is when he’s alone with Anya: ‘If we want to have any real life in the present, we have to do something to make up for our past, we have to get over it, and the only way to do that is to make sacrifices, get down to work, and work harder than we’ve ever worked before.’”

“This was another favorite film that we watched in this course. I would recommend this film to a friend and especially one that cannot let go of the past.”

“I loved the story of The Cherry Orchard and I loved the film, but I can’t understand how Ranyevskaya let herself fall into such financial hardships.”

“This relates to me now because my family has been going through a rough time financially for the past few years, which led me to join the Army. When I returned, I began paying all of my bills and treating myself and my family to diners, trips to theme parks, and I bought typical groceries we used to buy when we had money. I did this, not because I wanted to help my family from the goodness of my heart, but to protect my family from having to tell my younger brother that they couldn’t afford to do stuff for him as they did when I was his age. After a while of doing this, I began to reach a financial instability, but I continue to do this because I don’t want my younger siblings thinking any less of me or my parents, just as Lyubov Ranyevskaya did in The Cherry Orchard.”

An illustration of "Tartuffe" onstage.

An illustration of “Tartuffe” onstage.

Tartuffe, Molière
1983, TV movie directed by Bill Alexander, with Antony Sher, Katy Behean, Sylvia Coleridge and Stephanie Fayerman

“Most of the plays we watched had similar themes like revenge, anger and murder. This play was different, it was by far more entertaining, and held a more positive vibe in my opinion.”

“I just did not like how the play was executed. The film might have been easier to watch if the acting weren’t so hammy.”

“Moliere did an awesome job conquering his task to present hypocrisy with a comical twist. . .. And although the ending was a little too good to be true, I enjoyed it because I hated Tartuffe. The character simply made my skin grinch [sic].”

Kenneth Branagh in "Hamlet."

Kenneth Branagh in “Hamlet.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
1996, adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd

“Like many of the plays that we watched in this course, I enjoyed reading the book over watching the play. . .  As irrational as this may sound, I always imagined Hamlet as a brunette and not someone [Branagh] with bleach-blond ‘surfer hair’. On that note, I wish they’d cast someone different to play Hamlet. His performance was great but he just didn’t match the typical Hamlet that everyone typically imagines.”

“This play is a little hard for the audience to get into. The ghost entrances can never be taken seriously. The romance is never fully developed between Hamlet and Ophelia due to her suicide.”

“When Hamlet stages a play for Claudius and his mother, he portrays integrity by remaining true, honest and completely pure not only to himself but to his father as well. I am a big fan of integrity and remaining true to whom you come from, because I respect my family — especially my grandparents who raised me. I would do anything in their honor.”

Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in "Death of a Salesman."

Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in “Death of a Salesman.”

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
1985, TV movie directed by Volker Schlöndorff, featuring Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid and Charles Durning

“As a college student living in San Bernardino, I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggles from our recent recession that San Bernardino is barely recovering from.”

“In the beginning, I did not enjoy this play very much because of the way the play was set up: the sound and the music did not catch my attention at all. However, as the play continued, I could not get my eyes off it.”

“The movie based on the play was very well constructed. I liked that their home was made to look like it was whole but was missing walls and ceilings. It made me think of it as a representation of their family, seeming to be whole on the outside but really broken with missing parts on the inside.”

“I enjoyed this play because it was good to look at America back in the day when there were no distractions. Today, we are all on our cellphones, computers. electronic devices, rarely focusing on the true conflicts.”

“His father was also a salesman who made his own flutes. . . What really touched me was why Willy was so ashamed of his sons, but when his brother Ben was around, that all changed. Did his father and brother leaving have that great of an impact on who he is now? Also, why does Willy praise Ben so much? These are all questions that make this play so great.”


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LA Stage Times

THE ARTS FIX: Graffiti, Punk, Health Insurance

by | January 7, 2014

Five small bits for your LA arts fix. 


If you’re looking for a new gallery to check out in LA, I recommend LAB ART Gallery. It’s located on La Brea in that nebulous area between West Hollywood and Hancock Park (one of my favorite parts of town). LAB ART is one of the best places in LA to check out street art indoors. It has an extensive collection of LA’s best graffiti, pop, and mixed-media artists and is a pretty spectacular venue to check out on a rainy day.

This Thursday from 8 pm-10 pm, LAB ART is opening a new exhibit: Domingo Zapata, “A Nod to Matisse.” There will be complimentary cookies and champagne.


Like punk music? Music journalist Evelyn McDonnell has released a new book called, “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.” McDonnell will join punk icon Exene Cervenka and Riot Grrrl Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile to discuss the book and the LA music scene of the 70s — and, specifically, the women of the movement.

Join their conversation at Los Angeles Central Library this Thursday at 7:15 pm. It’s free, too.


I plugged the first of these two workshops we held at LA STAGE Space, but I was told it was incredibly helpful, so I’ll plug the second one. Next Monday at 7 pm, we’re offering a free insurance workshop (in partnership with the Dance Resource Center and via the Actors Fund) for artists to find out more about Covered California and ways you can get health care if you’re self-employed. RSVPs are encouraged due to space.


Inner-City Arts and About… Productions are hosting a four-part symposia series during 2014 that will examine theater companies that are making work directly in response to the issues of their unique environments. The series will “take a look at [each company’s values], engagement with their communities, theatrical and survival strategies; and how best to tell the tale of their impact in L.A.”

The first in this series will happen at Inner-City Arts on January 22 from 6:30 pm–9 pm. The event will feature a presentation and performance excerpts, as well.


The Odyssey posted this clip of rehearsal on their Facebook page. What they’re doing? No idea. But it looks pretty fun. Add them on Facebook if you haven’t already.



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LA Stage Times

Chronicles of Candy, Coughs, Catching Zzzs, Coffee and Crying Kids

by | January 6, 2014

Theater demands our undivided attention more thoroughly than most other storytelling forms.

If you watch a movie or a TV show or a video game or listen to a radio drama or read a book, chances are your experience won’t be preceded by an admonition to “unwrap your candy now.”

But we theatergoers hear that request at most performances. Those who laugh at it, as if it’s some joke they’ve never heard, immediately stamp themselves as theatrical novices — who don’t even understand that it’s no joke. Theatergoers who rustle complicated candy or lozenge wrappers — or even the programs — during a crucial silence can disturb the experience for everyone around them, possibly including the actors. (Of course, when I think about it, I guess it is mildly amusing to wonder just where you’re supposed to put that unwrapped candy or lozenge, other than inside your mouth.)

By contrast, the management at movie screenings wants everyone to buy as much candy as possible during the show — from the concession counter in the lobby, of course — and consume it quickly so that you’ll need more while the two-hours-plus movie is still going on. And the sponsors of commercial TV programming hope that their snack ads will inspire you to stuff their snacks into your mouth, even as you watch the rest of the show. Even when TV has no ads, do most hosts at home screenings forbid their guests (or themselves) from unwrapping their candy? I doubt it.

Among theatergoers, lozenges ostensibly serve a higher purpose than mere candy, because theoretically they prevent people from coughing during the show. And during this season of the year in particular, many theatergoers have mild but lingering coughs. As many a late fall/early winter performance begins, I’ve neglected to unwrap my lozenge now, only to feel the tickle of an imminent cough beginning to creep into my throat just as the silences between characters start becoming especially pregnant with meaning.

Which would be more intrusive at that moment — unwrapping a lozenge or coughing? Trying to make this decision is, all by itself, a distraction from the performance — at least for me. Unfortunately, at this point in the process, often the lozenges won’t prevent the cough. Water usually works a little better, if I’ve had the foresight to being it into the theater, but it isn’t foolproof either.

If I have to cough but I still have some ability to time it, let’s hope I’m at a musical, which usually comes with readymade cues for applause breaks — during which I can more freely hack away into my hand without anyone really noticing. Also, if I’m so afflicted, I try to sit near the back or on the side, where a potential escape into the lobby would disturb the fewest people. Of course anyone who’s seriously or contagiously ill should skip the show altogether.

Candy and coughing are hardly the only noises that can interfere with the ability of other people to concentrate on the theatrical moment. Snoring is another — perhaps no other distraction so clearly indicates that we’re not all joined in a communal imaginative act, as we might have, er, imagined. Again, if you’re inclined in that direction, let me recommend musicals. The frequent applause might wake you up as well as provide a convenient time to cough.


If I suspect that a production is going to be, uh, challenging in the wakefulness department, or if I simply don’t feel that I slept very well the previous night, I try to nap before going to the theater. And of course I drink coffee. It might be in the best interests of theaters to offer free and highly caffeinated coffee before performances of particularly dense or difficult work, and I applaud the trend at many theaters to allow people to take their coffee into the theaters.

Of course more coffee drinking can create a greater need to use the theater’s restrooms. I hate it when a person arises from a front-and-center seat, slowly brushes past fellow audience members in he same row, and walks to the rear of the theater just as the play reaches its climax — presumably (or so most of us assume) because this person’s urinary system is also reaching a climax. Or perhaps this person merely wants to be the first to reach the toilets before the line forms? If you’re ever that person, please don’t take a front-and-center seat. Someone has to sit on the side or even stand at the back — I nominate you.

One of the few advantages of theater’s high ticket prices, compared to the cost of seeing most movies, is that theatergoing parents usually don’t bring kids who are too young to sit still — let alone understand what’s going on. Most of us have been to R-rated movies where the very young and the very restless are there only because no babysitter was available. It’s great for kids to see theater with their parents if they’re old enough to respect other theatergoers’ rights and to comprehend the play on some level and discuss it after the fact, but let’s not allow theaters to become de facto child care centers for the pre-school set.

Finally, phones. The number of times when I hear people actually talking on their phones during performances seems to be declining, now that more people text than talk. But of course the light emitted from the devices of those who text or check their email or Facebook can be almost as distracting, at least to those who are seated near the glowing phones.

In 2012, Center Theatre Group experimented with “tweet seats” at the back of two venues, where tweeting was allowed during a few performances. By placing these tweet seats in the back, CTG figured that the tweetsters would promote the show in silence, while other theatergoers wouldn’t be disturbed. I observed this experiment from a back row seat at the Kirk Douglas, and I had to admit that it didn’t look as if the other theatergoers would have been distracted by the back-row phones.

Twitter-photo-214x300Still, CTG didn’t continue with the tweet seats. I suspected that brief tweets about what was happening on stage — or about how ridiculous a fellow theatergoer’s outfit looked — didn’t serve to promote the future ticket sales of the event as much as anticipated, and that allowing these tweets risked the wrath of those of us who prefer our theaters to be completely phone-free, multitasking-free zones.

Jim Royce, CTG’s marketing director, tells me that tweet seats had their day “for one shining moment,” but he doesn’t believe that any of the theaters that introduced them continue to offer them.

“It’s much more possible now to influence the tweetsphere just by directly participating in it,” he says. “It’s easier to make sure that Twitter handles are obvious for those who are attending our shows.” Tweet seats, he acknowledges, took the participants’ “attention away [from the actual performance] for a few moments while they hit the keys. It’s far more productive to see the complete [theatrical] experience and then tweet about it afterwards.”

Although CTG continues to advertise on Twitter and Facebook, Royce notes that younger social media users are now turning more toward photo-oriented sites such as Instagram and Snapchat. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean people will start taking selfies inside the theater. But for those who want a selfie with a CTG background, CTG now maintains the “step and repeat” area outside the Ahmanson Theatre entrance, where celebs are photographed on opening nights, so selfie-takers can snap away even if it isn’t opening night.

No one would object to photo-taking outside the theater. But once you’re inside and a performance has begun, it’s important to remember that a theatrical event isn’t like a piece of film or video that will remain unchanged when you look at it again — it’s a chain of fleeting moments that might be subtly different at the next performance. If you miss those moments as they happen, due to whatever distraction, they won’t magically return in instant replay.

TWO REVUES, FOUR MEN, FOUR WOMEN: Just before the holidays, I saw a musical revue with a cast of two men and two women. Just after the holidays, I saw another show that could share that same description.

Yet apart from those casting and genre similarities, the two productions could hardly be more different — and fortunately both of them are extending beyond the holidays.

Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel is a 45-minute Weill revue in a new theatrical space that director Paul Sand created in a room above a restaurant at the west end of the Santa Monica Pier — hence the name West End Theatre.

Megan Rippey, Sol Mason, Paul Sand and Shay Astar in "Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel." Photo by Agi Magyari.

Megan Rippey, Sol Mason, Paul Sand and Shay Astar in “Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel.” Photo by Agi Magyari.

Walking to and from the west end of the Santa Monica Pier after dark on a busy Friday or a Saturday night in the winter is a theatrical adventure in itself, with a cast of hundreds of passers-by and masterful lighting and sound effects created by whoever designed the amusement park and other pier attractions and the Santa Monica oceanfront skyline.

Once you reach the end of the pier, it might take you two or three minutes to figure out how to get to the venue. When you finally enter it, the sense of gathering enchantment momentarily diminishes, because the audience is seated in back-to-back rows that appear to be crammed into the room, facing north, with no audience rake whatsoever and an aisle on only one side (the east). You can always hope that whoever sits in front of you doesn’t have an elaborately high hairdo or isn’t a lot taller.

But the saving grace of this configuration is that the room has windows looking west into the ocean. And once the show begins, the performers occasionally gaze in that direction at particularly opportune moments (“Pirate Jenny,” for example).

The two women are more prominently featured than the two men (including Sand himself). Shay Astar is a particularly commanding performer. Musical director Michael Roth conducts a little band at the back. The combination of Weill favorites and the setting makes for a satisfyingly worldly — and otherworldly — experience, but the seating is so cramped and the sight lines so problematic that I was glad it lasted no longer than 45 minutes.

Back on the mainland — NoHo, no less — Crown City Theatre has extended its revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change into February.

Natalie Hope MacMillon and Craig McEldowney in "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." Photo by Chris Carlisle.

Natalie Hope MacMillon and Craig McEldowney in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Photo by Chris Carlisle.

This revue by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music) is easier to like than to love, but it has in fact changed since the last time I saw it.  In this production, one song that used to be about a heterosexual relationship is now about a homosexual relationship, a few celebrity references have been updated, and a few props reflect advances in technology since the late ‘90s.

Generally, however, this is about men and women trying to cope with each other — but in a more familiar, more American context that the one that the Weill songs cover. The sketches (there is no attempt to head in the direction of a book musical) balance their share of stereotypes with a few surprising twists. DiPietro’s lyrics are better than his book, and Roberts’ score handles a variety of pop styles with versatility and panache.

The current cast (Craig McEldowney, Leigh Golden, Natalie Hope MacMillan, Mikhail Roberts) also demonstrates admirable versatility, playing characters ranging from childhood to old age, and it’s well-balanced into a true ensemble, as opposed to the women-dominated group of Cuttlefish. Gary Lee Reed directed.

Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, Santa Monica Pier. Fri-Sat 7:30 pm and 9 pm. Resumes Jan 17. Tickets through Feb 1 are now on sale. 310-488-4862.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St. North Hollywood, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Ends Feb 2. 818-605-5685.


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LA Stage Times

Searching for Human Identity Within a Solo Show

by | January 6, 2014
Christopher Vened in "HUMAN IDENTITY." Photo by Rebecca Robertson-Szwaja.

Christopher Vened in “Human Identity.” Photo by Rebecca Robertson-Szwaja.

Thirteen years ago, I published an acting book — In Character: An Actor’s Workbook for Character Development.  The manual describes the methods, principles, directions, exercises, and examples needed for mastery of the actor’s craft and the art of portraying character. While writing the book, I thought it would be good to create a one-man show about human characters based on the ideas I had explored.  But I put this idea away on the back burner, only to take it up again one year ago.

In the beginning, I was not very ambitious about it. I just wanted to make some funny routines about various character dispositions and aspects, to show their range just for the entertainment of friends at a party.  But then, while re-reading In Character, I became inspired by Part I — “Identity” — to take the piece in quite a different direction. I was spurred on by this line: “The purpose of acting is to reveal human identity.”  So, instead of exploring the various aspects of human characters, I suddenly made it my quest to figure out the meaning of human identity.

It sounded like a wonderful challenge. What does it mean to be human, and who am I?  I doubted that anyone had entirely figured it out yet. It had a heroic ring to it — a journey to the unknown.  And so I began the quest.

Christopher Vened

Christopher Vened

To fully succeed I would have to reveal the secret of creation. But everyone knows that the secret of creation does not belong to humans. Anyone with a sound mind does not ask those questions — only madmen and artists. Is my quest absurd? You bet it is. So is the essential human predicament of being alive, without knowing who we are and how we were created.   By now you may have figured out that the show is an absurd comedy.

Initially, working on Human Identity did not feel laborious. First, I let it freely come out of my head, motivated by curiosity, following first impulses, and then improvising scenes both in words and movement. Then I wrote it down.  I researched the subject further to reinforce the writing.  Further study on the subject, of course, gave me even more ideas.   I did not outline the piece in advance or concern myself about structure, which I usually do when I write a performance piece.  This time I let the piece come together organically.  When I was halfway through writing the script, the structure for the entire piece became clear to me; it was a matter of me filling it in with the writing and movement.

The final version of Human Identity is a solo piece in two acts, running an hour and a half.   Initially I was not sure that I was going to perform it myself, having not been on stage as a performer in a long time.  I thought, “I had better find someone to back me up.”   I even started looking for actors who could possibly play the role and who were skilled in both mime and acting.  However, after performing it myself a few times for limited audiences, consisting mostly of my friends, I gained the confidence to do it. They liked my mime routines and wanted more of it.  Wow — so I still have it, I thought.

During the show, my friends were entertained and laughing in all the right places. That was a good sign.  The ideas presented in the show stirred them up and kept them wondering and talking about it for days. Well, maybe they said that because they’re my friends.  But it was particularly encouraging that those who had already seen the show wanted to see it again — that was really a good sign.

Human Identity, Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Sundays 7 pm, through February 9. Ages 18+. Tickets: $20 pre-sale, $25 at the door.  323-960-5773.

**All Human Identity photos by Rebecca Robertson-Szwaja.

Christopher Vened was a star of Henryk Tomaszewski’s world-famous Wroclaw Pantomime Theater until he defected to the West while on tour in West Germany, because martial law had been declared in Poland. In the decades since then, he has written a textbook, taught and directed.

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