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LA Stage Times

In the Boyle Heights

by Dale Reynolds | November 22, 2013
The cast of "In The Heights." Photo by Ed Krieger.

The cast of “In The Heights.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Revivals aren’t rare. But it’s very unusual to have a newer musical revived for a second time within a year by the same company.  That describes the current co-production by Teatro Nuevos Horizontes (“Theatre of New Horizons” or TNH) and Casa 0101 of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In The Heights  — the 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for production, score, orchestrations and choreography. It opens tonight at Casa 0101, following an earlier run last December produced by TNH at the same venue.

For director Rigo Tejeda, 36, and costume designer Abel Alvarado, 41 — both of TNH –  and Casa 101 artistic director Josefina Lopez, 44, the musical has special meaning.  Even though it is set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights (where Lopez wrote her first play), their theater is in Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles.  The play deals with puertorriqueños and dominicanos in New York, but the production folk and most of the cast are Mexican-American.

Josefina Lopez

Josefina Lopez

Tejeda and Alvarado are both San Gabriel Valley-bred. Lopez hails from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, but was raised in Southern California.  All three willingly celebrate their Mexican heritage in their work.  Lopez, who has an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, is best known for writing Real Women Have Curves — first as a play that has received more than a hundred productions in the USA and then as a film. She now runs her theater in Boyle Heights, where she teaches writing for stage and screen.  Tejeda directs on the side, as his full-time business is running a flower shop in Whittier (the set features some of his flowers), and Alvarado is the resident costumer for TNH as well as costumer and art director for In The Heights.

Tejeda, the youngest of four boys in his family, likes the idea of combining directing and running a business.  “Break down ‘showbiz’ and you have a mash-up of artistic and business acumen.  For me, being a small business owner and participating in theater has taught me the need to be strategical when putting together a show as, at the end of the day, you have to make a profit to sustain yourself.  And you do it by finding a project that others want to see and learn how to make it great” without breaking the bank.  TNH is dedicated to “finding new horizons for yourself.  I want to continuously walk this road of theater and passions, with the horizon far away in the distance.”

TNH was founded in 2005 and has produced at least a play a year, mostly community-based.  The current co-production of In The Heights with Casa 0101 was a direct result of the success of TNH’s first version last year, at Casa 0101.  Tejeda calls it “the first musical that actually accentuates a Latino community” and finds that “inspiring.  We don’t believe West Side Story counts, as it’s about divided communities in NYC.”

For Alvarado, “the essence of the show is how Latinos in America are marginalized because of the majority’s fear of those who don’t look like them — racism at its basest. Lin-Manuel wrote about a neighborhood in NYC that, as it happens, is just like Boyle Heights.  But what the racists ignore is that we’re all Americans and we help fuel the economy.  In turn, Latinos fear becoming mainstream, living all too often in cocoon-like barrios.”

Rigo Tejeda and Abel Alvarado

Rigo Tejeda and Abel Alvarado

As a business owner,Tejeda says he relates mostly to the character of Daniela, who runs a beauty salon.  “She has to compete with the big-box stores, ultimately having to close down due to rising rents, but moving to a cheaper place that will still allow her to keep her two workers.  And she keeps her energy and her ability to maintain a positive attitude while helping others.  She’s the go-to person for someone who might need a laugh or a distraction.”  It’s at this point that Tejeda begins to weep, which embarrasses him.  “Wow.  I never show emotion — I will show you my care through actions, not in talking.”

While this version of last year’s show is essentially the same, many of the previous actors got new jobs or agents or furthered their careers from it, so the producers were forced to do some radical re-casting, totaling 17 out of a cast of 22.  “The result has been somewhat stronger, but that’s mostly because we knew what had to be fixed from the previous version,” says Tejeda.

For Alvarado, the production is an opportunity for Angelenos who don’t live nearby.  “We invite them to see the barrio we live in, in all its reality.  And it’s a safe journey, two miles east of downtown, with two Metro stops nearby [Mariachi Plaza and Soto on the Gold Line ], opposite the Hollenbeck Police Station, with free parking at Boyle Heights City Hall [on Friday and Saturday nights], and you get to see an excellent show in a beautiful theater.  This musical allows us to see singing-and-dancing Latinos in a play everyone can relate to — the struggle to stay financially afloat amid community emotional support.  And the price is fair:  $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and students and $20 for residents of Boyle Heights.  And if you do come on the Metro, you get a $2 discount.”

In The Heights had played Los Angeles twice, in two national tours, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood — before its incarnations at Casa 0101.  But as this version is in a 99-seat theater, under Actors’ Equity’s relaxed rules, it is much more affordable to those who couldn’t afford higher-priced tickets at the Pantages.

Anastasia Silva, James Oronoz, Santos Hemenway and Michael Torreneuva

Anastasia Silva, James Oronoz, Santos Hemenway and Michael Torreneuva

In a more serious vein, the two production companies are very aware that they straddle two (usually contradictory) horses:  community theater and professional theater.  This is an issue close to Alvarado’s heart:  “To do a musical of this caliber, there’s a training that’s missing in most community actors. You need the quality preparation you can get from high school, college, or from intensive studying.  It’s a fine balance as we’ve taken untrained, but highly talented, local community residents, seeing in them an ability to flourish, which added to our production.”

He continues:  “Latino audiences here don’t support theater the way that they do in other Spanish-speaking countries.  Mexico City has large theaters, playing major musicals, for example, both foreign and domestic, and audiences flock to them.  But because of costs, our people cannot attend the larger theaters here.”

Beyond lower ticket prices, Boyle Heights might add an element of authenticity to the experience of seeing In the Heights that wouldn’t be found on Hollywood Boulevard.  “Our musical’s storyline is about taking ownership of where you live and thrive,” Alvarado explains, “making the American dream work from within.  My grandparents lived in Boyle Heights long ago.  Their people came originally from Mexico, but migrated through Texas to Colorado to LA to the San Gabriel Valley decades ago — we are all full Americans.  We live that American dream, and this show exemplifies the similarities that all immigrants go through.  We want West Side audiences to travel to our neighborhood and see a show that reflects the diversity on our side of town.  Boyle Heights is a new Renaissance District, largely because of Casa 0101, and the new festivals that the city sponsors.”

So far, the area has not been gentrified away from its current flavor — unlike the strife-ridden history of Silver Lake’s merging of Hispanics and LGBT folk. And while the area is still poor, it has genuine life happening in and around it, with the changes coming from within — the gentefication rather than gentrification — according to Alvarado, who is something of a community activist.

Vivian Lamolli, Chrissi Erickson, Katherine Washington and Michael Torrenueva

Vivian Lamolli, Chrissi Erickson, Katherine Washington and Michael Torrenueva

Alvarado’s background is in costume design.  For the current version, he had to tweak the costumes for the newer actors, but his original thought for the designs was to create “a color wheel of life, sabor/flavor and vibrancy. While that didn’t change [for the new show], I was able to implement new ideas — making the costumes pop a little more.  Because there’s so much dance in it, I needed the clothes to sway, as if in a breeze, to accentuate the memories of the people who live there — to match the sounds of the music and the smells of the coffee stand, the panadería/bakery and the florist’s shop.” For the one memory sequence, in which Abuela Claudia talks about her native Cuba and the local neighborhood during World War II, the costuming became less colorful and more earth-toned to reflect the idea of a sepia-toned picture.

Last year, he costumed Leslie Ferreira and Tina Kronis’ show at the Odyssey, The Untitled Warhol Project.  “It was an amazing show, a retrospective on Andy Warhol — in just over an hour, with 18 actors on stage, we had over a hundred costume changes.”  That experience, as tough as it was, also allowed him an opportunity to directly see the ethnic makeup of two very diverse audiences — largely white in West Los Angeles, and largely brown for Heights at Casa 0101.

“You know,” Alvarado continues, “we’re all supposed to be colorblind in our American society, and audiences should be willing to travel to see racially different casts.  Audiences need to see others as themselves.  Our stories are all the same.  In growing up, I was mostly surrounded by American culture, my education, the food, as an artist, and I speak English and Spanish.  As Latinos, we have no choice than to see other people’s stories in the movies or on TV, or on stage.  I think it’s time that our culture is reflected as part of the American fabric.”

Tejeda agrees:  “I think our stories reflect everyone’s concerns. I’m a flower-shop owner, Daniela is a salon owner, and we small business owners are all over this city.  We put back into the community by doing what we need to on a daily basis.  We help fuel the American dream.”

Rehyan Rivera, Valeria Maldonado and Michael Torrenueva

Rehyan Rivera, Valeria Maldonado and Michael Torrenueva

Alvarado adds that “when outsiders, people with no direct history of our neighborhoods, come into them and make changes, no one takes kindly to the pillaging and thereby making it different — by doing that, they are saying we’re not American enough.  I call it the Chipotlization of Latin American culture.”

Tejeda and Alvarado have been working partners in the theater for over three years, producing their own shows.  Future plans may include producing the American debut of a Mexico City hit musical, Mentiras /Lies, but they need to convince the owners of the material that they’d do best by introducing it to America in a smaller theater and by not taking the original cast — stars all in Mexico — to Broadway where they won’t be recognized.

Alvarado explains:  “It’s a comedy where five women, who are close friends, find out — when the husband of one of the ingénues up and dies — that he’d not only been involved with all of them, he had married two of them.  We’re in preliminary negotiations with the rights-holders to let us do it.  It would change the face of Latino musical theater in LA and it might happen if we can find the right space and the right producer.  The [Ricardo] Montalbán, perhaps, or at the LA Theatre Center.”

Lopez, who has had experience with trying to get her own musical version of Real Women onto the Broadway stage (“it will cost $8-10 million dollars”), is appreciative of the idea of a Broadway show, such as Heights is, playing in the barrio.  “It’s unusual to hear [our] songs in a show, whether in Spanish, English or Spanglish.  I love that it’s all so collaborative in the performing arts.”

She is also looking to find new plays that deal directly with the history of Boyle Heights, from its beginnings as a Jewish enclave, then as a home to Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated during WWII, to the Chicano neighbors who bought up their properties to save them until they returned after the war.  Remembering Boyle Heights is a title for the show she’s considering. She’s currently collecting stories from neighbors. One topic for a possible future show is the local synagogue and shul on Breed Street, around the corner from her theater.

For Lopez, as important as it is to have a theater devoted to the Latino cultures that exist all around it, it is more important not to remain in “a ghetto of the mind.”

In The Heights, Casa 0101, 2009 East First Street, Boyle Heights 90033. Opens tonight. Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 5 pm. Through December 22.Tickets: $19.99-$45.  www.casa0101.org. 323-263-7684.

**All In The Heights production photos by Ed Krieger.

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Alvarez’s Dallas Non-Stop Examines a Filipino Fixation on America

by Dale Reynolds | November 15, 2013
 Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Kennedy Kabasares, Sandy Yu and Angel Star Felix in "Dallas Non-Stop." Photo courtesy of Playwrights' Arena.

Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Kennedy Kabasares,
Sandy Yu and Angel Star Felix in “Dallas Non-Stop.” Photo courtesy of Playwrights’ Arena.

Like most Filipino Americans, playwright Boni P. Alvarez has been thinking a lot about Typhoon Haiyan in the past week.

“My grandmother and her immediate family are in Manila, so they’re okay,” he reports. “But I do have an aunt from the rural provinces whose house collapsed; she’s okay, but we haven’t heard anything more about my other relatives.  Lines of communication are limited, which is devastating to us.  You want to do something, but there’s nothing much to do but pray and donate to relief organizations.

“My parents are a reminder that everyone who comes here leaves many friends and family behind.  And it’s so hard to get there.  So while the impulse is to do something, the fact that it’s such a long distance from here leaves you feeling hopeless and impotent to help.”

On the other hand, that long distance between the two countries hasn’t prevented many Filipinos from feeling very close to the United States and Americans and very interested in American culture. That’s true of the Filipino characters in Alvarez’s latest play, Dallas Non-Stop, which opens Saturday at the Atwater Village Theatre, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena.

A view of Southfork from Manila

Dallas Non-Stop is a riff on American pop culture, set in Manila a couple of years ago.  “Dallas was and is an iconic American TV show.  When I was watching it, in its heyday, I wondered how non-American audiences would react to seeing it.  Was that my people’s main view of America, this big slice of Americana, along with Dynasty and Flamingo Road?”

Boni B. Alvarez

Boni B. Alvarez

In his play, a late-20s Filipina, Girlie, adores Dallas and is desperate to immigrate to the United States, especially to Texas.  For Alvarez, Dallas was quintessential Texas:  big oil, big money, big hair.  “The fantasy element was appealing to me.  It was real when she relates how in her [poor] village, only one family had a VCR machine, and videos of Dallas and the rest, sent by relatives in the US, were shown to the other villagers at three pesos a head.  And that was their weekly dose of an American ideal — a world that was years delayed, not watched in real time, being influenced by television.

“I modeled Girlie after Victoria Principal’s role [in Dallas], Pamela, who was the outsider on the show:  from poverty, sexy, marrying-up to Bobby [the character played by Patrick Duffy], which causes strife between the brothers [Bobby and J.R., who was played by Larry Hagman].”

Girlie is also an outsider, with suspicions about her being a golddigger, when it comes to American Brad, her new boss.  But what, really, is the American dream she desires?  “The problem is, there’s no pamphlet on that dream that America prints up and hands out to people abroad.  So this version is being marketed to people like Girlie, who has grown up knowing about the elusive American Dream, and for her and others Dallas is it — her road map to her future — and Brad is the guy who owns the keys to the American Dream Door.”

Of course Filipino immigrants to America often learn that real life doesn’t match the glory of the dream. But Alvarez says that “most Filipinos believe that it’s better to struggle here in America rather than back home.  It’s an ongoing promotion, this American Dream, which never seems to go away, in spite of how many people don’t achieve it.”

Alvarez, who is gay, admits that he couldn’t not write a gay character — “In spite of this huge Catholic overlay,” he notes, “Filipinos are accepting of gay people.” In Dallas Non-Stop, the gay Rodrigo is not only “fun,” but “he’s also a strong challenge for Girlie, who wants this new position of supervisor of the outsourcing office, and they butt heads in an aggressive way.  So she uses sex to try and solidify her chances for the job.”

When asked about American racism, Alvarez comes up with an idea not often suggested:  “Sometimes the racism isn’t overt, but is a given, when we are treated almost as an invisible people.  When people think of ‘Asian-Americans,’ they generally don’t think Filipino, in part because our culture is quite a bit different from the Japanese, or Chinese, or Vietnamese.

Kennedy Kabasares and Anne Yatco

Kennedy Kabasares and Anne Yatco

“We were colonized by Spain, who ruled for 300 years, leaving a different flavor than the rest of Asia [or Asia Minor]; it’s an island culture.”  Then, in 1899, after the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, which ruled it until the Japanese took over in World War II.  After the war, the Philippines became an independent nation, but the American influence hardly vanished. And it “gave us an easier time to assimilate when we came over here.”  As proof, he contends that there are more Filipinos in California than anywhere else in the world, outside of the Islands themselves.

Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian community in the United States, and one of the most assimilated. Alvarez points to the matriarchal nature of Philippine society and the inclination of Filipinas who immigrate to America to get to know co-workers and their families.

He’s upbeat on the subject of assimilation. “It’s all positive; they absorb the flavor of the various cultures that surround them.  We tend to be less insular, more apt to integrate with all the other cultures than just the dominant European ones.  We get along with Latinos here because they remind us of our culture back home.  My mom would make friends with the black women at work because they were familiar, and no one seems to have a beef with us Filipinos.”

Alvarez was born and raised in East Palo Alto. “My mom and dad were born in the Philippines, but immigrated here at different times — my mom in the 1960s and my dad a decade later.” His mother’s parents initially worked in the agricultural fields of Stockton, or as a maid in motels, “but when Silicon Valley began to bloom with internet companies, they moved there to work in electronic assembly, becoming middle-class.”  Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, Alvarez’s father gained a degree from FEATI University in Manila and then immigrated to the US, where he found employment as an electrical engineer..

Alvarez himself received an impressive education. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (BA) , American Repertory Theatre/MXAT Institute at Harvard University (MFA), and USC (MFA).

Looking for a breakthrough play

Jim Kane and Sandy Yu

Jim Kane and Sandy Yu

As a playwright, Alvarez, who is somewhere in his “late 30s,” has had one previous successful production in Los Angeles: Ruby, Tragically Rotund (2009, Playwrights’ Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center), also directed by Rivera.  His other plays, which have been workshopped or produced around the country include Dusty de los Santos, The Special Education of Miss Lorna Cambonga, Poke Back, and The Wall.

He says he is ready for the next step as a functioning (i.e., working for money) playwright.  When not writing, he works in a retail shop at the Grove — something to pay the bills and keep from going crazy.

Alvarez is of large girth, which influenced his writing of Ruby, Tragically Rotund at USC grad school, where he studied with respected playwrights Oliver Mayer, Luis Alfaro and Velina Hasu Houston .

“Most of my plays deal with Filipino issues, although my latest is about Mexican day laborers [The Wall], which has had some readings here and in Phoenix.  Since I understand that ‘writing is re-writing,’ I must go back and do some revising.”

Ruby received a mostly successful response from audiences and critics.  “I had great validation from the audience reaction.  Those who are or were heavy-set identified with the play, and it struck chords with non-rotund folks, too.”

In the play, sibling rivalry between rotund Ruby and her thin sister arises. Says Alvarez, “A woman who was skinny came up to me one night and admitted that her more charismatic sister, who was heavy, had forced her to live in her shadow.  To me, discovering that a secondary character [in the play] had influenced someone I never would have thought would be resentful, made me more respectful of how much our work can impact on others.”

Alvarez then “submitted [Ruby] nationally, but no second production of the play has ever materialized.  My hopes for my big debut fizzled.  But you just have to go back and keep writing.”

 Sandy Yu, Jim Kane, Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi, Angel Star Felix and Kennedy Kabasares

Sandy Yu, Jim Kane, Anne Yatco, Nardeep Khurmi,
Angel Star Felix and Kennedy Kabasares

Dallas Non-Stop is to be his second full-length play produced.  He was invited to join the Skylight Theatre PlayLab Unit last year, under the leadership of Shem Bitterman, in its inaugural season.  “It’s a great chance to learn more about playwriting, as you write a play from scratch [Dusty de los Santos], and if accepted, you’re given a 10-performance run at their theater in Hollywood.  I received great feedback and now I can revise it.”

Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight, which operate on Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, champion LA-based playwrights, more than most of the larger Equity-contract companies. But Center Theatre Group invited Alvarez into its writers group after seeing Ruby.  “I was there a year; it was a major learning curve for me.  But the most important part of the process that you really learn from is a production, listening to actors recite your words.  It’s not like the olden days, when playwrights were produced more often, with more actor- and director-time.  You have to hear it out loud.”  His play about witches [“aswang”] in the Philippines, Blood Letting, is to be workshopped this December at Skylight.

His many communities

Although he was born in America, Alvarez says he finds community with artists who were born in the Philippines, such as Rivera.  But he also has the luxury of being a part of other larger communities, such as the USC theater community and the LGBT community.  Currently single, he laughs off the notion of being lonely as a single gay man, let alone bitter.  And love in his life?  He quickly notes, “I find love in my work.”  But he is obsessed with watching tennis and eating quality foods.  “I’m a foodie — love fried chicken and dim sum.  And when I travel, which isn’t often enough anymore, I try new foods.”

Alvarez acknowledges how much his family influences his work.  “Because the culture is so matriarchal, there tends to be a large female presence in my work.  And the culture is so very ‘dramatic.’  If you were to just transcribe real conversations between the women, it would be borderline-awful dialogue, as there’s no filter to it.  Still, I always look for the subtext in the dialogue, and my Catholic background definitely colors my writing.”

Sandy Yu

Sandy Yu

Although more than a thousand dialects are spoken in the Philippines, with Tagalog the main national language, in the 20th Century English became the primary unifying language.  And all things American are still the norm in their pop culture:  “On my last trip there, I was amazed at how prevalent American culture is.  Lady Gaga and Joe Jonas were performing there.  And they’re obsessed with our American Idol TV show, especially when Jessica Sanchez, who is half-Filipina, advanced in the competition.”

So is Brad, the tall pink-man, the Ugly American?  “No, he’s willing to absorb the local culture, but because he happens to figure into Girlie’s Dallas fantasy, he falls into her trap, intentionally or not.”

Alvarez remains tremendously grateful for the opportunities open to him, but on some level, “Girlie reflects my own desire to be a working playwright, which I don’t believe can happen soon, as I don’t know any newer playwrights who make their living solely on their plays. But it is what I want, dream or not.”

Meanwhile, perhaps his own efforts as a playwright can also help relieve the post-Haiyan suffering in the Philippines just a little. The producers say that all proceeds from tonight’s preview will go to Philippine relief efforts.

Dallas Non-Stop, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Opens Saturday. Sat and Mon 8 pm; Sun 3 pm (except Mon Nov 18 and Dec 2 at 6 pm). Tickets: $25. dallas.brownpapertickets.com. 800-838-3006.

**All Dallas Non-Stop production photos courtesy of Playwrights’ Arena.

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Four Ovation Nominations Apiece for Tina Kronis, Micaela Martinez

by Dale Reynolds | October 22, 2013
Tina Kronis and Micaela Martinez

Tina Kronis and Micaela Martinez

Tina Kronis and Micaela Martinez — the former in the middle of an eclectic career, the latter just beginning one — were each nominated for four Ovation Awards this year, more than the total for any other individual women.

Unfortunately, neither of the two will be able to attend the ceremony. Martinez will be rehearsing for her Actors’ Equity card-earning show in Washington, DC, and Kronis will be opening a two-week tour in China. However, they willingly pause to reflect on their paths to multiple nominations in this pre-ceremony period.

Director and choreographer Kronis has been working with her playwright husband, Richard Alger, in theater for the past 17 years, producing or co-producing their own creations, in New York City and LA. They operate their own company, Theatre Movement Bazaar.

This year Kronis was nominated for four 2013 Ovation Awards, as director and choreographer of two shows: Hot Cat at Theatre of NOTE and Track 3 at Bootleg TheaterTrack 3 was revived at Los Angeles Theatre Center as part of the Radar L.A. festival last month.

Jenny Soo, David LM McIntyre, Blaire Chandler, Eric Neil Guiterrez, Crystal Diaz and David Guerra in "HOT CAT." Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Jenny Soo, David LM McIntyre, Blaire Chandler, Eric Neil Guiterrez, Crystal Diaz and David Guerra in “Hot Cat” at Theatre of NOTE. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Kronis, 50, was born and raised in Florida, then moved to the Big Apple, where eventually she and Alger, now 48, met and began a professional as well as a personal relationship. Theatrical productions, particularly if they’re of the “unruly” variety, “are our kids,” she says.

“We’ve produced a lot over the years, going on two decades now,” Kronis begins, “and I must say that I prefer theater that surprises me, moves me, and makes me laugh. Visually I like heightened physicality — much like the theater you find in Europe — with movement, dancing maybe, but all given equal traction on stage. I’ve been influenced by Jerzy Grotowski and a wide variety of dance, mask work, and clowning. I use all these things; they’re now part of my theatrical vocabulary.”

She trained as a classical dancer, obtained a BFA in theater at NYU, then spent time in Europe for a while, including touring with the famous Swiss mime company Mummenschanz. She took a masters degree at the Moscow Art Theatre (1995), in a joint program with Carnegie Mellon University.

Arriving in LA in the late ’90s, Kronis and Alger started adapting the major plays of Chekhov, along with one of his short stories (“Ward 6,” retitled The Treatment).

Next week, they’re going to China to re-mount their adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, retitled Anton’s Uncles. It will tour Beijing and Shanghai for two weeks. “Even though I’m not fluent in Russian, we managed to deconstruct the play, with all the parts laid out all over the place, and then re-constructed it. We took all the women out of it, taking lots of liberties, but managed to keep the essence and the soul of the play alive. It has singing and dancing, with an eclectic score: sort of a Middle-Eastern/Asian fusion, with Slavic influences, hip-hop, classical, standards, and live singing.”

David LM McIntyre and Kendra Chell in "Track 3." Photo by Justin Zsebe RZ.

David LM McIntyre and Kendra Chell in “Track 3.” Photo by Justin Zsebe RZ.

It played at the 24th Street Theatre and at Bootleg Theater in 2010, after first being developed at L.A. City College, where Kronis teaches. The LACC production was selected for the American College Theatre Festival in district competition in Utah, eventually making it to the Kennedy Center finals in Washington, DC, Theatre Movement Bazaar took the play to San Francisco and to Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2011, and “we returned there this summer with Track 3, in collaboration with Greenwich Theatre/East London. That was a blast. We loved representing Los Angeles at this international festival.”

In addition to 24th Street, Bootleg and Theatre of NOTE, Theatre Movement Bazaar has worked at the Boston Court, Met Theatre and Sacred Fools.

“We’re interested in finding expression on stage other than words,” Kronis says. “The first show we ever did was a split bill — Richard’s play, which had words, then the second half a play without words. And we’ve drifted towards a fusion of the two. It’s difficult to articulate, but it’s as much about physicality as text. It has since morphed over time to include narrative; there’s more freedom with narrative, giving ourselves a structure to play off of. This town is great for theater, with great actors. They love the exploration and the end-result surprises.”

And representing Orange County

Micaela Martinez, 23, received two nominations for Chance Theater‘s Triassic Parq — as featured actress in a musical and as a member of one of the best ensemble nominees. Also in the ensemble category, she was nominated as a member of the companies of La Mirada Theatre‘s Spring Awakening and 3-D TheatricalsParade. 3-D also employed her recently in Legally Blonde and Funny Girl.

A 2012 graduate of California State University, Fullerton with a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater, she’s a high soprano/belter. Although her father is originally from Mexico, she has never played a Latina — “which is strange,” she acknowledges. “I have an enormous respect for my Latin culture, but unfortunately I don’t speak Spanish very well. Still, I’d love to play Maria in West Side Story or Nina in In The Heights, but that’s not how casting directors see me, I guess.”

Micaela Martinez in "Triassic Parq: The Musical"

Micaela Martinez in “Triassic Parq: The Musical.” Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.

As a student, she enjoyed the non-theater classes as much as the performing arts instruction: history, psychology, and she even went for a yoga training license. “I love the physicality of teaching yoga to anybody, especially special education students. My dad’s a physical therapist, mostly with seniors, in Tucson, Arizona, and my mom’s a teacher. They’re my best supporters — they don’t question my passions. I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to deal with the chaos of life without them.”

While she started life in Tucson, she moved to Fullerton to attend college. “I loved Tucson, but I needed to leave it to create a career. As an actor, I’m glad I earned my degree, as it’s given me skills, techniques and confidence” — which paid off for her last August when she auditioned for the national tour of Sister Act (New York-based Telsey & Company brought her in). She got the job, will rehearse in Washington, DC, and will join the company in St. Louis, the end of next month — a bit of good fortune as she has, at last, earned her Actors’ Equity card.

In Triassic, she played a dinosaur, and writer/director Marshall Pailet wrote a song just for her character. “Doing a brand-new musical is difficult — there’s nothing previously recorded to listen to, and there was lots of re-writing. But he used our quirks to build and remold our characters.”

As a performer just getting started, she has yet to develop a darker, defensive side — she still radiates youthful charm and fresh looks. And having three ensemble nominations under her belt has only buttressed that positive side of herself. “I’ve been lucky to work with these collaborative casts. At La Mirada, they treat everyone as stars, which makes for a cohesive and loving show; it was unforgettable. This whole year, I have met so many new and talented people. I’ve yet to work with anyone who is diva-ish, with Attitude. The great thing about LA theater is that we are doing it for the right reasons. We can accept each other and are so supportive.”

Micaela Martinez, Austin MacPhee and Coby Getzug in "Spring Awakening." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Micaela Martinez, Austin MacPhee and Coby Getzug in La Mirada for the Performing Arts’ 2012 production of “Spring Awakening.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

In Spring Awakening, she played Wendla, the ingénue, who grows up fast when she and Melchior (the lead juvenile) make love in the forest. She learned just how grown-up she was as the scene included partial nudity. “The director, Brian Kite, had Austin [MacPhee, who played Melchior] and I do a private rehearsal so we could allow ourselves to get comfortable with each other in that scene.”

And with a configured stage, with an audience close at hand, “I showed a boob and he showed some butt. However, it was very freeing. I was nervous about exposing even a small part of myself, but we’re actors and the sex scene has always been an integral part of the play. When we finally got to do the entire scene in rehearsal, in front of the other actors, close to opening, the lighting had been set, so it wasn’t just me lying there exposing a boob — it was fresh and new, at least to me.” And as the two characters, both mid-teens, are naïve, nervous and uncomfortable, the two actors were able to put all their own nervousness into the scene.

Sound like she’s worth noting? The Ovation voters have taken notice.

Ovation Awards ceremony, San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, 320 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, 91776, Sunday Nov 3, reception at 5:30 pm, ceremony at 7 pm. www.lastagealliance.com. Group attendance: 213-614-0556.

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Translaptation, Anyone? Stangl Returns to Antaeus for The Liar

by Dale Reynolds | October 9, 2013
Nicholas D'Agosto, Kate Maher and Gigi Bermingham in "The Liar." Photo by Geoffrey Wade.

Nicholas D’Agosto, Kate Maher and Gigi Bermingham from the “Tangerines” cast of “The Liar.” Photo by Geoffrey Wade.

Call it a “translaptation.” That’s a term David Ives uses for his comedy The Liar, opening this week at Antaeus Company. It’s a translation and an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur, directed by the veteran Casey Stangl.

For Stangl, it’s her second go-round with Antaeus after helming the final show in the 2011 season, Peace in Our TimeNoel Coward’s little-known drama about a Nazi takeover of Great Britain. That staging won an Ovation Award last year for best production in an intimate theater and an LA Weekly award for best revival of a 20th- or 21st-century work.

Casey Stangl

Casey Stangl

“We are thrilled to have Casey back at Antaeus after such a wonderful collaboration,” says Antaeus co-artistic director (and cast member) Rob Nagle, “and it’s a great way to launch into the coming year with her at the helm of a play as lively and fun as The Liar.

Nagle also expresses excitement over Antaeus’ recent Ovation nomination for best season. “Antaeus has faced some challenges in the last several years, but the fight has been worth it and we’re happy to feel like we’re creatively thriving.”

Stangl agrees that the season nomination is “well-deserved.  I like the way Antaeus is finding new ways of reinterpreting the classics.  Last year’s The Crucible [directed by Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade] found non-traditional ways of telling the story that were exciting.”

“Reading Corneille in French,” Stangl says, “is slightly better than some of the more stilted translations out there.” Stangl directed The Illusion, Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique at A Noise Within in 2012. “Corneille has so many interesting ideas and philosophy in his work. This adaptation by Ives captures the essential spirit of the plays.”

The story is about a young visitor to Paris, one Dorante, who courts two women, confusing them with each other. He’s forced to tell one damned lie after another to get out of his predicament.  Dorante takes on a wily (is there any other kind?) servant, Cliton, who helps him get out of his scrapes.

Reviewing the premiere of Ives’ 2010 translation/adaptation by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote, “Think of the evening as 17th-century Parisian stand-up, a night at L’Improv.”

Antaeus has become renowned for double-casting all its plays, due to the fact that many of its members work often in the TV/movies industry. Stangl cast both Nagle and Brian Slaten as the two Clitons. Using two casts is “both a great challenge and an opportunity for the company to approach the creation of character and a play holistically with the actors seeing, as it were, themselves on stage,” Stangl says.

Ann Noble and Jules Willcox of the Cherries, Kate Maher and Joanna Strapp of the Tangerines

Ann Noble and Jules Willcox of the “Cherries” cast, Kate Maher and Joanna Strapp of the “Tangerines”

After she directed Peace in Our Time, Stangl was approached about directing The Liar.  She had read not only The Liar but also Ives’ translaptations The School for Lies (from Molière’s The Misanthrope), The Heir Apparent (from Jean-Francois Regnard’s Le Légataire Universel) and A Flea in Her Ear (the customary English title of Feydeau’s La Puce à l’Oreille).

Ives also adapted an early Mark Twain comedy, Is He Dead?, which played at International City Theatre in 2009 and in a Coeurage Theatre production at last year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Next spring, Stangl will direct Ives’ Venus in Furthe most produced play at nonprofit theaters in the 2013/14 season, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. It garnered Nina Arianda a Tony Award for the 2011 Broadway production. Says Stangl of Ives, “I truly admire his deliciousness in language and how that language defines us.”

Stangl “never considered myself to be a classical theater maven,” she says. But she appreciates that “clearly there is a built-in audience” for classics.  “Bill Rauch at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is delivering new takes — sorely needed.  He is willing to go the whole ‘non-traditional’ casting route with racial and gender reversals.”  And the OSF’s productions pack its three theaters in Ashland.

“The better companies around the country,” Stangl adds, “are keeping the vitality of theater alive, especially when they tap into some essential qualities.  Minneapolis’  Guthrie Theater is leading the way, too.  A Noise Within and Antaeus are successful because they have a standard of how language works.

Rob Nagle and Graham Hamilton of the "Cherries"

Rob Nagle and Graham Hamilton (from both casts)

The Liar has a contemporary feel to the adaptation, which is a challenge, as the audience must see it as real and connect to it emotionally.  That demands a precision in the language.  If the words cannot be delivered well, it loses its validity, so while it’s tough to keep the talent pool open, the verbal rigor must be there from the actor.”

For Stangl, the play demands another challenge as performers must deliver two things at the same time: to be grounded in reality, but not in naturalism.  “Heightened-language plays are inherently theatrical, with a presentational quality, as well as maintaining reality for full credibility.  When it’s successful, it’s invigorating for the audience.”

In casting The Liar, “because so many of [the Antaeus members] are working all the time, some of my choices were just unavailable.  However, I like that when they choose their plays, they wisely think about who’s available to do it.”

Stangl is extremely careful in dissecting the notion of non-traditional casting.  “I like it when it adds a little bit of flavor, but it must be within the context of the play.  Arthur Miller’s The Crucible [staged by Antaeus last season] had a theatricalized feel, which gave them permission to swap out gender and racial roles.  [But] it needs to be accurate — looking at the power dynamics, for example, when the sexes are reversed.”  She feels that with the classics, with its naturally heightened language, the audience will accept a different world view more readily than with a contemporary play.

After The Liar, Stangl will be working with Ensemble Galilei,  a musical group with a Celtic/folk sound, using multi-media, actors-with-text, music and loose narratives, in First Person Seeing America.  “We are working on tweaking it a bit to re-shape the narrative, and I’ll fly to Washington, DC to put it all together in their mid-sized performance space next week.  [Antaeus Company member] Lily Knight brought me into the project, and she and Rob Nagle will be in it.”  A year ago, Ensemble Galilei performed a previous version of First Person Seeing America with Knight and Bill Pullman at Broad Stage.

Nicholas D'Agosto and Bo Foxworth

Nicholas D’Agosto and Bo Foxworth of the “Tangerines”

She is also scheduled to direct a Theatre for Young Audiences production of James and the Giant Peach at South Coast Repertory next February, her fourth such TYA production with SCR. And next June she’ll return to Antaeus to stage the premiere of Kenneth Cavander’s The Curse of Oedipus.

“I love language and what words can do,” Stangl says, just as she values “story and narrative and emotion. The classics give us a direct connection to the parts of the human condition that have been with us throughout history.”

Stangl started out as a dancer/choreographer, so “movement is meaning” to her.  “I prefer my theater to be, well, theatrical, and less filmic — the more TV it’s like, the less successful it is for me, and I’m a huge TV fan.” Theater, she says, should play to its own strengths:  “joyous and theatrical, big stakes or concepts, with elevated words.  I love it when it walks that tightrope between comedy and tragedy.  I want theater to lighten and to expose, but to never lose the line to emotions.  To that end, my favorite works are the Greeks — the primal concerns of humanity as mankind struggles with the big ideas.  It’s as easy to do Greek theater badly as it’s hard to do well.  As a culture, we aren’t trained to listen anymore…aural theater demands quality oral work.”

That applies to Ives as well as to the Greeks. In the preface to a published version of The Liar, he quotes what 18th Century poet Samuel Johnson said about translating poetry: “The way to judge the merit of a translation is to be its effect as an English poem,” not just a foreign one.

For Ives, “I submit that the same principle applies to plays, especially old ones. In fact, for my money only playwrights should translate plays because the point is not to carry over sentences from one language to another, but to produce a credible, speakable, playable, producible play for today, no matter what’s in the original.  It seems to me that that’s the only way a translated play can ever have what every good play has to have:  a voice.”

In Ives’ opinion, Corneille’s Le Menteur “revolutionized the idea of what French comedy could be.  Instead of the Italian-style farce that had previously dominated the stage, Corneille’s comedies aimed at depicting the foibles of the upper class with up-to-the-minute accuracy. This led to a higher style of language and plotting, and to a sense of contemporary relevance. His stylish verse brought comedy into a parallel, rather than inferior, relationship to tragedy.”

The Liar, Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens October 10 and 11 (different casts).  Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through December 1. Tickets $30-34.  www.antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.

**All The Liar production photos by Geoffrey Wade.

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Joshua Ravetch Turns on The Light Bulb in NoHo

by Dale Reynolds | October 3, 2013
Sue Goodman, Chad Coe, Scott Kradolfer and Jon Acosta in "The Light Bulb." Photo by Luke Moyer.

Sue Goodman, Chad Coe, Scott Kradolfer and Jon Acosta in “The Light Bulb.” Photo by Luke Moyer.

Joshua Ravetch’s new play The Light Bulb is an indictment against the contemporary advertising world, using dark humor to illustrate his serous points.

Ravetch, 54, single, no kids, lives his life through his art. As he says, “playwriting is my constant companion, which on some level has replaced a personal life.”

Although he’s reluctant to talk about it, Ravetch is related to a pair of working screenwriters — Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., his uncle and aunt, who were Oscar-nominated for writing the Paul Newman/Patricia Neal hit Hud and the Sally Field-starring Norma Rae — both of which were directed by Martin Ritt.

Joshua Ravetch, Carrie Fisher and Gil Cates at opening night of the 2006 Geffen Playhouse production of "Wishful Drinking."

Joshua Ravetch, Carrie Fisher and Gil Cates at opening night of the 2006 Geffen Playhouse production of “Wishful Drinking.” Photo by Lee Salem Photography.

Nephew Ravetch went to New York to study playwriting with the late Stella Adler.  “She was spectacular,” he testifies, and her schooling “made me into a writer.” As he had grown up around professional writers, he was aware of both the pitfalls and the discipline needed.  On the scholarly side, his father Herbert Ravetch was the founding president of Los Angeles Mission College and then the president of Pierce College — both in the San Fernando Valley — and his mother (the former Gloria Ahrens) taught elementary school.

So, with that theatrical and academic background, what did the younger Ravetch do?  “I took a job in advertising/marketing at Hollywood’s [hot] little studio, New Line Cinema, which became the initial spark for this play.  I loved my job, and wrote plays at night, balancing those two balls in the air for almost a decade.”  At the end of that decade, the decision as to whether he should stay at New Line for the paycheck, or branch out into the real world as a playwright, was made for him — Time-Warner bought New Line Cinema, and he found himself among those who were redundant, so he was laid off. “I was lucky in that I had another career burgeoning, but for a lot of my colleagues, it was terrifying.”

Among other tribulations he observed in his decade in corporate America was “the lack of justice, the unethical business practices, difficult bosses and how arbitrary the forces are that put people together in jobs and careers — just like a pachinko machine.  We were working during the time of Enron and Bernie Madoff, where unethical business practices were in the forefront of breaking news stories.  It was also a time in America when the collision between news, entertainment and marketing had become blurred.”  This, as it turned out, captivated as well as appalled him.

The Light Bulb deals with a group of experienced advertising co-workers, plus a 14-year-old intern, sitting around the imposing conference table discussing this new idea for their firm to promote — a light bulb that theoretically can never burn out.  When a slogan is hit upon,  the big boss commandeers it as her own.

Karesa McElheny and Robert Arbogast

Karesa McElheny and Robert Arbogast

Ravetch says he has always been fascinated by the success of the founder and CEO of FedEx, Frederick W. Smith, who was in a Yale economics class when he came up with the idea of an overnight delivery service in a thesis.  “But the professor only gave him a C as he thought it too far-fetched an idea.  I love that inspirational moments come from simplicity and truthfulness.  And the focus of any idea in business should be getting it right rather than the ego-feed of having to be right. So, in my play, rampant ego is one of the components which creates the crisis.”

Ravetch sees his play as a “verbal concerto and ballet.  As my dialogue is rapid-fire, the actors have to be on their toes.” He hopes the audience “enjoys the characters, and stays with it as the play slowly becomes more serious.”

It’s the young teenager, a high school overachiever, who is the catalyst for the action.  “It’s shocking to me — and I know it shouldn’t be — that this kid has no direct knowledge of 9/11, no close-up knowledge of events which have shaped us.” But then he also notes that he was only four years old when JFK was assassinated — and while he didn’t understand the implications, the event helped him become aware of the bigger world out there.

“I’m interested in illuminating how today’s commercial pop culture invades our daily life.  But we accept everything so readily, without questioning, that we become lemmings, taking in the culture without challenging our built-in assumptions…We become immune to the forces of marketing that tell us what to think.”

He goes on to connect corporate interests — which inflame his play — with the current political landscape, where corporations can spend so much money on their political agendas, which is he feels is deleterious to our democracy.

He has already heard of some interest in making The Light Bulb into a film. His One November Yankee, which starred Harry Hamlin and Loretta Swit last year in the same theater where The Light Bulb is playing, was recently optioned by Pam Williams Productions, which scored big this year with Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Ravetch applauds the cast that director James C. Mellon has assembled for this ensemble comedy.  “It’s much easier to write a play when you have terrific actors you can count on.  Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy) said it was the great actors in the Group Theatre who helped inspire his characters.”

Karesa McElheny, Scott Kradolfer and Irene Roseen

Karesa McElheny, Scott Kradolfer and Irene Roseen

As an ensemble comedy, this is a departure from what he has been known for — he co-created Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, as well as Step in Time: A Musical Memoir with Dick Van Dyke.  He also wrote a star turn for Shirley Jones in a workshop production of The Astronomer, which may be produced next year.  “I had her voice in my head as I wrote the play — it was helpful to hear her rhythms in developing the character.”

Stefanie Powers had originally been cast in the pivotal role of Candace in The Light Bulb but was out of town for this production, although several of the actors who had participated in the first readings of it about a decade ago are acting in it.  “Some of the characters have evolved in their voices, due to the actors, so I love how incredibly collaborative the process is.”

Another thing he says he loves is “writing a character who can see others’ flaws, but [it] doesn’t destroy her love for them.  To some degree, I’m all the characters in this play.  Well, maybe not Candace [the bitch] — the woman she’s based on almost destroyed my life.  But since writers are the fly on the wall, who pay close attention, well, I was that someone in the room who was absorbing all those nuances, and managed to turn it into a play.

Socrates may have said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’  But I turn it around to say that the unlived life is not worth examining.”

The Light Bulb, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood 91602. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through Nov 29. Tickets: $35. www.thenohoartscenter.com. 818-508-7101 Extension 6.

**All The Light Bulb production photos by Luke Moyer.

Dale Reynolds, a SoCal Native, has been an arts journalist, actor, and Emmy-winning producer for years and years.  He reviews plays and European DVDs for www.stagehappenings.com and tours with his one-man Thomas Jefferson show, The Man From Monticello.

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Levy and Cummings Wear The Normal Heart on Their Sleeves

by Dale Reynolds | September 18, 2013
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in the "Normal Heart." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in “The Normal Heart.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

“The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.”

“September 1st, 1939”
W.H. Auden

The HIV/AIDS crisis has slipped from the consciousness of the American public in the last decade or so, as fewer and fewer white folk die from it (or are newly infected) and as GLBT acceptance has become more mainstream.  But back in the mid-1980s, when panic over the disease was the norm (Where’d it come from?  Who’s responsible?  How do you catch it???), the conservative government of Ronald Reagan was accused of insufficiently helping the thousands of (mostly) gay men, blacks, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs who were infected, grew seriously ill, and subsequently died.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O'Mahoney and Fred Koehler in "The Normal Heart." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O’Mahoney and Fred Koehler in “The Normal Heart.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

There was so much fury in the left-leaning communities, including the most-affected ones — sexually-active gay and bisexual men — that groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) with its “Silence=Death” slogan and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were formed. They protested government policies and anti-gay religious leaders, along with a general apathy from the confused public.

To Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Kramer (Women in Love), a gay man who is himself HIV+, this was unacceptable, so he helped form the clamorous and aggressive ACT UP and wrote a definitive play on the crisis, The Normal Heart (1985), which is now having its first revival in Los Angeles since 1997 at the feisty 99-seat Fountain Theatre.

Kramer, an angry and difficult man who still doesn’t mind excoriating the conservatives who wouldn’t help at the beginning of the crisis, was recently quoted in Parade magazine:  “I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and…Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”

The Normal Heart is being directed by Simon Levy, a heterosexual who lived in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and stars Tim Cummings, a gay man, as Ned Weeks, a surrogate for the playwright.  Cummings came of age after the hysteria had largely disappeared.  But both men were in a decidedly militant mood when interviewed for this article.

For Levy, the crisis is still with us, in the USA especially among African Americans (44% of all new infections in 2009), as well as concentrations of the disease in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it’s become buried in the collective unconsciousness.  “Thirty million people, world-wide, have died from HIV/AIDS in the last 30+ years, and 1.7 million currently die from it each year [as of 2011], with 2.5 million new infections, [so] I picked [this script] because it’s a great American play, a seminal gay and AIDS play, and a great political/love story.  Its agitprop message blends nicely with its real characters.”  And his continued activism?  “Well, I grew up in San Francisco and had a lot of gay friends, from college and around the area, so when the HIV/AIDS crisis hit San Francisco, it took a lot of these friends.”

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

According to Levy, “This play helps us understand the origins of the crisis when the Reagan Administration wouldn’t acknowledge it or put money into slowing it down.  They were evil.  Larry Kramer is a fighter and a leader in this army of resistance.  He still fights for better health care and more dignity for underserved communities.”

For Cummings, “I knew about the AIDS crisis first hand, studying at Tisch [School of the Arts/New York University] during the early 1990s.  We learned early about the value of condoms [as] ACT UP’s “Silence = Death” campaign was everywhere. There was extraordinary fear about having sex with other men, and even though it was under control at the time, there was a lot of caution and worry in the air.”

Believing that “great art reflects the universal, not just the particular,” Levy wanted to direct Normal Heart since a year ago, when he had seen “this fantastic production of it at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I knew that I had to do it here. It took seven months of negotiations with Larry Kramer’s and producer Daryl Roth’s people to get the rights for LA, but Kramer’s angry voice was important in 1985 and remains so.  The crisis is not over.”

Cummings learned of the project early.  “I already knew the play, and when I heard about it on the grapevine, and saw it on Breakdown Services, I wrote to Raul Staggs [the casting director] asking for an audition.  I had a couple of other play auditions out of town, and was on hold for some job offers, but I turned them down in order to play Ned — it was that important to me.”

Levy acknowledges that he and producers Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs had a short list of actors they wanted to play the lead, including Cummings. “I called around and asked other directors for suggestions, and Tim was highly recommended.  I’d seen him at Rogue Machine Theatre in The New Electric Ballroom and its director, John Perrin Flynn, said that Tim Cummings was ‘one of the best actors in Los Angeles.’  I have well-honed instincts on acting and actors and I agreed.”

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

The play follows a gay activist, Ned Weeks, who has become enraged at the deliberate indifference of city, state and federal officials, as well as the blindness of some leaders in the gay community. He’s motivated to become an activist, with personal as well as political ramifications for him.  The play allows director and actors much anguish to feed upon for their characterizations.

While Cummings, son of an Irish fireman and built like one, is totally open about his sexuality (still somewhat problematical in Hollywood, if not New York), Levy never asked those auditioning about their sexual or emotional orientations, nor of their HIV status:  “They’re actors first in our eyes.  Besides, I like to create a ‘sacred circle’ for the cast, into which they can be themselves in order to create a full-bodied character.” As to his actors’ responses during the auditions, many knew this play and had wanted to do it — as it was relevant, on whatever level, to their own lives.

Cummings used Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” for Ned’s progress — what Weeks goes through from beginning to end mirroring the mythology of any hero’s path.  “It was a ‘eureka’ kind of moment for me, demanding attention and change.  I love that the idea means there is something mythical and heroic about his journey, which elevates the play.”

In addition, Cummings thinks that the notion of Ned’s exploration mirrors the struggles the audience will have gone through themselves, or maybe have regretted not having gone through. “The play’s crisis is Weeks’ rite of passage.  In taking on a hostile — or at the very least, indifferent — government, Ned has to stand alone to be that clarion bell on the truth of the situation.  He will stand up, be counted, and walk away as an advocate for human rights.”

All this fits into the actor’s and director’s activist consciences, especially Levy’s:  “My job as an artist is to awaken — or reawaken — the public to important social and political issues.  My mission is to help people remember what’s right.”

Kramer’s screed of a play is what Levy describes as “a political thriller: ‘How did HIV/AIDS get is name?  and why was the government so hostile in helping those stricken?’  His play is a tornado, but Larry’s main message is about love.”

And hate, too. Kramer told Parade in the recent interview, “Life is very fragile. It’s very difficult for us, no matter how secure we think we are. Everybody who goes into a voting booth and votes against [gay people] hates us. We have been hated for so many centuries. You would think somewhere along the line we could’ve learned how to fight back.”

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup

The Fountain is well-known for its provocative and up-to-date productions on a wide variety of recent minority-themed topics:  Heart Song, In the Red and Brown Water, the deaf-specific version of Cyrano de Bergerac, On the Spectrum (about characters with autism), as well as a series of American premieres of plays by South African writer Athol Fugard.  The leaders at the Fountain have reached out to ethnically-and–politically-diverse audiences who don’t normally attend relatively expensive theater.

“If we don’t learn these lessons of intolerance,” Levy says, “history will repeat itself.  So reaching this newer generation of young people about this subject is imperative.  We must never repeat these mistakes.”

The Normal Heart, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles 90029. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Nov. 3. (Dark Oct. 31). Tickets: $34.  www.FountainTheatre.com. 323-663-1525.

**All The Normal Heart production photos by Ed Krieger.

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Can Peggy Webber’s CART Keep Rolling Along?

by Dale Reynolds | August 9, 2013
Simon Templeman, Tony Palermo, Monte Markham, Peggy Webber, HM Wynant, Samantha Eggar and JoAnne Worley in CART’s 25th anniversary show on October 9, 2010 at Beverly Garland Holiday Inn.

Simon Templeman, Tony Palermo, Monte Markham, Peggy Webber, HM Wynant, Samantha Eggar and JoAnne Worley in CART’s 25th anniversary show on October 9, 2010 at Beverly Garland Holiday Inn.

Whatever happened to plays-on-radio?  Or radio drama itself?  Sixty years ago, plays were ubiquitous on American radio.  Now, not so much.  But Los Angeles has generated more activity in this arena over the last few decades than most of the rest of America. The well-known Los Angeles Theatre Works (LATW) is still a prolific producer of classic and modern plays for radio broadcast and other audio formats. And then there’s the lesser-known California Artists Radio Theatre (CART).

CART’s godmother is 88-year-old Peggy Webber, a native of Texas, who came to Southern California via Seattle and Central California when God was young.  Webber became, if not a star in the traditional sense, one of the hardest-working actors in radio from the Depression years through the 1950s. She also began working with a group of actors on early TV in the ’40s, not only as an actor but also as a producer, director and writer. According to the CART website, this was “the initial CART company,” which Webber re-constituted in 1984 as the modern CART, focusing on audio-only recordings.

Peggy Webber

Peggy Webber

Since then, CART recordings have been heard locally on KUSC, KPFK and KPCC and nationally, for a dozen years, on NPR. Internationally, World Space sent 40 hours of CART programming to Africa, South America, and Asia. And in the 21st century, CART programs were heard on SiriusXM satellite radio’s Channel 80.

Just as LA Theatre Works opens its recording sessions to the public — in recent years at UCLA’s Bridges Theater — so has CART. Originally it recorded the plays at colleges and universities. Then it moved to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, recording before audiences twice a month for eight years.  In 1999, Beverly Garland, who was a regular actress in CART shows, invited the company to perform on a specially-built stage at her hotel in Studio City. That’s still the CART performance site, but Garland died in 2008, and the hotel is now the Holiday Inn Universal Studios-Hollywood, “also known as the Beverly Garland hotel,” according to the description on its reservation website.

Garland’s influence had greatly lowered CART’s overhead, but after her death, the rent at the hotel went up, reports Webber. The company recorded Pride and Prejudice there in March but lacks the funds to edit and release it. CART no longer has a regular radio outlet either. SiriusXM recently stopped carrying CART programming under the Book Radio title, which was replaced on its channel 80 by Rural Radio (although, as of this morning, the channel 80 web page still says “Books & Drama” at the top).

CART sells CDs of its programming from its website but hasn’t yet made the transition to selling them for direct downloading from the site. LATW, by contrast, now offers 335 plays for downloading — almost as many as the 349 LATW plays that are available on CD.

When Webber was young, the number of Americans who heard plays on radio — without buying tickets — probably was larger than the number of Americans who saw plays in actual theaters. Webber performed in more than 8000 radio shows, such as Dragnet (Jack Webb specifically wrote the role of Ma Friday, his mother on the show, for her); Fibber McGee and Molly; The Great Gildersleeve; a Harold Lloyd comedy series; daytime serials such as One Man’s Family, Doctor Paul, and The Woman in My House; a Joel McCrea series, Tales of the Texas Rangers; three years on Herbert Marshall’s The Man Called X and five years on Gruen and Elgin Watch Christmas shows.

Herbert Marshall and Peggy Webber on "The Man Called Xa"

Herbert Marshall and Peggy Webber record radio drama series “The Man Called X” at NBC

Director Ted Wick, then with David O. Selznick, hired her for the lead in Mutual’s Mainline, her first network series. Mercedes McCambridge, Edna Best and Wick ran out to congratulate her for her audition, promising a bright future for her.  She was also featured on Suspense, Escape and The Whistler. It was Wick who hired her to imitate Ingrid Bergman, beginning with a radio adaptation of Intermezzo, and other radio shows (she also looped for the beloved actress for promos on some of her films).

Webber had a tough upbringing, with a father who died when she was young, forcing her to become the breadwinner.  So, starting at age 11, through age 15, she wrote and produced her own children’s radio series, for 15 bucks a week, helping out the family.  After graduating from high school at age 16, she moved to Hollywood to try and break into radio and was admitted to USC.

“When you are a trouper, and having to go to work early to help support your family, really, it never leaves your blood,” she says. “And, as research has proven, working hard in acting helps keep senility at bay.”

A Radio Drama and Distribution Pioneer

Early on, Webber was recognized as a leader in her field of radio acting.  She worked with the biggest and the best, including Orson Welles (she appeared on his Mercury Theatre radio shows before he hired her for his 1948 film of Macbeth as Lady Macduff, which had to be completely redubbed over three years before its release in America), the late Norman Corwin (she created his 100th birthday celebration and has the rights to sell the 11 shows they did together), and the recently departed Ray Bradbury (she recorded 15 of his stories, and she says she was honored to create his 75th and 80th birthday celebrations).

In August 1946, she received a tip of the hat from Time magazine when it followed her from studio to studio for a week, watching her perform completely different characters in 21 different network radio shows, ending up with a feature article (and a photo).

It was at LA station KFI-TV 9, the first commercial TV station in the area, that she pioneered in writing, directing, producing and acting in television in 1948/49.  She won an award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Treasures of Literature, the first drama series on a for-profit TV station in LA — an early version of Masterpiece Theatre. She was able to bring in top actors from radio and film. She also wrote and directed the first filmed Colgate Comedy Hour on CBS in 1949.  She appeared in around 200 TV shows, starring in 60 or so — opposite Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, and James Whitmore.

Ray Bradbury and Peggy Webber at CART recording of her radio adaptation of his story, "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickelby, Is A Friend Of Mine," at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 2000.

Ray Bradbury and Peggy Webber at CART recording of her radio adaptation of his story, “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickelby, Is A Friend Of Mine,” at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 2000.

There were movies, too. Webber performed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and John Farrow’s Submarine Command.

When she created the contemporary CART in 1984, she used many of her former colleagues, some of whom have now died (Kathleen Freeman, Les Tremayne, James Whitmore, William Windom, Roddy McDowall, Jeanette Nolan).

In the early ‘90s, she invited new additions to the company, including actors of the stature of David Warner (who appeared in 30-plus shows), William Shatner for one show, Samantha Eggar, David Ogden Stiers, and Norman Lloyd. Among the current CART members are Leslie Easterbrook, Linda Henning, Marvin Kaplan and JoAnne Worley.

The plays usually clocked in at 90 or fewer minutes. CART currently has a catalogue of about 150 shows available on disc.

After all outside funding dried up, the company has been forced to survive on the largesse of its founder, ticket sales, and some increasing CD sales. Such businesses need agents and marketers, which CART has not yet acquired.  But the company has had some academic acknowledgement when in 1993 the Oxford University Dons commended it on its David Warner Macbeth.  Webber personally was awarded two awards (one for direction/producing, the other for technical expertise) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — gratifying, but with no money attached.

A Repertory Company of Radio Actors

So, can a remnant of old-time radio still exist in today’s interactive media field?  Ask some of the performers, beginning with Webber herself:  “While we have an aging company, we are bringing in younger performers.  But, in truth, as long as one’s voice is flexible, age in and of itself shouldn’t impede.  I played Jim in Treasure Island in my late 50s and Peter Pan when in my late 60s, winning an award — one of many — from the International Radio Festivals, and few listening knew how old I was, aside from the many fan clubs that exist.”

Norman Lloyd

Norman Lloyd, member of CART, reads “Alice in Wonderland.”

Her biggest fans, though, have been the actors and directors she has hired over the years.  Norman Lloyd (St. Elsewhere and an actor in Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre/NY and, later, in the Orson Welles/John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre/NY), 98, has worked with her many times, both as actor and director.  “She’s been amazing at forming this company,” he says. “Peggy wasn’t a star — that is, bankable — but she was and is a first-class radio actress, a skill that she made into an art form.  She loves radio as a favorite medium.  She’s good at it, earning the respect of her actors.  The best of radio and directors and actors is an amazing tradition that may die out with her.”

He adds that among Webber’s skills is her ability — honed after seven decades of writing, directing and performing -– to know how the voice is registering, to recognize the quality of tone, to pace shows, to blend at the right pitch, to cast the shows.  “Peggy does it with great ease.  She knows music too — its timing.  There is an overall quality to her shows that are the essence of radio.  She can do it in her sleep.”

TV and theater writer Jim Geoghan (Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Amen, Family Matters) was quite pleased when Webber recorded one of his plays, Light Sensitive, a romantic comedy, with Mariette Hartley.  “I believe that whole concept of theater-on-the-radio shouldn’t die.  It allowed me another way to look at what I wrote and how and where it can work.”  Geoghan drove a cab in NYC during the 1960s and heavy traffic allowed him to listen to GE Mystery Theatre and other plays on the radio, which sharpened his taste, he says.

Samantha Eggar as "The Captain of the Rachel"

Samantha Eggar as “The Captain of the Rachel”

Another writer, Willard Manus, is also concerned with radio plays as an endangered species of art.  “Europe, especially Britain, has a great tradition of radio drama.  I’ve been lucky to have five or six of my plays done as radio shows.  Peggy is keeping that tradition alive in America.  I love its freedom of form — there’s a lot of freedom in writing radio drama.  If more people knew the quality of her work, there’d be funding available.  The audio-effects guy and her composers are top people, but they’re aging by the minute.”

One of her favorite actors is the British and American Samantha Eggar (The Collector, 1965, Commander In Chief, 2005-6, Ender’s Game on radio and CD), who has performed in Webber’s radio plays for over 25 years:  “Peggy’s one of a non-existent kind.  Her physical and mind energy are lessons to us.  Her dedication and love of what she does is so amazing.  All of us at CART trot along like little ducklings behind her. Her eye for everything is so filled with experience as she has had so many great actors work with her: David Warner, Michael York, Roddy McDowall — a cadre of grand actors, with new ones added every five to seven years.  We’re a repertory company — sharing a communal, theatrical love of the art form, under her leadership.  As it’s a tricky art, it’s been difficult finding trained younger actors.  I’ve always felt one applauds those actors who can act without visibility.  You have to relate to that microphone.  All the visuals of film and the drama of the theater don’t exist; it’s your voice, your mind, and that mic.”

One of the younger actors is Irish-born Johnny O’Callaghan, who writes and performs in one-man shows, such as the recent Who’s Your Daddy?  He joined the company at age 23, a decade or so ago.  “Peggy has me performing old as well as young characters.  She’s a wise old bird — been around.  She wants her actors to bring their own personalities to the parts.  Our casts are an ensemble — one line or the lead, it’s all the same.  She’s a dynamo — keeps on going.  She gets us to do stuff you normally wouldn’t think you could do, as she’s loving and supportive, with a strong understanding of actors.”

The cast of the 1991 CART production of "Macbeth."

The cast of the 1991 CART production of “Macbeth.”

Companies such as CART and LATW are keeping this art form alive, but barely.  Expenses, especially rents, are high and trying to use union actors (with union wages) adds up.

But professionalism must be kept at peak strength, and the best way to do that for actors is to perform.  As Laurence Olivier stated in his autobiography, “As a writer must write very day to be considered a writer, so must an actor act every day.”  Hard to do, but radio theater is one viable way to stay alert.  Long may it and they survive.

Dale Reynolds, a SoCal Native, has been an arts journalist, actor, and Emmy Award-winning producer for years and years.  He reviews plays and European DVDs for www.stagehappenings.com and tours with his one-man Thomas Jefferson show, The Man From Monticello.

 

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