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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 Ed Rampell | 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. www.bootlegtheater.org. 213-389-3856

**All Day Trader photos by Ed Krieger.

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LA Stage Times

Our Top 10 Most-Read Stories of 2013

by Deborah Behrens | December 19, 2013

With everyone touting their favorite year-end lists, I thought we’d offer something for your holiday season review: the 10 most-read LA STAGE Times columns, features and First Persons from the past year.

Despite our arts journalism moniker, readers gravitated to the same type of content that drives traffic at most consumer sites. Celebrity and nudity dominated our top spots while Don Shirley’s public chastising of CTG, the LA Times and the LA Weekly in three separate columns made for lively social media/water cooler discussions. From green rooms to Black Ice, I promise you won’t be in for a dull time.

 

1. Ariana Grande and Curt Hansen From Pasadena’s Panto — by Steve Julian

Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande (Victorious, Sam & Cat) makes her Pasadena Playhouse debut in 2012′s A Snow White Christmas, the first panto production by Lythgoe Family Productions at the playhouse, alongside Broadway teen star Hansen (Hairspray, Next to Normal). Grande had 3.7 million Twitter followers then; she has 12 million now.

2. Baring it All to Play Sex Scandal Stars — by Steven Sabel

Adult film director Jerry Douglas brings David Bertolino’s The Deep Throat Sex Scandal to the Zephyr Theatre for its West Coast premiere following a successful 2010 Off-Broadway debut. Natasha Charles Parker and Marc Ginsburg play Deep Throat stars Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems. Full frontal nudity brings in audiences and porn stars. Reems died during the show’s run.

3. Dana Delany: April in The Parisian Woman — by Deborah Behrens

Dana Delany (Body of Proof, Desperate Housewives) returns to her theater roots as one half of a Washington DC power couple in Beau Willamon’s The Parisian Woman at South Coast Repertory. A 1985 production of Nicholas Kazan’s Blood Moon at the Odyssey Theatre brought her to LA and helped launch a three-decade TV/film career. Now she gives back via funding new work by female playwrights at the Ojai Playwright’s Conference as well as New York Stage and Film.

4. Theater Coverage Cuts at the LA Weekly. Save Me and Creditors.Don Shirley/LA STAGE WATCH

In an LA STAGE Times exclusive, Don announces the LA Weekly’s plan to cut back its theater coverage on Jan 1, 2014. He interviews both the critic-at-large Steven Leigh Morris and deputy editor for arts and culture, Zachary Pincus-Roth. Plus discusses two Scandinavian plays, Strindberg’s Creditors and Save Me, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and how they bounce off each other.

5. News Flash — Nudity Helps Antaeus and Rogue Machine Raise Funds — by Amy Tofte

Nudes! Nudes! Nudes! Antaeus Company and Rogue Machine Theatre use nudity in their year-end fund-raising campaigns via a funny video and a tasteful flesh art calendar. Let them entertain you…as they ask for donations. Sex sells. This story made it to #5 after being posted less than a week.

6. Pretending That Macbeth Isn’t Among Us…and That Catherine Isn’t Sexual — by Don Shirley/ LA STAGE Watch

The LA Times proclaims a vogue for Macbeth but ignores LA’s Macbeths. In the Next Room and Rapture Blister Burn examine characters named Catherine from more than a century apart.

7. Mullally and Offerman Vacation on Annapurna — by Deborah Behrens

Married theater veterans and TV stars Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman appear in Sharr White’s Annapurna at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre — as well as “19 other things apiece.” This is the third interview I’ve conducted with Megan since 2001. Nick was just an “under wraps” boyfriend back then. Original photography by Eric Schwabel.

8. Somewhere That’s Green: Backstage Spaces — by Dani Oliver

The green rooms behind LA stages vary as much as the theaters themselves. Dani takes a look at some of LA’s most distinctive backstage retreats — from Antaeus Company’s library to the wall of bricks at CTG’s Kirk Douglas, Boston Court’s snacks to French and Vanessa Stewart’s courtship at the Geffen Playhouse, Casa 0101′s mysterious room to the Mark Taper’s “red room.” Plus La Mirada Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse and Theatricum Botanicum.

9. Hey CTG, Your Fanny’s in Fullerton — Don Shirley/ LA STAGE Watch

Don chides Center Theatre Group over its canceled remount of Funny Girl with Lauren Ambrose, due to Broadway producers pulling out, while suggesting that CTG should check out 3-D Theatricals’ version in Fullerton with a “phenomenal” Nicole Parker as Fanny Brice. He also discusses the Colony’s Breath and Imagination.

10. Bringing Black Ice to the Blank — by Max Friedlich/ First Person

Max writes about the process of developing his play Black Ice via both at the Powerhouse Theater Apprentice Program and the Blank Theatre’s 21st annual Young Playwrights Festival. He never dreamed his two-hander would be performed by actors from Glee (Max Adler) and Queer as Folk (Robert Gant).

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LA Stage Times

Sawicki Stomps His Way Through His New Home Base

by Les Spindle | December 18, 2013
Junichi Takahashi (group)

“STOMP” cast. Photo by Junichi Takahashi.

For 16 years, musician-actor John Sawicki has been raising the roof at performing venues across the globe in the physical-theater phenomenon known as Stomp. Now he’s doing it near home.

The North American touring edition of the award-winning show returns to LA for a holiday-season engagement, beginning Wednesday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

According to the enthusiastic Sawicki, a native New Yorker whose home base became LA two years ago, Luke Creswell and Steve McNicholas — who conceived and created Stomp in Brighton, England — “were two regular guys who started out as street performers, and they had formed a band when they started doing [a predecessor to Stomp] on a small scale, in the street.”

The show became a hit when it previewed at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London in 1991, followed by a premiere at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Next came several years of international tours and appearances at various theater festivals and outdoor events.  The ambitious impresarios then decided to bring their piece to New York. hoping to attract the tourist audience. Opening at Manhattan’s Orpheum Theatre in 1994, the show proved to be a rapid hit, and it’s still running there.

Also in 1994, Stomp made its LA debut at Wadsworth Theatre, opening the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts season. Currently, a British production has been playing the Ambassadors Theatre in London since 2007. Separate North America and European tours continue to play to sellout crowds. Tours have played in more than 50 countries.

Finding a harmonious balance

John Sawicki

John Sawicki

The completely non-vocal show combines elements of percussion, music, and visual comedy, as eight performers work with a wide array of household and industrial objects — such as dustbins, tea chests, radiator hoses, boots, poles, and hub caps — to create a form of rhythmic expression. Says Sawicki, “This show was and still is a big deal. It’s the most urban, raw, and real show you’re going to see. We don’t play to any backing tracks. Everything that you hear and see is us making that noise.” He agrees that the show incorporates a wide range of historical theatrical forms, including burlesque and improvisational comedy. He also cites a kinship to mime and silent film comedy: “There’s a lot of action and reaction to what we do up there. Seventy-five per cent of the show is written and 25% is improvisation.”

He points out an elemental aspect driving the energy of each show. “We share a basic rhythm which is our heartbeat — whatever it might be that day, depending on how much coffee or Red Bull we’ve had. It speeds up or slows down. But that’s a basic pattern that everybody shares. Everything around us is rhythm. We walk in rhythm, we talk in rhythm, the phone ringing is rhythm. We organize chaotic world sounds and put them into a show for an hour and a half… And it can be very funny at times.”

He believes that another key to the show’s ongoing success is that the cast is multi-ethnic: “Anybody in the audience can relate to somebody on stage at any time.” The casts also include performers of both genders.

“I often get the question, ‘How many of you are there?’  I tell them eight, and they say it seems like there are 16 or something. That’s because we’re constantly moving and running. We could be in a spotlight downstage left. Then, after five seconds, we’re in a spotlight on the second level doing a different solo.”

The performing challenge

What are the performers required to do to make a show like this consistently fresh, vibrant, and enjoyable?  “You go with the flow,” Sawicki explains. “I describe it this way — if you move into a new house, you have the frame and the sheet rock walls and there’s no color or anything.  So we have the frame of the house, and we are the painting and the rug and the appliances that add the color. There’s room to make different choices. I have a lot of moments in this show where I get to express what I feel. That’s why after 16 years, I still love it. I get to create.”

He describes the audiences as “usually great. If they are a little unsure of what the show is during the first 15-20 minutes, they start to grasp it. They are allowed to dance around. They don’t have to sit there and be quiet.” He relishes the interaction. “We clap back and forth. The sound is great.”

Stomp appeals to viewers of all ages, he says: “You could be a young kid, or you could be 106 years old. Sometimes people will get freaked out when we stomp really loud. One of the ad quotes is ‘Come see what all the noise is about.’  But it’s really beautiful the way Luke and Steve wrote it and arranged it.”

STOMP cast. Photo by Junichi Takahashi.

“STOMP” cast. Photo by Junichi Takahashi.

He points out that the concept of the show is very comfortable for the performers. “Our dress is like a normal worker — like you are in your back yard in a pair of jeans and a tank top and a pair of work boots maybe, raking leaves or sweeping up. It doesn’t feel stuffy, like you are going to an opera.  Audiences are allowed to scream and shout.” Sawicki loves the experience of making spontaneous eye contact with a particular audience member. He says this can provide the impetus to play to the entire section of viewers surrounding this individual, creating a special connection that vitalizes his performance.

The performers must keep alert and ready to make adjustments during the fast-moving show: Says Sawicki: “It’s sometimes simple things that are off. Like someone is supposed to enter the stage a certain way. If you enter a different direction, it’s going to change your entire perspective.”

He also calls the show “a real physical workout. You sweat, dripping like a faucet.” As in many highly physical theatrical forms, such as circus theater or acrobatics, there are risks for the performers.  “There are injuries — sometimes serious ones,” he asserts. “There are also knee problems, and I snapped my right Achilles tendon once. It took me a year to recover. You become very concerned with those you are working with — as in the small things you might not realize are important, like holding the door for someone, or thinking about the position the door has to be held for you.”

Balancing a nomadic life

Sawicki spends much of his life living out of a suitcase, as Stomp continually tours to various cities, in the US and abroad. But he finds times when he can practice his craft as a drummer in bands in LA as well as in his home state, where he performs with some longtime friends. Performing music has been a longtime passion for him.

He explains one of the key reasons he decided to settle in LA. “West Coast musicians and East Coast musicians have a different feel. We play different ways. I don’t know if everybody realizes that. It’s a different grit, a different something. So as an East Coast drummer coming out here, I find people like that flavor. I’m kind of like giving them something they don’t have.”

Sawicki says he also writes music while on the road with the show: “I have a mini-studio that I bring with me to the hotel rooms.  Some people teach dance while we’re on tour. We are definitely able to do other projects.” The traveling group includes 12 performers, so there are four who can cover when any of the eight regular performers need to be out for some reason.

John Sawicki in "STOMP"

John Sawicki in “STOMP”

He adds, ‘I also came out here to do commercials, which I have done. I like the business, and I like meeting people. I want to do all of the different areas. I don’t need to be a commercial star or have a spot on a sitcom, though I wouldn’t mind being on a sitcom for an episode. I want to experiment with different things. And I also love the weather out here.”

In addition, he mentions enjoying being here to connect with his “rocker friends.” He has a goal to open a music school here — the students could include, for example, autistic kids and those with Down Syndrome.  “I also want to have a stage open at night with a bunch of different instruments.  Instead of being on the street, teens could come in and learn how to be in a band. It would be a sort of youth center, as well as a performing arts school, where tap and ballet and that sort of stuff could be taught.”

His experiences with the production company continue to diversify. Another show from the Stomp team, originally called Pandemonium [it debuted in London in 2006 and played UCLA's Royce Hall in 2010 ] but now known as the Lost & Found Orchestra, “has the same concept as Stomp, but there’s melody and an orchestra, with people who look like me making this symphonic music out of junk.  I’m immediately going from this engagement to do Pandemonium in Paris. The show is kind of expensive to run. They’re trying to find a way to scale it down so it’s more affordable.”

He also will be in a 3-D IMAX movie version of Stomp that is in the works. He  describes Cresswell and McNicholas as “regular dudes,”  saying they receive great loyalty from the company members, who go “above and beyond” their duties, due to the way they are respected and treated by the creator-producers.

Has he played in Stomp’s New York edition? “I started in New York [after his audition there]. But I worked only two weeks there, then I started on tour, and I have been around the world for 16 years now nonstop.” He admits that as one gets older, “you want different things in life.” Yet he is quick to add, “[Stomp] is a lot of fun and a great career.  People who have an opportunity to audition for it and be a part of it should take it seriously, because I think it’s the longest running drum show that’s out there. Stomp started a new thing — Tap Dogs, Bring in Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, and others. Many have come and gone and we’re still going.”

He urges “people who saw the show a while ago” to return “because as the years have gone by, it has evolved. We do new pieces, and the running order of the show is different.  There’s more comedy involved, so you leave feeling good, no doubt about it.”

Stomp, Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills 90211. Opens tonight. Various times daily through Jan 5. (Dark December 25 and 31.) Tickets: $41-71.50, plus premium. www.ticketmaster.com. 877-598-8497.

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LA Stage Times

Free Holiday Entertainment at the Music Center on December 24

by Ed Rampell | December 13, 2013
Invertigo Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of LA County Arts.

Invertigo Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of LA County Arts.

As Christmas nears, Angeleno children of all ages look forward to the 54th annual LA County Holiday Celebration. This multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary spectacle of song and dance rejoices in the gorgeous mosaic of LA’s multitude of heritages in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center. It will be broadcast live on KCET on December 24. Admission is free.

This year features first-time and veteran performers at the holiday-palooza, which is presented by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and sponsored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Among those making a return engagement is the Salvation Army Tabernacle Children’s Chorus, which kicks off a recent rehearsal at the Chandler’s fourth-floor studios, overseen by government functionaries and a TV crew led by executive producer Laura Zucker, the executive director of Los Angeles County Arts Commission. She checks timing, sound levels and more in preparation for the upcoming broadcast on live television.

Salvation Army Tabernacle Children's Choir

Salvation Army Tabernacle Children’s Choir

TCC’s adorable children live up to their description in a press release as “the largest and youngest choir on the program… known for their ‘choralography’ and light-hearted holiday songs.” The multi-racial youngsters wear white shirts, evergreen bow ties, sashes, navy blue dresses for the lasses and slacks for the lads, who are outnumbered. Accompanied by live piano music, the TCC belts out “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The children’s hand movements mime Dr. Seuss’ lyrics with hula-like gestures, in an expression of that special ire reserved for those who would dare tamper with kids’ holidays and presents. Grinches beware!

The Invertigo Dance Theatre is also returning to the Chandler’s stage this year. At the rehearsal Invertigo’s hoofers perform an original four-and-a-half-minute number called “Mishpachah” (“family” in Hebrew), which was choreographed by a dancer with Parkinson’s disease. Among other things this modern dance company teaches people with that affliction how to dance.

Giving Julie Andrews and Carrie Underwood a run for their gingerbread cookies, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Children’s Choir regales listeners with a delightful version of “My Favorite Things,” a favorite from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical The Sound of Music (NBC-TV presented a live version of it on Dec. 5, starring American Idol winner Underwood). Members of the mostly female choir wear buttoned turquoise tunics with Nehru collars, black pants and shoes. Accompanied by live piano music, they also sing a Filipino Christmas carol, “Kampana Ng Simbahan,” in Tagalog.

Queztal

Queztal

Christmas may be ballyhooed as the most joyous time of the year, but for some the holidays don’t live up to their hype. Quetzal is debuting at the annual extravaganza with the plaintively sung “Cause”, a downbeat song by Sixto Rodriguez (the Chicano musician from Detroit featured in the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man) that isn’t exactly “Jingle Bells.”

Vocalist Martha Gonzalez explains that Quetzal chose to do the almost-six-minutes “Cause” at the Holiday Celebration “because the song is really a critique of high consumerism and the ways [in] which the holidays” reinforce the excess. “If you really stop watching television and look around you, there’s lots of people in need. We have lots of things to work on as a society… Sometimes they can’t be masked and we need to remember… If we commit to not buying anything in this season what would happen? What would that look like?” Gonzalez, who has a graduate degree in feminism from Seattle’s University of Washington, has been been with Quetzal for 18 years. She describes it as “an East LA band that incorporates rock, soul, R&B with traditional Mexican music and other Latin American forms.”

The group won a Grammy for Latin rock, urban or alternative album in 2013 for Imaginaries. It was founded 20 years ago by Quetzal Flores, who was raised in East LA. His birth name refers to a legendary “bird that’s greatly revered among indigenous populations in Mexico… that the Spaniards discovered could not live in captivity,” he says. “It’s a message of liberation.”

Flores wrote the lyrics for the song “Solitude,” performed by the group that bears his name. Echoing Gonzalez, Flores says, “Quetzal is accountable to the community… and this idea of commercialism doesn’t work for everybody. There’s a lot of people who don’t engage in it and don’t have the luxury to engage in it… I’m talking about all colors of working-class people.” The Salinas-born musician says he’s “a huge John Steinbeck fan!” — a literary influence heard in Quetzal’s socially conscious lyrics.

Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy

Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy

Flores adds that when fellow musicians chide him from a business point of view by saying, “‘You’re shooting yourself in the foot with all this political stuff,’ I reply: ‘No, we’re shooting the shackles between our ankles.’” Quetzal’s next album, Quetzanimales, is about L.A.’s urban animals.

The City of the Angels is widely regarded as being one of the world’s most ethnically diverse metropolises, which this Holiday Celebration embraces to the hilt. At the rehearsal Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy performs a traditional number presented at happy occasions that combines drumming with graceful choreography. Ten long-haired, female Korean teenagers play two-sided customary maroon, red and pine brown drums with drumsticks as they dance, wearing flowing skirts, black leg warmers and ballet shoes with pointed tips. Their final hand movements are accompanied by silence.

The 45-member Palmdale High School Choral Union and the Sunday Night Singers, composed of current students and graduates of Palmdale High, sing a cappella versions of tunes more familiar to conventional American ears, such as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Displaying their versatility, the three rows of ebullient singers also rehearse a more solemn piece, “Coventry Carol,” arranged by Norwegian choral composer Ola Gjeilo. The number of songs they will  perform on Dec. 24 depends on whether the live three-hour telecast is running long or needs to stretch.

Jazz Antiqua

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble

The JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, which is based at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in mid-city, is back for what may be its 10th performance at the Holiday Celebration. The ensemble enlivens the rehearsal proceedings with four gentlemen in black slacks, vests, ballet shoes, white shirts and red ties and a quartet of ladies clad in red sheer chiffon dresses with halter tops and wide-legged, red, flowing Gaucho pants, cutting the proverbial rug with a series of sweeping, stirring, swirling, rapturous, hopeful movements. Artistic director and choreographer Pat Taylor, who founded the company 20 years ago, says the piece is called “Blessed Quietness,” a traditional hymn from the 1800s with a jazz arrangement accompanied by pianist Ark Sano.

Taylor, who created the work’s choreography, says that “the premise behind the group and what we’re most passionate about is exploring the relationship between jazz dance and jazz music and keeping that legacy alive. We call ourselves ‘jazz ambassadors.’ We always work with live music.” Taylor added that JazzAntiqua, which has performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival, is an evocation of and grows out of the African American experience. “Particularly with our emphasis on jazz, blues and gospel music. Jazz so parallels the African American story; it’s almost inherent,” states Taylor, who majored in dance at UCLA and studied at New York’s Ailey School.

Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet rehearses a dance number inspired by the god Quinto Sol which celebrates the Aztec roots of Mexican culture. The troupe’s colorful Aztec costumes include $7,000 worth of feathers adorning their headgear.

According to a press release, in alphabetical order the other participants include:

Aditya Prakash Ensemble will debut on the Holiday Celebration with a celebratory performance blending classical Indian music with jazz and Latin rhythms.
ARC Hand Bell Choir will return with traditional holiday repertoire.
Artemusica, a 26-member vocal ensemble will perform holiday classics in the baroque style.
Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY, directed by former Batsheva dancer Danielle Agami will debut on the Holiday Celebration with a modern dance work created for the show.
Colburn Children’s Choir and Young Men’s Chorus, a 50-voice ensemble of the Colburn School of Performing Arts, will perform holiday songs in Hebrew and English.
Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles will return to this year’s program with traditional holiday repertoire.
Gypsy Allstars, featuring the sons of the internationally recognized Gipsy Kings will perform music fusing Spanish rhythms with Eastern influences.
Harana Men’s Chorus*, directed by LA Master Chorale singer Ed Nepomuceno, will perform seasonal repertoire in English and Tagalog.
Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, a Grammy Award-winning female mariachi ensemble, will perform a selection of traditional holiday music in English and Spanish.
Praizum, a 20-member vocal ensemble, will perform classic gospel hymns and spirituals with a contemporary flavor.
Sarah Reich and Tap Music Project will debut on the Holiday Celebration with a tap dance performance set to live holiday music.
South Bay Children’s Choir, an 80-voice ensemble, will sing traditional seasonal favorites.

This year’s hosts are the actors John O’Hurley (Seinfeld, Family Feud) and Marisa Ramirez (Blue Bloods, Body of Proof).

The 54th Annual L.A. County Holiday Celebration,  Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A., 90012. Dec. 24.  Doors open at 2:30 pm. Performances from 3 pm-6 pm. Free admission and parking. No reservations required. The entire show will be broadcast live on KCET from 3 pm-6 pm and again from 8 pm-11 pm. It will also be livestreamed on www.kcet.org from 3 pm-6 pm. The show will repeat on KCET at 12 pm, 3 pm and 9 pm on Dec. 25. www.HolidayCelebration.org. 213-972-3099.

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News Flash — Nudity Helps Antaeus and Rogue Machine Raise Funds

by Amy Tofte | December 12, 2013
David Mauer

David Mauer. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

It’s easy to find nudity on nonprofit stages — from Brian Dennehy in The Steward of Christendom at the Mark Taper Forum to a handful of younger actors in Moskva at City Garage in Santa Monica.

Normally, it’s a much more difficult challenge to find nudity employed by nonprofit theater companies offstage, in fund-raising campaigns. But not right now. Antaeus in NoHo and Rogue Machine on Pico Boulevard are baring it all to raise funds (and fun). They’re showing audiences that year-end appeals for donations don’t have to sound like nagging from a needy relative.

Antaeus — Baby, its cold outside….

The “Naked Actors Need Costumes” campaign, currently underway at Antaeus Company, uses a 90-second video of company members sans clothing to drive home a salient point: Actors without costumes are naked…and cold. The pitch and product is one of many Antaeus videos written and directed by the creative comedy team of Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine, both seven-year veteran actors of Antaeus’ A2 company and independent filmmakers.

“We were just brain-storming video ideas,” says Diani, “and [getting naked] was one of the good ones, so we saved it for this end-of-year campaign.”

“And people like to look at other naked people,” quips Devine. “Or so we’ve heard.”

Etta Devine and Gabriel Diani

Etta Devine and Gabriel Diani promoting “Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse”

Casting volunteers from the company, the scripted shoot (believe it or not, all their videos are scripted) took only a few hours on two separate days utilizing a small film crew: Austin Harris (cinematographer), Chad Meserve (editor), Geoff Mann (composer) and Dan Jenkins (visual effects).

Diani and Devine have worked together on several short, humorous videos created specifically for Antaeus fund-raising campaigns but had particular fun this time around getting their classically-trained subjects — with their strategically placed blurs — naked.

Bill Brochtrup agrees. He’s one of three Antaeus artistic directors — all of whom are featured in the video, although you have to keep watching it until after the closing credits begin in order to see the contributions of one of them, John Sloan.

“I think sometimes people get the idea that classical theater is boring or elitist,” says Brochtrup, “and we want to say that is not the case. Sometimes we like a little low humor with our high-falutin’ language. [This video] is actually very representative of who we are.”

Diani and Devine’s passion for Antaeus stems from their own love of the classics while building creative lives in Los Angeles, both in film and theater. Producing companies often struggle to balance the two worlds when higher-paying film and television roles can snatch up actors in the middle of a theatrical run. Antaeus combats the dilemma by double-casting actors — the subject of another Diani/Divine video.

“I think a lot of people at Antaeus showed me how you can be an actor in the theater and [pursue] film and television at the same time,” says Devine. “The double casting really allows you not to worry about walking away from a commitment to a job.”

Diani adds that the quality of the work on stage also makes it easy to commit their film talents to help raise money and keep the company’s lights on.

“We found this wonderful theater company that taught classics,” says Diani. “It fed into our other artistic endeavors to go and create from Shakespeare and Chekhov. It re-energized us into creating our own opportunities.”

In fact, the duo recently raised $100,000 on Kickstarter to shoot a second feature film, proving that a theater life and a film life can successfully feed one another with the right artistic home.

According to Brochtrup, there are also some lessons to be taken from the successful video campaigns and the current Antaeus fund-raising model.

“In this business it’s a good thing to be a multi-hyphenate,” says Brochtrup. “We’re lucky to have members of a wide variety of ages. And, luckily, some creative young people who know how to make a video. [Diani and Devine] do everything and they do it so well. What we’re realizing more and more is that traditional, old-school media are not working as well [to reach donors]…we’re finding is another area where we can be creative and fun. And we embrace it.”

Diani and Devine are particularly excited about the worldwide exposure the online campaigns have received — with donors outside Los Angeles giving to the company simply because they enjoyed one of the videos.

Rogue Machine — Those aren’t pillows…

Meanwhile, across town and from a completely different brainstorming session, another fund-raising discussion at Rogue Machine Theatre led to nudity.

Joey Long

Joey Long

“And, of course, the most ridiculous ideas are the ones that come to fruition,” says Amanda Mauer, production manager for the company which is currently in need of a new Mac computer and hopes to fund one with its own naked campaign.

“One of our stage managers, Ramon Valdez, and I are always trying to think of new fund-raising exploits that are outside the box,” explains Mauer. “And I said, ‘We should make a nude calendar.’ And that was really it. It just took off.”

While RMT doesn’t technically have an acting company, Mauer cast a wide net for participation in either the “guys” or “gals” version of the 2014 Gone Rogue wall calendar. Many actors from previous RMT shows are featured alongside backstage technicians. The results of the multiple photo shoots have been a little surprising, even to Mauer.

“Some people jumped at the chance, most were more hesitant,” says Mauer. “But we made it very comfortable for them. I think some of them felt liberated and honored. We run the gamut of ages and body types. And we gave them the pictures to approve, of course. They were all quite pleased with the artistry. Some are quite beautiful. And some are pretty sexy.”

The full-color calendar, shot by actor/photographer Jeff Lorch, features collages of both solo shots and group shots, with the models performing various backstage tasks in the buff. Even RMT artistic director, John Perrin Flynn, stripped down for the cause. And, while there are no full-frontals, there are plenty of breasts and butts in what Mauer describes as “a definitely R-rated calendar. It’s not for the kids.”

Like Antaeus, RMT has a strong track record of critically-acclaimed and award-winning productions in Los Angeles, but RMT focuses on new works from up-and-coming playwrights rather than classics. Founded in 2008, RMT has tried several fund-raising strategies over the years from gala events to direct solicitations. Mauer hopes the calendar will energize RMT’s current donor base while also attracting new, curious onlookers who might also learn about the quality theater happening on stage.

Things are looking good already. RMT started pre-selling calendars online a few weeks ago, breaking even with the printer costs this week. The hope is that sales will continue through the holidays and the company will reach its financial goal and a new computer for 2014.

Amanda Mauer

Amanda Mauer

“And we’re already talking about next year,” Mauer says. “There’s even more interest now [from RMT members] as people are buying them. When people walk into our lobby and see the ads for it — they see how good it all looks — they all want to be in the next one.”

Who will be the next group to strip as a fund-raising technique? Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, anyone?

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Vereen Still Has ‘Magic to Do’ as a Genie in Pasadena Playhouse’s Panto

by Darlene Donloe | December 10, 2013
Jordan Fisher, Ben Giroux, Bruce Vilanch, and Ben Vereen in "Aladdin and his Winter Wish." Photo by Clarence Alford.

Jordan Fisher, Ben Giroux, Bruce Vilanch, and Ben Vereen in “Aladdin and His Winter Wish.” Photo by Clarence Alford.

Ben Vereen is perhaps best known for his conjuring of the opening number, “Magic to Do,” in the original 1972 production of the musical Pippin. So when the Pasadena Playhouse needed a magic-making genie for its panto production of Aladdin and His Winter Wish, which opens Wednesday, no one needed to say “abracadaba!” to envision Vereen in the role.

“I wanted a magical genie that, once Aladdin rubbed the lamp, burst back into life with energy and zest,” explains director and co-producer Bonnie Lythgoe. “Someone that lit up the stage with charm, wit and professionalism.  I wanted someone that had ‘magic to do’ for Aladdin, and in my book there was only ever one man…Ben makes me realize even as a director you cannot give talent to someone, it comes from within.”

Vereen doesn’t sound surprised that someone might think of him in that way. The moment he sets foot on a stage, he says, “magic happens.”

He can’t explain it.

Ben Vareen

Ben Vareen

“It’s inexplicable,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words. It just is. The audience is there to receive and, as actors, we’re there to give. And a celebration happens. There is something about it. It’s magical. It’s a religion. It’s spiritual. I can’t explain it except to say, it’s special.”

A legendary Broadway performer who won Tony and Drama Desk awards for Pippin when he was only 26,  Vereen has a resume that also includes such hits as Wicked, Fosse, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grind, Pippin, Jelly’s Last Jam and A Christmas Carol.

This week Vereen expands his repertoire into panto in the second year of the Panto at the Playhouse holiday series, co-produced by the Pasadena Playhouse and Lythgoe Family Productions. Last year the two co-produced a Snow White panto in Pasadena, which was preceded by a 2011 Cinderella panto at El Portal Theatre in NoHo.

Lythgoe Americanizes the mostly British holiday tradition of panto for California audiences. Panto is a fairy story that you bring into modern times,” she explains. While actors may sing and dance in it, it’s not exactly a musical. Audience members “join in, they answer the comedian, they help Snow White and they laugh at the jokes.”

This year’s show is described as an updated version of the classic Arabian Nights tale. It’s a family-friendly, magical variety show of sorts –  complete with singing, magic, comedy, dancing and contemporary music. Prior to each performance, guests and their families can enjoy games, carolers, activities, crafts and photo opportunities in the playhouse courtyard.

Besides Vereen as the genie, the cast also features Bruce Vilanch (Widow Twankey), Richard Karn (the Sultan), Jordan Fisher (Aladdin), Ashley Argota (the Princess), Ben Giroux (Wishy Washy) and Josh Adamson (Evil Abanazar).

While Vereen is familiar with the Aladdin story, he says this is the first time he’s been involved in a panto, and he’s pleased that the opportunity came along during a time when he was available.

“It’s Christmas,” says Vereen. “There is something about Christmas. I wasn’t doing anything. I had the time. I thought it would be fun. My grandkids can come see the show. That’s why I’m doing it. I love working with kids. This is a type of show where kids can be involved.”

Ben there done that

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon when Ben Vereen strolls into the Madilyn Clark Studios in Burbank, where he is rehearsing the show. He’s casually donned in a black NCIS cap, black jacket and pants, an orange t-shirt and orange kicks, topped off with that broad, signature smile.

Ben Vereen and cast in the 1972 Broadway production of "Pippin."

Ben Vereen and cast in the 1972 Broadway production of “Pippin.”

At 67, his stride is unhurried, but steady. He doesn’t mind telling his age, he says, because he’s “earned it and worked for it.” Vereen concedes he’s not as energetic and quick on his feet as he used to be, but the fire in his belly and the passion in his heart for theater have not waned.

He says he’s excited to work alongside Bruce Vilanch and likes to watch him “do his thing.”

“He’s fun,” adds Vereen. “He’s fun to work with and he’s fun to watch. He’s also an amazing writer. It’s always wonderful watching a pro work.”

Vilanch can’t say enough about his co-star. “We have magic to do,” says Vilanch. “I mean, literally.  He does magic in this show, but he is magic, so it comes naturally to him.”

This isn’t the first time the two have worked together. “I actually wrote special material for his concert act about 30 years ago…gulp,” says Vilanch. “And went on tour with him to some of the major mob casinos where we spent many entertaining evenings with some very colorful people who are either dead or behind bars or both.”

This time around, Vilanch joins Vereen on the stage. “Now I get to act with him,” says Vilanch. “It’s not news to say that he gushes talent, but it is staggering to be there when the fountains turn on.  He is a master at every aspect of performing.  The response he gets with just a smile or a crook of the finger is a lesson in stage presence.  Plus, he’s frackin’ funny and gracious to boot. Whenever you work with one of the greats, it ups your game.”

Lythgoe echoes Vilanch’s praise.

“Ben lives the lines and gives his all,” she says. “But most of all he is articulate and he will never skip over anything. He is a perfectionist and I love that.”

“This is the first time I’ve worked with Bonnie,” responds Vereen. “I’ve been watching her conceive this. One thing I can say is, she’s very good…It’s easy working with her. She’s got that mindset. It doesn’t have to be just her way. The job of the actor is to bring it to them. It’s like a sculpture. You carve away the unnecessary.”

Vereen’s Roots

Vereen and Leslie Uggams have been friends for more years than Uggams cares to admit. They have often performed together. Both appeared in the hit miniseries, Roots. They were also part of the 42-city US tour of On Broadway, which hit LA in 1997.

Ben Vereen as Chicken George in the 1977 ABC mini-series "Roots."

Ben Vereen as Chicken George in the 1977 ABC mini-series “Roots.”

“Ben is a friend,” says Uggams via phone from her home in New York. “He’s a wonderful friend. We don’t see each other a lot, but when we do it’s like we saw each other yesterday.”

Uggams, who performed her one-woman Uptown Downtown at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2010, is certain her friend will do well.

“I love The Pasadena Playhouse,” says Uggams.  “I know Ben will be good. I also know, because he’s in it, the show will be successful. Ben is extraordinary. He’s very talented. He holds the audience in the palm of his hand.”

Vereen has been plugging away at entertainment, he says, since, “let’s see, Moses went up the mountain.”

When he first got into the business, he admits he was lost and had no expectations.

“I didn’t expect anything when I got in this business and I got more than I expected,” says Vereen. “I didn’t know anything about this industry. I was a gangster from the streets. I ran quartet groups in churches. When I hit the business and it unfolded, it was a blessing to me…

“I didn’t even know what a Tony was when I was nominated.  I was in Jesus Christ Superstar and the doorman came and gave me an envelope [he didn't win that one, but the following year he won for Pippin].  I wasn’t in the business for accolades. I was blown away. Wow, they like me. A tear came rolling down my face. I still have the envelope with the teardrop on it.”

Over the years, Vereen says the business has changed, so he has learned to change with the times.

“Times have changed,” says Vereen, who is working on producing his own show with the working title, Songs I Want To Sing All My Life. “In the beginning it was about blindness. It was about throwing yourself into the wind. It was about seeing the knowingness. It was about knowing things and applying them.  I’ve learned how to hone and direct the energy. It takes live experiences to get there.”

 Ben Vereen congratulates Gregory Hines for his 1992 Tony Award for "Jelly's Last Jam."

Ben Vereen congratulates Gregory Hines for his 1992 Tony Award for “Jelly’s Last Jam.”

Producer Pamela Koslow, who has known Vereen for nearly 30 years, worked with him on Jelly’s Last Jam.

“In 1992, he took over for Keith David on Jelly’s Last Jam,” says Koslow, who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York and is working with a small start-up company called the Santa Monica Rep. “It was his first role after the car accident [he was critically injured in 1992 in a series of events on the Pacific Coast Highway]. He came to rehearsal and it didn’t take him long. He works very hard. He has a lot of life in him. Ben brought a different kind of energy to the role.”

Vereen went to the opening night of the updated Broadway version of Pippin, for which Patina Miller won a Tony in the same role Vereen played four decades earlier.

“I’m glad it’s up,” says Vereen. “It’s not my show, it’s Pippin, a circus. I wish I had those bells and whistles. We didn’t have that stuff. [Actor] Terrence Mann is amazing and all the players are wonderful.”

Although, he says, he doesn’t get as many job offers as he used to, Vereen is still choosy about taking on new projects.

“I have to really like the role,” he explains. “I want to be able to say something through the role. I don’t want to give them less than me.”

One role he chose that turned out to be life-changing was that of Chicken George in Roots.

“I had the privilege of going to Henning, Tenn. and stood at the grave of Chicken George,” explains Vereen. “I bent down to thank him, and a butterfly landed on my hand. We take the picture.  I then go to my car and the butterfly was on my shoulder. The butterfly was on my hand and on my shoulder. I think it was him telling me I did good. He was telling me it was OK.”

Across the footlights

“Theater is the essence of everything I do,” says Vereen. “It all stems from theater. Theater is life. It’s that energy across the footlights.  When you’re doing theater the script is written, but inside, the words are what you’re living. Inside are the moments. It’s about living in the now, being in the moment of the now and living that moment. In the theater the words become alive.”

At this moment Vereen looks like he’s deep in thought. He’s taking his time, looking at the ceiling, back to the floor and then at his hands. It’s as if he’s having mental flashbacks of his career.

There is a smile, but it briefly fades.

“I like being me,” he says. “I’m thankful that God has placed me on this path to experience the experiences I’ve had along the path. What I don’t like about me is time. I wish I had more time. I miss being able to take flight, being able to dance and hold myself in the air. I can dance, but not as well as I used to. I hate the body has to age, but it’s inevitable. It’s a product of this planet. But the spirit lives forever. I wish my body was as young as my spirit.”

Ben Vereen

Ben Vereen in “Aladdin and His Winter Wish”

Although he’s been plagued over the years with diabetes, the horrific car accident, the death of his 16-year old daughter in 1987 and reportedly filing for divorce last year,  Vereen — a father of five and grandfather of seven — doesn’t allow it to consume him. He’s been hampered, but he’s still in the race.

“Diabetes and the accident have limited my movement,” offers the renowned hoofer. “We think we’re invincible. When you lose it, you can start getting it back. I realize I can’t do everything.  You have to realize you’re a new creature. How do I learn the new process of working with this new body? I had to say to my God, ‘Whatever way your will wants. Thy will be done.’

“When the accident happened I was recovering and I was thinking I couldn’t sing or dance. I opened up and allowed him to use me. I had to be open and receptive. I had to surrender to it, not just lay there. I had to let him know that I’m ready to do that work and let him do the work through me. The mind works all the time. It’s always working.  The brain will go straight to negative. It’s like a tape recorder. I had to put in a new tape.”

Vereen also enjoys the lecture circuit and has even become a requested speaker. His topics include overcoming adversity, arts in education, black history, motivational topics, recovery through physical and occupational therapy and the importance of continuing education — to name a few.

As a way of giving back to a profession that he says has given so much to him, Vereen takes pleasure in teaching master classes to enthusiastic drama students.

“I love being in front of people,” says Vereen, a self-described homebody who likes to sit and read books and scripts. “If I could no longer do what I do on stage, I would be of service in some form. I would continue to speak and teach. I get gratification from that. My purpose is to help bring out [the students'] convictions and identify with where they live inside their characters. I love the theater and I love teaching. There is a saying that goes – ‘If I can help somebody as I travel along. If I can help somebody with a word or song. If I can help somebody from doing wrong — my living shall not be in vain.’ I’ve done that.”

Vereen is one of those performers who has been called a “legend.”

“That’s good,” he acknowledges, “but employ me. I’m grateful for the accolades, but I’d like to be a working legend. What is the saying? ‘They will know you by your works.’ Let me continue to bear fruit. I’m an actor before I’m a legend…I have so much more to give. I was reading the paper once and actually saw an ad where someone was looking for a Ben Vereen type.  Looking for a Ben Vereen type?  Call me.”

Aladdin and His Winter Wish. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena, 91101. Opens Wednesday. Thu-Fri 3 pm and 7 pm; Sat 11 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm; Sun 11 am and 3 pm, Tue Dec 24 only 3 pm. Through Dec. 29. Tickets: $34-$75; www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. 626 356-7529.

**All Aladdin and His Winter Wish production photos by Clarence Alford.

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Arye Gross Explains the Deeper Notes That Linger in Parfumerie

by Deborah Behrens | December 6, 2013
Arye Gross and Eddie Kaye Thomas in "Parfumerie." Photo by Jim Cox.

Arye Gross and Eddie Kaye Thomas in “Parfumerie.” Photo by Jim Cox.

Arye Gross knew his holiday schedule included acting in a Christmas play. He had no idea it would be a different one at a new performing arts venue with another director.

Gross currently co-stars in Parfumerie, the inaugural theatrical production of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, adapted by E.P. Dowdall from the Hungarian play Illatszertár by Miklós László and directed by Mark Brokaw. The cast features Richard Schiff, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Deborah Ann Woll.

He was supposed to be at the Geffen Playhouse, reprising his 2012 role as Mr. Abramowitz in Donald Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas, which was to be the Geffen’s annual holiday show following its premiere last December. Instead, citing “scheduling conflicts,” the Geffen is presenting Bette Midler’s solo show I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, which ran on Broadway this past spring.

Ayre Gross

Arye Gross

“You know, it’s a beautiful play,” says Gross about Coney Island Christmas, while seated in the Annenberg’s green room on a rainy Friday after Thanksgiving. “I’ve got a Google alert for it and in the past couple of days there are about five theaters around the country that are doing it. I’m very happy for Donald. He and I had an exchange just days before I got the offer to do this play. We were talking about sitting shiva for Coney Island Christmas not happening again at the Geffen, but then this came along.”

“This” being the 1930s romantic comedy that inspired the films The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, You’ve Got Mail and the Broadway musical She Loves Me. Set during Christmastime in a 1937 Budapest perfume boutique, the play and its subsequent versions feature two embattled employees, each of whom has been writing love letters to an anonymous correspondent — without realizing that they have been writing to each other.

Gross admits surprise at the odds of acting in two back-to-back Christmas productions set in historical eras. “I didn’t see this coming, you know? I didn’t see playing Jews in two Christmas plays on the Westside in a row. It seemed like a long shot.”

Audiences know the LA native from his more-than-35-year career starring in films (Soul Man to Grey Gardens), television (Ellen to Castle) and theater (The Time of Your Life to Brooklyn Boy). He studied acting at South Coast Repertory’s conservatory, became a member of its company and went on to appear in numerous productions there including Margulies’ Brooklyn Boy, which transferred to Broadway in 2005. A veteran of countless shows at various LA theaters, he is a member of Antaeus Company (Mrs. Warren’s Profession) and was the former artistic director of the award-winning Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood from 2000-2003.

Noting the return of The Lion King to the Pantages, Gross agrees that participating in the Annenberg’s inaugural theatrical production has a certain “circle of life” quality to it. He performed in SCR’s 1978 mounting of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which inaugurated its new Fourth Step 507-seat theater. Then there’s the Tisch sculpture garden.

“Here’s this magnificent [Annenberg] complex and right outside the [Bram Goldsmith] theater doors is the Jamie Tisch sculpture garden,” Gross explains. “She’s married to Steve Tisch who produced [the 1986 film] Soul Man. He’s the guy who said, ‘You know what? I think we can use you.’ Steve kind of gave me my break.”

Not Merely a Meringue

Arye Gross and Isabella Acres in the 2012 Geffen Playhouse production of "Coney Island Christmas."

Arye Gross and Isabella Acres in the 2012 Geffen Playhouse production of “Coney Island Christmas.”

Gross warns that while Parfumerie may seem like merely a confection, it has more serious underpinnings. Though the play is set in Budapest in December 1937, before World War II started, inklings of the upcoming fate of the Jews can be felt. The playwright himself fled Hungary in 1938, as anti-Jewish laws were going into effect.

“It’s a pretty interesting play,” he offers. “It’s a comedy but it has its deep bass notes about the kind of slice-of-life struggles in these people’s lives. It’s a Christmas play, but it takes place in this moment historically where no one knew what was about to happen. While the play doesn’t go into it, if you research it [you can] find out why is it that the policeman comes in the first scene and says that if we don’t want to get in trouble, we have to shut down because we are 20 minutes past the 8:00 curfew.  But people are still talking about the fact that they are going to go out and they are going to the movies.”

Gross says that at that time, half the merchants in Budapest were Jewish and they were under a curfew. Jewish shops were required to close before other shops. The following year, the number of those shops dropped to 20% then 5%. Within 18 months, there were a quarter million unemployed Jews in Budapest.

“Hence the character I’m playing, Sipos, has this extraordinary anxiety about losing his job in this place. His life and his family depend on it. So if you just read the play, it feels like, well, the guy is worried about losing his job. But if you look at it in the historical context, he will not have money to escape. He will never be able to get a job again, because there are no jobs because they are forbidden. So there’s all this heavy stuff underneath, but it’s this lighter-than-air thing, you know?”

Arye Gross in "Parfumerie"

Arye Gross in “Parfumerie”

The new English adaptation by playwright László’s nephew E.P Dowdall restored the play to its original form, which equally juxtaposes the troubled marriage of the shop owner with the plight of the young lovers. That, coupled with the news of wars and strife from surrounding countries, gives the play a contemporary resonance.

“Sipos has a speech about why he takes being yelled at [by the boss], and he says, compared to what was happening in the world, what does it matter?” says Gross. “In the 1930s, thousands were facing starvation every day, neighboring countries are constantly at war…we’re rehearsing this while getting news about the hurricane in the Philippines and what’s going on in Syria. So all of it is perfectly resonant. It looks like a meringue but it’s really meaty.”

Gross is also enjoying the fact that the play is not ironic. “The characters don’t operate at a remove from their circumstance. No one’s cool. The birth of the cool has not happened yet and it’s kind of a relief.”

Recreating a Parfumerie

Director Mark Brokaw steps into the green room for a moment to use the microwave. His production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is currently running on Broadway. He’s also noted for the original New York productions of Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me, Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees in Honey Drown, Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Mile Ride, Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and The Long Christmas Ride Home, among others.

“I’m so lucky, it’s a fantastic cast,” says Brokaw, as he stops to briefly chat. “And we are especially lucky to have him,” indicating Gross with a smile. “It’s really a great group and I’m having a fantastic time with them.”

When asked about the full-scale parfumerie recreated on stage, Brokaw says, “It’s based on one that is on Andrássy Avenue [in Budapest]. It’s a historic landmark and is a parfumerie still. That is in the back and it’s modernized in the front.”

The set of "Parfumerie"

The set of “Parfumerie”

A realistic Budapest street scene is visible from the shop’s two front windows. Brokaw explains before walking out that it’s “a photograph our set designer [Allen Moyer] found. It’s actually Váci Street.”

“There are thousands of hand props in this, and that’s not an exaggeration,” adds Gross. “I saw someone cutting out endless labels for the fake products. It’s incredible. I’ve never worked on something with this level of attention to detail in the set props and the clothing.”

Grateful for the Grace

Gross admits that he’s been living the working actor’s dream right now, neatly balancing meaty theatrical, film and television roles — from his recurring role as Sidney Perlmutter on ABC’s Castle to a glowing New York Times review for the 2010 film Harvest to a recently announced role in the premiere of Bernard Weinraub’s play Above the Fold, which is being directed by Steve Robman and will open February 2 at Pasadena Playhouse.

“I’m one of the most fortunate actors out there, I think,” he admits. “In the past 10 years, I’ve really gotten to work on wonderful projects with great people and…without a lot of effort on my part!” He laughs.

Gross did a reading of Above the Fold for the Playhouse’s Hothouse series before doing Coney Island Christmas last year. He says he’s glad it’s moving into full production.

“I think it’s a very interesting and timely play. “When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, the comment from The Onion was ‘Nation Stunned as Man Buys Newspaper.’ So that’s sort of the heart of it. What will these organizations do to stay in business?”

Anne Gee Byrd and Arye Gross in

Anne Gee Byrd and Arye Gross in the 2013 production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at Antaeus Company.

When asked whether running another theater company is something he’d consider doing again, Gross turns philosophical. “I didn’t have a lifelong dream to run a theater, but at the moment that it came up, it was absolutely the right thing to do at that time. It may be again. [Stages founder] Paul Verdier made such an impact on theater in Los Angeles and was such a big part of my theatrical education. It kind of connects to this play, because there’s a style to it that I learned from Paul.

“But everything about running a theater, I learned at SCR from Martin Benson and Leo Collin and Norman [Godfrey], the facilities manager…these guys made me learn how a theater works when I just wanted to act.”

Gross credits acting teacher Roy London with offering a guiding principle. “I remember him saying at least a couple of times that there’s no failure in anything you’re trying to do. That the only failure is the failure to engage. So try. If it doesn’t go the way you want it to, well, you’ve learned things.

“That idea, that the only failure is the failure to engage, is something I’ve tried to live by and live in…yes.”

Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills 90210. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Dec. 22. Tickets: $49-129. www.thewallis.org. 310-746-4000.

**All Parfumerie production photos by Jim Cox.

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Weier Takes Note of The Invisible Play — and the Visible Properties

by Amy Tofte | December 5, 2013
Trevor H. Olsen, Kirsten Vangsness and Jennifer Flack in "The Invisible Play." Photo by Eric Neil Gutierrez.

Trevor H. Olsen, Kirsten Vangsness and Jennifer Flack in “The Invisible Play.” Photo by Eric Neil Gutierrez.

It’s a busy world for Amanda Weier. There’s the day job (real estate agent) and the constant hum of a theater life (acting, directing, producing) with her home company, Open Fist, and other Los Angeles theaters. This week Weier unveils her latest directorial endeavor — the West Coast premiere of The Invisible Play by Alex Dremann. It opens Friday at Theatre of NOTE.

Petite and sharp, Weier has plenty of opinions and insights about LA theater. She’s also easy to talk to, whether the topic is the current LA housing market or the legal ramifications of the Beckett Estate and an all-female production of Waiting for Godot (her favorite play).

Weier has been creating theater in Los Angeles for more than 13 years, with nearly 10 of those years as a company member at Open Fist, primarily as an actor. But Weier has also done her share of directing. She’s helmed over half-dozen projects at Open Fist, including the 2006 West Coast premiere of Neil LaBute’s Autobahn.

Amanda Weier

Amanda Weier

In fact, many of her directorial projects have been West Coast premieres or world premieres with living playwrights having some part in the process, even if only a conversation. She likes it that way.

“As a director, usually that’s my preference,” says Weier. “Because I love developing new work. It’s not only so important — creating the work itself — but just for a director to have that balance and point of view [of the playwright] present when telling the stories of a particular generation. It reminds me how so many great plays were written.”

Coming to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2000, Weier was directing actor showcases for Northwestern theater graduates (her alma mater) and studying improv before joining Open Fist in 2004. While Weier prefers acting to anything else, she has enjoyed her directing projects and flexing her different creative muscles.

Weier learned NOTE was seeking a director for Invisible from a friend’s post on Facebook. After reading the script, she knew she wanted to throw her hat in the ring.

“When I read a play, I can picture it,” says Weier. “I’ve realized in hindsight that I’m thinking about ‘what is the convention I want to explore’…’what is that magic that [the play] is supposed to be about.’”

In the case of The Invisible Play, Weier feels the “magic” is the concept of invisibility as both a metaphor and a literal state of being.

“The characters in the play embody varying degrees of visibility,” says Weier, “and a theory is tested concerning the role that love might play in determining how visible a person is to the rest of the world.”

She submitted a directing proposal and went through an interview process with NOTE’s artistic management committee, the governing body that makes artistic decisions for the group. She found working as a director with a theater company other than Open Fist intriguing, even if to simply appreciate another successful process that makes theater happen in Hollywood.

Gina Garcia-Sharp, Norm Johnson and Wendi West

Gina Garcia-Sharp, Norm Johnson and Wendi West

“I love the way they’re run because they’re so democratic,” says Weier of the selection process that won her the directing gig. “They’re also democratic in their selection of a play. I knew that when I came in, I had some ideas for it, but I had no idea they had done so many readings.”

That would be four or five readings of Invisible over the past year, giving the NOTE members an opportunity to fully explore the play they were voting to potentially produce. Weier also found this collective knowledge of the script a luxury when it came to the nuts and bolts of such steps as casting.

“You talk about an embarrassment of riches,” says Weier, “I could have cast the thing four times over because they all knew it so well.” The final cast of eight actors playing the nine roles consists entirely of Theatre of NOTE company members. Philadelphia-based playwright Dremann did not attend rehearsals but has been in correspondence with Weier throughout rehearsals. According to Weier, he’s planning to see the show.

A fan of playwrights, Weier finds her directing role is an opportunity to engage writers in conversations about their stories, sometimes hoping to try things outside the bounds of the written script. She also draws on her first passion — acting — in her directing style.

“I try to be the director that I’d like to work with as an actor,” says Weier. “I’m very interested in speaking the various languages that help bring out the best performances in actors…I like to look at [a production] as an army of people coming together to tell a story.”

Weier’s been nominated for two LA Weekly actress awards (for Stage Door and Room Service at Open Fist in 2010 and 2011, respectively). She won the 2011 LA Weekly Award for best production design for House of Gold at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA (another West Coast premiere). But no matter what her creative task, Weier reports she tackles each one differently.

Norm Johnson, Jennifer Flack and Wendi West

Norm Johnson, Jennifer Flack and Wendi West

“I have a much more outside eye when I’m preparing to direct,” says Weier. “I think when you’re acting you know what your instrument is within the symphony that you’re playing. But when you’re directing, you have to be more of a conductor. And it’s much more layered.”

Weier also describes the overall value she derives as an actor by working in other capacities within different theater companies and at Open Fist, even as a producer or production manager. She feels it makes her more aware of her part of the creative process when she understands it from another perspective. It also provides an important reality check about the economics of producing theater in LA. In fact, she wishes younger talent — especially those new to the city — would do the same.

“I feel like every five minutes another theater company is starting,” says Weier. “And they’re starting with that really great propulsion you need to start something…and then three years down the road it’s about sustaining something and not killing each other in the process. Keeping a company going — and doing good work — is hard.”

Weier encourages newbies to find a theater home in Los Angeles before creating a new company from scratch. Her experiences with both NOTE and EST/LA have given her insight to other theater companies besides Open Fist and have extended her personal network of theater professionals.

“There’s lots of different [theater company] models to choose from,” says Weier. “Several with good track records. And they’ve all got their pros and cons, but as an artistic climate you can find something [in Los Angeles] for your personality.”

Another side effect of the theater climate in LA seems to be the regular upheaval of  companies from their home spaces. In July, Open Fist moved out of its theater home on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood due to a rent increase (and it had moved to that  space after losing its previous space on La Brea in 2006 under similar circumstances). The company is currently homeless. Weier’s experience in real estate has already been tapped, helping to locate properties for the Open Fist board to investigate. She would like the company to stay in Hollywood but fears that could be difficult based on the current market.

Trevor H. Olsen and Jennifer Flack

Trevor H. Olsen and Jennifer Flack

In spite of the challenges, Weier also notes great improvements in the last few years within LA’s theater scene. She’s particularly excited about the growth of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the overall persistent excellence in so many smaller venues and theater companies throughout greater Los Angeles.

“It will be interesting to see what the next five years will bring,” says Weier. “These companies with the longer track records have really weathered some storms.”

The Invisible Play, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Opens Friday.  Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through Dec. 21. Tickets: $20/$25. www.theatreofnote.com. 323-856-8611.

**All The Invisible Play production photos by Eric Neil Gutierrez.

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Alliance Repertory Returns With Eight Abused Reindeer and Daisy Eagan

by A.R. Cassell | December 5, 2013
JP Hubbell in "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues." Photo by Brad Hills.

JP Hubbell in “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues.” Photo by Brad Hills.

In 1991, Rage! or I’ll Be Home for Christmas was all the rage among LA’s spiked-punch Christmas theater fans — those who purposefully look for productions that provide alternatives to the sentimental entertainment offerings that tend to dominate during December.

Rage! was a production of the still-fledgling Alliance Repertory Company, then in Burbank. The script, by Kevin Arnold and Gus Buktenica, was subtitled “A White Trash Family Comedy in Two Black Acts.” In the first act, an abusive man invites his estranged wife, promiscuous daughter and gay son to his house for Christmas. As director John Randle summed up the second act for the LA Times, “the second act takes place three years later in a TV studio — a reality show called Death Row.”

Since 1991, Alliance Repertory has gone through ups and downs, and it has been dormant for the last three years. But “leave the kids at home” Christmas shows have proliferated in the LA area, and some of them — Bob’s Holiday Office Party, The Santaland Diaries and especially Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues pop up just about every year in at least one small venue and sometimes more than one (Chance Theater in Anaheim is currently presenting what is billed as its “10th and final year” of The Eight).

David Peryam

David Peryam

So perhaps it’s appropriate that Alliance Rep, where Rage! once ruled the Christmas season, is staging its current comeback with that perennial spiked-punch favorite, The Eight.

“There’s so much around the holiday season that is ‘roasted chestnuts’ and saccharine. And this show is a naughty, naughty play,” notes co-director David Peryam. “You know, for lots of us, Christmas isn’t always a beautiful thing. And with this piece, we get to embrace that unpleasantness and say ‘that’s okay if your Christmas is not the most perfect thing that ever was’.”

In The Eight — for those who haven’t yet made its acquaintance — scandal rocks the North Pole, when reindeer Vixen (played by Alliance artistic director Royana Black) accuses jolly ole Santa Claus himself of conduct that is very unbecoming of his “Saint Nick” moniker. As the rest of the reindeer, known as “The Eight,” relay their stories, a dark and twisted tale of perversion and corruption emerges.

“Vixen is the main accuser of this particular incident,” Black says. “She has been with ‘The Eight’ for a very, very, very long time. She was on the team with her husband Victor, but a horrible tragedy befell him. So she stayed on the team and in the North Pole because she didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I mean, what other options do you have if you’re a flying reindeer? It’s not like the world is your oyster. And then one day she happened to walk into the toy shop at the wrong time, and is basically raped…by Santa.”

For Black, who co-directs the production with Peryam, Goode’s tale has certainly turned her perceptions of Christmas lore upside down. “I need to ask Jeff where this all came from — you know, did he have some sort of traumatic Christmas story? — because this show is just very, very twisted,” she laughs. “I see Santa at the mall and I’m just like ‘Blech’. It kind of ruins the magic, but I guess that’s okay.”

Joining Black — who began her acting career on Broadway at the age of 10 in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs — is another former child actress on Broadway, Daisy Eagan, who won a Tony Award at the age of 11 for The Secret Garden. She is the youngest female to ever win the award.

Royana Black and Daisy Egan

Royana Black and Daisy Egan

As with the Alliance itself, this is sort of a re-emergence for Eagan as well, who had a baby (Monty Harrison Eagan-Bloom) just six months ago. ““Now I’m just trying to get back into it and drum up work. Hollywood is one of those places where if you’re gone for five minutes, everybody forgets who you are. So you have to kind of start over each time,” she explains. In January, Eagan then heads north to San Francisco to premiere her brand-new one-woman show, which is currently in the works to make its way back to Los Angeles after that.

In The Eight, Eagan plays Dancer, a reindeer caught in a very real predicament in the midst of this molestation scandal. “My character is a former ballet instructor who was forced out of teaching through some…um…circumstances. So she ended up at the North Pole as one of the ‘Eight’, not really understanding that’s it’s a Christmas job. Dancer, I think more than any other character, really tries to keep her head down and not get involved. I think that she would very much prefer not to delve into what goes on with Santa. While everybody else has a very strong opinion, I think she tries to stay as neutral as possible because she needs the job. And then I think through the course of the story, she comes to the realization that it might not have been the best thing for her to do morally.”

Both Black and Peryam, who have done this show twice as one-night-only readings, insist that it’s the hard-hitting reality of the piece that makes it a comedy.

Black says she “did a reading of this in New York probably about 15 years ago — I actually played the part Daisy’s playing — and I loved it! And then somehow I got put in the position of being the artistic director at the Alliance [in 2007] and we just had a bunch of bad things start happening all at once. We lost our space…so we had to move. Then we moved into another space, but that kind of became untenable after a year as well…David and I were talking about doing a one-night-only Christmas benefit, and I said ‘How about this show?’ And now we’ve done it twice before, one night each. The second time we did this, the Jerry Sandusky scandal had just broken, and that added a whole other level of parallels.”

Daisy Egan

Daisy Egan

Black and Peryam discovered early in the process that they wanted to focus on the humanity of these, well, reindeer. They watched YouTube versions of some of the monologues and, Black explains, they decided that it was perhaps too easy “to play this show for laughs and really yuck it up…but if you really play the drama of it, it somehow actually ends up being funnier and still has a lot more gravitas.”

“We really wanted to strip away a lot of the ridiculousness of it and get to the truth-telling around who these people are and what they are,” says Peryam. “We don’t really make reference to the fact that they are reindeer other than using the single convention of the reindeer antlers. So it allows the raciness of the piece to happen, while still reminding us that these are reindeer, and it brings out both the dark and the silliness around it.”

Ultimately it was the darkness and edginess of the piece that drew Eagan to the project, she says. “Basically what the writer did was take the most beloved character in American folklore — and really around the world — and turns the fable on its head. What would happen if this beloved figure was really a monster? But it’s very funny, so as long as people aren’t too sensitive — and don’t bring their children — I hope it will make the audiences think and it will make them laugh”.

From the readings, Black says, she has learned that “if you don’t have the antlers on, it suddenly becomes Eugene O’Neill. But once those antlers are on, you can separate and sort of find the humor in it. ”

The one-by-one monologue structure of the play allowed Black the liberty to don both the actor and director hats for this piece, she says. “It’s much easier to pull double-duty with this piece because it’s monologues. I don’t think I could be acting in and directing a play if there were a whole lot of people onstage at the same time. I just don’t know how people do that.”

Eagan has continued stage work alongside her screen credits — she performed at South Coast Repertory in A View From the Bridge and On the Mountain and on Broadway in James Joyce’s The Dead and Les Misérables. She won an LA Weekly award for The Wild Party at the Blank. She says that “my best theater experiences in my entire career — which spans more than two decades — have been in Southern California. And I’m not being hyperbolic at all. The reason for that may be because the people who work in theater here in LA are so committed to it. Otherwise, why in the world would you keep doing it? It’s not like you can get rich…or even pay your bills.” She laughs.

Thomas Colby

Thomas Colby

For Black and Peryam, the struggles that the Alliance Repertory Company has faced these past few years — including losing its space to rent spikes, fleeting membership, and general financial hardships — have taken their toll. According to Peryam, the Alliance was founded in 1986 (long before he and Black were with the group) “by a handful of actors who all studied with the same acting teacher. They had such a positive experience working together that they created a company which focused on actors telling new stories. Over the years that has morphed and changed. Royana and I ended up in leadership positions about six or seven years ago, and then about four years ago we lost the space we’d had since 1986.”

As Royana tells it, her assumption of the artistic director position was like being promoted to the captain of a ship that was on a crash-course collision with an iceberg. “We were in our space in Burbank for other 17 years. And then the owner died, and his children who took over the space quadrupled our rent and basically said that we had 30 days to pay it. We were of course in the middle of producing a show at the time. So we quickly found a theater down the street that we could just rent for the duration of the show, and right at that point, the current artistic director decided to step down and she kind of said to me, ‘Hey! You know a lot about theater, why don’t you take over?’ I sort of unwittingly thought to myself ‘Sure, that sounds like an awesome title! Sure, I’ll do it!’ …And then we lost the space.

“So like every other theater in LA that’s been going through this, its been an upward battle. I don’t love the idea of dues-paying companies, but I understand now why its necessary, because that is the only reason why we were even able to get another space for a year…But then you have a certain obligation to make people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, and that’s really difficult. And the process of maintaining a space became so tough because basically every cent of money that you have is going into paying rent, which then led to us not being able to produce anything, and then if you don’t produce anything, people wonder why they’re paying money, and a bunch of people left. So we had to cut it back to about a core group of 10 of us who just refused to let the company die. When we did the benefit of this play two years ago, we thought that maybe it was going to be our swan song.”

Serendipitously, it was actually Reindeer Monologues that saved the company. One of Black’s bosses at the investment firm she works for came to see the show that year and offered his assistance to get the company back on its feet. This partnership with Witzel View Entertainment has officially brought the Alliance Repertory Company out of its three-year hiatus, and it’s Black’s and Peryam’s hope that this production’s success will lead to further productions very soon.

For the time being, though, Black’s goal for this production is to give audiences a much-needed break from the madness of the holiday season. “People are so super-stressed this time of year, so if they can come and have a couple glasses of wine and laugh at reindeer, God bless! For an hour and a half, just come and enjoy the silliness. And if you happen to come away with some deeper meaning out of it, that’s great too!”

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens tonight. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Through Dec 21. Tickets: $20. www.alliancerepertory.org. 323-596-1648.

**All The Eight: Reindeer Monologues production photos by Brad Hills.

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A Green Thumb Tends Steward of Christendom

by Cynthia Citron | December 4, 2013
Mary-Pat Green and Brian Dennehy in "The Steward of Christendom." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Mary-Pat Green, Brian Dennehy and James Lancaster in “The Steward of Christendom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

2013 has been a good year for Mary-Pat Green in LA theater. In February she played the showstopping maid in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels at Pasadena Playhouse, which drew this comment from LA Times reviewer Charlotte Stoudt: “The olive perfecting this dry martini is Mary-Pat Green as the Sterrolls’ new maid, who hilariously turns out to be the Most Interesting Woman in the World.” Green says that’s “the best line in a review I’ve ever gotten” — friends started jokingly referring to her as “Olive.”  In October, she repeated that role, when most of the same production moved to Laguna Playhouse.

Now she’s appearing in The Steward of Christendom at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum. In the 1995 Irish play by Sebastian Barry, Green plays Mrs. O’Dea, a compassionate widowed seamstress in the mental asylum where Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy) is spending his declining years reliving the vivid adventures of his youth.

Mary-Pat Green in the 2013 Pasadena Playhouse production of "Fallen Angels."

Mary-Pat Green in the 2013 Pasadena Playhouse production of “Fallen Angels.”

Thomas Dunne is based on a real historical character — James Dunne, the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and a Catholic loyal to the British crown at a time when Irish Protestants were fighting for their independence from British rule.  Among his other duties, he was responsible for maintaining order in Dublin Castle, the headquarters of the British government in Ireland for more than 700 years.  To make things even more difficult, he and his family lived there and were part of the “Castle Catholics” regarded with contempt by the revolutionaries.

In 1922 the outgoing British handed Dublin Castle over to Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Republican Army during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and subsequent leader of the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.  Collins was assassinated in the late summer of 1922.

The Steward of Christendom begins in 1932, a decade after Dunne’s last days in office.  In a program note, playwright Barry — a great-grandson of of the original James Dunne — described Thomas Dunne at that point in his life as “boggy in the head and thinner and unpredictable enough to have his grandchildren kept away from him.”

But apparently he is not frightening to Mrs. O’Dea, according to Mary-Pat Green.  “He tells wonderful stories,” she says, “and reminds her of her late husband.” Playing Dunne, Dennehy “is a force of nature. It’s an amazing honor to work with him.”

In fact, Dennehy, whose character lives primarily in his memories, has “10 huge, long monologues and six or seven shorter ones.  It’s a bear of a role, which is why not many actors play it…Sebastian Barry’s script is so gorgeous,” Green adds.  “It’s poetic writing and it just works.” Steven Robman directs.

“We have Carla Meyer, one of the top dialogue coaches in the country, working with us,” Green notes.  “And we have the additional help of Smith, played by cast member James Lancaster, who is himself from Ireland.  So we’re in good hands.”

Green was born in Kansas City — but with Irish roots in County Cavan, from her father’s family. Her “incredible parents” supported her decision to leave the University of Kansas at 20 to “follow my passion for musical theater” to New York.  Once there, she studied at the Herbert Berghof Studios.  But her “amazing education” took off when she answered a non-Equity casting call and won a part in Godspell in 1971.

Mary-Pat Green

Mary-Pat Green

“We toured for a year, changing venues every one or two nights,” she says.  “We played in civic centers and universities and other public places, and everywhere we went the stage was different, and we had to reinvent the blocking and try not to trip over the set.”

In 1979, Green was in the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  She played Mrs. Mooney, the pie shop owner who ”put pussies in her pies” — not to be confused with her pie shop rival, Mrs. Lovett, played by Lansbury, who put chunks of Sweeney Todd’s victims in her pies. “It just doesn’t happen that you get to work with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Angela Lansbury all at the same time,” Green recalls. “I was incredibly fortunate.” She still harbors a hope that one day she can play Mrs. Lovett.

Green had also spent a year and a half in Hal Prince’s 1974 Broadway revival of Candide. Later, she performed the role of Mother Superior in Nunsense more than 1500 times in Off-Broadway and multiple regional productions.  She was the second person to play that part in a series that has been running for decades.

In 1989, she was cast in Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, a show that was meant to be a “continuation” of the earlier mega-hit Annie.  Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan, was set to reprise that role, but the misbegotten plot had her escaping from prison and plotting to murder Annie.

“Previews began on December 22 at the Kennedy Center in Washington,” Green explains, “and everyone brought their little girls to see it.”  (According to reports, there were 700 children in the audience for that first preview.)  “And it was a disaster.  Nobody wanted to see a musical in which the child star gets kidnapped and possibly murdered!” Annie 2 opened in Washington on January 4 and closed on January 15 after 36 performances.

In 1991 Green moved to Los Angeles because she wanted to try TV and films, and since then she has worked steadily in both mediums.  “The ’90s were a great time for sitcoms,” she says, “and my theater skills turned out to be very helpful.”

 Mary-Pat Green and Brian Dennehy in "The Steward of Christendom"

Mary-Pat Green and Brian Dennehy in “The Steward of Christendom”

“But now,” she laments, “reality shows have made it a dark time for actors on TV.”

She notes that she plays “either prison inmates or judges, policewomen or murderers” but is most often recognized for the bathroom scene in the film My Best Friend’s Wedding where she calls Julia Roberts a tramp.  “People come up to me on the street and holler ‘Tramp!’”.

She still loves musical theater.  In 1995 she was nominated for an Ovation award for her role in the musical Chess.  And in 2002 she played journalist Lorena Hickok, purported to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover, in Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite.  Both plays were produced by the Blank Theatre.

Green even got to bring her musical talents to the non-musical Fallen Angels this year.  Art Manke, who directed it in both Pasadena and Laguna Beach, expanded the musical range of her maid character to include songs in French and German. He retrieved the French song from the Coward archives, Green says, and he allowed her to fashion her own song in another language — they picked German because she had a friend who could translate “Get Happy” into German, which she performed Lotte Lenya-style.

She asks, “How could I not enjoy playing a know-it-all maid?”

But for anyone who might expect her to be as funny in The Steward of Christendom as she was in Fallen Angels, she strikes a cautionary note. In her current play, “I’m jolly, but I’m not really funny.”

The Steward of Christendom, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles. Opens Sunday 7 pm. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm through January 5.  Also Mondays Dec 23 and 30 at 8 pm. No performances Dec 24 and 25 and Jan 1.  Tickets: $20-$70. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

**All The Steward of Christendom production photos by Craig Schwartz.

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LA Stage Times

Sand Brings Weill to the West End (of the Santa Monica Pier)

by Pauline Adamek | December 4, 2013
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.

Santa Monica denizen Paul Sand has a special affinity for one of the local attractions — the jolly fun fair situated along the wooden length of Santa Monica Pier. His Mexican father and Russian mother met and fell in love on the 104-year-old landmark, says the quirky actor/director/producer.

Sand took his first wobbly steps as a toddler on its uneven boards, and he even lived above the carousel when he was a teen. Recalls Sand, “After I graduated high school, I lived there with my girl friend, Joan Rose, over the merry-go-round. The rooms were round — it had round bedrooms and a round living room, and you constantly heard calliope music going.” He laughs.

Now Sand is putting on an artistic director’s hat and starting a new theater company, creating a pop-up cabaret venue on that same pier, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Calling it the West End Theatre, he plans to transform an observation deck at the end of the pier into a “mysterious, waterfront cabaret-style performing space.” The stage will be set and struck every night in a narrow, enclosed space upstairs above the Mariasol Restaurant.

Paul Sand

Paul Sand

The performance space is intimate, with room for 50-60 seats at the most. Sand anticipates that the presentation, entitled Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, will consist of a 45-minute performance of a collection of the famed German composer’s songs. “With our theatrical lighting and the performers and the ocean outside, I want to make it a hypnotic show,” Sand murmurs. “I want to get the audience under my spell and keep them there.”

An amiable fellow with a note of mischief in his drawn-out vowels, Sand is perhaps best known for his numerous appearances in TV shows since the mid-’50s. He often played a rumpled, sad-sack characters on comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, his own short-lived CBS series Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, Taxi, The Carol Burnett Show, right through to L.A. Law, The X Files and Curb Your Enthusiasm. At a young age he studied with Marcel Marceau in Paris and performed comedy at Chicago’s Second City.

In 1970 Sand was at the Mark Taper Forum in Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which won an LADCC production award. A year later, Sand won a Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a play and a Drama Desk award for his multi-character roles in the same production’s Broadway run. He also won a second Drama Desk Award for his appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which played on Broadway in repertory with Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. Last year Sand directed David Mamet’s teenaged daughter Clara’s first plays, Paris and The Solvit Kids at Ruskin Group in Santa Monica.

The site for his new theater company certainly holds a special appeal. With its carousel from the 1920s and other rides, an aquarium, numerous novelty shops, local entertainers, a video arcade, a trapeze school, a pub, and restaurants, the Santa Monica Pier is a popular destination for tourists and locals. The far end of the pier is frequented by anglers. Additionally, the bright lights of the solar-powered Ferris wheel and lilting strains of calliope music creates a wild, carnival atmosphere — the perfect location, insists Sand, for a production of Kurt Weill’s edgy songs, “all about revenge, murder and broken hearts.”

Sol Mason and Paul Sand

Sol Mason and Paul Sand. Photo by Jamie Virostko.

Muses Sand, “The pier is so strange and so wonderful and so mysterious. I can see it from where I live right now. I take walks there, and one night I was walking with some friends, and I said, ‘wouldn’t this be a great place to open a little theater’” that would use some of Weill’s “dark and theatrical songs?”

Sand had previously met the deputy director of the pier, Jim Harris, through mutual friends. Recalls Sand, “He’s a wonderful guy. I called him up and told him about my idea. He told me, ‘We’ve been wanting theater on the pier, and we know your work and your history. I happen to have an available space at the far west end. It hangs out over the ocean and it gets pretty wild up there sometimes… Do you want that space?’”

Sand jumped at the chance. He tried crowd-sourcing on Indiegogo but failed to raise the budget for the inaugural show. He eventually gained a small grant from a discreet local foundation. “At the last minute I heard about this foundation, so I called them up and spoke to this nice lady. She told me I’d better get my application in fast because it all will be closing down in two weeks.” Fortunately he made it under the wire. “I improvised a budget and I got the grant. We got enough to put on the show.”

Assembling a cast proved ridiculously easy, as well, with the entire company formed in two weeks. “It all happened so effortlessly. It’s just weird,” he marvels. Sand says he had seen performers over the past few years who had caught his attention. “Not stars or anything, but people who I thought were vivid and exciting personalities. I had made circles around their name in the programs. Then I found them and asked them and they said yes.”

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Paul Sand and Shay Astar

As well as directing, Sand will perform alongside cast members Megan Rippey, Shay Astar and Sol Mason, who plays the narrator and host in this shady waterfront cabaret. Michael Roth, whom Sand calls “insanely perfect,” is the music director. “He’s a specialist in Kurt Weill, luckily enough. He’s so intense, in a great way, and a perfectionist. So this is not just kidding around.” Sand describes himself as “a nice director, I think, but sometimes I lose my temper…”

One of the musicians Sand has enlisted is Tamboura, a “kid from Silver Lake” whom he’d heard busking on the pier. “I’m walking down the pier one afternoon, and I hear this beautiful violin music — this kid is standing there playing perfect violin. I put a few dollars in the hat thing, and then I thought and thought and finally I called James Harris. I asked him, ‘You know how to find these people that are musicians on the Pier, right?’ He did, so I drove to Silver Lake and talked to him. He said, ‘Yes, I love Kurt Weill. Yeah, I’ll do it’.”

Musical accompaniment will include cello and a harmonium. “We rented a piano and it’s just been moved up there,” says Sand. Some of Weill’s best-known songs are on the program: “Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song” from The Threepenny Opera, which Weill penned with Bertolt Brecht; “Surabaya Johnny” from “Happy End;” and “Luck Song,” also known as “The Insufficiency of Human Behavior.” The finale will be “The Alabama Song” from “Mahagonny,” also written with Brecht and performed by the entire company.

“We’re all actor-singers,” says Sand, the excitement building in his voice. “There’s one song I really want to do. It’s the ‘Forgiveness’ song.” Sand is referring to “Call From The Grave/Ballad In Which MacHeath Begs All Men For Forgiveness,” from The Threepenny Opera. “It’s so evil!” he laughs.

Paul Sand

Paul Sand

To create the right ambience in his new theater, Sand hired surrealist painter Marie Lalanne to design costumes and sets. She has created landscape paintings on large canvas panels that will be hung behind the stage. “It will give it this wonderful carnival atmosphere and we’ll take them down after the second show every night. And then they’ll never know, in the morning, that we were even there,” he adds enigmatically.

If this first show proves a success, Sand anticipates more productions. “I do have my next ideas. I want to stay with the theme of ‘waterfront scary’.”

Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, West End Theatre, Santa Monica Pier. Opens this Friday, 7:30 pm. No performance Sat Dec. 7. Then Fri-Sat 7:30 and 9 pm Dec. 13, 14, 20 and 21 (with the possibility of an extension) Through Dec. 21. Tickets: $20. www.eventbrite.com/event/8804429285.

**Photos by Jamie Virostko.

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LA Stage Times

Tournier is Back in Town, on Tour in Peter and the Starcatcher

by Les Spindle | December 2, 2013
Edward Tournier, Joey deBettencourt and Carl Howell in "Peter and the Starcatcher." Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Edward Tournier, Joey deBettencourt and Carl Howell in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo by Jenny Anderson.

En route to an eagerly anticipated LA homecoming, Edward Tournier has found himself aboard a fictional vessel called Neverland in a play inspired by J.M. Barrie’s vintage Peter Pan script and his Peter and Wendy novel. The national tour of the comedy-adventure Peter and the Starcatcher makes its LA debut at Center Theatre Group‘s Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday.

Tournier, who lived in Los Angeles for seven years before moving to New York last February, makes his national tour debut in this fanciful prequel to a classic.

Distinguished legacy

Barrie’s 1904 play Peter and Wendy was the basis for Walt Disney’s classic animated film Peter Pan as well as a perennially popular musical of the same name, which has traditionally featured high-flying gender-bending performances by the likes of Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby as the titular young boy, an airborne sprite who could never grow up.

Aside from a group of urchins — the Lost Boys — Peter/Boy is the only character from the Barrie originals to appear in Starcatcher, which was created by librettist Rick Elice, based on the novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The Tony-nominated co-directors of the original Broadway production and the tour are Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). Original music is by Wayne Barker.

Edward Tournier

Edward Tournier

The Broadway production earned Tonys for Christian Borle (actor in a featured role), Darron L. West (sound design), Paloma Young (costumes), Donyale Werle (scenic design), and Jeff Croiter (lighting).

Starcatchers follows the adventures of an orphan, Peter, who finds love, friendship, and ultimately himself on a faraway island.  A 12-actor ensemble plays more than 100 characters. Tournier appears as one of the Lost Boys, named Ted. He describes the character as “an orphan, like Peter. He’s always hungry because he has sort of been malnourished in the orphanage. He’s a very sweet, innocent character, but he has a great-sized appetite for just about anything. It’s a comedic role, so it’s a lot of fun to play.”

Touring with Tournier

Tournier was born in Paris 30 years ago but was moved to the US when he was three years old. Raised near Boston, he’s a graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and also studied at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

His recent segue from LA to the magical land of Barrie was swift, following his relocation to New York to seek new acting opportunities. He moved to New York in February, and “we started rehearsals in July. I had started auditioning a bit in New York [in late 2012], and Starcatcher had been my very first audition there. It was for the Off-Broadway production [of Starcatcher], currently running at New World Stages.” He wasn’t cast in that production, but a few months later he was called back to accept his role in the tour edition.

Speaking from the tour engagement in San Francisco, he says, “We opened in mid-August in Denver. So this is about our fourth month now. Right now, the tour is slated through June of next year.”

Has he enjoyed his first experience in a national tour? “Definitely. I did some tours when I was in Boston, but that was just to a few different cities near there.” He hadn’t seen a production of this play, but he was quite familiar with it. He notes, “A college classmate of mine was in the original production, so I have sort of tracked the play, but I had not seen it when I auditioned. I finally went to see it and I was blown away. It was like nothing I had ever seen, so I was really excited to do it.”

He elaborates.  “The ensemble of actors works together to use physical theater techniques and props and unconventional ways of storytelling.  So much of the fun is how it relies on the collaborative imagination of both the actors and audience, which is obviously very fitting for a story like Peter Pan.”

Joey deBettencourt, Carl Howell and Edward Tournier in the current "Peter and the Starcatcher" tour company.

Joey deBettencourt, Carl Howell and Edward Tournier in the current “Peter and the Starcatcher” tour company. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

As for the experience of being in a touring production, Tournier cites its demanding aspects: “It’s a rigorous schedule. We’re doing eight shows a week, but  you add in the element of travel, and being in new cities sometimes every week, or just for a couple of days, and living in hotels, and getting used to each new city.”  He says the company members are becoming very close due to sharing living quarters and constantly working together. “It’s a real family that develops,” he says.

He also finds it “fun to get to present the play to different audiences, more than just night to night, but from city to city. Every city has its own sort of personality.” He points out that “different audiences grasp different elements of the play in different ways.” He’s impressed that the show “keeps being fresh, despite performing it eight times a week and for a couple of hundred performances.” He had never done so many performances of one production, and he is interested in discovering how his performance evolves over that period.

He acknowledges that working in so many cities and meeting so many people could also lead to career networking opportunities.  “We have been to some great theater towns. Most major American cities have vibrant theater communities.” He believes that Peter attracts theater lovers due to its theatricality, and because “anyone involved in the theater knows it’s a very innovative play. And it had a lot of success with the design Tony Awards.” He points out that the play includes a lot of jokes that “are sort of winks to people who are familiar with and live in live theater.”

Tournier has never acted in New York, and he says he moved there to pursue new career opportunities.  Though he has done several television and film roles while in LA, he says he has always preferred theater. “I was doing a lot of theater in LA. And I love that theater community. My seven years in LA were a big part of my life.” He says that both professionally and artistically, “it was everything that I sort of wanted.  But I have looked to New York to try something new and because I had never lived there. I wanted to see what it was all about.”

LA success

John Glover and Edward Tournier in the 2008 Black Dahlia Theatre production of "Secrets of the Trade." Photo by Eb Brooks.

John Glover and Edward Tournier in the 2008 Black Dahlia Theatre production of “Secrets of the Trade.” Photo by Eb Brooks.

During his years in LA, Tournier achieved a lot of rewarding and acclaimed work, including acting nominations from Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, the Ovations, the Back Stage Garlands, and GLAAD. He mentions that something he hadn’t set out to do but nonetheless happened is that most of his stage acting roles so far have been in new plays.

One achievement that immediately comes to his mind as a favorite is the Black Dahlia’s  premiere of Jonathan Tolins’ bittersweet Secrets of the Trade, in which he played opposite John Glover.  Tournier played an ambitious young man who forges a relationship with a famous middle-aged actor-director (Glover), who becomes his mentor. “This was a powerful experience, and a great introduction to the LA theater community for me,” he notes. “It was also one of the hardest plays I did there.”

He adds, “It enjoyed a lot of success. It’s a wonderful, smart, funny piece that moved a lot of people. To this day, people still approach me about it. And the play went on to New York, so it had some staying power.” He points out that working with director Matt Shakman and the Dahlia cast and crew fostered connections that “remain to this day.”

He also cites needtheater’s Mercury Fur, calling it a “wonderful play at the totally opposite end of the spectrum — so dark and scary.” He says, “It was a “great experience. And the design stayed with me. A lot of the time what lasts is the collaboration of all of the different pieces, which add up to make the production memorable. I always admire the work of designers. Starcatcher is another play for which the design is really a beauty.”

Also among his favorite experiences here were his productions with Rogue Machine, including his well-received performances in Razorback, Monkey Adored, and Where the Great Ones Run. Joining the company from its inception as a founding member, he ultimately served as producing director for one season and produced a few other shows as well. He says, “These guys are really my family in LA,. and they do incredible work. I’m sure you know that John Pollono’s [multi-award winning] Small Engine Repair [which premiered at Rogue Machine in 2011] just opened Off-Broadway [to much critical acclaim], which is so exciting.”

Edward Tournier in the 2011 Rogue Machine production of "Monkey Adored." Photo by John Flynn.

Edward Tournier in the 2011 Rogue Machine production of “Monkey Adored.” Photo by John Flynn.

He continues, “The work I did there and the friendships I made there will last a lifetime. I’m so glad to get back to LA now to spend some time with them.” He’s grateful for the behind-the-scenes skills he learned at Rogue Machine: “I think when you act for a long time, you sort of start to get into the whole production end. The opportunity to direct and produce makes you a more complete theater artist.”

Among other LA companies where Tournier has performed are Theatre @ Boston Court (Futura), Theatre of NOTE (They’re Just Like Us), an Ensemble Studio Theatre and Getty Villa co-production (The Vesuvius Prophecies), Pacific Stages (Lobby Hero), and Odyssey Theatre (Small Tragedy).

Ahmanson Redux

Peter is not Tournier’s first experience at the Ahmanson. His first play in LA in 2007, shortly after he moved here, was that company’s production of The History Boys. He was cast as a cover for three parts and he appeared briefly in one non-speaking scene at each performance. He says, “I was so excited to be a part of that, and so I am excited to get back to the Ahmanson. I met a lot of people there and got acquainted with the theater community at that time.”

He mentions a person he met at the Ahmanson who supports his belief that the LA theater community overlaps in many ways. Lindsay Allbaugh, who became a “great friend’ to him, is one of the two artistic directors of Elephant Theatre Company, for which she directed him in the highly acclaimed Supernova. He triumphed in the role of a rebellious teenager in this heartrending kitchen-sink drama, reminiscent of the works of William Inge.

Allbaugh is also producing associate at Center Theatre Group, and as part of that job  “she was involved in bringing Peter to the Ahmanson, so I now get to work with her in a totally unrelated way. It’s great. I’m so happy getting to come back to LA. It’s one of the highlights of the tour for me.”

Joey deBettencourt, Edward Tournier and Benjamin Schrader

Joey deBettencourt, Edward Tournier and Benjamin Schrader in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

He points out one additional example of apparent serendipity: “My very first play when I was 10 years old was Peter Pan, at Winchester Cooperative Theater in my home town of Winchester, Massachusetts. I did it because my sister had done it, so I sort of lived up to her example.  I was a Lost Boy, but with no lines. So that’s another way this production is sort of a coming-home cycle for me.”

Tournier acknowledges that his first love in the creative arts remains acting, particularly in theater: “I was extremely lucky and blessed to be cast in [Peter], though I haven’t spent a lot of time in New York yet. So I am interested in discovering what that theater scene is like and to hopefully get to keep doing plays.”

Peter and the Starcatcher, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, LA. Opens Wednesday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. (Several schedule exceptions and added performances.) Through Jan 12. Tickets: $20-110 (subject to change). www.centertheatregroup.org. 213 972-4400.

**All Peter and the Starcatcher production photos by Jenny Anderson.

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LA Stage Times

The Ecstasy and the Occasional Agony of Creating God’s Gypsy

by Steven Sabel | November 27, 2013
Jeanne Witczak, Carole Weyers and Abbe Rowlins in "God's Gypsy." Photo by Silvia Spross.

Jeanne Witczak, Carole Weyers and Abbe Rowlins in “God’s Gypsy.” Photo by Silvia Spross.

Asked to name a saintly Catholic named Teresa, most laypeople these days would go with the late Mother Teresa. But Coco Blignaut‘s new play God’s Gypsy isn’t about the more recently famous Teresa. It’s about the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic St. Teresa of Ávila.

Blignaut, who also serves as executive producer, will bring her dramatization of Teresa’s tale to the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, opening Saturday.

“She has something to say to this modern-day world of ours,” Blignaut says of the Spanish Teresa.

“Certainly, yes, she was one of the first charismatic Catholics, but this is beyond religion,” emphasizes Blignaut, who also portrays St. Teresa in the production. “The truth of God goes beyond any religion.”

Coco Blignaut

Coco Blignaut

Among the play’s many themes are the empowerment of women, the complexity of relationships, and “the shame of having to hide who you are,” Blignaut says.

Raised in South Africa, Blignaut is of Jewish descent, and she says it’s one of the connections she has to the character. Teresa of Ávila descended from a paternal grandfather who was a marrano — a Christian convert from Judaism. He was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for accusations that he later returned to the Jewish faith.

Blignaut draws comparisons between the Spanish Inquisition’s oppression of Jews and the bigotry she witnessed growing up in South Africa.

At the heart of the story is Teresa’s fame as a mystic. Known for the visions she described of visitations from Jesus and the angels of heaven, Teresa was first embraced as a reformer of the practice of cloister, and then later accused of heresy. Her tale of an angel who pierced her heart in rapture with a “long spear of gold” is famously depicted in Gian Bernini’s sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in Rome.

“I visited that statue and I was so inspired. That’s what I want. That’s what we all want,” says Blignaut. The play has a “universal message…about us all wanting that moment of rapture, but we don’t want to suffer to get it.”

Words and music

Blignaut based her script on Bárbara Mujica‘s novel, Sister Teresa. The two writers worked together in collaboration for two years to fashion the script. Mujica would often provide historical details and help with rewriting scenes, Blignaut says.

Though the play is set in the 16th century, Blignaut says she specifically stayed away from writing in classical style. “It’s written freshly in a modern way. Sophisticated and elegant, but with modern language.”

Blignaut wanted the play to have a musical score to match the style of her writing. Musician and composer Lili Haydn was an initial inspiration for what Blignaut had in mind.

Lilli Haydn

Lili Haydn

“Lili was a part of the very first sentence describing the setting. When I didn’t even think that we could actually get her, I wrote: ‘A rock violinist like Lili Haydn,’” says Blignaut.

Blignaut sought Haydn out after one of her performances at Hotel Cafe last spring. “I said, ‘I want you to be in my show,’” recalls Blignaut.

“She asked me to provide a score, and be in it, and bring my songs to it,” Haydn says. She will perform parts of her score live at performances on Nov 30 and Dec 7.

Blignaut describes Haydn’s score as “classically oriented with a bohemian feel to it.”

“Think Baz Luhrmann in terms of comparison,” says Haydn. “It has elements of the time period, but tasteful elements that bring it into more of a modern period.” She says she scored the play “as if it were a film.”

Bringing forth a catalog of unreleased material, she presented Blignaut with a collection of music to choose from. “We just had a gold mine to source from,” says Blignaut.

They tackled the task of selecting the correct songs for the play. “There’s a difference between things that are connected emotionally, and what works,” says Haydn. “Some pieces are too large a production.”

“Some pieces are too complicated, or not the correct theme, ” Blignaut agrees.

“We tried not to comment on the story, but to add to it,” Haydn says.

The songs that Blignaut found most appealing are part of material Haydn is due to release on a new album next year. LiliLand is scheduled to be available in May, 2015.

At least 20 percent of the score is new material inspired by the storyline and the characters, says Haydn. “Usually, honestly, my first instinct is a motif — an initial instrumentation. I’m always driven emotionally, so I start with some type of emotional motif,” she says. “A melody can say a lot.”

Haydn says the score is meant to serve as “a Greek chorus in a way.” The music ” is the muse — kind of the soul of the show.” When she performs live with the show, she says she plants herself “on top of the music that is already scored.”

Coco Blignaut and Tsulan Cooper

Coco Blignaut and Tsulan Cooper

“I’m sort of a mist. I wanted it to have a mystical feel,” says Haydn.

Haydn’s music was first included in rehearsals two weeks prior to opening night, and the result was “magical,” Blignaut says. “The moment the music was introduced, the magic started flowing.”

Producer and player

Wearing multiple hats for the production is a challenge, says Blignaut. “An astounding amount of work goes into producing.”

In order to focus on her performance on the stage, she has to “switch off” when rehearsing, and separate her tasks throughout the day by designating specific time slots for checking emails, returning calls, and handling production aspects.

Assembling the correct team is essential, says Blignaut, who made sure that each person was hand-picked for the project. Every actor in the cast was chosen on the basis of previous work, not via auditions. Most of the cast come from the Actors Studio, where she is a member, she says.

“They are intense,” Blignaut says. “There are some very difficult scenes — such as the torture scenes — that are very difficult on the actors. It’s exhausting.”

Exhausting, but rewarding, she adds. “Most of the choices have been magically inspired. Most of the people have had the same instinct.”

“When you choose the right people, you just say, ‘just bring yourself,’” says Haydn.

Not every initial collaboration on the project has been a success. “I had to let go of two directors before this one,” Blignaut says.

Carole Weyers

Carole Weyers

An initial hire was replaced due to schedule conflicts that could not be worked around. A second director was let go four weeks into rehearsal due to conflicts over the vision of the production, she explains.

“It was a very big lesson for me to follow my instincts. We hired that director against my instincts,” says Blignaut. Making the decision to dismiss the director wasn’t easy, she says, “but it had to be a very quick decision, so as not to disrupt the rest of the team.”

The fact that everyone else remained on board is a testament to the necessity of the decision, she says. Still, opening night had to be set back two weeks, and additional money was spent to accommodate the new rehearsal schedule.

“It was a huge risk, but we believed in the outcome, and we made the right choice,” says Blignaut.

Joel Daavid originally signed on to the production as the set designer. After a five-hour interview discussing the intricacies of the production, he was selected to assume the reins of the show, Blignaut says.

“When you engage a director, make sure their vision is compatible right from the beginning,” she says.

“He had the aesthetic,” says Haydn.

Gifts and gratitude

Overcoming obstacles and persevering through adversity is a strong theme of the play. Not unlike the title character’s viewpoints and positions, the production has been “forged in the fire of faith,” says Blignaut.

 David Haverty, Daniel deWeldon, Edison Park

David Haverty, Daniel deWeldon and Edison Park

“It’s in the stillness and darkness where God dwells most. It is when it’s most difficult that God is closest,” she says, quoting from the script.

Back on track, this project — of three years in the making — is an exciting accomplishment for Blignaut, she says. Scheduled for a six-week run at the Lillian Theatre, with a two-week extension, the piece already has interest from Broadway and film producers, she reports.

Grateful to finally bring this story to the stage, Blignaut says “gratitude transforms everything from a negative to a positive…The gift is to truly get to create our vision, and the work you have to do to get to do that, makes it all worth it.”

God’s Gypsy, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 6 pm. Through Jan. 12. Tickets: $30. www.godsgypsy.com. 866-811-4111.

**All God’s Gyspy production photos by Silvia Spross.

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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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LA Stage Times

LA’s Fling With String Theory Heats Up

by Jesse Herwitz | November 21, 2013
String Theory at the 24th Annual Ovation Awards. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

String Theory at the 24th Annual Ovation Awards. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

It’s early in the afternoon on November 1.  Luke Rothschild is finishing his set-up for the last of nine performances in a four-week span for String Theory, a performance ensemble he co-founded with his wife Holly Rothschild and friend Joseph “Joey” Harvey. Then he’ll head home, gather his luggage, and along with the rest of the group catch a flight to Dallas, where the band is slated to perform the following day. Immediately following that show, String Theory will fly back to LA and perform as the house band for the 24th annual Ovation Awards.

It has been the group’s “busiest ever” month, says Luke. Still, the work at hand requires careful and delicate attention.

Luke screws the last of a few remaining bolts into the seating of the Circle Harp, a 12-string instrument that he created and built. It’s an integral part of String Theory’s musical sound. After that seating is secured, he will then run the mono-brass filament strings from the main stage of San Gabriel Mission Playhouse to the back of the auditorium — a distance of around 80 or 100 feet — attach them to a destination point there, then tune the strings with a series of circular pitch-blocks. On Sunday, when the harp is played by Holly, the strings will literally be suspended above the heads of audience members.

Luke Rothschild

Luke Rothschild

“We call it a long-string harp,” says Luke. “On the harps that I make there’s either 12 strings or 24 strings — the biggest one has up to 48 strings, but we haven’t ever put that many up.”

The Ovation Awards will be something of a sized-down version of a typical (if the word can be used) String Theory experience, including seven musicians and no dancers. Larger performances have included up as many as 25 classically-trained and well-esteemed ballet dancers or as many as 10 musicians. Still, there is an inherent theatricality involved in spending an evening with String Theory — whatever its current size. That theatricality is a quality that will not go unnoticed in the nearly 1,400-seat theater filled with some of the best Los Angeles theater actors, directors, and producers.

“Every site space is different. And also energetic-flow is different,” says Luke.  “If there’s space to get more movement going, then [we] will. So we want to take advantage of as much physical theatricality as is possible in any given context.”

Being able to adapt is a core philosophy of String Theory. How to describe what an evening with String Theory is like to one who has never seen a long-string harp played or a set of ‘cyclo-drums’ (drums hung vertically that spin on an axel and are pounded on with two large drumsticks) is something of a task in itself. Inspiration for each performance is equally derived from classical composers such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, painters such as Kandinsky, as well as dance choreographers such as the iconic Pina Bausch.

“I would describe String Theory as a multi-layered immersive performance environment and performance ensemble. It’s music, sonic sculpture and dance,” says Luke.

Having played for many types of acts in different venues across the country and globe (including a performance for the Prime Minister of Singapore in 2007 and opening for Sheryl Crow at the Grand Cayman Ritz), they caught the attention of LA STAGE Alliance CEO Terence McFarland, who then suggested the group to Ovation Awards musical director David O.  Together O and String Theory worked out the logistics. O would help decide on an overture piece and aid them in cuing the music and String Theory would simply play its original music and work its own magic.

String Theory with The Curve Harp at Vibiana Catherdral. Photo by Eric Stoner.

String Theory with the Curve Harp at Vibiana Catherdral. Photo by Eric Stoner.

“I feel like the Ovation Awards is a microcosm of its own, and in that context we adapted specifically for that,” says Luke. “I think that is a good example of what String Theory does.”

String Theory was built on the backs of its three co-creators in Chicago around 1997. Luke Rothschild and Harvey had moved there to study — Luke from Massachusetts to the Art Institute of Chicago (fine arts and sculpture), Harvey from South Carolina to Roosevelt University (cello). Holly, not yet married to Luke at the time, is a native of Illinois, and majored in business and dance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Meeting through mutual friends in the Chicago music scene, the three joined their talents to create what would become an early incarnation of String Theory. By compounding their talents, however, they happened upon something that became greater than the sum of its parts and would take the next 16 years to develop and fine-tune.

“Basically we have these three forms kind of converging,” describes Luke. “Joey brought the baroque cello vibe, I was trying to integrate music into performance with sonic sculpture, and Holly brought the choreography and dance aspect.”

After six years of playing with some smaller avant-garde dance troupes, the trio decided to move west, by way of a 25-foot rental truck, and landed in Los Angeles in the fall of 2002. In Venice, String Theory found a house to both live in and create music from. To this day the house is still used for all music rehearsals.

“Coming out here we were definitely much more strapped for cash. But we were just like, if we’re going to do it, we just need to do it,” says Luke.

One of the earliest gigs for String Theory was also one of the earliest transitions for String Theory into the theater world. In 2003, the group scored a production of Christian Jan Meoli’s The Dadaists for director Harris Fishman (credited as Harris Mann) at the Met Theatre.

Holly Rothschild with The Circle Harp in Point Clear Alabama. Photo by Luke Rothschild.

Holly Rothschild with the Circle Harp in Point Clear Alabama. Photo by Luke Rothschild.

The Dadaists was huge for us,” says Luke. “That made it feel real.”

In addition to the 99-seat stages, String Theory has also played large venues including Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre, the Creation Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Broad Stage in 2009 and in 2011. In 2012 the group performed as a trio for the Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD series, opening for a Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and David Byrne (Talking Heads) conversation at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in downtown Los Angeles. (2013). Luke recalls that experience happily.

“The context was we were supposed to be playing while people were entering, but what ended up happening was they opened the doors early. With over 800 seats the place was packed. So we started playing, and 30 seconds into the first piece the whole place erupted in spontaneous applause.” Luke smiles as he recalls, “It was such a great moment, like pouring right into my heart.”

Aside from the String Theory projects, the group’s creators embark on many side projects individually. Luke has scored as many as six documentaries and Holly, who has been choreographing for 20 years, has choreographed for a variety of different social events, most recently an ‘interactive theater’ event at the old Howard Hughes offices. Holly also has had some of her films seen at the San Francisco International Dance Film Festival (2013) and the Dance-Screen film festival (2013).

In addition, String Theory is working on a theatrical piece, currently titled Remembering Water, that will be directed by Holly and is scheduled to open in 2014.

So theatricality seems to be a natural byproduct of String Theory’s talents. Though musical ingenuity is at the core of the group’s work, it is the accompanying visual stimuli (projected films on the walls, stage lighting, experimental choreography) of each performance that truly enhances the aural experience.

Perhaps 2013 Ovation Award winner Glynn Turman  (best lead actor in a play, for CTG’s Joe Turner’s Come And Gone), who describes it best when — speaking from the stage that night — he called String Theory’s performance at the awards ceremony “magical” and likened it to what the actors do on stage.

String Theory with The Moon Harp in Santa Barbara. Photo by Mat Hale.

String Theory with the Moon Harp in Santa Barbara. Photo by Mat Hale.

“I happened to be offstage at that moment, because I had just finished playing the big [cyclo] drums or was about to play the big drums,” says Luke. “But when he said it, it made me so happy. He was wonderful and it was a wonderful sentiment. “

Though often lauded for its performances, String Theory has little time to rest on its laurels. To be something of a pioneer in an innovative field is to both enjoy the moment and look forward at the same time.

“I’m very grateful for the wonderful people that we work with. For the creative community in Los Angeles, in general. I really enjoy my work and feel blessed for the family we’ve built around the work.” says Luke. As for the future, “I think we continue to step up our game and work on higher-level projects.”

This year the Ovation Awards. Next year…

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LA Stage Times

Todd Robbins’ Invitation to Play Dead

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | November 19, 2013
Todd Robbins in "Play Dead." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Todd Robbins in “Play Dead.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Outside the walls of the Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse, high-screeched whirring from an electric circular saw cuts through the air. “Don’t worry,” shouts magician Todd Robbins, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, sans the chameleon silk handkerchief often used in magic. “We’re testing out a new act on one of our actors.” A wicked sense of humor exudes from the performer/co-creator of Play Dead, which opens Wednesday at the Geffen’s smaller space, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.

Drawn to character and the con

A hoarse cough emits from the illusionist. He gestures apologetically and pops a mint into his mouth. “I’ve been swallowing swords all week at the Magic Castle.” Like magic, the cough disappears.

“It’s good to be home,” remarks Robbins. “I’m a California native. I grew up in a suburban area of Long Beach — new, clean, safe, quiet, peaceful. It was everything my parents wanted. They had grown up during the Depression and went through World War II. There was a lot of uncertainty in the world, so when you come out of that, you get the 1950s. ‘We want vanilla. We want everything nice.’”

Teller and Todd Robbins

Teller and Todd Robbins

“As a child, for me, it was all about expansion, discovering new things. I was always kind of a watcher, a pull-back kid, processing things, thinking quite a bit. I loved coming to downtown Long Beach and seeing the old buildings and architecture, wondering where these things came from.”

With a warm smile of recollection, Robbins describes his fascination with all things with “character.”

“There was The Pike; an old amusement park from around the turn of the century. By the time I was old enough to go (in the 1960s), it was, ‘You do not go down there! Good people don’t go to The Pike!’ It’s true. It was a seedy place.”

“And of course I went to The Pike,” he chortles. “It was great. It was glorious. It had character!”

In the neighborhood of his youth, a magic shop opened in a nearby, rundown strip mall. All of 10 years old, Robbins curiously walked through its door — a decision that affected his life to this very day in unimaginable ways. With bated breath, he describes the experience.

“The shelves were filled with apparatus specifically designed to deceive the senses and create the illusion of an alternative reality. On Saturday afternoons, I took magic lessons. Afterwards, I’d hang out and talk with the magicians who would use it kind of like a clubhouse.”

“They would sit in the front room chain-smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, doing card tricks with each other and swapping lies. I’d ask them about their stories and the history of magic. These were guys who had worked vaudeville and were crusty. Like old war horses, every scar they had, they earned. It was exciting!”

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

Taken with his new-found friends and the world of magic, a few years later Robbins became the first Junior Member of the famous Magic Castle.

At 16, the full-of-beans youngster then decided to create spooky mayhem in the lives of his high school friends. On Friday nights under a full moon and with flashlight in hand, Robbins would lead the teenagers to the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery.

“I found out the main gate at the cemetery was never locked. Cemetery plots and mausoleums with famous families went back over 100 years. One tomb was sort of built into the hillside with a perfect little stage. I’d set the tone telling stories about the people buried there and the strange things that had happened. My friends would grab each other, terrified, getting wigged out, with screams followed by laughter. Then other sounds.”

With a wry grin and mischievous twinkle in his eye, Robbins leans in. “As we say in the show [Play Dead], ‘You’re never so alive as when you’re scared to death. There’s nothing more arousing than an unholy resurrection.’”

Trial by magic

After graduating from college with a theater degree — “a great, useful degree,” avows Robbins with raised eyebrow — he journeyed north to study at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

“I needed more training. Early on we were assigned scene partners; mine was a lovely young lady. We hit it off and became very good friends. Her name is Annette Bening. And she’ll be coming here in a few months [at the Geffen in Ruth Draper's Monologues].”

After graduating from ACT, Robbins moved to New York City. “I knew New York was the center of live entertainment, even though it wasn’t what it once was. I got there and made the rounds.”

Robbins grimaces as he reflects on a rocky start. “I was auditioning for people I didn’t like who had pretensions of high art that was no better than bad community theater. I found it all very dubious. I did a few readings, a couple of small shows in basement spaces, which was all kind of fun but it wasn’t paying the rent.”

“At that time the comedy boom began, and it was a seller’s market. An emcee would do comedy along with a headliner, and oft times the middle act at 20-25 minutes was a juggler, variety artist, or…,” pointing to himself with flair, “a magician.”

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

“It helped kick off a new vaudeville movement and establish performers like Bill Irwin and Penn & Teller. There was also the college market which was great. I went out with a comedy/magic act, made a decent living, and couldn’t take time off to do these little off-off-off-off-Broadway shows. I actually became a better performer using my training as an actor.”

Then another creative opportunity arose to further incorporate his magical talents. In 1992, Robbins joined up with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. “I took all of the wonderful skills I had learned as a kid, and put them in their natural habitat of an amusement park sideshow that had all but vanished: swallowing swords, eating fire, hammering nails in my nose, doing all those great, classic acts from old-timers of character.”

Shortly, he became involved with the award-winning, not-for-profit Big Apple Circus, utilizing traditional magic tricks to bring joy to hospitalized children. “Not eating glass or hammering nails,” stresses Robbins. In addition to being a ringmaster at corporate events, the born showman participated in a touring show for two years. It was on that leg of his life’s journey when he realized, “I needed to get back in the theater.”

Re-entering the theater

With the know-how of the circus and carnival sideshows, Robbins mounted Carnival Knowledge for its Off-Broadway premiere at the Soho Playhouse in 2003. Critical reviews were mixed; however, audiences were entertained. The show ran for two years and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award.

After the success of Carnival Knowledge, Robbins was drawn to create a séance show. “I knew the history of the field, with all the tricks of the trade built upon fraud and illusion.” In 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival, Dark Deceptions was presented. Robbins decided to fine-tune the show, re-titling it The Charlatan’s Séance, which was performed in 2007 at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

He still wasn’t satisfied. “It was fun but it was a little narrow in scope.” Then came along producer Alan Schuster, best known for the invigorating Stomp. He optioned Robbins’ show, but he also told the performer that he needed a director.

The magician agreed. He had done everything himself up to this point. The search for a director began, which was extremely trying, says Robbins.

“We got a lot of snobbery thrown our way. A lot of snobbery along the lines of ‘You’re doing a magic show. I do thea-tah. When I do a play, it cures cancer.’ That kind of pretension.” The received response didn’t deter Schuster. “It didn’t bother him one bit. But he couldn’t find anyone who understood the material. Alan then asked me, ‘Is there anyone you’re interested in?’”

Robbins had an ace up his sleeve, for he had known the illusionist Teller for many years. The non-speaking half of the duo Penn & Teller saw the show, agreed with Robbins’ assessment and stated his interest to direct. Robbins recalls further conversation with Schuster.

“We have a director ready to sign.” “Who is it?” “Teller.” “Teller? Does he talk?” “Yes, he talks, and when he does, we listen.” “Great!”

In Las Vegas, Robbins and Teller started with a blank slate. “Teller told me, ‘Let’s put everything you’ve done and everything Penn and I have done off to the side. Let’s think about what we’d like to put on the stage.’” All ideas were open for discussion but without the prerequisite of known tricks.

“The thing of a trick that exists and figuring out a presentation is very much like buying a suit off the rack and having it tailored. Instead, go to the tailor who knows what they’re doing and have something truly custom-fit.”

With that philosophy, veteran magician Johnny Thompson was brought into the mix. “It’s kind of a hackneyed thing to call him ‘the Yoda of Magic,’ but Johnny is. He’s the go-to-guy, having done magic for over 50 years. So we came up with all these things we wanted to see on the stage, and then threw them to Johnny. We brain-trusted the whole thing between the three of us, along with the wonderful Thom Rubino [illusions engineer]. The end result was we could do anything we wanted.”

What doesn’t kill you…

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

In September 2010, Play Dead had two weeks of workshop performances in Las Vegas. Two months later it opened Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. Death was invited to come out and play, which it did for a 10-month run. Another Drama Desk nomination followed for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”

Within the framework of a suspenseful, entertaining show, Robbins and Teller chose to create an interactive 3-D production: with the 3 D’s as Death, Darkness and Deception. Upon entering the theater, the thematic impact resonates. File boxes rest on the stage, but not just any file boxes. “These boxes each have a name on them, and in each of them are items from people’s lives; people who had their lives defined by their relationship with death.”

“This includes Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy; Ed Gein, one of the most horrific serial killers ever and the inspiration for Norman Bates, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs; William Castle, the delightfully cheesy horror filmmaker of the 1950s with Shock-a-Vision and The Tingler; to Dorothy Bembridge, a friend of mine who was the most devoutly religious woman I had ever met, who knew every word of the King James Bible by heart and spent her near 90 years in a relationship with God understanding what was coming after she left this realm.”

Robbins mentions the conjuring up of disreputable spirits during the show. Among those materialized are Mina “Margery” Crandon, the Boston socialite who held orgiastic séances raising more than the dead, as well as cannibalistic serial killer Albert Fish, the “Brooklyn Vampire.” Robbins cleverly adds depth to the meaning of a “dark” show with a throwback to the Spook Shows from the 1930s to 1970s.

“These magicians back in the day, after the main feature [film] was over, would do an hour of spooky magic onstage. They would finish off with ‘It’s the Witching Hour! It’s amazing what’s going to happen. Ghosts and ghouls will reach out and grab you.’ As he’s saying this, the Frankenstein monster would come towards him. The magician would yell, ‘No! Not me! Them!’ The monster would turn toward the audience and walk up to the footlights where flash pots would shoot off. Then absolute darkness. All hell would break loose.”

When asked if the Play Dead audience will be plunged into darkness, the charismatic Robbins replies with devilish relish. “Yesssssss.” His Long Beach graveyard antics from almost four decades ago are back.

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

Audience participation is a key element. Robbins emphatically states, “There are no audience ‘plants.’ Everyone who comes onstage is because I’ve looked at them a split second before saying, ‘Come with me.’ It’s amazing what people will do when you ask them nicely. …Even when killing them. It’s a show about death. You’ve got to kill at least one person.”

Like a sideshow carnival barker, Robbins offers a final pitch as to why audiences should flock to see Play Dead. “If people will come out of their tech-haven homes, we guarantee them an experience that will be the best way they can spend 75 minutes of their life. They will walk out of the Geffen Playhouse alive because they spent 75 minutes playing with Death.”

“It’s akin to the roller coaster ride where you scream and then you laugh. That’s what we’re going for — in equal measures. You will be terrified and love it!”

Play Dead, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood 90024. Opens Wednesday. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Also Mon Nov 25, 8 pm. Dark on Thanksgiving Day. Through December 22. Tickets: $57-$87. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

**All Play Dead production photos by Michael Lamont.

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LA Stage Times

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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¡Ser! Kicks Anzoategui from LA to BA (Buenos Aires) and Back

by Amy Tofte | November 15, 2013
Karen Anzoategui in "¡Ser!" Photo by Ed Krieger.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Karen Anzoategui wants to open your eyes.

With roots and upbringing in both Argentina and East Los Angeles, Anzoategui has attempted to understand her sexual identity as “a gender queer Latina” (in the words on her website). Her quest has encompassed everything from personal doubt to vocal activism. Her new solo show traces her journey using one of her greatest passions — soccer (or fútbol, depending on your continent). ¡Ser! (one of the Spanish verbs for “to be”) opens Saturday at the Latino Theater Company’s downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center.

“It started from me wanting to tell a story of the Latina community — my story — which I didn’t see anywhere,” says Anzoategui. “And also wanting to connect to other Latinos and the Chicano community.”

Anzoategui is a bundle of potential energy on a break during tech week. She percolates in her chair at a busy sidewalk café in downtown Los Angeles. She speaks of the area as her natural habitat, the place where she has spread her wings as both an artist and an activist. And where — for the last seven years — she has developed ¡Ser! into a meditation and discovery of who she really is within this community.

Karen Anzoategui

Karen Anzoategui

Anzoategui describes her own perception of Latinos in LA as “not as united as they could be.” She took political action in 2006, attending downtown protests regarding the H.R. 4437 immigration legislation. “You feel that energy, and then I felt that connection with others there,” says Anzoategui about the protests. “And I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted there, either, because I’m Argentinean and there are so many stereotypes within our own community. But I found a connection [to the others] and it was beautiful. And what a great way to have dialogue with others — at a protest.”

Her newfound activism had long-term effects on her world view and personal identity, she says. The two ideas merged as a creative impulse for the show. “And that’s when I wrote the first 15 minutes.”

The LATC production offers some final fruit for Anzoategui’s labors. After years of workshops, rewrites and smaller productions, this official premiere puts all the pieces in place with the crucial last element of musicians accompanying the show live and integrating an original score into the performance.

“It’s like an orchestrated show now,” says Anzoategui. “The action that happens is aided by the music. I actually had the vision for this particular version [of the show] from the beginning and to finally see the musicians and to hear them be a part of the action is a dream. It’s what I imagined all along for this show.”

The lead singer and co-composer, Cava (Claudia Gonzalez-Tenorio), joins Walter Miranda and Louie Pérez (Los Lobos) in writing and arranging songs specifically for ¡Ser! Anzoategui credits the Latino Theater Company for helping her reach this polished incarnation of her show.

CAVA

CAVA

Last year, Anzoategui submitted her press packet for ¡Ser! to the company. While meeting with the company’s program director and literary manager, Chantal Rodríguez, Anzoategui shared her full vision of what the production could become — with the live music a key addition. She got the gig as part of the company’s 2013-2014 Season.

Anzoategui and Cava first met while working on Evangeline, the Queen of Make Believe, a musical based on the songs of David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez at the Bootleg Theater last May. Anzoategui played a principal role, with Cava performing the vocals in the band. Their working relationship at Bootleg blossomed into mutual respect as artists and fellow Latinas living in Los Angeles.

When the opportunity arose at LATC, Anzoategui knew the time had come for a new collaboration. Cava was immediately intrigued by the project but also wary of the daunting task, particularly due to the personal nature of the piece and the subject matter of challenging sexual identity within a traditionally conservative culture.

“It was even difficult to decide how to approach [creating the music],” explains Cava. “None of us knew how. [Anzoategui] told me about one of her characters which happens to be her father and, according to her, like James Brown. So in trying to extract ideas from her, that’s how I pretty much got to know her on a very personal level. Which is what the story does for us — it takes us through such intimate details of [her] life.”

Not a regular theater collaborator, Cava approaches the task as an extension of Anzoategui’s storytelling. The process began by walking and reading through scenes with director Marcos Nájera and Anzoategui before turning to actual songwriting. These final weeks have brought the pieces together, with even more discoveries made in the rehearsal room.

“It’s still a process,” says Cava. “We’re still figuring it out. Seeing her rehearse and watching her move through the scenes inspires us and we still get new ideas.”

Anzoategui knew when she first wrote the piece that she would take her dramatic cues from soccer. With the natural tension fostered between team rivalries and her own passion for the sport, it seemed a natural fit to explore her personal journey tackling domestic violence, an overly macho brother and her own questions about her sexuality.

Karen Anzoategui

Karen Anzoategui

The metaphor for Anzoategui is one of being kicked between her two identifying cultures — Buenos Aires and Los Angeles.

Working on the text and performance on and off for more than seven years also gave Anzoategui the opportunity to grow personally and include new elements of her life into the story.

“It’s challenged me on a personal level to look at all my own barriers,” says Anzoategui. “And these are my own self-imposed barriers. It became important to the audience as much as for me to say my words on stage. I really go to the scary places [now] that I wasn’t able to go to before.”

Anzoategui is quick to point out that amid all the darkness is plenty of humor and vulnerability, something she has been keen to develop with Nájera. Cava finds such nuances to the story an asset for the music.

“Her story alone influences a lot of different ranges that I get to reach as a singer,” says Cava. “But it’s also challenging because I am my own leader and have my own thoughts. But in this case I have to follow [Anzoategui]’s lead. I’m getting to know a lot of things about myself. This is my first time to do anything like this.”

Cava usually performs with anywhere from three to eight musicians for a given show. ¡Ser! features four musicians with Anzoategui in Theatre Three at LATC. As the team completes tech week, all have come to appreciate the impact of both spoken word and musical score.

“[Anzoategui] and I have very similar upbringings,” says Cava. “We have a saying in Spanish: Ni de aquí, ni de allá. I’m not from here, I’m not from over there. I’m Mexican. I’m very Mexican here. But I go to Mexico and I’m white over there. So you have to create your own little country here. I understand that.”

From John Leguizamo to Lily Tomlin and Reggie Gaines (who mentored her last year while in NYC with the piece), Anzoategui studies other solo artists whenever possible. She recounts a visceral reaction to Leguizamo’s part-fiction, part-autobiographical one-man show Freak when it aired on HBO in 1998 — realizing she had found the one thing she really wanted to do in life.

Karen Anzoategui

Karen Anzoategui

“I’ve started to develop my own style influenced by so many people,” says Anzoategui. “The people in the [Los Angeles] community started to know what I was doing. So I kept doing my solo work because it became more important for me to do my own work.”

Anzoategui continues her activism with LGBT, immigration and other issues. She would like the show to tour, bringing her story to even more audiences.

“[Creating this show] was very important to me because I felt like I was not accepted,” says Anzoategui. “I thought maybe if I told my story and we see how much we have in common, perhaps that could be a bridge to connect ourselves. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

¡Ser!, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street, LA. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through Dec 8. Tickets: $15 – $30.  thelatc.org/2013/shows/ser. 866-811-4111.

**All ¡Ser! production photos by Ed Krieger. 

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