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Hey CTG, Your Fanny’s in Fullerton

by Don Shirley | September 17, 2013

In late 2011, Center Theatre Group had to cancel its upcoming tryout of a new and supposedly Broadway-bound Funny Girl, because the Broadway producer pulled the plug.

Too many of the Broadway backers had reportedly changed their minds about the $12 million project before it even opened in LA. From news accounts, at least a few of these backers questioned whether the planned star, Lauren Ambrose, had the vocal chops and the mass-media fame to sing “I’m the Greatest Star” convincingly, not to mention all the other numbers in the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill score. They apparently doubted that Ambrose could be the new Barbra Streisand, perhaps forgetting that Streisand herself wasn’t especially well-known before she starred in the original Funny Girl.

For LA audiences, the incident illustrated the pitfalls that can occur when an LA production becomes entirely too dependent on whether enough money will be raised to mount a continuation of the show on the other side of the country.

Funny Girl 1. Photo by Isaac James.

Nicole Parker and ensemble in “Funny Girl.” Photo by Isaac James.

But what if CTG could become the beneficiary of an already mounted Funny Girl tryout at a smaller local theater, rather than slavishly playing the role of the theater that presents the first tryout on behalf of all those people across the country?

Wouldn’t transferring a locally-developed Funny Girl to CTG be easier and perhaps even less expensive to CTG than relying on Broadway investors who really don’t care about LA audiences? If the locally produced version took off at CTG, Broadway backers could still resume their interest in it, but it wouldn’t have all those Broadway expectations weighing it down from the get-go.

This situation seems to be staring CTG in the face right now, as word is spreading about the phenomenal performance that Nicole Parker is giving as Fanny Brice in the 3-D Theatricals revival of Funny Girl — playing one more weekend in Fullerton, followed by one additional weekend in Redondo Beach.

The Irvine-reared Parker is probably best known as one of the stars of the sketch comedy TV series MADtv (2003-2008). Sketch comedy — whether in the theater or on TV — is probably an excellent training ground for the kind of broad comedy that Fanny Brice herself performed in burlesque and the Ziegfeld Follies nearly a century ago. And, judging from the belly laughs that erupted from me on Sunday in Fullerton, Parker is indeed a remarkably “funny girl” when she performs onstage shtick in the Fullerton production.

But can she sing? Well, after MADtv, Parker played Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and on tour. It’s one of the most vocally demanding roles in the current Broadway repertoire. I didn’t see her in Wicked, but after seeing her in Funny Girl, I want to see her in Wicked too — or just about any other vehicle that will give me the opportunity to listen to her sing.

Early in 2011, the CTG website posted an audition notice for the role of Fanny Brice in its the soon-to-be-doomed production. It began with these encouraging words: “No agent? No Equity card? No problem!” Apparently this was written before the producers realized that “no fame” would indeed be a problem for a would-be star of a 2012 Funny Girl on Broadway.  The post is still there as I write this, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s taken down after someone at CTG reads this column. But here’s the key description of what the Funny Girl producers were seeking:

Funny Girl 2

Nicole Parker and Gregory North

“The woman who will play Fanny Brice must have an unforgettably thrilling voice with a big range (E below middle C to a high F; Mezzo with a high mix or belt) and great comic skill, masking deep insecurity and pain. She is a once-in-a-generation talent, and must have excellent comedic timing.”

CTG, meet Nicole Parker.

Actually, I suspect that CTG has already met Parker. It has been rumored that Parker was in the running for the role of Fanny in that 2011 non-production

I have no idea how Ambrose might have handled the role. But if I had been casting it solely on the basis of their previous claims to fame — Ambrose for TV’s Six Feet Under and Awake and Sing! and a couple of Shakespeares in the Park (in other words, no high-pressure sketch comedy, no musicals) and Parker for MADtv and Wicked — I would have gone with Parker. And that, of course, would have been long before I actually saw and heard Parker bringing Fanny to vibrant life in Fullerton.

If CTG were to now rush to Fullerton and strike a deal, Michael Matthews should also be part of it. Yes, the director known here for his many recent achievements in small theaters has staged what seems to be his first production in a larger Southern California theater, and he has done a terrific job. He’s a prime example of the kind of award-winning LA director who is usually overlooked at CTG, in its attempts to keep its connections to New York on track.

The just-announced Ovation nominations might even provide a little extra incentive for CTG to cooperate with 3-D in finally fulfilling its earlier plan to bring Funny Girl to LA audiences. The 3-D production of Parade from earlier this year just won a dozen Ovation nominations — more than those for any other 2012-13 show, including any single CTG production. That’s as many nominations as CTG’s largely imported production of Parade earned in 2010. Judging from what’s on stage, 3-D is no community-theater operation.

So it would make sense for CTG to cultivate a relationship with such a quickly rising company as 3-D, especially as 3-D’s Orange County base is sufficiently far from LA that there probably isn’t much overlap in their separate audiences. The same couldn’t be said about the late Reprise, which was the last vestige of a professional musicals-dedicated theater company on a level above 99 seats in the northern half of LA County. By the way, Reprise’s longtime musical director Gerald Sternbach wields the baton at Funny Girl.

Perhaps CTG is shrewd enough to have already been quietly looking into these possibilities? I doubt it, but I’d gladly suspend my disbelief. In the meantime, CTG brass, do you want me to send you a link to the Google Maps directions on how to get from downtown LA to Fullerton?

**All Funny Girl production photos by Isaac James.

Funny Girl, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, then moves to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach  Sep 27-29, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sep 29. www.3DTshows.com. 714-589-2770.

Funny Girl isn’t the only musical about a performer from the Fanny Brice (1891-1951) era that’s playing right now. At the Colony in Burbank, Daniel Beaty’s Breath and Imagination opened Saturday, providing a look at a very different contemporary of Brice’s, Roland Hayes (1887-1977).

Karan Kendrick and Elijah Rock in "Breath and Imagination." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Karan Kendrick and Elijah Rock in “Breath and Imagination.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Hayes, the son of ex-slaves, became a star on the classical music circuit at roughly the same time that Brice became a star on Broadway. This was long before African Americans were known for singing Schumann as well as spirituals.

The two productions both use flashbacks as a structural framework. Just as Funny Girl’s Fanny is looking back on the eve of re-uniting with her husband who is being released from prison, Breath and Imagination’s Roland is looking back on the eve of opening an integrated music school in his native Georgia — in 1942.

Fanny is about to receive an emotional jolt. Roland has just received a physical jolt — he was beaten while investigating the arrest of his wife and daughter for shopping for shoes in a whites-only arena. Both shows offer prominent roles for the singer’s mothers.

At this point, however, the two productions veer in somewhat opposition directions. Breath and Imagination remains a chamber musical, with only three onstage performers, a single set filling in for many settings, and no intermission. Funny Girl is Broadway-big.

Beaty’s play relies on, yes, breath and imagination. The breath is from the singers — primarily Elijah Rock as Roland. His isn’t a performance of Brice-style belting. It mixes spirituals with a few recitative-style numbers, written by Beaty, with excerpts from Schumann, Scarlatti, Gluck and Fauré in their original languages. Rock is classically trained, and his singing is a joy. The script makes a big deal about Hayes finding his own voice, and Rock’s voice has a timbre which is distinctive in its own way, hardly by-the-book in any of the genres employed here.

The imagination relied on by this play has to be supplied primarily by the audience. The show covers nearly 50 years in 90 minutes, so we have to fill in a lot of the gaps. Parts of the script, especially near the beginning, steer precipitously close to an instant, empty sentimentality. Roland’s mother (Karan Kendrick), half-angel and half-human, is the primary victim of this tendency. The ending, too, feels artificially upbeat.

Kevin Ashworth and Elijah Rock

Kevin Ashworth and Elijah Rock

The third actor on stage, Kevin Ashworth, is not only the piano accompanist but is called on to play a panoply of quick-sketch roles, from cracker racist to Roland’s father to male and female voice teachers to…the king of England. While Ashworth’s facility in these roles, as well as on the keyboard, is impressive and intermittently amusing, assigning all these roles to one man struck me as primarily an economic instead of an aesthetic decision on Beaty’s part. Still, given the problems with the script, Saundra McClain’s staging and Rahn Coleman’s musical direction are masterful.

Of course the Colony has to think about economics too, having survived a near-death experience last year. Make sure you allow enough time to read artistic director Barbara Beckley’s program note, in which she goes into considerable detail about how the Colony’s ability to start a new season is due in part to a grant from the Marilyn P. and Wayne H. Kohl Memorial Fund — thanks to some enterprising research and connections from the Colorado-based father of Colony executive director Trent Steelman. Under these circumstances, listening to Beckley welcome the audience back for another season was almost as joyful as listening to Rock sing.

Even with its flaws, Breath and Imagination is not one of those familiar small shows that has been making the rounds of so many midsize theaters — it requires some imagination to have found it and to have programmed its West Coast premiere. It’s an indication of why it’s important to keep the Colony breathing and imagining.

**All Breath and Imagination production photos by Michael Lamont. 

Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Oct 13. www.ColonyTheatre.org.  818-508-1754.

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LA Stage Times

CTG’s New Seasons — There is Hardly Any ‘Here’…Here.

by Don Shirley | September 3, 2013

Gertrude Stein, writing about the transformation of the site of her previously pastoral childhood home, coined the phrase “there is no there there.” Sometimes I get the feeling that Center Theatre Group is telling Angelenos that “there is no here here.”

CTG has announced the next seasons at all three of its theaters. Once again, I’ve scanned the latest programming plans of LA’s biggest non-profit theater company, in search of even the tiniest hints that Center Theatre Group is actually located in Los Angeles.

Luis Alfaro, "St. Jude" playwright

Luis Alfaro, “St. Jude” playwright

This has become an annual ritual in this column — see last year’s edition here. In terms of having any effect on CTG programming decisions, it’s an almost entirely fruitless endeavor.

Last year I reported that CTG had eliminated its previous pledge to produce programming that “reflects and informs our own community” through “stories inspired on our own streets” and through “collaboration with other Los Angeles theatres and ensembles” — language that I had kept citing as evidence that CTG wasn’t living up to its own goals.

However, CTG has not stopped calling itself “L.A.’s Theatre Company.” This self-designated moniker subliminally suggests either that CTG is LA’s only theater company, or that it’s somehow the most locally-oriented of LA’s many theater companies. Of course, neither of these assumptions is true, yet in the program for CTG’s production of A Parallelogram, recently at the Taper, I found eight uses of “L.A.’s Theatre Company.”

This year, after looking at the three seasons announced over the last five months for the CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre, I have some advice for anyone who wants to see something about LA from CTG — don’t leave town later this month.

CTG is packing almost all of its seriously LA-oriented programming for the next 12 months into the three solo shows that open the Kirk Douglas season in late September, in tandem with the Radar L.A. festival.

Two of these are by veteran LA solo artists. Luis Alfaro grew up in LA, and his St. Jude is about his late father. Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King (which I saw at the Bootleg Theater) is a meditation on the life and death of one of recent LA history’s pivotal characters. The third show in the package, Trieu Tran’s Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, is an immigrant’s autobiographical tale. It  premiered last year in Seattle, and reports from there indicate that hardly any of it takes place in LA, but at least the storyteller lives in LA now.

Michael Urie in "Buyer and Cellar"

Michael Urie in “Buyer and Cellar”

The only other offering in any of the CTG seasons that is specifically set in the LA area is another solo — Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar, which is scheduled to be performed by Michael Urie next summer at the Taper. Currently playing in New York, it’s a comedy set in Barbra Streisand’s basement in Malibu — which doesn’t sound like an ideal location for a play if a theater company were striving to “reflect our own community” through “stories inspired by our own streets”. But of course, those are no longer among CTG’s goals.

Tolins, by the way, used to be an LA playwright. He moved to Connecticut four years ago. He never received a CTG production when he lived in LA. Yet CTG hardly could have been unaware of him — two of his more ambitious plays, The Twilight of the Golds and If Memory Serves, received their premieres at the Pasadena Playhouse, and later his Secrets of the Trade opened at the Black Dahlia. (When the CTG press release on the Taper season takes note of these plays, it doesn’t mention the premieres that took place in LA, but the New York theaters where those plays eventually landed are mentioned).

His If Memory Serves was mostly set in LA. But it had a cast of eight. Nowadays — and perhaps in 1998 when it opened, too — any play with eight actors is about eight times less likely to be produced than a one-person show such as Buyer & Cellar, for fiscal reasons. Besides the Douglas opening solos and Buyer & Cellar, CTG has scheduled three additional solo shows for the coming year — one at each theater (A Word or Two, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, I’ll Go On). I suppose that with CTG having completed its fifth consecutive fiscal year in the red, according to a June 12 Mike Boehm report in the LA Times, we shouldn’t complain excessively about CTG’s excessive use of solo vehicles.

However, it’s especially bad news that the only LA content in the next CTG seasons is occurring in the solo format.

Danny DeVito in “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Johan Persson.

Danny DeVito in “The Sunshine Boys.” Photo by Johan Persson.

CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie himself can help explain why that’s a problem. “We live in the most diverse city in America, surrounded by people passionate about self-expression,” he writes on the CTG website. While it’s true that diversity sometimes can be approximated by one actor playing many different parts, it’s a lot easier to reflect diversity within one play by using diverse actors numbering…more than one, perhaps?. If LA is so diverse, why not program at least one LA-oriented play at CTG that reflects at least a fraction of LA’s diversity in the casting?

For that matter, is LA is so diverse, couldn’t at least one of the writers of CTG’s scant LA-focused material during the coming year be a woman? Are no LA women writing about life on their home turf?

Now let’s take a quick look at where the rest of the CTG’s productions for the coming year are set.

The Ahmanson will take us to New York (The Sunshine Boys), Neverland (Peter and the Starcatcher), Germany (Harmony), Catfish Row in South Carolina (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), the future (We Will Rock You) fairyland (Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty), the Vatican (The Last Confession — a Taper season show at the Ahmanson) and literary-land (A Word or Two).

Besides the previously mentioned Malibu (Buyer & Cellar), Taper destinations include Bucks County Pennsylvania (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Paul Robeson’s life — most of which occurred in the Northeast or England  (The Tallest Tree in the Forest), England (What the Butler Saw), and an assisted-living facility (Marjorie Prime), for a drama inspired by experiences from the family history of playwright Jordan Harrison, who was raised near Seattle.

After the initial solo shows at the Douglas, the remaining plays are set in suburban Long Island (The Black Suits), Beckett-land (I’ll Go On), England but possibly with a few allusions to LA (A Christmas Carol — Twist Your Dickens!) and a small town in Idaho (different words for the same thing).

For those who might be measuring the gender stats, different words for the same thing is written by a woman, Kimber Lee, as is the adaptation of Porgy and Bess by Suzan-Lori Parks (book) and Diedre L. Murray (score) at the Ahmanson. All the other creators are men — but that’s a topic that might be worthier of comment by women.

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North in "Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Mikah Smillie.

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North in “Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty.” Photo by Mikah Smillie.

However, as an Angeleno who would like to see more representation of my own surroundings on the stages of “L.A.’s Theatre Company,” I intend to keep beating this particular drum.

Should I give up on seeing the CTG-commissioned Pretty Filthy, a Civilians show about the porn industry that involved a lot of research in the San Fernando Valley several years ago? How about Laural Meade’s CTG-commissioned play about public education in California? Did anyone at CTG see the Southern California-set Sideways in its little premiere at the Ruskin in Santa Monica and think about getting involved in its development, which came to fruition this summer at La Jolla Playhouse?

For that matter, many of us could start rattling off lists of smaller productions in LA — at least some of them set in LA — that might bring something fresh to the Kirk Douglas. Let’s not forget that the idea of offering Douglas opportunities to smaller LA companies was the model initially laid out by Michael Ritchie himself when he took the job — but after a few such collaborations took place, that idea now seems to have vanished.

So, apparently, have most signs of LA itself at CTG. “L.A.’s Theatre Company” means merely that most of CTG’s audience members and donors come from LA, not that they have much of a chance of seeing their own environments  represented on CTG’s stages.

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LA Stage Times

Radar L.A. Is Again on LA’s Radar

by Les Spindle | August 28, 2013
"Shun-Kin" by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre. Photo by Sarah Ainslie.

“Shun-Kin” by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre. Photo by Sarah Ainslie.

Next month, LA will again play host to Radar LA. Following its debut in June 2011, the international theater festival returns September 24 for a second edition. This collaborative project is presented by REDCAT and its parent institution, CalArts, in association with Center Theatre Group and a consortium of partners including the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

Key driving forces behind the festival are two local members of the Radar curatorial team — Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT, and Diane Rodriguez, director of new play production and associate producer at Center Theatre Group.   According to Murphy, “We are launching REDCAT’s 10th anniversary season by actually doing what amounts to a whole additional season within the first week. We also want to have a lot of local theater organizers, producers and artists as well as our audiences participating in symposiums in addition to coming to performances.“

On the Radar

Diane Rodriguez and Mark Murphy

Diane Rodriguez and Mark Murphy

The 2013 festival’s eclectic bill of fare will be concentrated in several venues in LA and vicinity over an eight-day period — although several productions open before the festival or will extend briefly beyond the festival. The event will include a diverse mix of 18 offerings, emphasizing new works with an interdisciplinary focus, plus other challenging fare.

Among the wide-ranging productions this year are presentations showcasing visiting artists and ensembles from New Zealand, France, Mexico, Chile, the UK, Japan, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Colombia. Among Southern California artists and companies offering programming are Luis Alfaro, Roger Guenveur Smith, Trieu Tran, Theatre Movement Bazaar, and CalArts Center for New Performance.

Performances will take place at REDCAT, Los Angeles Theatre Center and a few other downtown sites; Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City; the UCLA and CalArts campuses and the Getty Villa. An up-to-date performance schedule is maintained online.

Discussions will include a symposium focused on contemporary theater and performing arts, with an emphasis on innovative and cross-disciplinary approaches to developing new theatrical forms. Also, a delegation from the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts will convene at the festival as part of the network’s Caravan program, exploring ways that artists from different regions of the world are contributing to the evolution of contemporary culture.

For Rodriguez, the continuing artistic growth of the festival is a gratifying payoff following her longtime efforts: “In 2011, I had originally wanted to do it with Olga Garay-English [executive director of LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs] and we wanted to have Center Theatre Group be the lead on it. And it felt like we needed another partner, so I asked Mark Murphy would he be interested in joining the team. And he was. Then Mark Russell joined the effort.”  Russell, the third member of the curatorial group, is artistic director/producer of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York

"Jerk" by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.

“Jerk” by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.

Murphy is grateful for Russell’s involvement: “Having a two-thirds LA and one-third non-LA brain trust is useful in terms of thinking of the impact of this as a national project on a larger field.”  But he also points to significant differences between Under the Radar and Radar, as well as similarities: “At Radar, there is an emphasis on having a strong presence of LA artists in the mix. Also, our international program is much more focused on Latin America and the Pacific Rim rather than Europe.”  Another key objective of the Radar festival, he adds, is “to look at influential artists who are playing a significant role in the evolution of the art form.”

Communal Advantages

Rodriguez cites similarities between Radar’s goals and those of her employer, CTG. “Radar is very much in keeping with the aesthetics we are trying to establish at the Kirk Douglas. We have been able to bring in some really aesthetically challenging work to the Douglas with some fabulous artists, including Rude Mechs, Tim Crouch, and Guillermo Calderon.

She acknowledges that traditional plays are sometimes included in the Douglas seasons — for example Come Back Little Sheba, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Paris Letter. “We cast fabulous actors and solo work, as well. But Radar feels like it’s very much in line with the vision of the Douglas. It also fully fits the ensemble-generated work that I develop through my department at CTG. It’s what I like to call hyper-collaborative.”

She explains, “All theater is collaborative, but hyper-collaborative means when collaborators are very much [involved] from the ground up on creating a piece. And the designer is one of the core creators. Think for example of having a director who is also the writer. Or a writer who is also the performer. This all goes beyond traditional collaborations.” She notes that REDCAT’s dedication to adventurous fare matches CTG’s efforts at the Douglas to reach wider and more diverse audiences.

Expanding Vistas

The number of performances is slightly expanded this year due to the partnerships with UCLA and the Getty Villa, Murphy says, and the fact that three productions are being offered by the Kirk Douglas Theatre rather than its single presentation in Radar 2011. He also points to more active commissioning of works and the development of works in residence, such as those from the LA Poverty Department  and choreographer David Roussève.

"Stardust" by David Roussève/REALITY. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

“Stardust” by David Roussève/REALITY.
Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

The number of venues has been broadened in recognition of the “vibrant and lively” pedestrian traffic downtown, Murphy says, supplementing the performances at REDCAT and Los Angeles Theatre Center. Historic downtown theaters will be included, such as the newly renovated Palace, the Million Dollar Theatre and the Tower, which has been used in recent years mainly for film shoots. Automata in Chinatown and downtown’s Grand Central Market also will serve as sites for performances.

Murphy predicts that increased accessibility to local audiences will draw more people into the Radar experience, helping to stimulate local awareness. He also believes this enriches the vitality of the neighborhoods. He attributes some of the group’s success in this expansion to funding from the national initiative ArtPlace America, which is focused on cultural activity.

He points to another significant change this year — “the first edition had been in conjunction with the national conference of Theatre Communications Group, and there was a lot of local attendance at these events, but it was also somewhat more built around the conference and the conferees — 1000 of our closest friends and colleagues.” Because the timing of the TCG conference is always in late June, “we did it at a time when schools, especially colleges and universities were not in session.”

This year, the Radar management aimed for a late September schedule “so there was more of an opportunity for engagement of the students and faculty from the region, which I think is a big plus.”

The budget for this year, he says, was “a little bit” larger. “There are different sources, but it is somewhat bigger because we had advance time to line up support for the commissioning activity and the residency activity, and some other larger projects, so there’s a more complex web of different subsidy sources this time.”

"Clouded Sulphur" by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn. Photo by Amanda Shank.

“Clouded Sulphur” by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn.
Photo by Amanda Shank.

What does he project for ticket sales this year? “We had approximately 11,000 separate admissions last year, and I anticipate that we will exceed that this time, partly because of the somewhat expanded scale of the program.”

He also cites the use of some larger venues as a factor here. “Of course, the actual attendance remains to be seen, but we are getting a lot of positive response. We’re really encouraging people to attend multiple events and making it affordable to do so.”  Tickets to most events are $15 if patrons buy a five-event pass for $75. Otherwise, they are $25. He notes, “That makes it really possible to see multiple things, and in a single day.”

Rodriguez adds, “Following our first Radar adventure in 2011, we now have UCLA with Kristy Edmunds [executive artistic director of UCLA Live] as a partner. We also have the Getty Villa. Now it feels like there’s a little more of a West Side presence — while we also build up the core of the festival, which is downtown.”

Two Creative Visions of the Healthcare Crisis

Among this year’s highly varied bill of fare, two veteran Los Angeles-based theater artists are creating original works that are vastly different in style and scope, but both encompass timely themes of contemporary healthcare.

Award-winning LA playwright-performer-teacher Luis Alfaro frequently works with theater companies across the nation, and held a job in play development for several years with Gordon Davidson at Center Theatre Group. He performs in and wrote a highly personal new biographical solo play, St. Jude.  It originally began development last year at the Ojai Playwrights Festival (where its second part was workshopped earlier this month) and now premieres in Radar at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Rodriguez invited Alfaro to present the premiere in the festival after seeing it during its early development.

You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons by Manuel Orjuela. Photo by AP/William Fernando Martinez.

“You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons” by Manuel Orjuela. Photo by AP/William Fernando Martinez.

Alfaro has frequently written works inspired by his earlier years in LA. “I like to write about the world around me,” he says, “but this is definitely my family piece. It’s about when my father got ill, and I took care of him for a year. Then at the end of the year, the same illness came back and he eventually passed. “

Alfaro says he initially wondered whether audiences would want to see a dramatization of this story, but he ultimately found an interesting way into the piece: “What does the  healthcare industry do, how does it work, and how can I tell such a  story in a different way — a way that might be funny and interesting?”

He notes that when he was teaching theater at CalArts in previous years, and tried to do some research at a hospital in Saugus, he found that doing interviews there or dealing with topics having anything to do with medical care involves concerns about liability and patient confidentiality.

“So the interesting thing about spending a year and a half in the hospital taking care of somebody, it kind of suddenly opened the door to all of those questions I wanted to ask. I could actually see how it all worked.  I met a lot of doctors and a lot of nurses. And specialists. So all that research that I previously thought I would do for somebody else’s play ended up being the opportunity for me to really learn it through my own experiences.”

He’s finding the experience of developing and performing this play challenging: “My emotions are intense at the moment, but it’s rewarding at the same time. You have to sort of relive it a bunch of times, but there’s something very honorable in giving life to someone’s life.”

Luis Alfaro and John Malpede

Luis Alfaro and John Malpede

Alfaro says that the play partially evolved out of regular “500-word” Facebook posts he wrote while caring for his father and dealing with his worsening condition. He and Ojai producer-artistic director Robert Egan, who directs this production, worked together to shape these episodes into a narrative. Alfaro says the anecdotes flowed very naturally into place.

In addition to Alfaro’s play, Center Theatre Group is also offering two additional solo pieces at the Douglas as part of Radar L.A.:  Roger Guenveur Smith’s  Rodney King, and Trieu Tran’s Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, also directed by Egan, charting Tran’s experiences with his family escaping from Vietnam when he was six years old.

Meanwhile, John Malpede  is developing Hospital, the other Radar offering that explores problems surrounding the hot-button international topic of healthcare. He is artistic director and founder of the 28-year-old Los Angeles Poverty Department, which enlists many of its performers from the skid row district in downtown L.A. This is the first performance group in the US composed primarily of homeless and formerly homeless citizens.

The multitalented Malpede acknowledges that LAPD exhibits some similarity with artistic paradigms of L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, which focuses on urban collaborations, community involvement, and site-specific productions.

Malpede previously was invited by REDCAT to develop and produce his play Looking for Paul at that theater in 2010 and he subsequently staged it in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. In Health, he is coordinating the collaborative play development effort between two companies — the Wunderbaum company in the Netherlands and American actors from his LAPD troupe. The Wunderbaum actors will soon be in LA, as Malpede proceeds to assimilate the separate development efforts.

"El Gallo" by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.

“El Gallo” by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.

He explains: “Both LAPD and Wunderbaum create works as a group process. They are very compatible — but also different, which is one reason we all want to do the project — for stimulation.” He says that the Dutch actors are bilingual, and the US performances will be totally in English. He remarks, “In the Netherlands, I expect that some of the text will be delivered in Dutch.” Malpede states that LAPD has created several bi- or tri-lingual productions in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bolivia.

From Malpede’s description, Hospital sounds like a thematically ambitious work: “Beyond being satiric, the play looks at a trajectory of healthcare leading to today’s reality, problems and possibilities. Both in the Netherlands and in the US, healthcare is talked about in terms of cost containment and the ruinous effects of escalating costs as percentage ‘GDP’ to the economic health of the nation.  All very rational, but we’re talking about people facing illness and death, people in a maximally emotionally vulnerable place.”

He points out that in the US, health problems often spell economic ruination, “which means additional psychic trauma.”  He describes the challenge of this piece as “employing a whiplash from one pole to the other, in search of a humane and ethical course for people and society in sickness and in health.”

Beyond the 2013 Radar

Murphy and Rodriguez are optimistic about the future of the Radar festival. Rodriguez admits, “Obviously our second-year fund-raising effort was stressful, but it was amazing how many people came in and how many foundations really supported it. It would be fabulous every year to know we had a certain amount of money to even begin our fundraising effort.  We would know if we could plan a small festival, or if we can raise enough money, a larger festival.  We’re hoping Radar continues and grows. And that it’s something people will really remember and come to LA for. I think it really puts us on the map as this place where you can see this amazing international festival.”

Murphy concludes, “We’re very interested in the idea of it becoming a biennial event. Nothing is ever 100% certain, and all depends on being able to build on the momentum and find the support necessary, but our hope is that in 2015, it will come back to life  again in some form. And towards that end, we are anticipating that aside from that — even after this edition of the festival — we will continue to be active in identifying projects for commissioning and development support.”

Radar L.A., many venues in LA and one in Culver City. Officially opens September 24. Through October 1, although some events continue. Tickets: $25; $75 for five-show pass. www.redcat.org. 213-237-2800.

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LA Stage Times

CTG to Expand Its East LA Operations With MetLife/TCG Grant

by LA Stage Alliance | August 21, 2013

Center Theatre Group will use a $50,000 grant from MetLife Foundation and Theatre Communications Group to organize a series of workshops in its East LA costume shop space at 2856 East 11th Street, a few blocks east of the LA River and a few blocks south of the interchange of the 10 and 5 freeways — on the opposite side of downtown from the CTG headquarters.

The grant is one of six announced nationwide in the MetLife/TCG A-ha! program.

The statement announcing the grant identified “a key challenge” that faces CTG and other resident theaters is coping with “rapid changes in technology and cultural consumption.” CTG will “pilot a series of workshops and events” to address this topic at its “under-utilized costume shop and warehouse…This location, known as ‘The Shop’, will provide opportunities for residents from all walks of life to express their creativity, build community, and connect the craft of making theater to daily life. Through an action group representative of the East LA community, CTG will design and evaluate the workshop programming, identify potential partners, and actively market to community leaders and residents.

“CTG’s re-envisioning of The Shop will be an important contribution to the field-wide dialogue about the changing role of theater by testing an inventive model of community programming that utilizes an existing organizational resource, explores what it means to be a good neighbor, and leverages the need for creativity and theater-related skills in daily life.”

The A-ha! grants are intended to empower “TCG member theaters to take groundbreaking approaches to artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges and opportunities.  Seven theaters were awarded grants totaling $250,000 to either research and develop new ideas, or experiment and implement innovative concepts.”

Also receiving A-ha! grants in this round are Bag&Baggage Productions of Hillsboro, Oregon; Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, Golden Thread Productions of San Francisco, National Black Theatre Inc. of New York, The Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis and Young Playwrights’ Theater of Washington D.C.

More information about the program and its current and previous recipients is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE ARTS FIX FINAL

LA Stage Times

THE ARTS FIX: Cheap Yoga, and a Cameo from Jeff Goldblum

by Dani Oliver | July 30, 2013

Five small bits for your LA arts fix.

ARTS RESEARCH

The brilliant minds at the Dance Resource Center have just released a boatload of data gathered via the Cultural Data Project. Their thorough report (which is aesthetically pleasing, to boot) is a detailed analysis of the dance ecosphere in Los Angeles. There’s info on income breakdowns, types of artist employment, and attendance. If you’re involved in the LA dance community, you should definitely take a peek.

CHEAP SCRIPTS

Samuel French is in the middle of a midsummer sale. You have until August 4 to stock up on all those scripts you’ve been meaning to read. (Or, if you’re me, to stock up on more apartment decor that doubles as a constant, symbolic reminder of your deficient literary prowess.)

Jeff Goldblum

Jeff Goldblum

Bonus: Sam French’s Facebook page tells me that Jeff Goldblum stopped by recently. If that isn’t incentive to visit, I don’t know what is.

TECHNOLOGY

An intriguing Facebook app has recently been released for public beta testing by Center Theatre Group.

The company’s big idea is to allow Facebook friends to publicly organize trips to CTG productions. Dave Alton, CTG’s Chief Information Officer, says that the app will make it easier for friends to purchase individual tickets to shows but also give them the ability to coordinate seating arrangements. That sounds like it might make life a whole lot easier. It also sounds like a smart marketing move for the company; each time an outing is planned, it shows up on your Facebook wall for all your friends to see.

COMPANY SPOTLIGHT

Did you know that 24th STreet Theatre offers $5 yoga on Monday nights, taught in both English and Spanish?

Once a week, the company turns its stage into a bona fide yoga studio and invites the community in. It’s a mixed-levels class and, true to 24th STreet’s mission statement, it’s about making yoga accessible to as many people as possible. This is fabulous, and as a new yoga devotee myself, I hope to run into some of you there.

THE BIZARRE

David Ley, a drama professor at the University of Alberta, has developed a new technique to help singers “reduce vocal tension and enhance resonance.” How does he accomplish this? With a simple tool: a small, hand-held… vibrator. Really. Just watch the video.

 

If you’re a singer and Ley’s technique has piqued your interest, you’re in luck. Elissa Weinzimmer, a graduate student of Ley’s, is offering a class for Angelenos on Wednesday, August 7 at Anthony Meindl’s Actors Workshop on Melrose. And don’t worry, the ticketing site says loaner vibrators will be provided at the workshop. (Unless, of course, you want to buy your own.)

 

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LA Stage Times

Comedy Tonight: Yes, Prime Minister, Neva, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Bob

by Don Shirley | June 17, 2013

Comedies and farces are frequently funnier if something within them provides a shock of recognition — the feeling that the writer is reflecting something that’s happening within our own lives or our own culture. Even if it’s set in a different culture, it’s still important for us to be able to trace a common human connection.

Of course the details might be exaggerated for comic effect. Carrying a concept or a situation to its logical extreme is often the best way to get laughs along with recognition. But if the play veers too far from recognition or from logic — into the realm of fantasy — the fragile connection to our own lives may be severed.

Tara Summers, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean in "Yes, Prime Minister." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Tara Summers, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean in “Yes, Prime Minister.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Yes, Prime Minister, at Geffen Playhouse, is a prime example of how a script that is set in another culture can still stir up plenty of laughs based on the shock of recognition, without tipping too far into fantasy.

The Geffen production is the American premiere of a very British play, but it isn’t just for anglophiles. The leading characters are a chief executive — in this case, the prime minister — and his closest aides, who try to control his agenda and his sources of information. If you don’t think a similar dynamic could exist in the White House or, for that matter, in private-sector executive suites, then you haven’t been paying much attention to recent or not-so-recent American history.

In the case of this 2010 play, which was adapted from a long-running British TV series, the issues these people are facing sound remarkably current — such as economic recovery from a massive crash and the fate of a proposed oil pipeline (no, it isn’t the Keystone but it also start with a ‘K’ — the oil in this case would come from the fictitious country of Kumranistan). By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a map get such a big laugh in another play as I heard when a map of this proposed pipeline was unveiled on a screen during Yes, Prime Minister. I will describe it no further so as not give away the gag.

Still, even with that big laugh I just mentioned, if the subject matter sounds insufficiently “sexed up,” don’t worry. This is a farce, and the dilemma facing the characters also includes a request by the Kumranistan foreign minister for the prime minister’s office to provide some entertainment from prostitutes while he’s staying at Chequers, the prime minister’s country estate. Or course enough American politicians (and Secret Service agents) have recently been involved in their own prostitution scandals for us to sense that this is far from being an extra-terrestrial scenario.

Tara Summers and Michael McKean

Tara Summers and Michael McKean

In the Geffen program, at the end of an interview with the director and co-writer Jonathan Lynn (the other co-writer is Antony Jay), Lynn acknowledges that “we have made a few changes for the sake of clarity for an American audience. For instance, we added more information about the European Union, because audiences here may not be that familiar with it. The first editor of The Guardian famously said of his readers: ‘Never overestimate the readers’ information but never underestimate their intelligence.’ That’s the balance we try to strike with audiences.”

That’s a balance that David Mamet failed to strike in November, his recent farce with somewhat similar characters but with a setting in the White House (first produced in 2008 but seen at the Mark Taper Forum last fall). Mamet’s play is obsessed with trivial situations that were seemingly detached from any real-life issues. If Mamet was trying to make the point that government leaders are too obsessed with trivia, at the expense of bigger issues, it didn’t come off that way. It seemed as if he didn’t want to reflect on real issues because he didn’t want the play to be trapped in time. But the script’s issues were so inconsequential that the play felt lifeless, no matter when it was supposed to be set or when it might be produced.

There is one other major issue that’s treated in Yes, Prime Minister, primarily near the end of the play — climate change. This is the point at which an American audience might discern a big transatlantic gap. In the play, doing something significant about climate change is proposed as a way out of the Kumranistan mess, even though this prime minister doesn’t sound as knowledgeable or committed to the subject as even Margaret Thatcher did in prescient comments more than two decades ago. Despite any wavering opinions of his own, however, he sees action on climate change as the politically viable solution — never mind whether it’s necessary.

Dakin Matthews and Michael McKean

Dakin Matthews and Michael McKean

In America in 2013, of course, most people think such action on climate change is necessary, but it’s still considered politically dangerous, primarily because the party that controls the House still has to bow down to those who deny the science. Almost unwittingly, the American premiere of this play illustrates the difference between the two systems — in the UK, the prime minister is either the head of the majority party in the legislature or at least a coalition government, while in America the legislature can still be controlled by the president’s opponents, leaving the president to rely only on scattered executive orders in order to get anything accomplished on certain subjects.  If you think about this in those terms, you’ll certainly take no comfort from concluding that after all, the shenanigans in this play are ultimately British, not American.

Lynn’s cast is mostly American and mostly wonderful. The only Brit is Tara Summers, whose program bio begins with the words “British Actress.”  But the cast includes a number of familiar LA theater faces: Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean (in the title role), Brian George, Time Winters, Stephen Caffrey. In the Shavian tradition, the play has a lot of words, perhaps a few too many, but I would never cut the elaborate and deliberately obfuscatory arias spoken to perfection by Matthews.

Then again, one of the funniest moments is virtually wordless, and it’s given to Jefferson Mays — also an American, though not so much an LA actor — as he self-consciously tries to tone down his look into something more casual. Known for his ability to transmute into many roles within one production (he did his multi-tasking solo performance in I Am My Own Wife for the Geffen), he remains one very consistent character here despite his brief efforts to change his look. His performance is a formidable comic concoction.

**All Yes, Prime Minister production photos by Michael Lamont.

Yes, Prime Minister, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Ends July 14. www.GeffenPlayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

Opening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on the same night as Yes, Prime Minister was Andrea Thome’s English translation of Neva, Guillermo Calderón’s little play in which Chekhov’s widow Olga Knipper (Sue Cremin) and two fellow Russian actors Ramón de Ocampo, Ruth Livier) are huddled together around a heat lamp in 1905, rehearsing and fretting while intimations of revolution rage outside. Fitting the size of the play, Neva was presented not in the main Douglas auditorium but rather in a small upstairs rehearsal room.

Sue Cremin and Ramon de Ocampo in "Neva". Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Sue Cremin and Ramon de Ocampo in “Neva.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The production closed at the Douglas yesterday but now moves on to South Coast Repertory, where it will play this week. From there it moves to La Jolla Playhouse for another week.

Neva made quite a splash at the Radar L.A. festival in 2011 in its original Spanish-spoken, English-subtitled version at REDCAT, from Chile’s Teatro en el Blanco. In retrospect, the reactions were probably due primarily to the unusual stage directions that apparently call for no lighting other than the heat lamp. The production conveys a shadowy, rather dreamy quality, thanks to the restricted lighting.

This is an unusual look for what is essentially a comedy about three neurotic actors worrying about their performances, their images, and about whether what they do has any meaning compared to what’s happening on the streets outside the theater. These, of course, mirror some of the concerns and moods in the work of Chekhov himself, who also considered his plays to be comedies but whose writing usually is described with words such as “bittersweet” and “melancholy.”

On second viewing, it’s hard not to compare Neva to Chekhov’s plays, and — no surprise here — the comparison favors Chekhov. Neva looks like a minor experiment more than a major original. If you lower your expectations accordingly, you might find yourself at least momentarily entranced by Neva. But a warning to all lighting designers out there — no one has that title in this production, and you may feel that the production instills professional irritation and foreboding more than dreamy comedy.

Neva, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Wed 7 pm, Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat  3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555. Then at La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego, June 26-30.

And now for two comedies that fly too far into fantasy for the shock of recognition to really kick in.

Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, revived by International City Theatre, begins with the intriguing premise of a woman (Alina Phelan) in a café discovering that a fellow diner has died when he won’t answer the annoying ringing of his cell phone. This quickly turns into a comedy of manners, more or less, as the woman takes charge of answering the man’s phone, pretending that she knew him. She soon becomes obsessed with offering fictitious but presumably soothing lies to his grieving relatives about the man and his relationships to the bereaved.

Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in "Dead Man's Cell Phone." Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

So far, so good, in Richard Israel’s staging — there’s nothing wrong with this production. But by play’s end we still don’t learn enough about why the protagonist  takes this course of action. And Ruhl pursues a self-consciously wild narrative that takes the woman to another continent and then to the afterlife and turns the play from successful comedy of manners into unsuccessful sketch comedy.

By the way, as I was leaving for Long Beach to see Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I couldn’t find my own cell phone. So in the back of my head, while I watched this play with “cell phone” in the title, I was a little concerned about my own phone and where it might be. I’m not sure if this made me less receptive to the play. It might actually have increased my interest. But it also made me more aware that the play was from an era when people still mostly talked on their phones instead of using them to text or to check the internet. How time flies (for the record, I found the phone when I returned home).

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob: A Life in Five Acts, an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre, begins as a cartoon, not as a comedy of manners. A baby is born and abandoned in a White Castle in Louisville, only to be immediately stolen by an employee of the fast-food joint. She takes the infant and then the boy with her on an odyssey across America. As in Ruhl’s play, we have no idea why she does this, nor why she later dies. But that’s hardly the end of the play. Bob drags on as a long-winded cartoon in which many things happen for no reason, far into Bob’s adulthood.

I remember being marginally more engaged by Bob in its premiere, in Louisville in 2011 — I can’t say if that’s because the production was better than Chris Fields’ for Echo or if the play’s few charms are inevitably more fleeting the second time around. Probably the latter — the LA cast is capable enough, even if the production design isn’t nearly as lavish as Louisville’s.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone, International City Theatre at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Ends June 30. www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. 562-436-4610.

Bob: A Life in Five Acts, Echo Theater at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater.  Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Ends June 30. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. 877-369-9112.

I caught only one Hollywood Fringe Festival production over the weekend, but at more than two hours (with an intermission!) it’s surely one of the longest shows in the mostly short-form Fringe fare. And it sounds as if the new Good People Theater Company that’s behind this musical at Lillian Theatre is determined to continue producing in LA, in contrast to many of the other Fringe offerings.

Dominic McChesney and Audrey Curd in "A Man of No Importance." Photo by Shirley Hatton.

Dominic McChesney and Audrey Curd in “A Man of No Importance.” Photo by Shirley Hatton.

It’s the LA premiere of a musical, A Man of No Importance, which was created by the same team of Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally that turned out Ragtime.

This musical is much smaller and well, of less importance, than Ragtime, but it tells a story that gets more interesting as it goes along — in contrast to, say, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Bob. Set in 1964 Dublin, the title character is a middle-aged bus conductor who lives with his sister. The joy in his life revolves around the plays he directs in a church hall with amateurs, but his decision to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome sets him on a rocky road that eventually opens the door of his gay closet — with a number of grim results, although the ending feels somewhat artificially pumped up with feel-good sentiment.

While it isn’t a great musical, it’s consistently absorbing, and Janet Miller’s staging is powered by what sounds like an authentic four-piece Irish band (Corey Hirsch is the music director). Although there was an apparently last-minute substitution in one role, most of the Good People on the stage are good enough to treat the tale with the respect it deserves.

A Man of No Importance, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way at Santa Monica Blvd. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Sat June 29 2 pm. Ends June 30. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1093. 323-455-4585.

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LA Stage Times

David Thompson Wrote the Book for The Scottsboro Boys

by Ed Rampell | May 29, 2013
The Scottsboro Boys cast. Photo by Craig Schwartz

“The Scottsboro Boys” cast. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The trials and tribulations of the nine young African Americans known as the Scottsboro Boys were a cause celebre for many of the activists involved in civil rights and left-wing causes during the Great Depression, and the case remains a touchstone for racial injustice in America.

In an interview backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where Center Theatre Group’s production of the musical The Scottsboro Boys opens tonight, librettist David Thompson describes the 1931 incident in northeast Alabama that set off a train of tragic events that still reverberate:

“In this case nine boys’ lives were completely destroyed. The boys were on a train, they didn’t know each other [for the most part], there were lots of people on the train, there had been some fighting on the train. The train was stopped right out of Scottsboro [Alabama]…They [authorities] gathered up the nine boys.

“They also gathered up two [white] women dressed as boys. Those two women [Ruby Bates and Victoria Price] were just hustling… they were mill workers, young girls looking to survive. They were in overalls and they were going to be thrown into jail, too… for the Mann Act, for prostitution. In order to get out, they did the best they could — they lied… They cried that they had been raped.”

David Thompson

David Thompson

In this true-life story, composer John Kander and Fred Ebb re-discovered a quintessential theme found throughout their musicals, Thompson says. “We thought what an interesting story to tell, because here they are, they’re trapped, they have to get out and they don’t have power. Right there, that’s a very Kander and Ebb story. You look at Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman – they’re people who are trapped in these circumstances. And they go to extraordinary measures to try and escape or to make something better of that situation they’re in. I think that’s what drew John and Fred to the material. And off we went.”

Kander and Ebb created The Scottsboro Boys — their final joint work (before Ebb died in 2004) — with their longtime collaborators, book writer Thompson and director Susan Stroman, who also directed Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash The Producers. In Scottsboro the creative collective tapped into, deconstructed and subverted stage stereotypes and show biz traditions, including blackface, minstrel shows and nostalgic Stephen Foster-type Southern ballads called “plantation melodies.” In upending and spoofing theatrical tropes the team baffled some audience members — Scottsboro’s Broadway run lasted only 49 performances.

Thompson concedes, “It’s not typical theater fare… it’s a very difficult piece of theater. If you were going to choose between this and Mamma Mia!, chances are in the world of Broadway the audience would have preferred” the Abba-inspired musical. However, Scottsboro — which had originated Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in early 2010 — scored 12 Tony nominations (winning none) and eight Drama Desk nominations (winning for Ebb’s lyrics).

The creative task facing the collaborators was how to take history, racism and actual personages and dramatize their saga, expressing all this in an entertaining way.  “We deal with the facts and history [but] what we are trying to do here is create compelling theater,” Thompson stresses. “So the way we tell that story is the most important… Fred would always say, ‘you can never pull back from tough material. You can never try and soften it or in any way make it easier for an audience by taking the edges off of it. But at the same time you must find ways to entertain the audience’.

“If we’ve done our job right,” Thompson added, “you’ll find yourself laughing, being drawn into the story. There’ll be moments where you’re thinking ‘I’m loving this melody’ — nobody write a more beautiful melody than Kander and nobody writes a funnier lyric than Fred. But at the same time, [as in] Cabaret, you’ll find yourself also wondering, ‘what were we thinking?’ Because some of the material is incredibly hard-hitting…So, it’s the balance between the two — I think that’s the genius of their work. They take you to a place, they seduce you to follow them to a place where you would normally not want to go, and all the while you’re being entertained.”

Trent Armand Kendall and JC Montgomery.

Trent Armand Kendall and JC Montgomery.

While it may have been true for the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon that “the play’s the thing,” for Kander, Ebb and Thompson one could argue the story was the thing. “At the end of the day you’re always looking to tell a great story that’s a great situation,” says Thompson, who attended Medill’s School of Journalism at Northwestern University and studied to be a lawyer. “In The Scottsboro Boys, to write it required a lot of the same work you’d do as a reporter if you were telling a real story — because we were telling a real story. There was a lot of work done, getting information, actual information, about the boys, the cases, the trials, what was happening in the country at the time. There are a lot of different ideas represented here, not only just about the nine boys themselves and the trials, but some of the things happening in the country…

“When you go into a historical story like this, so much of what you want to tell is already there; you don’t have to invent it, to fabricate it. A lot of the events in the story, some of the more outrageous things people say in the course of the play, are actually from or were inspired by actual things people did say or things that actually happened.”

The story has received previous stage treatments — even on Broadway, in John Wexley’s 1934 dramatization of the case, They Shall Not Die, in which Ruth Gordon played the witness who admitted she had lied. In 2002, LA’s Fountain Theatre presented Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, by Mark Stein, with music and lyrics by Harley White Jr., directed by the late Ben Bradley. It used a vaudeville format to tell the story.

Why bring this 80-year-old story back now? Actually, the genesis of the project began around 2000, Thompson explains. “John, Fred and Stro and I had worked on many projects, all the way back to 1986, when we did [the revival of] Flora the Red Menace together. We were always looking for projects to work on. So whether it was that or And the World Goes ’Round or Steel Pier — I worked with John and Fred on [the revival of] Chicago – we always looked for a project to do together. Because we loved to work together. Working with John and Fred is always about the collaboration and being together and coming up with stories to tell…

The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys

“We wanted to find a true story,” as opposed to “stories that are more fantastical in nature. We thought let’s find a story that has a meaty subject to it. We decided to look at court cases of the 20th century…and the Scottsboro Boys came up almost immediately, because we had been in this train before, with Flora the Red Menace and Steel Pier — both stories that took place in the Depression. That, coupled with the fact that Kander remembered the story of the Scottsboro Boys — as a little boy he remembered seeing the stories and headlines in the paper.

“Suddenly it became something we were drawn to. The more we investigated it, we saw that not only was it a story of so many disparate forces in America — civil rights, the North, the South, communism, the growth of the NAACP, all these bigger issues — in the middle of it was the story of nine boys,” who, due to circumstances beyond their control were cornered, like many Kander and Ebb characters.

What also intrigued the quartet was that before FDR was elected and the New Deal tackled the worst havoc wrought by the stock market crash, 1931 was “an extraordinary time,” Thompson says. In that year, “there’s so many things coming together. Over all of this is the beginning of the Depression. The entire country is looking for something, they’re trying to move forward. So the stakes are so high. On top of that you’re looking at a period of time that has its own distinct sound and music, in the way dance is used, and the juxtaposition of things that have great power, the way a story resonates for the public. That year just had so much in it; we thought, ‘yeah, we’ve got to stay here; we’ve got to look at this time’.”           

Thompson identifies “the pivotal point in their story” as “what happened when somebody lies. That moment where somebody, for whatever reason of self-preservation, they feel they have to, they lie and what happens? In this case nine boys’ lives were completely destroyed…When that lie happens, bad things happen.”

Deandre Sevon and Joshua Henry.

Deandre Sevon and Joshua Henry

As the nine innocent youths faced the electric chair, they continued to fight to clear their names. “There was a lot of effort to try and see who could represent these boys and do it most effectively,” Thompson says. “There was a little bit of a battle between the NAACP and the Communist Party to see who could properly represent the boys, and it was the Communist Party who actually was able to — took on the case and hired Samuel Leibowitz to represent the boys…He was not a Communist, but he felt this was something he could do that was an important case, that he wanted to make a difference.”

The Romanian-born Leibowitz was a New York Jew, and anti-Semitism and anti-Yankee sentiment play an integral role in the Southern bigotry that informs the show. This is particularly noticeable in the song “Financial Advice,” wherein the Attorney General sings — over Leibowitz’s strong objections — that Ruby Bates recanted her testimony because she was paid off with “Jew money,” which is taken from the record. Thompson states that in researching court transcripts and other documents, “the language itself was either repugnant or racially driven.” But “if it’s helpful and if it heightens the stakes or the emotions, we’ll use it.”  (Both Kander and Ebb were Jewish and Cabaret, of course, takes place as the Nazis rise to power in Weimar Germany.)

The musical unfolds by subverting minstrelsy, which caused bewilderment for some theatergoers and a protest outside of the Lyceum Theater in 2010 during Scottsboro’s brief run on the Great White Way. After a recent preview at the Ahmanson, an Asian-American woman expressed outrage that blacks played white roles and males female parts, complaining this “trivialized” the real-life tragedy.

Thompson explains the reasoning behind the creators’ choice of form in the play: “During the research…there was an article that talked about how the trials…had a feeling of a minstrel show. We thought that’s really interesting, because you’re taking an essentially extremely racist art form to tell a very racist story. What happens when you bring those two together? And how can you make that theatrical? In Kander and Ebb’s work they pull from that — they find it very generative to go in and find that art, to use that art form. To an extent, everything in Cabaret was in a cabaret number. In Chicago everything was in vaudeville. Suddenly, we have a music form we can pull from that can begin to inform how we use music and how we tell our story and give this story a dramatic edge that on one level is very entertaining and on another level very unsettling.”

Stereotypes are often fabricated as narratives by outsiders to describe, demean and demonize members of another group. During the 19th century and early 20th century, white entertainers with cork-blackened faces  depicted people of African ancestry as buffoonish, among other things. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation portrayed African Americans as brutes, over-sexualized and dim-witted. From minstrelsy to movies, including those with Stepin Fetchit-type caricatures, the negative imagery was generally conjured up by white performers and storytellers who misappropriated and misrepresented an embodiment of a minority for the dominant white-majority culture of ticket buyers.

"The Scottsboro Boys" cast

“The Scottsboro Boys” cast

Thompson argues that by using an all-black cast (except, in the Ahmanson run, for veteran Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Hal Linden of Barney Miller fame, who plays the Interlocutor) and only one woman — C. Kelly Wright as the Lady — the musical allows the disempowered to “take control.”  And as the storytellers, the wronged Scottsboro Boys are finally given the opportunity to tell their side of the story, as they saw it. Thompson adds that since leaving the Great White Way Scottsboro is “playing to the audiences that come to the theater ready to be challenged and see something unexpected.”

Asked how four white people could tell an essentially black story, Thompson responds: “You can’t — I mean you can. But you have to look at how you tell that story in the most truthful, authentic and responsible way possible, so that you’re really embracing what is the story. It takes a little bit more time, a little bit more sensitivity. And the other part to balance this out is you have to work with your actors and understand what they can bring to it as well. Which is a continuation of that whole collaboration story.

“We can only give them the story. They then have to own and draw from their own experiences. We can’t say we know what these experiences are to really feel. But we can work with them and create the piece to make sure it’s as honestly represented as possible…”

He says he can’t claim to treat the material “the same way a black playwright would…and I would be foolish to think that I could. But what I could do is find what was that story and tell it as authentically as possible. And if that was what I could accomplish, then there was no reason to be afraid of it.”

The redemption process for the wrongfully convicted Scottsboro Boys gathers steam. In April, Alabama’s state legislature passed a bill to permit posthumous pardons in the case, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law. Pending completion of bureaucratic paperwork requirements, the nine unjustly convicted men, whose lives were robbed from them, will be officially cleared. Democratic Rep. John Robinson introduced a resolution that was passed by the Alabama legislature in April declaring that the Scottsboro Boys “were the victims of gross injustice” and are considered to be formally exonerated. However, five of their burial sites are still unknown.

But what is known is that — along with the activism of Shelia Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro — the musical by Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson will help keep this grave miscarriage of justice in the public eye — and ear.

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Opens tonight. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Thu matinees, 2 pm, on June 20 and 27. No Sunday evening performances on June 23 and 30. Closes at the June 30 matinee. Tickets: $20-115. www.centertheatregroup.org.  213-628-2772. 

**All The Scottsboro Boys production photos by Craig Schwartz. 

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LA Stage Times

20th Century Torments in Our Class, Parade, Joe Turner’s, Royale

by Don Shirley | May 13, 2013

Can the stage produce anything about the anti-Semitism that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust that we haven’t already seen? Well, I’ve seen a lot of plays related to the Holocaust, but I have never seen a play structured like Our Class, currently being produced by Son of Semele in the southern space of Atwater Village Theatre.

Although the production had been scheduled to close yesterday, five additional performances have now been scheduled after a brief break. That extension is a welcome mitzvah.

The extension of Our Class also happens to coincide with a mighty revival of the musical Parade, which tells the story of what was probably America’s worst outbreak of the same fever that later would slaughter so many Jews in Europe.

Gary Patent (front), Alexander Wells, Dan Via and Sarah Rosenberg in Our Class. Photo by Kim Chueh.

Gary Patent (front), Alexander Wells, Dan Via and Sarah Rosenberg in “Our Class.” Photo by Kim Chueh.

But first, Our Class. Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek set most of it in a small town in Poland, his homeland. It’s a part of the world that was assaulted by a whipsaw in the prelude to World War II — conquered first by the Soviet Union and then by the Nazis, before returning to East Bloc communism after the war.

Our Class is fictional, but it’s based on the killings of most of the Jews who lived in the small town of Jedwabne, northeast of Warsaw, in 1941. This incident took place after the Nazis seized control of the town, and for years the Nazis got most of the blame for it. But in the last 15 years, historians have concluded that in fact the Nazis primarily provided cover for the dastardly deeds committed by the ostensibly Christian villagers against their Jewish neighbors.

Slobodzianek wrote about a group of 10 classmates — half of them from Catholic families, the other half from Jewish families. The saga begins in the late ‘20s, when the children play together amicably enough. But during the ‘30s, the poison from what we assume is happening in the adult society around the children gradually filters into their lives, culminating in the horrors of 1941. And that’s just the end of the first act.

After intermission, the play follows the survivors of the war all the way into the 21st century, while those who have died watch silently, mostly from the sidelines. By the end, it becomes clear that the savagery of 1941 has virtually ruined the survivors — including the remaining perps — to such an extent that they occasionally envy those who died.

Our Class is an intimate epic — reducing the scope of a world war down to these 10 people from this one town, but at the same time extending its examination of these 10 for more than 80 years.

For Son of Semele’s West Coast premiere, director Matthew McCray realized that the group’s own 36-seat space on Beverly Boulevard was simply too tiny for a play of this size, but he has retained the intimacy in Atwater by limiting seating to 50, who sit in a single row around the entire square stage.

In an email, he explained his decision to produce in the round at Atwater Village:

Gavin Peretti, Kiff Scholl, Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Gary Patent, Sarah Rosenberg, Michael Nehring and Alexander Wells in Our Class. Photo by Kim Chueh.

Gavin Peretti, Kiff Scholl, Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Gary Patent, Sarah Rosenberg, Michael Nehring and Alexander Wells. Photo by Kim Chueh.

“This play, which sometimes has five or six different narratives happening at the same time, needed more space for the audience to be able to track who was doing what. And I also felt that the extra space would be helpful for the audience on a comfort level as well, because the play is so intense emotionally.”

Obviously, a play that covers so many decades has to reject realism. Much of the story is narrated in story theater style. The same actors play their roles from childhood into old age (at least for those who survive the longest), so suspension of disbelief about age-matching between actors and roles is sometimes necessary.

The awful violence isn’t steeped in stage blood or actual flames. Many of the victims were burned or smothered to death inside a barn, and pieces of classroom furniture are used to suggest this. In a theater, this imagery is probably more effective than more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to suggest the violence with greater verisimilitude.

The audience should be prepared for a mental workout — not only in imagining the ultimately unimaginable but also in keeping track of the many characters and their fates. Still, if you arrive at the theater reasonably well-rested, you should have no problem being caught up in this sweeping, novelistic saga.

Despite the many decades covered here, the characters are not cardboard victims and villains. The Jewish characters are hardly saintly martyrs, and two of the Polish characters are seen helping Jews escape, in different ways. Even the most publicly unrepentant killers (who are also rapists) have moments of self-doubt during the play’s three hours.

The experience is dotted with musical interludes and accompaniments, usually with the actors playing instruments they retrieve from boxes along the sidelines. While the music by Sage Lewis and McCray is suitably atmospheric, some of the lyrics are difficult to understand.

The lyrics and the spoken lines are drawn from the English version by Ryan Craig, which was the text used in the play’s premiere at the British National Theatre, prior to the Polish premiere. But McCray has also drawn from a more Americanized text used at the US premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.

Kiff Scholl and Sharyn Gabriel. Photo by Mainak Dhar.

Kiff Scholl and Sharyn Gabriel. Photo by Mainak Dhar.

The actors become an impressively cohesive ensemble. I don’t relish singling any of them out, but I can’t help but heap honors on Michael Nehring, as the one Jew who escapes to America before the war. He recites two long lists of names in the play. In the first, he recalls his family members who stayed and died. Later he enumerates his younger family members who survive in America. The length of the latter list becomes a rare moment of affectionate humor near the end of the play, while the former is delivered with Lear-like power.

Our Class is closed next weekend in order to integrate an understudy into the ensemble for a few shows, although the original actor is expected to return later. Five more performances are now scheduled, from May 24 through June 2. That’s not enough. This Class should stay in session for months or even years — and perhaps eventually move into a space that could accommodate at least a few more than 50 spectators.

Our Class, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater. Fri May 24 and 31, 8 pm. Sat May 25, 8 pm. Sun May 26 and June 2, 3 pm. www.sonofsemele.org.

I wonder if the fictional Abram, the one Jew who escapes to America in Our Class, might have ever heard the story of Leo Frank, the Jewish pencil manufacturer who was charged with murdering an employee at his Atlanta factory in 1913 — almost exactly a century ago from now.

Frank was lynched by an anti-Semitic mob in 1915, shortly after his death sentence had been reduced to life imprisonment.

His story was told in the Broadway musical Parade, which has had two professional productions in Los Angeles County – most famously the Mark Taper Forum’s in 2009.

Now it’s being re-visited by 3-D Theatricals in Orange County, at Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium, and it packs a tremendous punch.

Perhaps, as with many complex musicals, seeing Parade more than once allows us to better appreciate it on different levels. I don’t recall having such an intense emotional response to Leo Frank’s fate in those two previous LA productions as I did in Fullerton last weekend — could it be, at least in part, because I had just seen Our Class as well?

Jeff Skowron in "Parade." Photo by Isaac James Creative.

Jeff Skowron in “Parade.” Photo by Isaac James Creative.

In Parade, note how a somewhat sentimental song sung by the mother of the murder victim Mary Phagan suddenly, in the last line, turns venomously anti-Semitic — a pattern that also occurs at a moment near the beginning of Our Class, after the classmates honor a deceased Polish leader with a song.

At any rate, T. J. Dawson’s staging of Parade overcomes the boxy and insufficiently raked aspects of the Plummer to reach deeply inside the audience’s heart, with a cast led by a picture-perfect Jeff Skowron as Leo and a remarkably precocious Caitlin Humphreys as Lucille Frank. Her program bio reveals that she is on the verge of getting her BFA from Cal State Fullerton, with a photo that makes her look as young as she apparently is — but from the evidence on the stage and in her voice, one would assume she is at least 15 years older.

It’s a big production — 36 actors on stage, 14 of whom have Equity asterisks by their names (not including Humphreys, but that shouldn’t last long), and an orchestra that sounds big. The designers include such respected names as Tom Buderwitz and Shon Le Blanc. Yes, 3-D is approaching the big leagues.

Jason Robert Brown’s score and Alfred Uhry’s book are in excellent hands, and so is the audience. Don’t forget to examine the blow-ups in the lobby of some of the original newspaper articles about the Frank case.

Parade, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Sat matinee on May 25, 2 pm. Closes May 26. www.3DTshows.com. 714-589-2770 ext 1.

In one of those articles in the lobby at Parade, the second references to the two original suspects in the murder of Mary Phagan are “Frank” and “the negro” (his name was actually Newt Lee).

Raynor Scheine, Lillias White and Glynn Turman in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Raynor Scheine, Lillias White and Glynn Turman in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

And in one of the songs in Parade, the black characters get to reflect on the irony that the Frank case is attracting so much attention from the Yankees, as opposed to the scant notice taken of many cases in which black defendants were railroaded and/or lynched.

In short, perhaps the most seriously threatened people during that period of American history were the African Americans who had been freed from the shackles of slavery 50 years earlier but who had yet to escape the many tribulations of Jim Crow — or, you might say, the influence of Joe Turner (aka Joe Turney), a white man who was able to impress young black men in Tennessee into peonage during the 1890s, long after slavery had supposedly ended.

Center Theatre Group is devoting two of its stages right now to African American characters of that era. Phylicia Rashad’s revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is at the Mark Taper Forum, while the premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Lynell George writes about the common themes of the two productions in an illuminating essay that is posted here and is also printed in the two programs.

Neither of the CTG plays depicts the perils of being part of the “other” group as directly and as graphically as Our Class or Parade. The CTG plays are more about the psychological journeys of the characters as they struggle to transcend the heritage of slavery.

Stylistically, however, Joe Turner’s and The Royale are almost 180 degrees apart from each other.  As with many of Wilson’s plays, Joe Turner’s is largely realistic, even when the material includes references to spiritual or other not-so-realistic phenomena. The climaxes of each act are beautifully executed in Rashad’s version, but I grew impatient with some of the play’s less vital moments in a way I don’t remember from the last Joe Turner’s I saw — the Fountain Theatre production in 2006.

The Royale is almost a piece of performance art as much as a play. In depicting a fictional version of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson (here named Jay Jackson), Ramirez and director Daniel Aukin have the actors functioning as percussionists (without any actual drums) as well as actors.

David St. Louis, Desean Terry and Robert Gossett in "The Royale." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

David St. Louis, Desean Terry and Robert Gossett in “The Royale.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The performances are compelling, but the play feels slender. Jay Jackson is seen confronting his anxieties about the racial repercussions of his successes — which he seems to fear more than defeat — but we don’t learn all that much about what actually happened to him in the wake of his victories. Perhaps Ramirez didn’t want to tread where Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope had already gone, but can anyone remember the last time The Great White Hope was professionally staged in LA? I don’t.

I would have appreciated a few more trims in Joe Turner’s and a few more turns in the tale of The Royale. But I’m staying tuned for another CTG dramatization of early 20th century black history in The Scottsboro Boys, coming soon to the Ahmanson.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm.  No public performances May 21-24. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

The Royale, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances this Tuesday or Wednesday. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

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LA Stage Times

Opening Night Photos for The Royale at the Kirk Douglas

by LA Stage Alliance | May 6, 2013

The Royale, Marco Ramirez’ play about the first black heavyweight champion, premiered Sunday night at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Directed by Daniel Aukin, the turn-of-the-century drama stars David St. Louis as boxer Jack Johnson alongside fellow cast members Robert Gossett, Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, Keith Szarabajka and Desean Terry.

Read our interview with playwright Ramirez (Sons of Anarchy, DaVinci’s Demons) by clicking here.

The Royale continues through June 2. Tickets are available in person at CTG box office, by phone (213) 972-4400 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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LA Stage Times

Haley and Cast Enter the Darker Corners of The Nether

by Larry Pontius | March 26, 2013
Jennifer Haley, Jeanne Syquia, Brighid Fleming. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

Jennifer Haley, Jeanne Syquia and Brighid Fleming at “The Nether” opening. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

“I was a troll.  I was like a purple troll with tusks.  I had huge feet.” LA-based Jennifer Haley talks before the premiere of her new play The Nether, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.  She’s  describing her avatar for the game World of Warcraft, a virtual fantasy world which people play over the internet, taking the form of strange creatures of their choosing.  “And I was female.  The trolls were sort of beautiful.  Tough and gorgeous.  I really liked that avatar.  I was really into her.”

Joining Haley are actors Brighid Fleming and Jeanne Syquia, two of the actors in Neel Keller’s staging of The Nether.

“I was a Blood Elf [in World of Warcraft],” says Fleming, who plays Iris, a virtual character in The Nether.  Fourteen years old, Fleming already is quite the accomplished actor, having appeared on stage and screen here and in New York City, including the plays The Pillowman, Woyzeck, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  “I liked that they were dark, strong, powerful, and beautiful at the same time.”

Dakin Matthews and Jeanne Syquia. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Dakin Matthews and Jeanne Syquia. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Syquia pauses before answering what would her avatar look like.  Finally, “I never wanted to play Mario, I wanted to play Luigi.  I liked how he looked better and liked green better than red.”  Laughter bubbles up around the table.  She’s still not sure what her avatar might look like.

Syquia has appeared in The Tall Girls, The Autumn Garden, and Sidhe, for which she received an LA Weekly nomination. In The Nether, she plays Detective Morris, the lead investigator. In the lobby of the Kirk Douglas, a board asks the question, “which avatar best represents you?”  Syquia spent some time pondering it.  “I was staring at it for a good 10 minutes yesterday, looking at all of them, and I had such a hard time trying to pick one.  There was this round character, round and white, kind of marshmallow-looking character that I responded to for whatever reason.”

All of this discussion of who are you “really” is one of the key themes that runs through The Nether, which takes place in the near future where people can explore and participate in virtual reality worlds, made by other users.  In the play, “the nether” is a future incarnation of the internet in which fantasy can become as real as reality, and maybe even a little better — or a little taboo.  Or really taboo, crossing the line of what society thinks is right or wrong.  But if it’s not real, is it wrong?

Jennifer Haley is an accomplished playwright, in Los Angeles and nationally. Her Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom is also about the boundary between reality and virtual reality,  in which teenagers are smitten with a video game that mirrors their own suburban neighborhood. It opened at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival in 2008 and has been produced at 16 other theaters. LA’s Sacred Fools Theater produced it in 2010.  Haley’s Breadcrumbs was a part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2010 and was produced by Theatre 150 in Ojai in 2011.

Haley was a part of CTG’s 2011-2012 Writers’ Workshop and has had residencies at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and Page 73.  She founded a network of local dramatic writers called the Playwrights Union, and she was the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner for The Nether.

Robert Joy and Brighid Fleming.

Robert Joy and Brighid Fleming.

“I had a teacher once say, ‘write what you hate,’ because you’re passionate about it in a way,” Haley says. “You passionately hate something.  I have a particular hatred of television procedurals.  Especially crime dramas with interrogation rooms.”  She feels they are clichéd, and she doesn’t like how everything always wraps up so neatly, with the bad guy defeated.  She asked herself, if she were to write one, what would it look like?  She added into the mix her interest in video games and virtual reality.  “I started thinking, I wonder if it’s a virtual crime.  What’s the worst thing you could do?  The idea really intrigued me.”

“I was going to write it as a 10-minute play,” she reveals.  When she was living in a house in North Hollywood, she had a backyard where she and fellow artists held salons and planned a 10-minute play festival.  Ultimately, she decided there was a whole play in the idea, and wrote it during the Playwrights Union’s February 2009 challenge. The goal of the yearly challenge is to finish a draft of a new play in a month, followed by a public reading a few months later.

While working on a different play in the Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop, Haley gave a copy of The Nether to CTG’s literary department.  Without her knowledge, CTG nominated the play for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.  She found out she had entered when she was told she was a finalist, and then she got the call that she won.  “Two weeks after I knew I won they released the finalists, and that’s when Pier Carlo (Talenti, dramaturg and CTG’s literary manager) called me and said, ‘and we want to produce the show.’ All of that happened very quickly, after not having any idea that any of this was brewing.  And that was all exactly a year ago.”

Upon reading the play for the first time, the actors at the interview had similar responses — that it was dark.  Fleming smiles, “I loved it.  Just that it’s dark, and she wasn’t afraid to be dark.”  The play was different from anything she had read before, and her role was going to be a challenge.  “It’s a great part for someone my age.”

“I sat there at the computer, and I was a little horrified,” recalls Syquia.  “I said to my fiancé, oh my god, this play is so dark.”  But the world intrigued her.  “I thought the idea was so interesting that there were these people in real life who then could become anonymous and have all these experiences they couldn’t have in the real world.”

Robert Joy and Jeanne Syquia.

Robert Joy and Jeanne Syquia.

Haley honed the script during a four-week rehearsal process. “In the workshops we had really discovered the structure of the play,” she says. With the structure set and the puzzle of the play figured out, Haley focused on how the scenes worked with the whole.  “I was still dealing with scenes that were jagged in some ways.  Arguments would go here and then there, they just weren’t as streamlined.  My thing was about looking at each and every scene, and how do I streamline it from the top of the scene to the end of the scene.”

While the actors would get new versions of scenes throughout the process, they had their hands full working out the intricacies of virtual reality and the near future, as well as dealing with the taboos of the play.

Syquia’s Detective Morris is tough and tenacious.  “I think Morris is such an interesting character because she’s so strong in so many ways, but there’s so many things that she’s tamped down,” Syquia says. As the play unfolds, the things that drive Morris reveal themselves.  “I thought that was a fascinating combination.”

“It’s been fun,” she continues, even though the work has presented its challenges.  “I think one of my biggest challenges, that I’m still working on, is how to have all the information that I do at the top of the play and let it out bit by but.  How the story affects me.”

Haley nods. “The detective who knows more than she’s revealing”…

Fleming’s character exists only in the virtual world.  Her purpose is to play the victim for those visiting this particular part of the nether, the victim of the crimes that Syquia’s Morris is investigating.  Fleming says, “I was nervous about it.  It wasn’t really all the other stuff.  But the fact I have to take off my dress in one of the scenes.  That made me nervous.”  Even though she wears clothes underneath the dress, for her, “It was just the motion of doing it.”

Robert Joy and Adam Haas Hunter.

Robert Joy and Adam Haas Hunter.

Haley chimes in, “I think you got over it more quickly than your scene partner.  Her scene partner is usually in a state of nervousness.”

Fleming jokes that the play in many ways falls in line with the work that she has also done in TV and film.  “I’ve been murdered.  And raped.  And just tortured.  They just like to see me die.”  Laughter around the table.

Haley realizes something.  “Which is interesting, because in even doing that, I’m following the tropes of these awful procedurals I can’t stand.

Fleming replies, “Always killing girls.”

The Nether is about people taking their lives and their fantasies onto the internet — something that isn’t merely a futuristic idea.

“I guess I am different online,” reveals Fleming.  “You can do whatever you want and you don’t feel like you’re going to get punished for it.  I don’t feel like I do it so much, but, I’ve heard a lot about my friends that I didn’t want to know about.”

Syquia, on the other hand, says she behaves the same online as she does off.  At one point, however, being present on the internet became too much. “I actually went off of Facebook for around six months this past year.”  It had become a morning habit: check email, check Facebook, and check the news.  And quitting it was tough.  “I felt like I didn’t know what’s going on in anybody’s life.  Because everybody only communicates that way.”

And, of course, shifting identities is also possible on the internet.

Fleming reveals, “I had this twitter person saying she was me.”  Fleming indeed has a twitter account, which she rarely uses and which isn’t based on her name.  Fleming’s mother discovered the identity theft and asked Fleming about it.  “She (the identity thief) was contacting all these people I knew and saying all these things.”  Fleming reported the incident to Twitter and went so far as to post a video, “which the thief claimed was spam.”

Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming.

Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming.

Syquia and Haley both believe that while virtual worlds may not be real, the emotions created in them are.  Syquia says, “I know so many people who are involved in serious relationships and/or married to someone they met and started a relationship with online.  You can’t deny that those emotions and connections are real.  And it’s so interesting that it goes on to shape their real-world lives.”

Haley brings up the tale of Manti Te’o, the football player who was the victim of an online hoax, in which he developed a relationship with someone claiming to be a female student, who later “died.”

“I’ve had friends say they think he knew it was a guy all along,” Haley says. “Who knows?  Everything he went through, of course it wasn’t real, but it was completely real for him.  Would you say to him, you shouldn’t have grieved?”

It isn’t clear to Haley which characters The Nether audiences will support at the end of the play. It might be up for discussion.  “I would love people to figure out whose side they are on, especially at the end,” she says.  “Instead of us deciding that something is right or wrong, why don’t we look at the motivations for why people do things.  Instead of just judging their actions.”

McGonigal and Jennifer Haley: Possibilities and pitfalls of virtual experiences.

 

 

The Nether, Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City 90232. Tue-Fri 8 pm. Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm, through April 14. Tickets: $20-50.  www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

All The Nether production photos by Craig Schwartz.

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LA Stage Times

Spring, Melancholia, Nether and Four Diva Shows

by Don Shirley | March 25, 2013

Two of LA County’s most prominent theatrical venues are being temporarily shape-shifted.

For Spring Awakening, the current production at La Mirada Theatre, the audience of up to 199 sits on the stage instead of in the 1,251 seats in the main auditorium. And at Los Angeles Theatre Center, a revival of Melancholia has moved from its most recent home in the 99-seat Theatre 4 to an even smaller-capacity venue in what used to be the Latino Museum gallery, across the downstairs lobby from Theatre 3.

Nick Adorno and Christopher Higgins in "Spring Awakening."

Nick Adorno and Christopher Higgins in “Spring Awakening.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

In both productions, the increased intimacy pays off. And coincidentally, both productions focus, at least in part, on the extreme pressures that drive a young man to suicide.

Stage depictions of this subject — more than most subjects I can think of — are likely to be enhanced by extreme intimacy. By reducing the dimensions of the worlds inhabited by these young men, the directors have encouraged their audiences to step into these suicidal characters’ pressure cookers.

The musical Spring Awakening, of course, is about much more than just the sad plight of Moritz (Coby Getzug), the young man who is driven to take his own life by the colossal sense of failure he feels after failing to pass with his class. It’s also about his free-thinking classmate Melchior, their sheltered friend Wendla (Micaela Martinez), a handful of other classmates and the adults they encounter in a provincial German town in the 1890s.

The setting comes from the original play by Frank Wedekind, but of course the reason why Spring Awakening has become a 21st-century phenomenon is because of the 21st-century music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. It’s one of those scores that rewards me with new insights every time I hear it.

Of course some of those insights, this time around, might be attributable to the close-up clarity of the lyrics that we hear in the new 199-seat thrust stage that has been built within the larger La Mirada stage. Or at least that’s how it sounded from where I was sitting on the west side of the action (the north and south sides of the stage also contain banks of seats). Josh Bessom designed the sound and John Glaudini is the musical director of the offstage band.

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

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

In most of the big-theater productions of the show that I’ve seen, seats were set aside for a few audience members on the stage itself. In those productions, actors occasionally sat and performed in those areas, too, side by side with audience members.

Most of the spectators in those big theaters don’t feel intimately connected to the action because of distances, but at least they can see that a lucky few audience members are in the thick of it. In retrospect, I guess that device was an attempt to provide the same effect that occurs more or less naturally in the smaller La Mirada staging by Brian Kite. Here, however, with everyone much closer to the thick of it, Kite saw no need to follow the custom of bringing a few audience members even closer.

Another big-theater Spring Awakening custom he has jettisoned is the use of hand-held mics, which were there primarily for visual effect in some of the more vigorously rhythmic numbers. Perhaps the original show’s creators thought this would help the score’s contemporary quality register more strongly, but Kite here proves that these mics aren’t necessary. In fact, in such close quarters they might even be distracting.

(Over the Moon Productions presented LA’s first intimate staging of Spring Awakening a year ago in a 99-seat theater in Hollywood; here is what I wrote about it. It followed the traditions of hand-held mics and a few audience members on the stage. But the configuration there wasn’t nearly as sharp a thrust as it is in La Mirada. Being aware of the audience on at least three sides of the action can be as much a contributor to the intimacy level as the actual number of seats.)

The La Mirada production is loaded with talent and takes full advantage of the excitement of the stage configuration. Austin MacPhee (a sophomore at UCLA!) has a more Teutonic look that any other Melchior I’ve seen, but his blond and juvenile looks make the dark and resolute tones of his voice all the more surprising. Martinez and Getzug brought me to the brink of tears in their portraits of Wendla and Moritz. All the adults are in the hands of two LA theater favorites — Linda Kerns and Michael Rothhaar, who work wonders with their ever-changing assignments. FYI for those who care, Kite told me the production is using Actors’ Equity’s HAT (Hollywood Area Theater) contract.

The cast of "Spring Awakening."

The cast of “Spring Awakening.”

In his remarks before the show started, Kite remarked that La Mirada has managed to build a new second stage while spending nothing on a capital campaign. Of course it’s a second stage that precludes the simultaneous use of the first stage, but it does offer a different kind of a theatrical experience to La Mirada’s audiences. If this pilot production becomes a series with fare similar to Spring Awakening, it might actually succeed in lowering the average age of La Mirada audiences by a few months, if not a few years.

Meanwhile, in downtown LA, LATC artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela is reviving Melancholia, the Latino Theater Lab’s surreal portrait of a PTSD-afflicted soldier’s return to East LA from the war in Iraq. It was last seen in 2007 in Theatre 4, just off the main LATC lobby, but now it’s in the former gallery space downstairs. The square space has a mere two rows of seats on three out of the four sides, with “backstage” areas in the corners and the playing area in the center of the room.

That room has a very low ceiling, by the standards of all the other theaters within the LATC building, which would be an obstacle for some shows. But here, the low ceiling and the generally murky lighting level contribute to the feeling of being inside this poor guy’s troubled brain.

Melancholia is an impressive piece of ensemble stagecraft, and it opened just in time for the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq.

Three actors (Sam Golzari, Xavi Moreno, Ramiro Segovia) take turns playing the leading role, further suggesting the fractured quality of young Mario’s psyche. The narrative is equally fractured, moving both backwards and forwards in time, but Fidel Gomez and Alexis de la Rocha play the otherworldly agents who more or less stage manage the proceedings and become our guides. Most of the other actors play several roles each. This is ensemble-“devised” theater of the sort that Radar L.A. favors, and I began to wonder if its current production is a prelude to an appearance in the return of Radar L.A. next fall — some of which will occur at LATC.

Fidel Gomez and Ramiro Segovia in "Melancholia.":

Fidel Gomez and Ramiro Segovia in “Melancholia.”

There was one unexpected kink in the Sunday matinee. In the home stretch of the production, just as Mario was about to re-live the combat scene that sent him reeling, flashing lights and a recorded announcement alerted everyone to an “emergency” that required us all to leave the premises by using the nearest stairwell. When it became clear that it wasn’t “part of the play,” the action stopped and everyone started to file out, only to be told within two or three minutes that it was all a mistake — a malfunction of the building’s alarm system, and we could return to our seats. The performance continued, but of course its momentum had been interrupted. The flashing lights were still flashing even as we finally left the building after the performance. Presumably, a lesson was learned.

Spring Awakening, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tues-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 7 pm and 10:30 pm. Closes Saturday. 562-944-9801. www.lamiradatheatre.com.

Melancholia, Los Angeles Theatre Center, LATC Gallery (downstairs), 514  S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, sun 3 pm. Dark on Easter, March 31. Closes April 7. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.

Last week, I wrote about two productions about men whose jobs require them to work all day at their computers — a situation that I had never thought was particularly dramatic. But it proved to be more exciting than expected in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at South Coast Repertory and Doris Baizley’s Sexsting at the Skylight.

Only later, after I had posted last week’s column, did it occur to me that another play was about to open that also covers the online world — but in a much more far-reaching and futuristic way than the plays I wrote about last week.

In Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, we are introduced to a virtual world that serves as a playground where people can violate the normal rules that exist in the non-virtual world, without fear of any consequences. Of course people can do that now, killing other “people” in online games. But The Nether is set far enough into the future that the online world can convey a much greater verisimilitude than exists in today’s gaming.

Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming in "The Nether."

Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming in “The Nether.”

And the favored activity in The Hideaway — the faux-Victorian online world created by Sims (is this character’s name a nod to SimCity?) — is having sex with virtual “children.”

A lot of theatergoers are likely to turn elsewhere upon hearing that. But they should know that we don’t see any graphic representations of this behavior on stage. We are asked to consider the notion that a virtual outlet for these kinds of proclivities might actually prevent those so inclined from acting out this behavior in real life. But because the dramatic situation is about a detective’s dogged pursuit of Sims, the other side of the argument is given just about equal weight.

In this play, we are far enough into the future that the prospect exists of some people crossing over into the online world on a full-time basis (also, we learn that most of the trees have disappeared from the world, and that the “internet” is the old name for what is now “the nether”.).

Neel Keller directs an expert ensemble.  There are some surprises that I don’t want to spoil by describing the characters and performances with too much detail, but here’s one that is irrelevant to anyone’s enjoyment of the play but which I couldn’t help noticing — Robert Joy, who’s very good as Sims, looks a little like Michael Ritchie, Center Theatre Group’s artistic director.

The design of the Hideaway (set by Adrian Jones, lighting by Christopher Kuhl, costumes by Alex Jaeger) produces something that looks as if it might be at home in a Disney theme park. This makes one of Sims’ angrier remarks somewhat ironic — he accuses the detective of trying to obtain his code and sell it to Disney.

This is a probing, mind-bending play to an extent that is rare among the predictable scripts that prevail on too many of our stages. Kudos to Center Theatre Group for producing the premiere of The Nether, especially as it’s by a writer, Haley, who is based in LA.

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes April 14. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

Speaking of predictable scripts, let’s look briefly at the burst of productions about famous women singers.

My favorite is End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s look at the final descent of Judy Garland, at the Ahmanson. It’s a real play, which seeks to do more than simply dote on a celebrity. Yet neither does its grim side leave us wondering what all the fuss was about surrounding Garland. Tracie Bennett’s performance is star quality personified, flaws and all.

At Pasadena Playhouse, Randy Johnson’s One Night With Janis Joplin is not a play. It’s a concert by, well, impersonators. They’re very skilled impersonators — not just of Joplin, but also of her black mentors — and the music is quite powerful at times. But seriously, a theatrical presentation about Joplin that doesn’t acknowledge that she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27? Really? Drama is about the bad as well as the good.

By the way, I hear that glow sticks were passed out to audience members at the opening of the Joplin show, but at the next performance the only thing offered to us as we entered was ear plugs. It was a nice gesture, but compared to the likes of such aural misadventures as American Idiot and Backbeat at the Ahmanson, the ear plugs really weren’t necessary.

Gigi Bermingham, James Lent and Jennifer Shelton in "Master Class." Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Gigi Bermingham, James Lent and Jennifer Shelton in “Master Class.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Like the Joplin show, Nuttin’ But Hutton dotes. This one, at NoHo Arts Center, dotes on Betty Hutton. But Diane Vincent doesn’t pretend she’s Hutton. Instead she plays a contemporary fan of Hutton’s who’s trying to mount this very production. Vincent’s husband Sam Kriger is the musical director; together they co-created it. At least it acknowledges that the ’40s/early ’50s movie star had a few problems, unlike the Joplin show in Pasadena. It’s fun, but I doubt that it’s fun enough to convince those with no prior knowledge of Hutton that they should immediately rush out and see her films.

Finally, a revival of Terrence McNally’s Master Class just opened at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Gigi Bermingham is wonderful as Maria Callas, and the students at her “master class” are skillfully portrayed (for those who haven’t seen it, this Callas is past her singing days and barely sings a note, but her students are warblers, if not the actors that she wants them to become).

Still, whenever I see Master Class, I start to zone out when Callas starts doing monologues about her past. They lack the intensity of her exchanges with the students. That’s what happens here, in Todd Nielsen’s staging.

End of the Rainbow, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N.Grand Ave., LA. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Thursday matinees, April 4 and 18 2 pm. No Sunday evening performances on April 7 and 21. Closes April 21. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400.

One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes April 21. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.

Nuttin’ But Hutton, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnola Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes April 28. www.tix.com. 800-595-4849.

Master Class, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes April 14. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. 562-436-4610.

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Rudolph, Scrooge, Mulholland, Other Holiday Icons

by Don Shirley | December 10, 2012

This year, many of LA’s biggest nonprofit theaters — Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, A Noise Within — are producing or at least presenting holiday-specific productions. Last year, none of these companies did so.

A coincidence? A sign of a recovering economy? Or, as holiday shows are sometimes considered easy-to-sell cash cows, is it a sign of a still-ailing economy?

I’ll let others ponder those questions. Meanwhile, I’m here to tell you that of the five holiday-specific productions I saw during the past week at companies large and small, the brand-new contraptions from Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse can’t hold a Christmas or a Chanukah candle to the other three, which are at theaters with longer traditions of holiday entertainments.

I hesitate to dub one of these three the best, because they are so different from each other, but I’ll start with the two that opened this past weekend.

First, the LA theatrical holidays would be grim indeed without something from the Troubadour Theater Company at the Falcon. This year’s Troubie holiday stew blends the story line from the 1964 (and perennially re-run) animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with the music of — The Doors.

Molly Alvarez, Matt Walker, Steven Booth, Beth Kennedy, Rick Batalla and Lisa Valenzuela in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS”

Yes, the result is called Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors.

The Doors, one of LA’s seminal rock groups, first got together in 1965, about nine months after the first broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A coincidence? I’ll let Matt Walker ponder that question.

Walker, of course, is the Troubies director, who’s blessed with the sort of creative mind that might well have taken note of that curious nine-month gap. In a program note, he quotes from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Walker clearly sees through somewhat wider chinks of his cavern than most of us do.

The lyrics of the classic Doors songs provide segues into the Rudolph story that are not only surprising but also surprisingly smooth. Of course, Rudolph (Steven Booth, a former Princeton from Broadway’s Avenue Q in his Troubie debut) is no conventional reindeer. His shiny nose sets him apart from his often disapproving neighbors, but it also endows him with a Cyrano-like charisma — he’s a rock star among the reindeer. You quickly stop wondering how the Doors could ever be a proper match for this story.

The Doors music, of course, propels the action forward with a sound and a beat that’s late ’60s, not mid-’60s. It’s the kind of music that the kids who first watched the cartoon in 1964 were obsessed with four or five years later. No offense to the original cartoon’s sound track, but it’s the Doors songs that provide the theatrical oomph that allows this mild-mannered TV show to explode all over a stage, especially when performed by Eric Heinly’s hot live band.

Steven Booth and Molly Alvarez

The individual actors unveil strong rock and roll voices, under the vocal direction of Rachael Lawrence. Probably the most dramatic vocal transformation comes from Kyle Nudo, playing the TV show’s elf who would prefer being a dentist. If he hasn’t already tackled the role of the crazy dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, someone should offer it to him soon.

This is also music you can dance to — and you’ve probably never seen deer dance like this, using Molly Alvarez’s precise choreography. But the entire production package is full of surprises — most notably, its representations of the TV show’s Abominable Snow Monster. Let’s just say that those who are squeamish about any kind of toilet humor might want to let those who appreciate funny toilet humor have the last remaining tickets to this show.

Sharon McGunigle’s costumes and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Ameenah Kaplan’s aerial choreography create some dazzling effects. The entire production glimmers as brightly as Rudolph’s red nose.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors, Falcon Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sundays (and Sat Dec 22) 4 pm. Sundays Dec 16, 30 and Jan 6, 7 pm. Closes Jan 13, 4 pm. www.FalconTheatre.com. 818-955-8101.

***All Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors production photos by Chelsea Sutton

Also opening this weekend was A Noise Within’s new production of A Christmas Carol. The company last tackled the Dickens classic in 1999 (at the Luckman) and 2000 (in Glendale), but this is a very different production, and it looks lustrous in the group’s new Pasadena home.

Geoff Elliot, Brendan Haley, Deborah Strang and Georgia Miller in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Jeanine A. Ringer’s fluid set design furnishes a versatile canvas for not only the actors but also for some stunning lighting by Ken Booth and elaborately fanciful ghost costumes by Angela Balogh Calin. The new space’s small balcony is used as the anchor for the chains that have trapped Marley (Mitchell Edmonds). Ego Plum provides a solid score that occasionally veers close to being a musical. Elliott plays Scrooge and Robertson Dean serves as the stalwart narrator.

With no intermission and using barely 90 minutes, the staging by Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott feels lean and swift, in comparison to the other variations of the same story that I saw last week.  But it doesn’t feel hurried — the emotional undertow is strong, as is the implicit socio-political commentary.

A Christmas Carol, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. This Thu 8 pm, Fri Dec 14 and 21 8 pm, Sat Dec 15 and 22 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun Dec 23 2 pm. www.anoisewithin.org. 626-356-3100.

Theatre of NOTE has revived its own holiday standard, A Mulholland Christmas Carol, which is almost Troubie-like in its mash-up of seriously dramatic material from LA history — the tragic saga of water engineer William Mulholland, the Owens Valley and the St. Francis Dam — with the narrative from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, accompanied by lots of singing and dancing.

Christine Breihan, Linda Graves, Trevor H. Olsen and Kirsten Vangsness in “A Mulholland Christmas Carol.” Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Bill Robens’ play is set during a Christmas season before the 1928 dam collapse that killed at least 500 people, just north of Los Angeles. Mulholland himself is the Scrooge figure, who’s visited by ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

It’s an ingenious and rigorously local holiday production that creates much mirth on the surface while also drawing attention to the meat under its bones. But it doesn’t fit the tiny NOTE space nearly as comfortably as the Troubie action fills the Falcon, and it seems a bit more prolonged than necessary — perhaps in part because the quarters feel so cramped.

Once upon a time, Center Theatre Group pledged to bring promising shows from LA’s small theaters into the limelight at its Kirk Douglas Theatre. Mulholland would be a great example of the kind of a show that might be improved by such a move. A musical in which the Ghost of Christmas Present is none other than Theodore Roosevelt might feel right at home in a venue that presented the premiere of a musical about Andrew Jackson.

Ron West in “A Christmas Carol Twist Your Dickens!” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Unfortunately, this year CTG decided to create a completely untested holiday show for the Douglas. And The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! flunked its test.

If that title looks ungainly, so does the show itself. Although it has a narrative skeleton based on the Dickens tale, it also departs from Dickens for the sake of several tepid comedy sketches. Lame attempts at improv based on audience suggestions don’t help. Staged complaints from a heckler in the balcony are all too accurate. At the performance I saw, the level of laughter never got far beyond a few polite titters. The talented cast appears to have been set adrift by writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort and director Marc Warzecha.

The Geffen’s new holiday show, Donald Margulies’ A Coney Island Christmas, is considerably better than CTG’s. Drawing on a Grace Paley short story, Margulies tells the tale of a Depression-era Jewish girl (Isabella Acres) in New York, who is called on to play Jesus in the school Christmas pageant, much to her mother’s distress. It’s set within the framework of a flashback from the perspective from the girl in her old age, living in LA in the 21st century, telling the story to her great-granddaughter.

Isabella Acres and Annabelle Gurwitch in “Coney Island Christmas.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

The script sometimes feels as if were constructed from a paint-by-numbers page, but it does provide opportunities for two school pageants — not only the Christmas show but also a Thanksgiving program in which the girl makes her acting debut as a turkey. Director Bart DeLorenzo’s cast — mostly talented young adults in real life — channel their more juvenile memories into a hilarious panorama of somewhat bored, somewhat curious, generally untalented kids who are bewildered by this thing called acting.

A Mulholland Christmas Carol, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes with a Sunday matinee on Dec 23, 2 pm. www.theatreofnote.com. 323-856-8611.

 

The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 6 and 9:30 pm, Sun 3 and 6:30 pm. Dark Dec 25. Closes Dec. 30. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

 

A Coney Island Christmas, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Dec. 30. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

Besides the instantly forgettable Twist Your Dickens!, Center Theatre Group is also presenting another play that’s set during the Christmas season. Opening last night at the Mark Taper Forum, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities doesn’t really qualify as a holiday-specific production; its New York productions weren’t timed for the holidays. Still, a Christmas tree is in the living room of the wealthy Palm Springs family that includes all the characters, and the two adult children of the family are there in part because of the holidays.

Robin Weigert, JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth in “Other Desert Cities.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In Other Desert Cities, the unseen ghost of Christmas past is the third child of the Wyeth clan, a young man who is said to have killed himself after he was involved in a fatal terrorist bombing, decades ago. His sister (Robin Weigert) has returned to the West from her East Coast home in order to break the news to the family that her long-awaited second book isn’t a novel but instead is a memoir about her older brother — a revelation that infuriates her mother (JoBeth Williams) and less overtly disturbs her father (Robert Foxworth), a retired film actor and GOP bigwig.

The premise isn’t especially fresh. Watching Robert Egan’s workmanlike staging, I found that even Takeshi Kata’s sleek Palm Springs modernist living room and Lap Chi Chu’s desert sunsets in the background didn’t prevent me from thinking occasionally about A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour, in which a son returns home to his starchy parents to seek their permission to have his autobiographical play produced.

However, if I recall The Cocktail Hour correctly, Other Desert Cities has a much more dramatic secret waiting to be revealed after all the fairly predictable backbiting and recriminations, near the end of the second act.

Of course, I can’t reveal the secret here, but I found its revelation and the play’s subsequent resolution — or lack of a clear resolution — problematic. A final coda set six years later raises more questions than it answers, and Baitz’s play has the kind of talky but realistic style that makes me suspect that he really didn’t intend the degree to which the ending feels ambiguous.

The last Baitz play I saw, The Paris Letter (in its recent revival by Group Rep), is a much more fleshed-out and multi-dimensional play, with its political overtones much more gracefully integrated into the narrative.

Other Desert Cities, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6 pm. Mon Dec 31, 8 pm. Dark Dec. 25. Closes Jan 6. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

 

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LA Stage Times

Robert Foxworth: At Peace in Other Desert Cities

by Deborah Behrens | December 5, 2012

Robin Weigert, Robert Foxworth and Michael Weston in "Other Desert Cities." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Robert Foxworth may play a Reaganesque actor-turned-politician in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, but it’s far from being a case of art imitating life. The seasoned Broadway and television star once financed his own radio show in the mid-’80s to counter the Gipper’s Teflon-coated media campaign.

“I was so frustrated watching the demeaning and diminishment of language by the Reagan administration,” says Foxworth during a mid-week lunch break from rehearsals. “They found a way to gut the language of meaning so that black was white, up was down, right was left and left was right. I mean it was an amazing piece of propaganda they were able to pull off.  I got so frustrated about it, I started a radio show.”

Robert Foxworth. Photo by Tom Munnecke.

Financed, produced and hosted by Foxworth, American Dialogues ran from 1985-91 and featured a spectrum of guests ranging from the artistic to the political. He estimated that the weekly 30-minute interview show was carried by between 100-200 stations. Friends at the time thought he was crazy, though it would prefigure future progressive radio networks like Air America, which coincidentally lasted the same length of time.

“I found out I could get an hour of satellite time for $50 and thought, “˜Hey, are you kidding?’’’ he remembers. “So I bought a little tape recorder and started going around interviewing people and talking about the issues. Trying to get around the edges of the Reagan administration’s blockade on intelligent thought and intelligent talk. I ended up actually building a studio in the apartment above my garage. Of course what started out being cheap and easy, ended up neither cheap nor easy. But it was really exciting to do. I felt like I got a degree in international relations or political science. I met all kinds of people that I never would have met otherwise.”

Foxworth covered topics such as US policies toward Central America during the Iran-Contra affair, the death of family farms and the rise of corporate power/takeovers. But by 1991 he had begun to burn out and wanted to return to acting full-time.

“It wore me out finally,” he admits. “The whole world of politics I had found very sleazy and very hard to deal with. I mean sometimes one hears how sleazy Hollywood is, but it doesn’t compare to the political world.”

The Road to Palm Springs Via San Diego

Other Desert Cities premiered Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater on January 13, 2011. Directed by Joe Mantello, it starred Stockard Channing as Polly Wyeth, Linda Lavin as Silda Grauman, Stacy Keach as Lyman Wyeth, Thomas Sadoski as Trip Wyeth and Elizabeth Marvel as Brooke Wyeth. The Outer Critics Circle named it the season’s outstanding new Off-Broadway play.

Robert Foxworth and Robin Weigert in "Other Desert Cities"

Nearly 10 months later, it opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, with Judith Light replacing Lavin and Rachel Griffiths taking over for Marvel. The remount garnered five Tony Award nominations — for play, actress in a play (Stockard Channing) and featured actress in a play (Judith Light, who won) among others. The play was also a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and earned a Drama League Award for distinguished production of a play.

This Sunday the Center Theatre Group presents the play’s West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by the Taper’s former producing director Robert Egan. The cast features JoBeth Williams as Polly Wyeth, Foxworth as Lyman Wyeth, Jeannie Berlin as Silda Grauman, Michael Weston as Trip Wyeth and Robin Weigert as Brooke Wyeth.

Other Desert Cities takes place during Christmas 2004 at the tony Palm Springs home of wealthy Republicans Polly and Lyman Wyeth. Daughter Brooke has returned after a six-year absence toting the manuscript of a family tell-all memoir she intends to publish. Polly and her newly-out-of-rehab sister Silda once wrote a string of successful comedies while Lyman is a former movie star turned politician. Their son Trip is a reality TV producer.

Foxworth has personal experience with someone who preferred the siren call of politics after Hollywood fame. The late actress Elizabeth Montgomery, his second wife, was the daughter of actor Robert Montgomery, who became a media appearance consultant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his own White House office.

Robert Foxworth in "Other Desert Cities"

“He ended up working for the Eisenhower administration and became very interested in politics,” Foxworth explains. “To a degree he looked back at Hollywood with some disdain after he had tasted power and what power is like, as opposed to fame. There is a difference. I think my character in this play is a man who in a sense recognizes the same thing — that fame was okay but it’s nothing like power.”

He admits that for his former father-in-law and Lyman Wyeth, hanging out with the Republican party’s power elite is enticing. “Money and power. It’s a very seductive life. But I think my character is a guy who has, as it turns out, a heart and a soul we wouldn’t necessarily associate with our general interpretation of what these powerful people on the right are like. But that’s what makes him interesting and it’s what makes the play interesting as far as I’m concerned.”

Baitz’s published play features an introduction by Honor Moore. She raises the issue inherent in contemporary memoir writing of fact versus fiction versus subjective truth — a public debate ignited when Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey over his A Million Little Pieces. As Moore defines the stakes in Baitz’s play, “When a family is involved, who owns the story? What kind of consequences might require a writer to have a responsibility beyond herself and her commitment to her art? When is the publication of “˜just a book’ worth the splintering of a family? What is a writer talking about when she says that telling her story is for her “˜a matter of life and death.’ Is there any such thing as a secret that should be kept?”

When asked whether the actors and Egan had discussed this or decided what the play was about, Foxworth said they had done so in early table reads but had to leave it behind because “these are issues of relations between human beings.

Jeannie Berlin and JoBeth Williams in "Other Desert Cities"

“As powerful as these ideas are, we can’t act ideas,” he offers. “So that will remain for the audience to determine.  I will only say that one of the things I took away from our discussions was that there is a memoirist’s responsibility to be true to fact to the degree that it may damage people. If you are not going to do that, then you must call it fiction.”

Does he think the play’s premise would work the same if it were a powerful Democratic family?

“Wow,” exclaims Foxworth, contemplating the question seemingly for the first time. “I think it would. I mean I just flashed on the Kennedy clan and that kind of thing. Yes, I think they would face the same dilemmas of fact and truth. A lot of skeletons in the closet and the pain in dealing with and releasing some of that stuff.”

The play reunites Foxworth with JoBeth Williams, with whom he co-starred in the The Old Globe Theatre’s 1987 production of Antony and Cleopatra. In more recent years, they have recorded plays together for LA Theatre Works. It also marks his debut at the Taper as well as his first outing with old friend Egan.

“I’ve known him for 30 or 40 years but I never worked with him,” he explains. “I never worked at the Taper.  I lived in LA for 40 years. I had to move out of town to get a job here. [He laughs]. Just proves the old adage — if you want to get a job, leave town.”

Dan Amboyer as Bertram Cates and Robert Foxworth as Henry Drummond in The Old Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival production of "Inherit the Wind," directed by Adrian Noble. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

Foxworth moved to north San Diego county several years ago with his wife of 14 years, Stacey Thomas. He was officially named an Associate Artist at the Old Globe in 2009. His frequent performances there include a recent turn as Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind. Foxworth says he received a call asking if he was interested in playing the Wyeth clan patriarch in the upcoming Taper production. He’d not seen either the Lincoln Center or Broadway productions but said yes after reading the script. He says he will reprise the role at the Old Globe in April 2013.

When asked about the opportunity to work with his old friend, director Egan sent this reply via email.

“Bob is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable stage actors with whom I have worked. That is saying something. He knows deeply the emotional and intellectual dimension of a character and has a very disciplined process to live it fully. And he knows the stage. How to use his voice and body to be nuanced and powerful when the play needs it and demands it. He has been an experienced anchor to the whole process. He has been our trusted Patriarch. I respect and trust his collaboration. For a director “” he is a joy that you look forward to seeing each day in rehearsal.”

Home at the Old Globe

Despite his success in television series like Falcon Crest, Storefront Lawyers, LateLine and Six Feet Under, Foxworth considers the theater his true home. The love affair began at eight years old, when his mother went back to college and dropped him off at a children’s theater on the University of Houston campus.

“I caught the disease and never looked back. It’s all I ever wanted to do after my first time on stage in The Indian Captive. There was no discussion about anything else for me. They tried to keep me away from it for a few years but it didn’t work. So I grew up at the Alley Theatre as a kid and as a teenager. I basically was a terrible student because I was at the theater all the time — building sets and doing props and working on lights and doing what I really wanted to be doing.  It wasn’t until I got to Carnegie [Mellon University] that I actually ever had decent grades because I was actually doing what I wanted to do. It’s my first love and it’s been the pursuit of my life.”

Robert Foxworth and Anthony B. Phillips in San Diego Repertory Theatre's 2011 production of "Superior Donuts." Photo by Daren Scott.

Foxworth spent the next three years at Arena Stage in Washington, DC before working at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut and making his Broadway debut in Henry V in 1969. He won the Theatre World Award in 1970 for his role as John Proctor in The Crucible. In the ensuing decades, his Broadway roles have included August: Osage County, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, Honour, Ivanov, and Candida. His other theater credits include Superior Donuts (San Diego Repertory Theatre; San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award), Cyrano de Bergerac (Great Lakes Theatre Festival), Othello and Macbeth (Guthrie Theater), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Hartford Stage), and Uncle Vanya (Geffen Playhouse).

When asked if Broadway met his childhood expectations, Foxworth says his best experience there was his recent 2008 turn as Charlie Aiken in August: Osage County with Estelle Parsons, because it was a hit. “To come off stage after the second act, after the family fight over the table and hear the audience just roaring. We’re coming off in the dark and just going, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,  this is what it is.’ This is it. This is what it’s about. And getting that sense of accomplishment. Another fun part was getting on the bus going home at night after the show. A bunch of us lived on the Upper West Side, so getting on the bus and finding people there who had just seen the show and basically having little seminars about it as we headed uptown.”

Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton in The Old Globe Theatre’s 2009 production of "Cornelia." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

LA theatergoers last saw Foxworth on stage in the Falcon Theatre’s 2006 production of Darwin in Malibu and a year earlier in Honour at the Matrix Theatre.  LA audiences are more likely to have seen his son Bo Foxworth treading local boards at A Noise Within, The Theatre @ Boston Court, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts or the Antaeus Company, where he is a company member. Bo Foxworth’s recent Antaeus shows include The Malcontent and The Seagull, and he played the titular lead in Macbeth. The elder Foxworth was awestruck by his son’s performance in the Scottish play.

“He’s a wonderful actor and I am so proud of him,” he enthuses. “I’d done it [Macbeth] a few years ago, but I couldn’t come anywhere near what he did. I mean his ‘tomorrow’ speech was so in the moment, and so explosively in the moment, that it was almost shockingly beautiful. It was just great. Anyway, I’m only slightly prejudiced!” He laughs.

Foxworth now calls the Old Globe his artistic home. He has been working there on and off for more than 25 years in shows such as Richard III, Inherit the Wind, August: Osage County, King Lear, The Madness of George III, Cornelia, Julius Caesar, Private Lives, Below the Belt, Love Letters and Antony and Cleopatra. He met his wife while doing Richard Dresser’s Below the Belt and is excited by the arrival of the Old Globe’s new artistic director Barry Edelstein.

“I love working there for a lot of reasons,” he explains. “It’s unlike any other theater I’ve ever worked in. I mean there’s such a completeness of all the facets of theater right there with three stages.  The most exciting time is every spring when the [Shakespeare] festival is mounting three plays. There are actors all over the place and there’s music, and there’s rehearsals here and sounds there”¦I mean it’s thrilling to me. I often stop and say a little prayer of gratitude because this is actually the way I dreamed always of being able to work. And here I am at this point in my life working in an atmosphere that I find really creative and really filled with vitality.”

Robert Foxworth, Molly Regan, Sally Murphy and Estelle Parsons in the 2008 Broadway production of "August: Osage County." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Since 2008, Edelstein has been director of the Shakespeare Initiative at the Public Theater in New York. His appointment returns the Globe to the traditional nonprofit theater management structure of separate heads for artistic and business operations. Michael Murphy was officially named managing director in April after acting in that capacity following Louis Spisto’s resignation the year before. Spisto had been wearing both hats to mixed public opinion in recent years. Foxworth looks forward to the new team.

“I like the old model of having a managing director and an artistic director,” he says. “I think there are two different sides of the brain. Michael Murphy’s a wonderful guy and I think the theater’s going to be really happy with him as a managing director working hand in hand with Barry. I know virtually nothing about him other than what I’ve read in the paper. All these last months, there’s been a lot of like chatter around the theater about what was going to happen in the selection committee and all the people they were interviewing. I don’t know him at all, but his resume looks great and I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

Edelstein’s Shakespeare expertise at the Public, combined with the Old Globe’s legacy and current artistic contributors, make the company’s future achievements limitless, says Foxworth.

“This bastion of Shakespeare knowledge in America, along with [director] Adrian Noble from the Royal Shakespeare Company there for the summer festival, I mean this place is going to be unbeatable.”

A Bucket List of Lear

Robert Foxworth as King Lear in the 2010 Shakespeare Festival production of "King Lear," directed by Adrian Noble at The Old Globe. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Actors often speak of classic roles they hope to play one day after reaching a certain age marker. Do any remain on Foxworth’s bucket list?

“Well, I kind of did that because I carried around a copy of King Lear with me for years,” he offers.  “I just kept it with me wherever I was and read it. I just sort of made it obvious that it was part of me and I finally got a chance to do it [at the Old Globe].  So in a sense that was the role, my bucket list, and I never have to do it again. It was particularly interesting to do with Adrian Noble because of his language and the orientation he has with the language. I loved cracking open the meaning of it with him, discovering the power of the play and the character in the use of the language.

“So I’ve kind of done that, and now it’s like I’m just going to play this game. I’m going to go to my little house in the country and sit back. If I get a role, I get it and if I don’t, that’s okay.”

When told that sounded like a pretty zen-like perspective, Foxworth admits it’s been a long time coming.

“Yes, I’m at peace. For the first time in my life I’ve been at peace, so I might as well enjoy it.”

Other Desert Cities, presented by Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, LA 90012. Opens December 9.  Tue-Fri 8 pm; Sat 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun. 1 and 6:30 pm.  Through January 6. Tickets: $40-78. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

***All Other Desert Cities production photos by Craig Schwartz

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Larry Joe Campbell, Dan Castellaneta, Frank Caeti and Brian Stepanek

LA Stage Times

Having Themselves a Twisted Little Christmas

by Amy Tofte | November 29, 2012

Larry Joe Campbell, Brian Stepanek, Jean Villepique, Amanda Blake Davis, Dan Castellaneta and Frank Caeti in “A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!”

Good-natured irreverence, improv and celebrity guests — just in time for the holidays. That’s the spirit of Center Theatre Group’s collaboration with comedy powerhouse The Second City, presenting the premiere of A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!, opening tonight at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

For 50 years, Second City has trained some of America’s most enduring mainstream comedic performers, from Bill Murray and Gilda Radner to Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Second City provides training in improvisation and sketch comedy creation, operating schools in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto, where thousands of comedy hopefuls attend every year.

Bobby Mort

The Twist writing team, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, are former and current staff writers (respectively) for The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Gwinn, a Second City alum, was originally asked to pen the Dickens adaptation by himself. But with several professional responsibilities to juggle, Gwinn sought a collaborator for the full-length script. Having worked with Mort as an improv coach, Gwinn felt he would be the right addition to serve the storytelling and share the creative burden of delivering good comedy.

“I knew his comedic voice very well,” Gwinn says of Mort’s writing. “He has a goofier sensibility than I do. He also wrote one of my favorite jokes of all time, so I knew he was the right person for this.”

The collaboration meant working from different cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, while staying on the same page artistically. Gwinn looked to his Second City training to guide the process. The team started by reading the original Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, then utilized a sketch-writing technique called “The Deconstruction” to sift the story for laughs.

“[The Deconstruction] breaks down a story narratively, thematically and tangentially,” Gwinn says of the process. “We ended up with three lists: funny ideas from existing scenes, new scenes inspired by the story, and things not really part of the original but somehow related.”

Amanda Blake Davis and Larry Joe Campbell

The result is a show with what Mort describes as a “modernized Scrooge” with a distinct nod to the traditional story and feelings the classic evokes. With about 90 percent of the show divided between them and written separately, Gwinn and Mort found time to collaborate via Skype during the long-distance process. Mort, a screenwriter, describes similarities between writing screenplays and writing this, his first full-length sketch show.

“The economy of language in screenwriting is something you have in sketches as well,” Mort says. “Sketch has to run its own little narrative within a scene, its own arc within a larger story. A bunch of those together could potentially be a screenplay.”

With their shared pedigree, the Twist writers hope to deliver a satirical, sometimes dark flair with “anything goes” moments of improvisation written into the script and prompted by audience suggestions. Gwinn and Mort hope this improvised element will keep each show particularly timely for audiences — with never the same show twice.

Dan Castellaneta, Ron West, Brian Stepanek, Frank Caeti, Larry Joe Campbell, Amanda Blake Davis and Jean Villepique

Twist’s permanent cast includes seasoned Second City alums: Frank Caeti (MADtv), Larry Joe Campbell (According to Jim/Weeds), Dan Castellaneta (The Simpsons), Amanda Blake Davis (Second City Does Dallas at the Dallas Theatre Center), Brian Stepanek (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody),  Jean Villepique (Up All Night) and “” playing the role of Scrooge “” Ron West (3rd Rock From the Sun).

In the hands of Second City resident director Marc Warzecha and the veteran cast, Gwinn and Mort were confident their script would be well-executed throughout the rehearsal process in Los Angeles, even without the writers in the room.

“The Second City tradition is to shape a script during rehearsal anyway,” explains Gwinn. “Our mainstage shows are usually written as an ensemble. If anything, it’s a departure to ask only one or two people to write a script. We knew this team would only make our script better.”

Peter Gwinn

Gwinn and Mort describe their experiences creating sketch shows and performing with their respective improvisation troupes as a vital link to honing their comedy skills and, ultimately, their writing. The trust built between performers through improvisation also creates a respect for true collaboration, where ideas are quickly used up, tossed out or reworked — with no time for personal attachment.

Twist also infuses each performance with special guests from all echelons of American celebrity in a featured “walk on” role. The eclectic roster includes famous actors, reality-show stars and Los Angeles personalities such as Father Gregory Boyle and fitness guru Richard Simmons.

As writers, Gwinn and Mort are undergoing new chapters in their creative careers. Mort started his current position as staff writer on The Colbert Report just six weeks ago, relocating to New York City. Gwinn recently left The Report — after eight seasons and winning two Emmys — and moved back to Chicago to pursue personal writing projects including television scripts and possibly a musical. Both writers express the thrill of television writing but recognize the tenacity required to be a true professional in the competitive comedy market, no matter what the final medium.

Frank Caeti, Brian Stepanek and Jean Villepique

“Writing is such a solitary thing and mostly done in your head,” Mort offers by way of advice to aspiring writers. “Getting involved with improv and sketch is a big help because it opens you up to more people [and makes you] not be so precious about your own words.”

Adds Gwinn, “You have to be doing it for love of the work — and be prepared to do it for free for 10 years before someone starts paying you for it. You have to have that patience and passion for it.”

Gwinn and Mort will finally reunite in person this week at opening night, curious to see where the final beats have landed in their original text and looking forward to sharing more laughs with their fellow collaborators on stage.

*** All A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! production photos by Craig Schwartz

A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! presented by Second City at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City 90232. Opens Nov 29. Tue-Sun, check theater website for show times. Through Dec 30. Tickets: $20-65. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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LA Stage Times

Ovations: CTG, Musicals, Phantom, Rauch

by Don Shirley | November 13, 2012

About last night’s Ovation Awards, at downtown LA’s Los Angeles Theatre:

1. Hooray — Center Theatre Group, the evening’s biggest winner overall and best season winner, trimuphed to a large extent for productions with partially local origins. No, Waiting for Godot (best production of a play, large theater) is not by a LA playwright, but it was re-interpreted by a local director, Michael Arabian, and two LA-based cast members won Ovations — Alan Mandell (leading actor, play) and Hugo Armstrong (featured actor, play), in addition to another Ovation for the entire cast.

CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie, accepts the Ovation for best presented production for “War Horse” at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre

Also, CTG’s six-Ovations-blessed The Convert is by an LA-based writer, Danai Gurira, and was commissioned solely by CTG, even though its “world premiere” was shared by CTG with two other companies and actually opened first in Princeton, N.J.’s McCarter Theatre — the artistic home of the play’s director Emily Mann.

Certain critics are always carping about CTG’s lack of commitment to LA themes and LA talent, so it’s heartening that two of the company’s creations that at least used LA talent were so well rewarded.

Perhaps CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie was acknowledging this when he accepted the award that CTG also won in the “presented [imported from elsewhere] production” category. All three of this category’s imported nominees were presented by CTG; the winner was the British National Theatre’s War Horse. But Ritchie said not a word about War Horse. Instead, he used the occasion to offer a hosanna to LA theater — “Every night in Los Angeles theater is a great night, but none more so than this night.”

Armstrong and then Mandell gave two of the more memorable acceptance speeches. Armstrong briefly walked toward the lectern with the top half of his tall frame bent over, as he had done to great effect in Godot. Once he got there, before going into his remarks, he lifted a purse off the lectern, which had apparently been left by some previous winner, and held it aloft — allowing La Toya London (best featured actress in a musical, The Color Purple) to return to the lectern to retrieve her belongings and not have to worry about that purse for the rest of the evening. Armstrong then went on to mock the idea of “the acting contest” and said the evening was really “a well-orchestrated excuse to be together”.

Alan Mandell accepts his Ovation for lead actor in a play for his role as Estragon in “Waiting for Godot”

Mandell, on his way to the lectern later in the evening, also gave us a glimpse of his work from Godot by doing a suggestion of the jaunty steps that he executed with such élan in the play. He then related how winning his third Ovation “solves a dilemma” — he has three grandchildren, but until now he wasn’t sure how to divvy up the two previous Ovations among them. Now each of the grandchildren presumably can be in charge of one Ovation (or eventually inherit one, decades from now? He didn’t spell it out).

2. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I didn’t see the Ovation winner for best musical in a large theater, Musical Theatre West’s production of Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Volume 2.

It received excellent reviews. I intend no disrespect toward the production when I ask the musical question: Really?

The best musical in a large theater is a compilation of sketch-length parodies — most of them mocking well-known 20th century Broadway musicals that often have been parodied elsewhere, including in previous renditions (some of which I have seen) of the Forbidden Broadway franchise?

My point isn’t necessarily that one of the other nominees should have won. They included MTW’s own production of Hairspray, 3-D Theatricals’ Avenue Q, La Mirada’s terrific Miss Saigon (although, as I’ve already written, it was the first Miss Saigon I’ve seen with a Vietnamese American — Jacqueline Nguyen — in the role of Kim).

The final nominee was the Troubies’ Two Gentlemen of Chicago, which was by far the most original show of the lot — it was a mashup of Two Gentlemen of Verona and melodies by the rock band Chicago. However, I would have preferred the Troubies’ A Christmas West Side Story — an even less likely and more memorable mashup.

But there are several larger questions here. Why is there no all-original, start-from-scratch musical in this group?

Adam Shapiro, Martha Marion and Meagan English in “Hey, Morgan!” Photo by Daniel G. Lam.

These creatures aren’t non-existent in LA. Hey, Morgan! won the Ovation for original book of a musical, and Stations: A Los Angeles Holiday Story won the Ovation for best original score. Both of these also had the advantage (at least in my book) of being set in LA.

But they both took place in much smaller theaters, without large marketing operations. Hey, Morgan! was fun, but I wouldn’t say it was ready for a larger theater. I’m very sorry to say that I didn’t even notice Stations as it was happening, but I’m hoping the Ovation Award will inspire someone to revive it. Of course it’s a holiday-themed show, and it’s probably too late to revive it for the coming (or current?) holiday season, which would be the ideal time to capitalize on the Ovation buzz.

Still, isn’t it time for LA to develop more original musicals of its own that could edge out the usual revivals of Broadway fare in the production categories, come Ovation time? Looking back through the previous five years of Ovation-winning musicals (in the production and in the original score/book categories), I see promising small-scale shows, some of which rose to slightly more exalted levels above the 99-seat plan (Louis and Keely, Re-Animator, Daddy Long Legs), but nothing that’s likely to become anything that might eventually be parodied by the Forbidden Broadway series. In fact, some of them, such as Troubies productions and Re-Animator, are already parodies.

LA is the home of the Festival of New American Musicals. So why aren’t we seeing more ambitious, home-grown productions of more new American musicals?

And, by the way, why are LA’s Ovation-nominated large-scale musicals increasingly clustered in the southern half of the region? True, the formerly West Side-based Reprise is dormant (if not dead?), and Pasadena Playhouse wasn’t concentrating on large-scale musicals in the 2011-12 season. But surely some company from the central part of LA County could take up the slack.

Michael Shepperd accepts the Ovation for acting ensemble for a musical on behalf of “The Color Purple” cast

In the smaller-musical arena, the big Ovation winner was Celebration’s revival of a big-scale musical, The Color Purple, in a small space. It also should have won an award for loudest cluster of fans at the Ovation ceremony — Bill Rauch apparently agreed, judging from a little experiment he conducted during his remarks before he co-presented the directors’ awards.

Celebration has won two of the last three Ovations for best musical in a smaller theater — and with shows that focus primarily on African American women. The winner in that category in the 2009-2010 Ovation season was Celebration’s West Coast premiere of The Women of Brewster Place. Michael Matthews directed both Brewster Place and The Color Purple. It’s a tested formula, but next year Celebration may well be in the running with its current premiere of a brand-new musical, Justin Love. I hope it’s not the only start-from-scratch musical that’s in the running next year — we’ll know we’re really in trouble if Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Volume 3 ever wins an Ovation.

Finally, let me also note that this year’s winner of best play in a small theater — the Antaeus production of Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time — sounded a lot like a musical at times, what with Barry Creyton’s addition of Coward songs to the script. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the element that lifted the production up to its award-winning status. To paraphrase Coward himself, it’s extraordinary how potent theatrical music can be.

3. The Ovation ceremony began last night with a little parody of components of Phantom of the Opera. This started out well enough. Robert Yacko played the auctioneer, trying to auction off old Drama-Logue awards, among other items. Then a chandelier appeared on a set already strewn with lamps, and co-host Herbert Siguenza emerged as a socially conscious Phantom, trying to find Important Statements within Phantom. He pointed out that it depicts the battle of the 99% — including the Phantom — against the 1% who go to the show’s masquerade ball.

Hosts Jane Kaczmarek and Herbert Siguenza

Meanwhile, co-host Jane Kaczmarek played the skeptic who tried to move on beyond the Phantom parody. The shtick seemed a little over-extended — were its creators trying to audition for the next round of Forbidden Broadway?

Did anyone notice that the brief LA Times article about the Ovations mentioned Kaczmarek but not Siguenza? And that the links to Times reviews in the online version of the article made it obvious that the Times hadn’t reviewed one of the best production winners, MTW’s Forbidden Broadway?

4. The aforementioned Bill Rauch was in town not only to present Ovation Awards but also to accept the Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers union. It’s a mid-career award given to a director or choreographer in a rotating geographical pattern that started in the West four years ago and returned to the West this year. Rauch worked in LA for 15 years at Cornerstone Theater, which he co-founded, before moving to the helm of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Among the three finalists was LA’s Dámaso Rodriguez.

The presentation took place yesterday afternoon at an SDC reception attended by many of LA’s leading directors. Michael John Garces, Rauch’s successor at Cornerstone Theater, introduced Rauch, following earlier remarks by others including the chairman of the selection committee — Pasadena Playhouse’s Sheldon Epps, who began with the quip,

“Good afternoon, I am Barack Obama” — (laughter from audience) — would that I were.”

Among other things, Epps said of Rodriguez, the Furious Theatre co-founder who also worked under Epps at the playhouse: “No doubt he will have my job, or one like it, very very soon.”

As might have been expected from the Cornerstone co-founder, Rauch spoke in defense of maintaining acting companies and supporting communities — a task he sees as intertwined, as acting companies are communities.  To paraphrase him slightly, he asked how artistic directors can take risks without trust — and how can they trust without having committed companies?

Of course there are many companies of stage actors in LA, but most of them work for 99-seat fees. Rauch’s company of 100 at Ashland is paid professional wages. Could it ever happen here?

***All photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

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LA Stage Times

Elections Approach in November and Fraternity

by Don Shirley | October 8, 2012
Harvy Blanks, Robert Gossett, Nasir Najieb and Roger Robinson in Fraternity

Harvy Blanks, Robert Gossett, Nasir Najieb and Roger Robinson in “Fraternity.”

As the election draws closer, the Mark Taper Forum and Ebony Rep have opened their seasonal fare — David Mamet’s skimpy and shallow November and Jeff Stetson’s stirring but somewhat too-prolonged Fraternity. Both of them are set during election campaigns.

David Mamet’s November first opened in New York in 2008, in the run-up to that year’s election. Those who assumed that its leading character — a dim and venal incumbent president — was based on a real president probably figured that the target was then-president George W. Bush.

The parallels were hardly precise. In 2008, Bush was approaching the end of his second term and couldn’t run again, but the play’s Smith has served only one term and is currently on the verge of losing his re-election effort. However, Smith and Bush shared low approval ratings, a history of having invaded Iraq and a propensity to spirit off enemies to detention in distant lands, where interrogations and punishments could be more brutal than they might have been in America.

Rod McLachlan and Todd Weeks in “November”

Nowadays, Mamet is better known as a Republican-leaning conservative (see here for an example of his take on the current election), so I wouldn’t have been surprised if Mamet had wanted to update November in order to target President Obama more precisely. But no — the text that’s being used at the Taper appears to be exactly the same as the printed text from 2008.

Of course there are limits on how literally partisan a play could be at a nonprofit theater like the Taper, but that wouldn’t have prevented Mamet from writing a fictionalized president more like Obama. However, Mamet probably suspects that the majority of CTG theatergoers and, indeed, theatergoers throughout America are likely to be Obama supporters. So, despite his reputation for shocking people with the language in this plays, Mamet probably didn’t want to shock them with his political leanings as well.

The results at the Taper feel curiously neutered and only intermittently amusing. In interviews such as this one in LA STAGE Times, November star Ed Begley Jr. — whose own political opinions appear to be quite different from Mamet’s — emphasized that the play doesn’t try to make political points, that it should offend everyone equally (which here translates to offending very few people in particular), that it’s more or less just for laughs.

OK, we get to chuckle occasionally at a befuddled president whose main concern is scrambling for money. In an interview in the Downtown News, director Scott Zigler cited the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision as a reason why the play is still relevant. But in November, the people whom President Smith is trying to extort for money aren’t the likes of Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers. Instead, he’s obsessed with trying to get more money from the turkey business in exchange for the president’s traditional “pardon” of Thanksgiving turkeys.

Felicity Huffman in “November”

Now, that joke isn’t bad as a comic kernel — but Mamet extends and complicates it far beyond the extent of its potential for satirical mirth. It might work in a brief sketch on free TV’s Saturday Night Live or even at the Groundlings, but a theater — especially a theater as big as the Taper — usually requires something more substantive.

Of course, Mamet tosses in subplots. One of them appears especially designed to mollify liberal theatergoers who might balk at Mamet’s political views — the play’s most sympathetic character is the president’s chief speech writer (Felicity Huffman), a lesbian who would like the president to officially marry her to her partner. She and her partner have recently adopted a Chinese child. President Smith hardly endorses her private life, and he makes a lot of crude remarks about the Chinese adoption process, but he’s momentarily willing to do what his speech writer wants — because he needs her speechifying skills.

By the way, the play’s somewhat dated feeling is never more obvious than when the speech writer begins writing a speech on a manual typewriter — in 2008, not to mention 2012? No explanation is offered.

In another subplot, an early scene in which the president has an abrasive telephone encounter with a Native American tribal chief turns into a full-scale invasion of the Oval Office by the chief — and an assassination attempt, no less — in the waning moments of the play. Has Mamet ever written such a thankless role? The actor playing the chief doesn’t show up until page 109 of the 119-page script, and then comes off as nothing but a lunatic. In this case, the president cedes his position as the craziest man on stage to the interloper. I don’t think Native Voices will be asking for a Mamet play any time soon.

Gregory Cruz in “November”

November doesn’t fit comfortably into the Taper space. In order to catch every gag and even some of the plot developments, it would help to be as close to the stage as possible. Closer proximity between actors and audience might involve us more intensely in the play’s manic rhythms. The play is overly reliant on telephone monologues by President Smith — the kind of routines that Bob Newhart used to do on TV, but in Newhart’s case we had the benefit of the camera’s close-ups.

Despite all these problems, it isn’t surprising that November is at the Taper. It was bound to be at one of the Center Theatre Group theaters this election year, because CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie regards Mamet as “my favorite playwright,” he says in a video on the CTG website.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Taper’s relationship with Mamet was much more troubled. In 1993, an announced Taper production of Mamet’s Oleanna was canceled when Mamet insisted on casting a friend, African American actor Lionel Smith, in the central role. Although Mamet’s side charged racism, the stance of then-CTG artistic director Gordon Davidson was that the problem was Mamet’s demand for sole control of casting. In response, Mamet took his play, with Smith, to the 99-seat Tiffany for the LA premiere. Under Ritchie, the Taper finally presented Oleanna in 2009, with Bill Pullman in the leading role. Smith had died in 2008.

Knowing this background, Mamet’s current political predilections and the fact that an African American is now the president who’s running for re-election, I couldn’t help but wonder what November would have been like if a black actor had been cast in the presidential role. Sure, it probably would have roused the ire of some of the Taper’s patrons who support Obama — and that might have included me as well. But at least it would have made the play seem more pointed than pointless, more incisive than insipid.

November, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave, LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes Nov 4.  www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

November and similar caricatures of politicians and politics attempt to ride the wave of interest in election-year politics, but at the same time they’re so steeped in cynicism that they could easily discourage people from getting involved in the political process.

Mel Winkler, William Allen Young, Roger Robinson and Nasir Najieb in “Fraternity”

You can’t say that about Jeff Stetson’s Fraternity, the Ebony Rep production at the Nate Holden.

The political campaign depicted in Fraternity is a primary campaign for a state senate seat in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1987. It seems like a rather lowly race, and we don’t really learn much about any of the specific issues. But we learn a lot about the two contending candidates and their mutual friends who hang out at a private African American men’s club.

Charles Lincoln (Roger Robinson) has held the office for more than two decades. A former protégé, Paul Stanton (Rocky Carroll), is now running against Lincoln and is closing the gap as the election enters its final week.

The more formidable character of these two is Lincoln, a crusty pol who apparently knows how to compromise. Although he was elected by black voters, in the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings that killed four black girls, he has recently been re-elected because of white voters. Stanton accuses Lincoln of forgetting his roots, or not doing enough to resolve the chronic problems that affect his constituents.

Harvy Blanks and Roger Robinson in Fraternity

Harvy Blanks and Roger Robinson in “Fraternity”

Those 1963 bombings deeply affected two of the other men who hang out at the club. Rev. Wilcox (Harvy Blanks) was the minister of the church at the time, and the experience has more or less obliterated his faith. Turk Maddox (Robert Gossett) was the father of one of the slain girls — after her death, he stopped playing music and concentrated on teaching it.

The other characters are the sage editor (Mel Winkler) of the local black newspaper, a scheming real estate developer (William Allen Young) and a young attorney (Nasir Najieb) who’s applying for membership at the club.

The characters are much more dimensional than those in November, although the veteran Lincoln is more deeply drawn than the challenger. The actors, directed by Henry Miller, are superb.

The play might a little more powerful if it weren’t trapped so much on the single set of the club — in which case, it might not feel quite as elongated as it does now. The only scenes that leave the club are flashbacks to a sermon in 1963 and a political speech on a recent night during the current campaign. These two orations are presented virtually intact,  in stark contrast to the faster pace of the group scenes. While there is power in these two speeches, the political speech in particular feels as if it’s stewing in its own high-flying but overly generalized rhetoric.

A few scenes in the larger community, perhaps with a woman or two included within the voices and some consideration of specific issues that separate the candidates, might impart a fluidity and a variation in flavor to Stetson’s heartfelt script, making it even stronger.

Fraternity, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., LA. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. www.ebonyrep.org. 323-964-9766.

***All production photos by Craig Schwartz

 

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LA Stage Times

Thinking Inside — and Outside — the Big Box (Offices)

by Rachel Fain | September 11, 2012

Geffen Playhouse box office exterior. Photo by Deborah Behrens.

Do you enjoy working alone? If so, working in the box office of one of LA’s larger theaters probably wouldn’t be your best career choice.

The box office is a tiny space crammed with smiling people anxious to help theatergoers and send them on their way. These employees are students and artists (including one chef!), lovers of theater and customer service wizards. They have spent hours trying to prepare for every possible ticketing snafu.

At the 2011 Ovation Awards ceremony, Geffen Playhouse artistic director Randall Arney remembered his longtime collaborator and friend, the late Gil Cates. In that speech Arney recounted several lessons he learned from working with Cates. One of these was “Bring a little candy to the box office.” After chuckles from the audience, he explained that they had regular lunch meetings in Westwood, after which Arney would be anxious to return to the office and get back to work. Cates always insisted on a detour to a nearby candy shop, where he would scoop up a bag of bulk candy to bring to the box office. Arney said that Cates advised, “Keep the box office happy — always bring a little candy for the box office” because they’re the ones who deal with the public.

Janet Huynh

Janet Huynh remembers Cates and his candy deliveries fondly. “It was a weekly occurrence — it didn’t happen just once,” she says. Cates would pop in, check the candy dish and exclaim that he must get more candy. His warmth and generosity were so appreciated by the staff that they never mentioned that they didn’t like candy corn, his most common selection. “We ate it anyway,” Huynh recalls. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him.”

And it wasn’t just the candy. Cates brought them candy dishes that he made at a paint-your-own-pottery studio while out with his grandkids. They still have one in the box office, and it stands empty in tribute.

Huynh has worked in the Geffen Playhouse box office for more than seven years. It was one of her very first jobs out of college, and she is now a part-time associate box office manager as well as a full-time staff accountant. Huynh had little accounting experience and is grateful that the Geffen gave her the chance to learn, as it has made her a better box office manager and gives her more opportunity to interact with the rest of the Geffen staff. She also teaches a cross-fit class at a local gym, and loves doing both because it gives her a “well-rounded life”¦ athlete and theater geek!”

Trading spaces

A Noise Within (ANW) moved into its new Pasadena home about a year ago, just three weeks before the first production. Company member, subscriber services manager, and “Box Office Goddess-I-mean-Manager” Deborah Strang was simultaneously in rehearsal for the first show, organizing subscriber season tickets, and setting up the box office. She keeps her roles as actor and box office manager as separate as she can, answering simple questions during rehearsals, but referring all ticket requests to the box office. “I just won’t remember!” she exclaims.

The box office team at A Noise Within: Deborah Strang, Erin Neel and Taylor Eichenwald

All subscribers had to be assigned to new seat locations in the new theater. Before performances started and with the help of an inquisitive subscriber, Strang discovered a discrepancy between the seating map online, the map on her computer and the actual seats in the house. It was an easy fix — the subscriber was happy to choose a different seat location. Thus, after carefully placing subscribers in seats that seemed most comparable to their locations in the old Glendale space, Strang had to go seat-by-seat through the theater to make sure everyone’s actual seats were where they were expected to be, before the tickets were mailed out. Luckily there was only the one erroneous seat.

But it didn’t end there. Subscribers found that they preferred different seats in the new theater than they had had in the old — the front row felt too close, or the aisle too far to the side, or something similar. After they came to their first production, they started to call, asking to be moved to different seats. Strang spent weeks playing musical chairs and was able to accommodate everyone.

As patrons of the new A Noise Within discovered, the approach to the theater is a bit confusing, at first. There are three streets in the immediate vicinity with the word “Madre” in them, and the front looks more like an apartment complex than an arts venue. Strang and producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott greeted patrons as they arrived for the second production (Strang and Elliott performed in and Rodriguez-Elliott directed the first, so all were unable to be out front) to find out what they thought and what ANW needed to do differently. As a result, they re-did all the patron communications, adding and changing information based on what the patrons said. They even opened the back door to the building to make it easier for Metro riders and those who park in the Metro garage to get inside””not ideal for them, but much easier for patrons.

Deborah Strang. Photo courtesy of Deborah Strang.

“They pretty much told us what we needed to do, and we pretty much did it,” says Strang.

Patrons first

In fact, the transition to the new space involved a huge customer service push. Every person who called with a concern got a call back from Strang or one of her associates. She feels making a personal connection is important. Sixteen years ago when she started running the box office, all sales originated with a person, either on the phone or standing at the window. Today most sales come over the internet, and, with print-at-home tickets, the patron may not interact with a person at all. Strang finds that this puts an uncomfortable distance between patron and box office. To close that gap, she reviews each online order and sometimes calls a patron back to make sure it’s what they intended.

Recently, someone purchased eight tickets for the same performance on four separate internet orders. The seats were not together, so Strang called the patron to make sure the scattering of seats was what he wanted. While he did not want the seats all together, the arrangement he had selected was also not right. Strang helped him to determine the correct seats and sent him the new tickets. She hopes patrons feel that “there is a person here who’s looking out for them.”

At the Pasadena Playhouse, there really is one person looking out for all patron needs. Patron services manager Lemuel H. Thornton III is in charge of the walk-up box office, telephone sales and customer service, subscriptions, concessions and front-of-house staff. He considers himself the Playhouse “hospitality manager.” His box office staffers also answer phones and sell snacks during performances; there’s a separate staff for house managing and the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse volunteer as ushers.

Lemuel H. Thornton III of the Pasadena Playhouse

The Pasadena Playhouse filed for bankruptcy in May of 2010, reorganized and emerged in July of the same year. Thornton worked in the box office both before and after the “brief intermission,” working his way up to his current position. He remembers what it was like following the reorganization: “The whole playhouse was on this skeleton crew, and I recall sitting at our first staff meeting and realizing we were a staff of like 12 or 13 — way different from where we are now.”

They no longer had access to the old patron database. They did have a massive, printed spreadsheet they nicknamed the “Master Subscriber List… of DOOM!!!” Thornton and a few others had to enter every subscriber back into the computer individually, by hand, and then reserve and mail their tickets for the first two productions. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe it. They typed for over a month, while juggling phone calls and returning voicemails from patrons who wanted to buy tickets or change their performance date or were wondering when their tickets would arrive or just wanted to vent about the theater being closed for a while. They discovered their voicemail box only holds 99 messages and regularly reached its limit. It was a battle to keep up.

It’s the staff that makes the service

What all the box office managers stress above all else is customer service. They expect their people to be able to talk about the shows, and they give them ample opportunity to learn. Thornton actually pays his staff to watch each play during previews. The Center Theatre Group (CTG) box office associates get a run-down on each season from the literary department — sometimes on DVD — plus there’s a company intranet site chock full of useful information. They are also encouraged to read the scripts and pop into the theater during their regular shift, if it’s quiet. Sarah Gonta, CTG’s box office treasurer (the union’s term for manager), admits, however, that “patrons are savvy, they educate themselves before they get to us.”

Sarah Gonta of Center Theatre Group

But the most important thing when you walk up to that box office is will they have my tickets. And the resounding answer from all is “yes”. There are problems, of course, that are most often caused by people showing up on the wrong date or giving the wrong reservation name. At the Pasadena Playhouse, Thornton and his staff meet regularly to discuss techniques for solving patron issues. Listening and taking notes are at the top of the list. They also discovered they could sometimes locate misplaced patron data by searching for email addresses or even seat numbers. One grateful patron dropped off several jars of homemade jam to say thank you for taking care of her. “We’ll get them in,” says a determined Thornton. “We want to share what’s on the stage with as many people as possible.”

CTG’s Gonta agrees. She appreciates that people have needs and part of good customer service is recognizing those needs and meeting them. “The rules are black and white, but we are very gray,” she laughs. To ensure that each patron has a positive experience, employees are all allowed to make “gray” decisions. “It takes special people to step up and take that power,” Gonta says.

Gonta’s follows the FISH! Philosophy with her staff: Be There; Play; Make Their Day; Choose Your Attitude. She encourages them to have full lives outside of work, believing that a fuller life leads to a happier person and a happy person provides better customer service. And it seems to be working. Of her full-time staff of nine, the newest employee has been there six years (the longest tenure is 22 years) and the patrons are happy, too. The box offices at the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theatres are fairly roomy — palatial completed to some — but the Mark Taper Forum box office cannot really be called an office. It’s more of a closet, with two ticket windows. And when Gonta is scheduling the staff there, size does matter. Not everyone can fit.

A Noise Within's theater interior. Photo by Michael Gutstadt.

A Noise Within’s new Pasadena theater has nearly twice the seats of the Glendale space. Since moving, ANW has doubled its subscriber base and as a result, Strang will be doubling her part-time staff from two to four. The Geffen and Playhouse each has nine box office staffers, mostly part-timers, but only a few can work at a time. Working so closely together, all the managers agree it’s important that everyone get along. Thornton explains that part of the hiring decision is how well someone will “fit” with the rest of group.

Much more than just a window

The work of the box office employes starts long before you walk up to that window. At the Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse, and ANW, they start selling subscriptions almost the moment the season is announced. The Geffen ticketing manager, for example, “builds” the shows — inputs all the correct information about performance dates and times and seat availability into the computer system — well in advance, so the Huynh and her box office staff can start selling subscriptions in April for the fall season.

At CTG, it’s a little different. With three theaters — more than 3000 seats among them — and 55,000 subscribers, it has a separate staff to handle incoming calls from subscribers and single-ticket buyers, headed up by Sandy Czubiak, audience and subscriber services manager. The box office workers will process ticket requests taken by the phone room, but they deal with patrons only in person. So while Gonta is not involved in subscription sales, there is plenty of other work to do. For example, because Gonta controls the ticket inventory, she must set aside house seats for the development, executive, and press departments — think donors, press, and special events — as well as for touring companies, who always get a bunch of tickets of their own.

A Noise Within Center Theatre Group Geffen Playhouse Pasadena Playhouse
Theaters 1 3 2 1
Seats 283 3,119 631 658
Subscribers 2,100 55,000 11,000 5,000
Box office staff 4 PT 9 FT + 3PT 9 PT 9 PT
Subscriber services/phones Done by box office staff 13 FT + 9 PT Done by box office staff Done by box office staff



Ahmanson Theater box office exterior. Photo by Alex Pitt.

Often a set will obstruct, cover or otherwise render undesirable some seats in the theater — called seat kills. Box office managers have to figure out what to do with the subscribers who usually sit in those seats — a smaller version of what Strang had to do with all of her subscribers when ANW moved. For example, War Horse started its national tour at the Ahmanson. The horse puppet, Joey, walked down a ramp from the stage and exited through the house. To accommodate the ramp, CTG had to take out 14 prime pairs of tickets. Czubiak, Gonta’s counterpart in audience services, was responsible for re-seating 14 long-time subscribers, very attached to their seat locations, for every performance.

To accomplish this, Gonta explains that over several weeks she stockpiled returned house seats and inventory from subscriber ticket exchanges. They used these tickets to re-seat subscribers as close to their original locations as possible. “Some subscriber seating was compromised by a row or two, while some seating was “˜improved’ by moving closer to the stage or more center in the section,” Gonta notes. “Most were re-seated within their current rows.”Â Patrons were notified by mail, but some were contacted by phone to discuss their seating options. Seating or schedule changes are a delicate business, but Gonta says she and Czubiak and their staff “strive to do so with as much grace as possible”¦ and with much appreciation to our loyal patrons” — an appreciation shared by all the box office managers.

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LA Stage Times

CTG’s LA Content Continues Its Disappearing Act…And Critic Turns Performer in CTG’s Elephant Room

by Don Shirley | August 27, 2012

Not long ago, Center Theatre Group vowed, via its website, to produce theater that “reflects and informs our own community” through “stories inspired on our own streets” and through “collaboration with other Los Angeles theatres and ensembles.”

Change of plans. That pledge has disappeared from the website.

I had quoted those lines, and linked to them, in three LA STAGE Watch columns since January 2010 (here, here and here), and I had planned to do so again today, in my third annual LA STAGE Watch analysis of the LA orientation of CTG’s latest announced seasons.

But when I looked for those noble-sounding lines on the CTG website within the past two days, I couldn’t find them. They were on a page that was headlined “Artistic Vision.”  But now, when I use the CTG’s website to search for those lines, nothing comes up. When I click the once-active links from my own articles, I’m told “page not found.” [Update: after today's post first appeared, a helpful reader found the now-dead web page I was looking for on a website that finds old pages and sent me a copy.]

I wasn’t the only one quoting those lines. So did the Cultural Events in Los Angeles website. If you go to the bottom of that site’s web page about CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre’s 2012-13 season, you’ll find those same lines quoted — right under the information about the new season.

CTG announced that 2012-13 Ahmanson season just last May 30. So when I saw the phrases in question on this other website, I wondered if perhaps those words were taken from the CTG website as recently as May. Then again, perhaps the Cultural Events in Los Angeles website was simply re-running them from a previous post. However, I found yet another web page that quoted the same phrases in a summary of what happens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, just last January.

Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Jeff Perry and Russell Harvard in the NY premiere of Nina Raine’s “Tribes.” Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

But now, with new seasons announced at all three of CTG’s venues, it’s crystal clear that CTG programming continues to blatantly contradict the message that used to be conveyed on the CTG website about the company’s intent to “reflect…our own community” and tell “stories inspired on our own streets.” So apparently someone at CTG figured those words might just as well exit the CTG website.

Let’s look at those seasons.

The majority of the just-announced 2013 season at CTG’s flagship, the Mark Taper Forum, consists of three plays set in the British/Irish isles — two by British writers (Nina Raine’s 2010 Tribes and a revival of the 1967 Joe Orton comedy What the Butler Saw), plus The Steward of Christendom, a 1995 play by Sebastian Barry, set in Ireland in the 1930s and earlier.

Of the other two 2012-13 Taper plays, the Chicago-born and Chicago-premiered A Parallellogram apparently takes place in a time-traveling but not-especially-distinct American location, while the revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in Pittsburgh more than a century ago.

Tracie Bennett in “End of the Rainbow.” Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The upcoming Ahmanson season also has a propensity for English settings, with Backbeat, a new musical about the early Beatles, and End of the Rainbow — which is about a Hollywood star, Judy Garland, but is set in London. The other Ahmanson productions aren’t set in the UK, but they’re set in locales far from LA or even the West — Seminar on the Upper West Side of New York, Anything Goes on a transatlantic voyage decades ago, The Scottsboro Boys in 1930s Alabama, and Fela! in Nigeria.

The Kirk Douglas Theatre season includes two plays by LA-based playwrights — Jennifer Haley’s The Nether and Marco Ramirez’s The Royale. The former is set in cyberspace but no particular other location, while the latter is about the boxing champion Jack Johnson, who occasionally boxed in LA as well as many other cities. I don’t know whether LA will be mentioned in it, but I doubt it.

LA is briefly mentioned in the current Elephant Room at the Douglas, in the way that comics or magicians who travel to many cities mention a few local references just to tailor their act to each particular crowd. The script purposely mangles the name of one famous local landmark — “Mann’s Chinese Restaurant” — probably in order to demonstrate the ineptitude of these three New Jersey-and-Arizona-based magician characters in the pandering department.

The other Douglas plays are Krapp’s Last Tape and the English-language version of Neva — don’t look for local content in either of these — and a Second City version of A Christmas Carol, which, as in Elephant Room, just might have a few local comments along with the comedy.

Trinidad Gonzalez, Jorge Becker and Mariana Munoz in Teatro en el Blancos production of “Neva,” last year at the RADAR L.A. festival at REDCAT. Photo by Valentina Newman.

So the Douglas comes closer to having a little LA content than the other two theaters, but it’s on a very superficial level.

By contrast, LA content does seem to count for something in one, publicly obscure corner of CTG. That’s CTG’s New Play Production Program. In the program’s fall 2011 newsletter, CTG literary manager Pier Carlo Talenti wrote about three CTG play commissions that sound extremely substantive and extremely local:

“As part of an initiative we’ve titled ‘On the Brink: Three Plays Explore 21st Century California,’ we recently commissioned three Los Angeles-based playwrights to write plays on themes specifically assigned to them. Laural Meade will write a play about the precipitous decline of California’s public school system in the space of one generation; Dan O’Brien will explore how a state with such an astonishing GDP perpetually teeters on the brink of financial collapse; and Evangeline Ordaz will examine the demographic shifts that continually redefine and question the very meaning of the term ‘minority’ in the state.

“We’ve enhanced the commissions with a research stipend that will allow each playwright to conduct her inquiry as she wishes — e.g., honoraria to experts, travel to Sacramento, audio-recording equipment for interviews, etc.”

Kate Arrington and Marylouise Burke in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of “A Parallelogram.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Well, that’s impressive. But it would be even more impressive if any of these projects — which have apparently been in the works for at least a year — had materialized into a dramatically successful production on one of the three upcoming seasons. While the topics of these commissions might have some resonances beyond California, surely their greatest resonance would be right here with Los Angeles audiences. Of course, I don’t know how these commissions turned out, or even whether they’ve turned out yet. But if one of them isn’t scheduled soon for a production, continuing developments in these newsworthy fields might require even more research and more rewrites, and they could go into developmental hell –  if they aren’t there already.

Developmental hell is precisely what Michael Ritchie aimed to avoid when he took over CTG and abandoned the organization’s previous labs, which were mostly ethnic-specific. We were told that Ritchie liked to develop plays by committing to actual productions. We saw one such production with Southern California content, Los Otros, just last June at the Taper. But it wasn’t created by Southern Californians, and in fact half of it had been created for a New York production four years ago. An earlier commission, a play set in LA’s porn industry, was also being created primarily by New Yorkers, the Civilians, but it still hasn’t seen the light of day.

If these particular commissions don’t pan out, Ritchie shouldn’t simply give up on finding productions with local content. But that’s precisely what appears to have happened with the seasons that were just announced. Each one of the theaters should have at least one production per season with an undisputed local flavor.

Should we count it as progress that the upcoming seasons at least appear to be less New York-oriented than some of Ritchie’s recent seasons? Not if London has simply replaced New York. Two years ago I wrote that CTG apparently was an acronym for “Center Theatre Gotham,” but now it looks as if it might be morphing into CTGB — “Center Theatre Great Britain.”

Of course even without the language on the CTG website about how CTG “reflects” its community and tells “stories inspired on our own streets,” CTG still calls itself “LA’s Theatre Company” as part of its basic logo. In the program for Elephant Room I was handed last night, I counted 13 references to CTG as “LA’s Theatre Company.”

But if CTG isn’t going to reflect LA any more than it does in the coming season, then why not retire the “LA’s Theatre Company” designation, too? Some other company that’s more interested in reflecting its community and presenting stories inspired on the streets of LA might also be interested in taking over that promotional handle.

 

Dennis Diamond in “Elephant Room”

SPEAKING OF ELEPHANT ROOM, I was sitting in the Kirk Douglas Theatre last night, watching this three-man comedy/magic show. The trio was completing a shtick involving references to the Dalai Lama. One of them crumpled up a piece of paper bearing the Dalai Lama’s image and threw it into the audience. Whoever caught it was instructed to throw it farther back, and then the second catcher was told to toss it again, and likewise the third catcher — who threw the crumpled paper up in a way that made it veer to her left. At that point, without any effort on my part to catch it, the crumpled paper simply landed in my lap. And I was immediately told by Louie Magic (Steve Cuiffo) to please stand.

In shows that involve audience participation, I’ve often wondered if the performers have been told where critics are sitting so as to avoid selecting them. After all, critics are there to observe the show, not to actively participate in it.

In this case, however, the course of the crumpled paper appeared to be completely random. Even if the third catcher had known who I was (and I don’t think she did), she certainly didn’t aim at me when she threw. It just happened to land in my lap.

For a half-second, I considered thrusting it into the lap of the total stranger who was on my right. But I certainly didn’t want to make any public remarks about how I, as a critic, felt that it would be improper for me to become part of the show — such remarks would have made me an even bigger part of the show. So when Louie told me to stand, I did so — and soon, I found Daryl Hannah (Trey Lyford) standing beside me with a live mic.

Louie asked my name. I wasn’t eager to identify myself, and I felt well within my rights not to do so, because included with my ticket was a little note written to critics politely asking if we could “preserve the illusion that the magicians [with their stage names] are real people” instead of identifying them by their real names — Cuiffo, Lyford and Geoff Sobelle.

So I responded with the name “Lama,” as in Dalai — perhaps because it was the first name that occurred to me, given the circumstances, and perhaps because I figured it might allow the Dalai Lama shtick to go on a little while longer. Of course, in retrospect, I realized I don’t have the requisite skills to do improv as the Dalai Lama.

Louie Magic, Dennis Diamond and Daryl Hannah

At any rate, the name “Lama” hardly registered with Cuiffo. I wasn’t even sure he had heard it, so I briefly switched to “Dalai” before finally giving up my half-baked attempt to improvise and resorting to my real name, “Don.” Louie asked me where I was from. I responded with the name of the LA neighborhood I live in, but there was no flicker of recognition, and we simply moved on.

Louie then asked me to think of someone who had “transformed” me in some way. I thought of my wife and daughter, neither of whom was there. But to drag their names into this show without their permission seemed a small violation of their privacy. Then it struck me — two weeks earlier, I had found out that six months before that, my high school drama teacher Jay Dean Jones had died. As the man who, more than anyone else, introduced me to theater, he had indeed “transformed” my life. And as he is no longer among the living, he probably wouldn’t mind if I used his name. In fact, it would be my little way of remembering him in public.

When Louie asked me if I had come up with someone, I said yes. Was I picturing this person in my mind? “OK,” I replied, which drew a little laugh. Louie directed me to write the first name of this completely unknown person, whom he oddly enough referred to as “a young lady,” on a piece of paper. Daryl Hannah, standing next to me, handed me a piece of paper and a marker and I wrote “Jay” on it.

The show’s third character, Dennis Diamond (Sobelle), standing next to Louie, then wrote something on a piece of paper and folded it — after which Louie asked me to utter the name I had written. “Jay,” I disclosed. Dennis unfolded his paper, and there in bold letters was the name “Jay.”

Magic! The audience was duly appreciative.

Louie Magic, Daryl Hannah and Dennis Diamond

As for me, I found myself halfway distracted throughout the rest of the show. I hadn’t felt any butterflies while I was contributing to the act — there wasn’t enough time for them to flutter into my body before I had to “perform.” But I must not have been as relaxed as I thought I was, because as soon as I sat down, I felt a pain in my lower back, as if it had tensed up during the performance — and, now that I was seated again, the pain emerged.

The pain ended soon enough, but half of my brain kept spinning. How had I done? Had I seemed calm and clever? It was lame for me to try to keep the Lama shtick going — after all, it wasn’t my act to control. Why had I mentioned the name of the neighborhood where I live? Did I want to encourage visitors?  When I tell this story to my wife, would she be annoyed that I hadn’t chosen her name? (She wasn’t, later in the evening).

How had the trick worked? Did Daryl Hannah, standing next to me, see what I had written and have some way of communicating it to Dennis Diamond? Why hadn’t I watched him more closely?

Meanwhile, the other half of my brain kept watching the rest of the show. When I read the script this morning, I remembered almost all of it, but I did miss one rather important line, perhaps because I was thinking too much about my own “performance.”

At any rate, because I was a small part of the show, I don’t feel I’m in the right position to comment on it as a critic. Which actually might be what the performers hope for — they certainly don’t want critics to give away any of their secrets (by the way, there are a few double meanings in the last part of the show about “secrets” that might cause a few parents to question whether they want their kids to see it).

In case you’re wondering, on the page of the script that describes my part of the performance, it does not say that Dennis writes the name “JAY” on a piece of paper. Now, that would have been truly spooky.

Elephant Room, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

***All Elephant Room production photos by Scott Suchman/Arena Stage