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LA Stage Times

Venice, Argentina? Plus Three Examples of Theater Makeovers.

by Don Shirley | October 20, 2010

Venice, the new musical at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an admirably ambitious attempt to incorporate hip-hop into the American musical theater tradition. I certainly prefer the scale of this effort by composer/narrator/co-lyricist Matt Sax and librettist/co-lyricist Eric Rosen to the miniature scope of Sax’s one-man Clay, his previous hip-hop show at the Kirk Douglas.

<br />Rodrick Covington and Javer Munoz in Venice. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Rodrick Covington and Javer Munoz in Venice. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

But creating a big hip-hop musical — a goal that was already achieved on a fairly sizable canvas by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights — wasn’t the only ambition behind Venice. It’s also an attempt to adapt Shakespeare’s Othello and to reflect on contemporary American society. These goals aren’t fulfilled nearly as well.

Sax and Rosen hope their show’s story resonates with the current political and cultural climate. This isn’t just something they say in interviews. In their fictional city-state of Venice, the new leader — also named Venice — promises Obama-esque ‘change’ (and he’s apparently biracial, too). The right-wing military-industrial complex tries to keep fear alive (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert’s upcoming rally) by turning foreigners into scapegoats. A flashback to the terrorist attack that ignited two decades of war in Venice self-consciously recalls the cloud of dust that engulfed Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 — although there is no talk of airplanes crashing into skyscrapers.

Yet despite all these cues to make us see ourselves in this fictional Venice, the analogies hardly slip effortlessly into place. As we approach a bitterly contested election in real-life America, the absence of any elections in Venice stands in stark contrast. Venice is run by generals, minus any trappings of democracy. The outcasts who fled the city 20 years ago are called the Disappeared – the same name that’s associated with dissenters in the Argentina of several decades ago. In Venice, state ceremonies are held at a restored central church. The government resembles an old-fashioned Latin-American military dictatorship, not the contemporary USA.

The idea to attract younger U.S. audiences with a flashy, hip-hop-based score and choreography — and with the idea that we’re glimpsing a possible American future – is somewhat diluted by the rather musty, banana-republic quality of these historical analogies within the narrative.  I almost expected Venice (the leader) and/or his girlfriend to address the crowd with a round of “Don’t Cry for Me, Venice.”

In part, this problem is pre-determined by the decision to follow much of the plot of Othello. The parallels to Shakespeare’s original are frequently cumbersome, even though they’re seldom precise. In fact, some of them seem to be unnecessarily distorted for unclear or unproductive reasons.

For example, the Desdemona equivalent is here named Willow. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but it looks as if the Venice team spotted the little ditty titled “Willow” that Shakespeare’s Desdemona recalls, near the end of Othello, and seized on it as one of the few moments that Shakespeare provided that could logically be expanded into a musical number. So they not only inflated it into a climactic duet but also decided to re-name their Desdemona after the song — just in case someone missed the significance of it. As in the original, Willow/Desdemona recalls the song with a character named Emilia — but for whatever reason, Emilia’s name wasn’t changed.

Shakespeare’s elaborate plotting sequence involving a stolen personal object, which is used to cast suspicion of infidelity on Desdemona/Willow, is changed here in ways that undermine the drama. It’s Willow herself who calls her would-be husband’s attention to the fact that the item is missing — by doing so, wouldn’t she more or less exculpate herself, softening any inquiries into how the item was lost in the first place? The net effect is that there are fewer ostensible reasons for Venice (the man) to suspect Willow than there were for Othello to suspect Desdemona — which may be why (spoiler alert) it’s the Iago stand-in, not the Othello counterpart, who ends up killing Willow. This act makes him into even more of a one-sided villain than he is in the original.

Generally, the effort to use plot devices from Othello not only scales back the dramatic tension of the original but also hobbles the authors’ equally urgent priority of making their story feel at home in present-day America.

Strangely enough, Titus Redux, the show that immediately preceded Venice on this same stage, was also handicapped — even more so — by its goal of blending a Shakespearean story (Titus Andronicus) with a contemporary American setting and production design. Titus Redux wasn’t a Center Theatre Group production, as Venice is, so it’s probably coincidental that Venice follows a show with a similar inspiration. But for those of us who saw Titus Redux (not to mention In the Heights), Venice isn’t quite as original as it might appear at first glance.

Despite all this, the CTG-commissioned Venice doesn’t feel nearly as hoary as that other CTG show, Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson, or When Garbo Talks at International City Theatre — the other two big musicals that have opened around L.A. recently. These productions, as well as the non-musical FDR at the re-opened Pasadena Playhouse, are currently filling too many of our major stages with material that appears designed to appeal almost exclusively to aging audiences whose theatergoing choices are presumed to be based on associations with celebrities — either living (Brooke Shields, Ed Asner) or dead (FDR, Greta Garbo).

Venice, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances (student matinees only) on Nov. 2,3, 9 and 10. Closes Nov. 14. 213-628-2772.

It’s always interesting to see a familiar theater space in a new configuration. Recently I’ve noticed three such makeovers.

The U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver turns the Fountain Theatre into more of a thrust stage than usual. Normally, the audience sits on the west side of the Fountain and the actors perform on the east side. For this production, the audience wraps around the north side as well as the west side.

<br />Adolphus Ward, Morlan Higgins in The Train Driver

Adolphus Ward, Morlan Higgins in THE TRAIN DRIVER. Photo by Ed Krieger

The Fountain is so intimate under any circumstances that the new arrangement doesn’t make much difference. The rows of seats that remain on the west side are not reconfigured into a natural curve — they’re pretty much at the same angle as usual, so the makeover doesn’t feel quite as complete as it would have, if the chairs had been individually placed. In fact, in my seat at the north end of one of the usual rows, I had to keep shifting my weight in the seat to see what was going on when the actors were occupying stage left.

Nonetheless, a Stephen Sachs staging of any new Fugard play, including this one, is an event that shouldn’t be missed. It’s a very short and small play — perhaps too short and small. The play could benefit from at least one more character, considering the gravity of what happens at the end. But the performances by Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward are big and glorious.

The revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out turns the Celebration Theatre into a full-fledged arena stage, with two rows of chairs added to the north wall of the space. I sat in the upper row on the north side and found that director Michael Matthews passed the challenging test of blocking the show in a way that seldom gave me the notion that I was looking at too many backs of actors’ heads.

<br />Jacques C. Smith and Ary Katz in TAKE ME OUT. Photo by Michael Calas.

Jacques C. Smith and Ary Katz in TAKE ME OUT. Photo by Michael Calas.

Of course Take Me Out is known for the full-frontal nudity of its scenes set in a baseball team’s locker room and showers. Because of the in-the-round configuration, some of that nudity might be less full-frontal than usual, depending on which seat you’re in.

However, the actors’ privates appeared to be a little too close for comfort for the four somewhat elderly male/female couples who joined me on that north side of the house. During the first part of the play, the woman seated to my left averted her glance whenever genitals were visible, while another (who may have been one of the organizers of this particular theater party) looked back from the first row at her friends in our row and whispered the word “Sorry.” Two of the couples left at intermission, but the others stayed and joined in the well-deserved applause at the end.

Finally, if you recall Theatre 2 at Los Angeles Theatre Center — the LATC space that’s closest to Spring Street — you’ll remember that it has what feels like the most radically raked seating area in L.A. theater. For the Robey Theatre Company’s premiere of Kimba Henderson’s The Reckoning there, the audience is directed to enter from the upper-floor back-of-the-house instead of the usual first-floor front-of-the-house. An enormous Southern-plantation set dominates the front of the stage, to the extent that it juts into the usual seating area — but one level up, above that customary front-door entrance. Artistic director Ben Guillory says he wants the audience to appreciate the full impact of John Paul Luckenbach’s set when they enter — a view that can be obtained only from the rear.

When I tried to sit fairly close to the stage, Guillory asked me to move farther back, because he was concerned that my view of the upper reaches of the set would be blocked. Oddly enough, after intermission, we were allowed to enter through the lower-level front door and then climb the steps up to the seating area — but by then most of the audience had seen the set in all its glory, had staked out their seating locations, and weren’t tempted to sit too close.


THE RECKONING set by John Paul Luckenbach

Like some previous productions in this 298-seat space, The Reckoning is presented under the less expensive terms of Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Plan, so 199 of the seats are not allowed to be sold. No seating is permitted in the side sections, which are decorated with near-life-size puppets of famous African Americans. The huge set, the conscious effort to fill up the center of the seating area, and the large puppets watching silently from the sidelines — these features combine to create a visual illusion that we’re in a mid-size, big-deal theater. In fact, it’s hard to think of any standard 99-seat theater that could have accommodated this set.

Henderson’s play, about the racially separated strands of the families that inherited or didn’t inherit this plantation, veers close to soap opera. But as soap operas go, it has its absorbing moments — not only because of the historical racial issues that it probes, but also because it has been packaged in this imaginative and unconventional treatment of the Theatre 2 space.

The Train Driver, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, east Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec. 12. 323-663-1525.

Take Me Out, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Closes Oct. 31. 323-957-1884.

The Reckoning, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 2, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. 866-811-4111.

The Train Driver photo by Ed Krieger.


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Summer’s Shakespearean Tales, Topdogs/Underdogs

by Don Shirley | August 25, 2010

This year’s summer Shakespeare season has been rife with cases of unfounded sexual jealousy. Independent Shakespeare Company staged the most famous play on the subject, Othello, and it’s now presenting Much Ado About Nothing — with its subplot about the ridiculously callow and green-eyed Claudio.

In any competition for the most jealous Shakespearean character, however, Othello and Claudio would have to duke it out with King Leontes of A Winter’s Tale. And this is truly the summer of A Winter’s Tale. Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks tackled it (sorry, I missed that one), as did Theater 150 in Ojai. Now, one of the most creative interpretations of the Tale ever conceived is at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank under the title A Wither’s Tale.

Yes, the Troubadour Theater has tossed the ingredients of A Winter’s Tale with the soulful musical stylings of Bill Withers.

More about that in a moment, but first let’s note that Jessica Kubzansky’s take on  Winter’s Tale at Ojai was fairly creative, too. She expanded the brief role of Time into a character who appeared sporadically, reciting Shakespearean sonnets related to the time theme. But I found these passages too abstract to serve the function of a guide, and they made the play longer than necessary.

Also, in an attempt to explain what happened to the much-maligned Queen Hermione in the years in between her announced death and her dramatic return, Kubzansky arranged for Hermione to go undercover as the rogue Autolycus in the play’s pastoral scenes (with both roles played by Carolyn Ratteray). This required only five altered words and a few judicious cuts, Philip Brandes reported in his Times review. But the concept was more original than satisfying — I wanted more details about why the queen would assume that particular identity, which seemed so foreign to her nature. How could she pull it off for so long? Why was it so necessary, considering that the king had long ago repented?

<br />Joseph Keane as the Green Eyed Monster and Matt Walker as Leontes in A Wither's Tale

Joseph Keane as the Green Eyed Monster and Matt Walker as Leontes in A Wither’s Tale

Kubzansky’s ideas were relatively tame, compared to those of director Matt Walker and the other creators of A Wither’s Tale. Would you believe a Hermione who might not be quite as unblemished as advertised? A bear who gives Antigonus ample time to be rescued? A green-eyed monster who isn’t simply a metaphor? A play whose Shakespearean passages are occasionally interrupted by contemporary jokes and more frequently by choreographed Withers-inspired musical numbers?

Actually, you probably would believe it. The mood of the music is well-matched to the shifting moods of the play, including the more serious moments. The power of the Shakespearean original still manages to emerge from time to time, in a way that’s reminiscent of the company’s OthE.L.O. in 2007.

Troubie regulars will want to know which roles Walker and Beth Kennedy are playing. Walker plays Leontes, of course, giving himself the chance to wail “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” but he also plays a carrot-topped clown (Autolycus?) in the pastoral scenes.  Kennedy plays the no-nonsense Paulina and the (male) shepherd who finds the baby Perdita in the woods — and she also offers sushi to the guests at the harvest festival.

Although A Wither’s Tale is the season’s funniest Shakespeare, a close runner -up is Independent Shakespeare’s Much Ado, especially the scene in which Benedick (David Melville) tries to snoop on the carefully staged conversation in which his friends prattle about how much Beatrice secretly dotes on him. Melville takes this scene and runs with it — quite literally.

It’s a moment that bridges the gap between stage and audience in the company’s new home, next to the Old Zoo on the east side of Griffith Park. The audience sits on a lawn that offers a lot more room than did the company’s previous home at Barnsdall Park. But the audience must bring low-slung chairs or simply sit on blankets, because the keepers of the park won’t allow risers to rise, as the authorities at Barnsdall did in their own, smaller park. I hope that the company can eventually persuade the parks department to change its mind about this and/or raise enough money to pay for whatever re-seeding might be required by the use of risers. Raked seating on risers helps concentrate the theatrical energy of an outdoor venue — a point that I’ve also made to Shakespeare Festival/LA (which didn’t do a show this summer, but is scheduling another Much Ado next winter under its new name, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles).

Turning from the hilarious to the truly chilling in this summer’s Shakespeare, let me briefly point out something about the double-cast Antaeus production of King Lear that most of the critics didn’t mention — probably because they didn’t want to dilute the shock value. But since it has now closed, I won’t spoil anyone’s surprise when I report that director Bart DeLorenzo brought the usually offstage murder of the Fool into the open. The poor Fool was strangled by the Duke of Cornwall in a startling scene that took place just before the same duke gouged out Gloucester’s eyes. I asked DeLorenzo about it during intermission, and he told me that he got the idea from the box-cutter murderers on 9/11, who quickly killed a few individuals in order to terrorize others.

<br />Susan Angelo as Gertrude and Jeff Wiesen as Hamlet at the Theatricum Botanicum

Susan Angelo as Gertrude and Jeff Wiesen as Hamlet at the Theatricum Botanicum

Like DeLorenzo’s King Lear, the Theatricum Botanicum’s Hamlet should probably be seen twice, as Mike Peebler and Jeff Wiesen take turns playing the roles of Hamlet and Laertes. So far I’ve seen it only once, so I won’t make any comparisons here. But I will point out that Ellen Geer’s alfresco production uses the widest stage I’ve ever seen for Hamlet, leading to a few especially expansive scenes.

Hamlet’s pivotal conversation with the ghost of his father takes place on a real rooftop, where it looks as if either one of them could slip and fall without too much effort. This, of course, more or less sums up the position in which they see themselves — the ghost is about to enter hell, and Hamlet is wondering if he might be dragged down there, too.

Finally, the drowning of Ophelia is more clearly suggested than usual, because we see her disappearing down an actual stream bed. OK, it’s dry. Still, if this production is ever revived, Geer should start thinking now about how to make that creek briefly flow with real water — but not ruin her main stage, which bridges it, a few yards downstream. Creative grantsmanship might come in handy, to pay for the engineering. Naturally, the engineer would have to figure out how to recycle the water, which could generate extra points in the grant proposal and in the later publicity. Are we all aboard on this?

Much Ado About Nothing, Old Zoo area of Griffith Park, enter from Crystal Springs Drive on the east side of the park, near the merry-go-round. Follow the signs. Free. Thur-Sun 7 pm. Closes Aug, 29.

A Wither’s Tale, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 4 pm. Closes Sept. 26. 818-955-8101.

Hamlet, Theatricum Botanicum, Sundays Aug. 29, Sept. 12, Sept. 19, 3:30 pm and Sept. 5, 7:30 pm; Saturdays Sept. 25, 8 pm; Oct. 2, 4 pm. 310-455-3723.

L.A. TIMES MONITOR: The Theatricum’s innovatively-cast Hamlet has been open now since early June without an L.A. Times review. But let’s give the Times some credit — it quickly reviewed the latest productions at two of the midsize companies whose preceding productions it had either ignored entirely (Othello) or ignored until it was almost too late (Grace & Glorie). In recent weeks, the Independent’s Much Ado and the Colony’s Free Man of Color received glowing Times reviews, at greater length and with more prominent displays than the Theater Beat reviews. Cheers for that.

Now let’s look briefly at the Arts and Books section from last Sunday, which usually contains a feature article about some kind of theater, happening somewhere, if not in L.A. Last week, however, was an exception. The only trace of theater coverage in the section was the fact that theater critic Charles McNulty wrote a “Critics’ Notebook” – but it was about a Patti Smith memoir, not theater. Nor did it even mention Michael Sargent’s play Black Leather, which was about characters based on Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and which played the Unknown Theater in Hollywood last fall (without a Times review).

DUELING ‘DOGS’: Which of the two current productions of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog is the topdog and which is the underdog? Well, the one that just opened at Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena would initially appear to be the underdog, because it follows two weeks after the version at Lillian Theatre in Hollywood — so it probably won’t receive as much public attention. On the other hand, James Reynolds’ South Pasadena staging will transfer to an Equity-contract production at the Cape May Stage in New Jersey next month, so in that sense, it might well emerge as the topdog, at least in terms of remuneration for the actors.

<br />Stephen Ryder, Jed Reynolds in Topdog/Underdog

Stephen Ryder, Jed Reynolds in Topdog/Underdog

I saw both versions over the weekend, and I preferred the Fremont’s, in South Pasadena. Dove Huntley’s set offers a grimy open window at the back of the two brothers’ sad-sack apartment. Through the window, we can see the top part of a vertical “OPEN” sign at some next-door establishment. This indicates that we’re in at least a second-floor walk-up, or maybe even on a higher floor, which adds to the sense of weariness of Lincoln (Jed Reynolds) as he walks up from the street in the Abraham Lincoln get-up that he wears on his job in an amusement arcade.

The window also adds a narrow sense of the world outside the apartment. That world doesn’t look welcoming, but at least this brief glimpse of it slightly relieves the sense of prolonged confinement that can overcome a play that lasts approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission) with only two characters in one room. The Lillian production — which lacks such a window — is only about five minutes longer than the Fremont version, but it feels maybe a half-hour longer. Part of that is probably due to the direction and the performances as well as the set design, but that window helps the South Pasadena production feel brisker, more urgent.

The casting is also a factor. In the Hollywood production, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had considered reversing the slightly distracting casting. M.D. Walton is taller and lighter-complexioned than A.D. Murtadha, yet Murtadha plays the more dominant, older brother — who makes his living playing a tall, white man (albeit while wearing whiteface makeup). I guess you could argue that this casting adds yet more irony to the situation.

In South Pasadena, however, Reynolds as Lincoln and Stephen Ryder as Booth are more logically cast in their respective roles, and the performances soar — while those in Hollywood eventually sag. Whatever the reasons, I found the South Pasadena production — which I saw two days after the Hollywood production — considerably more emotionally involving.

Topdog/Underdog, Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 3 pm. Closes Sept. 18. 866-811-4111.

Topdog/Underdog, Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sept. 12. 323-960-7719.

A Wither’s Tale photo by Chelsea Sutton

Hamlet photo by Ian Flanders

Topdog/Underdog photo by Dove Huntley


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A New Play Harvest, an LA Times Shakespearean Drought

by Don Shirley | August 5, 2010

The summer harvest of  new (or new-to-the-area) American plays in smaller theaters is at its peak. Four Places, Opus, Yellow and Procreation have been extended. Becky’s New Car deserves to be extended. Fabric is about to close but merits a passing nod, primarily for its subject matter.

First, let’s look at the new works by Justin Tanner and Del Shores. They’re  L.A.’s most consistently popular home-grown playwrights from the ’90s. And their new plays offer three of the same components — a troubled gay teenager, another teenaged boy who’s bedridden (albeit offstage in Tanner’s play), and an incompetent and deluded mother.

Other than that, however, the two plays could hardly be more different.

Tanner’s Procreation is shorter, snappier, more focused, funnier — and ultimately despairing. Shores’ Yellow is more poignant — and ultimately hopeful. Procreation is set in huge, confusing L.A., while Yellow is set in small-town Mississippi.

<br />Michael Halpin, Melissa Denton and Kody Batchelor in Procreation

Michael Halpin, Melissa Denton and Kody Batchelor in Procreation

Tanner gets points for continuing to write about the city where we live — and about L.A.’s desperate lower-middle-class. His Procreation characters live in Highland Park, as opposed to the more frequently dramatized denizens of Hollywood or the West Side (not to mention New Yorkers or Texans).

At the same time, this is the first Tanner play that has opened on what is unquestionably the West Side – at the Odyssey, instead of his previous hangouts in Hollywood, Burbank and on Melrose. It’s the first time that I can recall a Tanner premiere that’s a co-production with a company as established, prolific and eclectic as the Odyssey. In most of Tanner’s previous haunts, he was more or less the reigning house auteur, who usually directed his own work. Procreation marks a return to L.A. of the ’80s wunderkind director David Schweizer.

It might sound willfully contrarian to describe Procreation as focused. The characters include a 65-year-old mother, her former and current husbands, four adult children, one grandchild, and five spouses, lovers or other acquaintances of the adult children. Most of them are addicted to one thing or another; most of them are scrambling in a down economy. Tanner paints unsparing portraits of nearly all of them, in only 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Too superficial? Perhaps, but it’s somewhat refreshing after drawn-out family epics like August: Osage County that are usually loaded with long monologues. Regular theatergoers have witnessed so many dysfunctional family scenarios that we instantly recognize many of the nuances, even if they’re delivered in shorthand.

The primary focus, however, is signaled by the title Procreation, which is more satirically pointed than most of Tanner’s titles (Pot Mom, Voice Lessons, etc.). Who isn’t in favor of creation? Yet the connotations of the word procreation take much of the magic out of the usual homilies about childbirth and parenthood. The play is a fevered warning to anyone who’s considering having children but hasn’t thought through the difficulties as well as the possibilities.

While the characters in the play are exhibit A about the consequences of ignoring such advice, exhibit B is waiting in the wings, as the grandmother (Danielle Kennedy) makes plans with her new, younger hubby (Jonathan Palmer) to become the next octomom.

Sometimes Tanner’s plays fly by so quickly that there isn’t enough time to laugh out loud, at least not without missing the next line. However, after the play ended, I laughed out loud while thinking about it. And again I guffawed, several weeks later, while reading a copy of the script, especially at some of Tanner’s brief offbeat asides that betray characters’ delusions and aspirations. In the end, this is a funny and bleak play, in equal measures. The irascible Tanner refuses to sentimentalize these people.

<br />Luke McClure and Matthew Scott Montgomery in Yellow

Luke McClure and Matthew Scott Montgomery in Yellow

Shores’ play, on the other hand, is one of his most sentimental scripts, effectively yielding a few tears. It includes one scene that is noticeably more tear-worthy — and powerful — than any single scene in Tanner’s play – a quiet moment of communication between the two teenaged boys. It also includes a scene that is noticeably weaker than anything in Procreation — a confusing and over-heated exchange about a married woman’s confession of a long-ago affair with a now-dead and unseen character. This is the kind of scene that demonstrates why directing your own work, as Shores has done here, can be a mistake.

Yellow also gets its laughs, primarily in Shores’ masterful depiction of a teenaged drama queen, her gay cohort and her long-suffering parents. In the age of Glee, however, this element loses much of its distinctiveness. If Tanner can be accused of veering too close to sitcom, as some critics have done, Shores can be accused of veering too close to the relatively new high school musical genre, as well as conventional weepies.

Neither of these plays is especially original. But Tanner is intensifying his unblinkered vision of contemporary L.A., while Shores is extending his formerly Texas-based gays-and-God obsessions into Mississippi but diluting it somewhat, in the process. Tanner’s course is the more interesting.

Fabric, also by an Angeleno (Henry Ong), examines the famous case of illegal Thai immigrants who were enslaved in a garment factory in El Monte and finally liberated in 1995. The story is compelling enough on its own to carry act one, but the legal maneuvers recounted in act two feel anti-climactic. The story requires a style that’s more artful than Ong’s just-the-facts docudrama.

Procreation, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West L.A. Fri, 8 pm; Sat- Sun, 7 pm. Tanner will appear in the role normally played by Michael Halpin, Aug. 6-8. Closes Aug. 22. 310-477-2055.

Yellow, Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sept. 5. 800-595-4849.

Fabric, Company of Angels, Black Box at the Alexandria, 501 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 4:30 pm. Closes Sunday. 213-489-3703.

And now, briefer glances at three plays by non-Angelenos, all of which (sad to say) are more original than the three Angelenos’ plays.

Michael Hollinger’s Opus takes us behind the scenes of a professional East Coast string quartet, which is certainly an arena I’ve never seen dramatized. The conflict arises from a personnel shift, an illness, sex, the custody of a rare violin, accompanied by the inherent drama of the music the group plays. Until a grand finale that almost collapses under the weight of contrived plot strands, it looks like a minor masterpiece under Simon Levy’s direction.


<br />Joanna Daniels in Becky's New Car

Joanna Daniels in Becky’s New Car

Becky’s New Car takes place in the Seattle area, where it was commissioned by A Contemporary Theatre. But with many of its scenes set in the car dealership where middle-aged Becky (Joanna Daniels) works, it’s not difficult to think of it as occurring closer to home, in Cal Worthington country. Playwright Steven Dietz and director Michael Rothhaar pull off an even more complicated plot than the one in Opus with aplomb — and with a wink toward the traditions of screwball comedy. Dietz shows that it’s possible to like even those characters who indulge in the most foolish behaviors.

Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places has familiar subject matter — aging parents whose behavior is causing consternation in their middle-aged children. We’re not that far removed from the issues in Procreation. But the setting and structure of this play are very enterprising. Johnson rejects the common locales of living room and kitchen and a customary time frame of, say, 24 hours. Instead, the play is set during one period of several hours, as two siblings escort their mother to a restaurant, with the action taking place in the car, the dining room, the restaurant bathroom – and briefly, the curb outside the family home (are these the titular “four places”?) Through all of this, the father remains back home, offstage.

Most of the time, the characters are suppressing instead of expressing their turbulent emotions, which of course increases the tension. Three of the indelible images of this summer are the faces of Roxanne Hart, Tim Bagley and Anne Gee Byrd as they try to get through lunch without exploding. Kudos to director Robin Larsen and the ingenious set designer Mark Guirguis.

Opus, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., east Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes Aug. 29. 323-663-1525.

Becky’s New Car, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 3 pm. Closes Aug. 15. 310-822-8392.

Four Places, Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. On hiatus, will re-open on Aug. 19. Thur-Fri, 8 pm, Sat 5 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes Aug. 29. 323-960-4424.

Circle of Will is not a new play. I first saw a version of it in the ’80s. But fortunately I had forgotten the tricks that it has up its sleeve. For the benefit of those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t remove them from the sleeve.

But please understand that this is not a play about the relationship between the aging Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, as you might have been led to believe. Nor is it a play about the young Shakespeare and Burbage, which is what it looked like, at first glance, back in the ’80s (apparently Shakespeare’s age has been altered, not always in perfect coordination with some of the references in the text, to accommodate the desire of co-author Jack Grapes to continue appearing as Shakespeare).

Instead (slight spoiler alert), it’s a clever meta-play set in today’s L.A.. Which makes me happy.

Circle of Will, Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Rd., West Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 7 pm. Closes Aug. 15. 323-960-7822.

THE LA TIMES CIRCLE OF WILL-NOT-COVER: Othello, Independent Shakespeare Company’s first production in its new and bigger Griffith Park space, attracted 5400 theatergoers but closed last weekend without an LA Times review. Fortunately two reader comments, posted after a Times review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in La Jolla, drew attention to the Times’ strange practice of ignoring big-venue Shakespeare in its own back yard — but covering it in New York and La Jolla. As previously noted, the Times also has so far neglected the Theatricum’s Botanicum’s Hamlet. Meanwhile, the Times gets a second chance to cover an Independent Shakespeare show this week, as Much Ado About Nothing opens in Griffith Park.

If it’s any consolation to Independent Shakespeare and the Theatricum, the Times also failed to cover Shakespeare Orange County’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. SOC is  the biggest professional summer Shakespeare operation in the county with the second highest number of Times subscribers.

And so far the Times hasn’t covered this summer’s Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks, which is about to close its season’s final production, The Winter’s Tale. Kingsmen is the longest-running professional summer Shakespeare company in Ventura County, which I would guess is the county with the third highest number of Times subscribers.

However, the Times did review a Winter’s Tale in Ventura County that was even farther from L.A. — Theater 150’s production in Ojai.

So apparently the key to getting your alfresco Shakespeare reviewed by the L.A. Times is to stage it at least as far away from L.A. as Ojai. Maybe next year Independent Shakespeare should forget Griffith Park and produce free summer Shakespeare on Catalina Island.

Death Valley, anyone?

Procreation photo by Ed Krieger.

Yellow photo by Rosemary Alexander

Becky’s New Car photo by J.J. Jetel.



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LA Stage Times

Does Equity Still Matter?

by Don Shirley | July 16, 2010

Last week, I heard a few actors wondering out loud whether their Actors’ Equity memberships were worth the dues.

One of their complaints had never occurred to me. They can’t be cast in lesser roles at many of the companies that use lower-level Equity contracts, they said. Those companies hire the number of Equity members required by the contract and then hire non-Equity actors for the rest of the roles.

Many Equity shows only have a very few contracts - the rest going to non-Equity actors.

Many Equity shows only have a very few contracts to offer to their cast – the rest of the roles going to non-Equity actors.

Isn’t this a case of blaming the good for not being the perfect?

At least these companies are making efforts to pay some members of Equity on a scale significantly better than the tiny fees required by the 99-Seat Plan. If the complaining Equity members were cast tomorrow in one of these companies’ roles that fell under the Equity contract, would they change their tune? I don’t know, but I also spoke last week with a happy camper who, while in one of those contract roles at a midsize theater, finally became vested in the Equity pension plan.

I’m no expert on Equity’s contracts. But I’m confident that if more actors were employed on them, L.A. theater would improve. More of L.A.’s stage acting would resemble a real job, instead of a hobby that can be easily abandoned at the first sign of a commercial gig.

In the long run, stage actors are not as likely to burn out if they’re paid for rehearsals and health plans — and if they get more than gas-reimbursement money for performances.

If a seasoned actor resigned from Equity in order to save the dues money — with the hopes of landing small roles in larger productions — it would demonstrate only that here is an actor who doesn’t take stage work seriously. This wouldn’t be a great shock, considering that most actors rely on screen roles for their acting income, but don’t forget that the actors’ unions try to respect each others’ contracts. So members of SAG and AFTRA (or AGVA or AGMA) break the rules if they take non-Equity roles on stage — and they could be penalized.

Of course I’m not an actor. But I know this: Just about every week, when I scan the long lists of productions that are eligible for reviews, it’s useful to know whether Equity actors are performing — and more specifically, how many Equity actors.

True, Equity status doesn’t invariably translate to high quality. And non-Equity isn’t synonymous with “bad” — for example, I’ve enjoyed the youthful, intimate productions of big musicals by the Musical Theatre of Los Angeles, even though the current Oklahoma! is completely non-Equity.

But Equity status at least indicates a certain professional baseline — which is just about the only criterion that an editor who’s assigning reviews or a self-assigning critic has, other than his or her knowledge and opinion of the previous work by a show’s creative talent.

Assignment editors at today’s cost-cutting L.A. Times or most other institutions probably wouldn’t have the time or staff to ask questions about a production’s Equity status. The names of Equity actors are usually marked with an asterisk in a show’s program, but that won’t help the editor who doesn’t have a program. Maybe L.A.’s theater publicists should offer some help.

How about regularly mentioning the number of Equity actors (and even the name of the contract or plan) in the press release? That kind of information, plus the seating capacity, might help some productions get reviewed more easily than others with less impressive information along those lines. Producers who pay Equity wages shouldn’t hesitate to take credit for it.

Then again, producers on Equity contracts, below the LORT level but above the 99-Seat Plan, often shy away from serving as their own advocates. After I posted my thoughts last week on the Times’ (and the Daily News’) lack of coverage of some of their shows, the only posted comments came from people affiliated with smaller productions who wanted to point out that their shows, too, were ignored by the Times.

That the Times is extremely inconsistent in its coverage of smaller shows hardly needs to be repeated. Last week the Times Theater Beat — a Friday column that was traditionally a vehicle for 3-5 short reviews of smaller L.A. shows — consisted of one longish review of what sounded like a routine Old Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew (in San Diego!) as well as a review of the Troubadour Theater’s ChiPS the Musical at the midsize Falcon (at least it got a Times review, which is more than you can say for the Troubies’ last premiere, Frosty the Snow Manilow).

In the current zero-sum climate, it’s true that more coverage of L.A.’s midsize shows on Equity contracts might result in less coverage of sub-100-seat shows. That would be a shame, and I don’t criticize anyone affiliated with a small production for promoting it. But producers on the midsize level should even more aggressively promote their shows, because theirs are much rarer — and much more vital for the overall health of L.A. theater. And Equity actors should seek not to remove themselves from Equity but rather to extend the number of Equity contracts that are available in L.A.

Speaking of last week’s post, a few post-scripts: The Times finally assigned a review of the Colony’s Grace & Glorie, a couple of hours after I noted in my post that it had yet to be assigned. The review appeared today, in the production’s final weekend.

I gave a little too much credit to Bitter Lemons last week when I wrote that the Times database is increasingly unreliable, now that the Times isn’t reviewing such productions as International City Theatre’s A Shayna Maidel. I noted that a year from now, I might have to rely on Google or Bitter Lemons to discover that the ICT production ever happened. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a few days later that I took the time to look for links to A Shayna Maidel reviews on Bitter Lemons — and I couldn’t find any. Presumably Lemons-squeezer Colin Mitchell didn’t see three reviews of it, which is the minimum number he requires to post the links. But I’m sure I saw at least three reviews posted in the ICT lobby. If I’m going to rely on Bitter Lemons to offer easy access to reviews of major productions, may I suggest that Mitchell cast his review net just a little farther, especially for relatively distant shows?

Finally, let me juxtapose the Times’ long review of New York’s Merchant of Venice in Central Park last Saturday (the print version) with its non-coverage on the same weekend of L.A.’s  closest equivalent — the Independent Shakespeare Company’s Othello, with its Equity-contracted cast, free admission, and a new venue at Griffith Park.

Why would the L.A. Times pay travel expenses to cover New York’s summer Shakespeare but not L.A.’s , when L.A.’s is only a few miles from the Times office? The editors couldn’t have been unaware of the production; the Times ran a news story about the company’s move on April 6. Could it be because Al Pacino was playing a leading role in Central Park, not Griffith Park? ISC, it’s time to call Robert DeNiro’s people about next summer…

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LA Stage Times

Incredible Shrinking Coverage, Summer Shakespeare Shifts

by Don Shirley | July 8, 2010

The shrinking of theater coverage at the Los Angeles Times has reached an ominous new phase. Our supposed “paper of record” has completely ignored recent or current productions at three of the larger nonprofit theaters in L.A. County.

I’m talking about (in alphabetical order) the Colony Theatre, International City Theatre and the Theatricum Botanicum. In terms of seating capacity — and in the temporary absence of activity at the Pasadena Playhouse — these three companies and Independent Shakespeare are next in line after Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse as the largest of the county’s professional, nonprofit theaters with regularly scheduled seasons.

<br />Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton in Grace & Glorie

Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton in Grace & Glorie

That apparently doesn’t count for much at the Times. At Burbank’s Colony, Tom Ziegler’s Grace & Glorie, which opened on June 12 with the award-winning Beth Grant, has yet to be reviewed by the Times.  It’s due to close on July 18, so only two weeks remain in the run.

At Long Beach’s International City Theatre, a revival of A Shayna Maidel opened on June 11 and closed last Saturday, without being reviewed by The Times — a first for ICT, says artistic director Shashin Desai. It was also the first time that  Barbara Lebow’s reliably poignant post-Holocaust drama had been produced in L.A. above the 99-seat level. The Times last reviewed it a decade ago, in a 99-seat production. A generation of younger theatergoers is probably unfamiliar with it.

The Times also has had nothing to say, so far, about Theatricum Botanicum’s Hamlet — an oft-revived play, of course, but have you ever seen a Hamlet in which two actors play Hamlet and Laertes, alternating the two roles at different performances? That’s what Mike Peebler and Jeff Wiesen are doing in Topanga. This Hamlet opened even earlier than the Colony and ICT productions, on June 5, but its run extends (in rep) until Oct. 2, so the Times should be able to catch up with it fairly easily.

If the people who run smaller theaters worry about the lack of Times coverage (and believe me, they do), their problems are tiny compared to those of these midsize companies, where expenses are much greater, where many more seats need to be filled, where runs tend to be shorter than many of those at the smaller theaters.

But the burdens of the people who run these theaters isn’t why the Times should cover their shows.  The fact is that four times as many Times readers can fit into a 400-seat theater as can fit into a 100-seat theater. The greater capacity, prominence and professionalism of these companies should translate into an assumption that more Times readers might be interested in knowing what’s going on in them.

When I was a Times staffer, from 1990 to 2006, that assumption was a given. All other factors being equal or unknown, we took it for granted that a general-interest newspaper should pay at least a little more attention to the theaters with larger potential audiences. Shows at midsize as well as larger theaters were normally reviewed separately, and at greater length than the short reviews in the Friday Theater Beat column – which was primarily reserved for smaller shows. Now, the arts editor who assigns the reviews (Kelly Scott, since last fall) appears to be uninterested in any such distinctions.

A Times review is especially important to midsize theaters for other reasons, too. They don’t have the marketing budgets of larger theaters. But expenses are much higher than in a sub-100-seat theater, where the actors are barely paid.  So ticket prices have to be higher at the midsize level, and as a result, the potential audiences might skew a little older and more affluent — precisely the kind of people who still read daily newspapers.

In L.A., that usually means the Times. The second largest daily newspaper in Los Angeles – the Woodland Hills-based Daily News — is a lost cause.  Although the Daily News purportedly concentrates on the San Fernando Valley, it has reviewed none of the Valley companies since the perceptive critic Evan Henerson was laid off, nearly two years ago. That means that it ignores not only the midsize Colony, El Portal, Falcon and West Valley Playhouse but also long-established smaller companies such as the Victory, Deaf West, the Road, Antaeus, the Production Company, Crown City, and Banshee — indeed, the entire NoHo scene, which is one of L.A’s densest concentrations of theater.

Midsize theaters usually get reviewed in the LA Weekly. But the alternative weekly’s first priority is the small theater scene, to which it devotes its annual LA Weekly awards. (By the way, does anyone else out there miss the days when you could pick up the print version of the LA Weekly and read capsule reviews of all the still-playing shows, not just the ones that were newly reviewed last weekend?)

Back to the Times, it was wonderful to see a front-page Calendar review by the staff critic, Charles McNulty, of the double-cast Antaeus productions of King Lear (in conjunction with a review of a third Lear in San Diego) — and this was on the heels of a Sunday feature about Antaeus. But I couldn’t help but wonder if all that attention was at the expense of covering the two different versions of Hamlet at the much larger Theatricum Botanicum – or if the Times might ignore the next Antaeus production on the grounds that Lear got so much coverage. When the review assignment process appears so arbitrary, it’s easy to wonder about these things.

Of course online reviews have proliferated in recent years. If you’re a Times reader who wonders why you haven’t read about a production that interests you, go to Bitter Lemons, which offers links to a variety of reviews (as long as Bitter Lemons has found at least three reviews of any given show).

While theater companies hope a current Times review will sell tickets,  I often rely on the Times database for another reason — to research a play’s production history in Los Angeles, as I did (above) in order to determine that the last Times review of A Shayna Maidel was in 2000 at the Colony. But gaps in Times coverage are going to mean that its database will be increasingly unreliable. A year from now, I won’t able to use the Times to see that A Shayna Maidel was at ICT in 2010.  I guess I’ll have to rely on Google and, gulp, Bitter Lemons.

Grace & Glorie, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Thurs-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 3 and 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes July 18. 818-555-7000.

Hamlet, Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga. In repertory, Saturdays and Sundays. Closes Oct. 2. 310-455-3723.

Speaking of summertime Shakespeare in our larger theaters, there is more bad news — but some good news as well.

The bad news is that the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (previously known as Shakespeare Festival/LA) isn’t producing a free, professional alfresco Shakespeare this summer — at downtown’s L.A. Cathedral, at South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes or at any of its other previous haunts such as Pershing Square or the Ford Amphitheatre.

“It’s temporary as we muster resources for our 25th anniversary,” artistic director Ben Donenberg wrote to me in an e-mail. “It’s still coming together, but it will be a nice year of special activities and a restructuring of our financial model to more easily support free summer Shakespeare.” He hopes to return to the Cathedral next year, he wrote.

The Shakespeare Center web site is a little more forthcoming. “Don’t worry,” it says. “Mainstage hasn’t disappeared, just moved. As you can see, we’ve got Helen Hunt lined up to star in Much Ado About Nothing this October. More details to come!” Yes, a Helen Hunt Ado, to be directed by Donenberg, is listed next to this message on the web site’s calendar, without any specific dates. Perhaps the official announcement is being held for…the L.A. Times.

<br />Cameron Knight, Amy Urbina in ISC's Othello.

Cameron Knight, Amy Urbina in ISC’s Othello.

The good news, or at least I hope it’s good, is that Independent Shakespeare Company opens its new and larger space in the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park this week, after being forced to turn away people from its filled-up Barnsdall Park venue last summer. Does this officially make ISC a larger theater instead of a midsize theater?

“I don’t know what the exact capacity is, probably around 2,000,” says ISC’s managing director (and actor) David Melville. “We will be happy if we can bring in 750 on some nights and for this summer we expect our usual average of 350 a night. It may even be considerably smaller to start with, seeing as this is a move to a new venue.”

ISC works on an Equity contract, but it “doesn’t specify capacity as we don’t charge for tickets,” reports Melville. The company relies on donations.  Still, “our actors’ salary has nearly doubled since last year.”

This year’s two plays — Othello opening Friday and Much Ado About Nothing opening on August 5 — won’t be presented in alternating repertory, as in previous summers. “We switched out of rep as an experiment,” says Melville. “Performing in rep is great, but it doesn’t allow a show to grow on a nightly basis — you are always struggling to remember, especially if it’s performing just once a week. It also makes the contracts a bit more affordable. I wouldn’t rule out going back to rep, but for now I really like the idea of one show at a time. Going show by show means a shorter run — more attractive to busy working actors.”

Two other important changes that theatergoers should know in advance: Curtain time is 7 pm, because Griffith Park officially closes at 10:30 pm, says Melville. And no risers bearing folding chairs were permitted at this new site. So bring blankets and/or low-rise lawn chairs. Melville says that the absence of risers is OK, because “the acoustics are amazing, and we think it would be nice to let people spread out a bit more.”

Grace & Glorie photo by Michael Lamont.

Othello photo by Mike Ditz.

Othello, Independent Shakespeare Company, east side of Griffith Park, near 4730 Crystal Springs Drive. Thurs-Sun, 7 pm. Closes August 1. 818-710-6306.