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Porters End the LA Troilus Drought. Car Plays Hits OC.

by Don Shirley | January 16, 2012

Full cast of “Troilus and Cressida”

Have you ever seen a professional production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida?

Probably not, if you’ve spent most of your life in LA. Looking back through the LA Times database, I found reviews of Shakespeare Society productions at the little Globe Playhouse (now the Macha Theatre) in West Hollywood in 1985 and 1977. But I didn’t see either of those, and I doubt that you did.

Fortunately, on Saturday the enterprising Porters of Hellsgate opened a new Troilus and Cressida at the Whitmore Theatre in NoHo. It makes me wonder why Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan War hasn’t been seen repeatedly in the last decade. It’s about a long war with highly questionable origins — does that ring a bell?

Of course, the Porters’ venue is no bigger (and probably even smaller) than the Macha. But the Porters appear to be catching a wave that is moving on to larger companies.

Alex Parker and Taylor Fisher in the title roles

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will open its own Troilus, set in the recent American Middle Eastern wars, in March — in association with New York’s Public Theater, which might later produce it. And the Wooster Group is preparing a version that will open in London this summer, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Given Wooster’s ties to REDCAT, chances are we might eventually see its Troilus in LA. But in the meantime I recommend seeing a version that isn’t as deconstructed as Wooster productions usually are.

Not that the Porters haven’t taken a few liberties with the text. One of the features of Troilus that has both perplexed and fascinated scholars and directors is its apparent shifts between conventional notions of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy — which is no more apparent than in the final two scenes. In the next-to-last scene of the traditional text, the Trojan prince Troilus mourns the awful killing of his brother Hector by the Greeks (“hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe”). Then, in the final scene, Troilus’ somewhat sleazy matchmaker Pandarus gets the final word with a speech that concludes with his plans to bequeath his venereal diseases to his heirs.

How does a director make much sense of this? Well, Porters director Charles Pasternak chooses to end the play with an epilogue that reprises the prologue. At the beginning of the play, he has Helen (Eliza Kiss) recounting the sad events of the chronicle in which she played such a pivotal role, and at the end the lines are repeated — but this time they’re spread among the four women characters, speaking more consistently in the past tense.

Eliza Kiss as Helen and Jesse James Thomas as Paris

Also at the end, as the women speak and move among the corpses that litter the stage, their hands are literally tied — in other words, they’re now Greek prisoners. It looks like a scene from The Trojan Women. Pasternak’s interpretation reflects on the eventual outcome of the war in a way that Shakespeare didn’t, but it’s not as if he’s giving away the surprise ending — surely anyone who sees this production knows how the war ends. The ending imparts a gravitas that’s missing from Shakespeare’s ending, and it also leaves this phrase in our minds as we leave — “the chance of war”. That’s an apt farewell, for the play is a vision of war as an arena in which valiant principles are sacrificed at the altar of pragmatism — and chance.

The Porters version is absorbing throughout and becomes downright exciting in the second act, when the two sides first fraternize with each other after-hours, as if they’re all great pals, and then proceed to the next day’s slaughter. The fighting culminates in the harrowing match between Hector (Napoleon Tavale) and Achilles (Matt Calloway), who has finally been goaded into action by the death of his lover Patrocles (Frederik Hamel). All of this accords with the scheme hatched by Agamemnon (Andrew Herrera ) and Ulysses (Thomas Bigley), who had earlier tried to rouse Achilles’ ambitions by suggesting that the crude Ajax (Dylan Vigus) would have to tackle Hector himself.

Meanwhile, Pasternak depicts Troilus (Alex Parker) as a callow young idealist. His lover Cressida (Taylor Fisher) comes off as somewhat more experienced and expedient.

Gus Krieger as Thersites

The set primarily leaves room for the fighting, but Jessica Pasternak’s costumes add some color in the feminine outfit for the cynical slave Thersites (Gus Krieger) and the gaudier aspects of the attire worn by Pandarus (Jacques Freydont). While Kate O’Toole is a strong Cassandra, her curly hairdo is too pert. Nicholas Neidorf’s soundscape helps re-inforce the director’s decision to emphasize the bleakness.

A couple actors simply look too young for their roles. They probably wouldn’t have been cast in a production above the 99-seat level, which is another reason — in addition to the power and currency of the play itself — why I want to see one of our larger, wage-paying classics companies tackle this play soon. A Noise Within? Theatricum Botanicum? Independent Shakespeare? Shakespeare Center? Why haven’t any of you touched Troilus?

Troilus and Cressida, Whitmore Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb. 19. 818-325-2055. www.PortersOfHellsgate.com.

***All Troilus and Cressida production photos by Rob Cunliffe

I spent most of Sunday in Costa Mesa, where the Segerstrom Center for the Arts is presenting the Off Center Festival, which feels almost like a response to last summer’s Radar L.A. festival.

It’s a two-weekend event — which isn’t nearly as big as Radar L.A., but the two festivals share a programmer in Mark Russell, the New York Public Theater associate artistic director who is listed as “festival programming consultant” in Costa Mesa and who was one member of the trio who curated Radar L.A.

“The Car Plays” at the Segerstrom Center for the Off Center Festival; photo by Doug Gifford

The festivals also share a couple productions — Moving Arts’ Car Plays during both weekends and The Word Begins next weekend.

My main interest yesterday was in seeing the transplant of Car Plays from LA to Orange County — which, one could argue, is even more car-oriented than LA. Not surprisingly, Car Plays — in which pairs of audience members enter cars along with 1 to 3 actors in a series of quick, short plays that take place in a row of parked cars — is one of the best ways to get extremely close to actors as they work, short of being one of them yourself. And it’s a great way to evoke all the drama that can take place inside parked cars.

Three parallel rows of cars are parked on the plaza between the original Segerstrom Hall and the newer Segerstrom Concert Hall. I was assigned the “Road” row and saw five little plays in five cars. I don’t recall seeing any of them in my prior two experiences of the Car Plays in LA.

A light, intermittent rainfall on Sunday added at atmospheric element that I had never experienced at Car Plays. The car windows steamed up, which was especially appropriate for the two steamier plays I saw — JJ Strong’s The Love of Make-Believe and EM Lewis’ Bohemian, Like You. In the former, the maid of honor and the bride’s brother have momentary fun with each other on the way home from the wedding. In the latter, a couple attempts to engage a depressed friend in more ways than one.

A scene from an earlier version of “The Love of Make-Believe”. That’s the audience in the back seat.  Photo by Jay Lawton

The rain also added an extra poignancy to Craig Wright’s Easy Listening, in which a lone man — in between phone calls to his wife — attempts to pick out the best music to possibly commit suicide by. And, for that matter, in Herman Poppe’s Waiting for the Tow, in which a couple at odds with each other have a lot of time to explore why.

Then there is Will Hackner’s Warriors, in which two deeply PTSD-plagued U.S. vets are waiting for a suicide car bombing to begin. While I was in the back seat for this one, an emphatic slamming of the car door caused the casing of the car’s dome light to fall on what was apparently the bomb, which included a screen that was counting down the seconds. The unexpected blow temporarily wiped the countdown numbers off the screen, but the show must go on, especially in such close quarters, and the actors didn’t seem to notice.

All this action within Car Plays stood in start contrast to Chautauqua!, another festival event, which I saw earlier in the day. This production from the New York-based National Theater of the United States of America evoked the old Chautauqua tent meetings and also attempted to depict how they were superseded by crasser forms of popular culture. It included some engaging acts and a real surprise near the end, but it also included a few moments that seemed so amateurish or slow-paced — perhaps intentionally so — that they bogged down the production. Perhaps this was part of an effort to replicate what were surely some slow moments in the original Chautauquas, but I got tired of this Chautauqua! before it ended.

Larry Bates and Curtis McClarin; photo by Henry DiRocco

I concluded the day with a visit to South Coast Repertory next door to see the latest rendition of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. Seret Scott’s staging, with Larry Bates as Booth and Curtis McClarin as Lincoln, is strong enough to serve as an excellent introduction to the play. But as someone who has seen three other productions, I didn’t find that this one added much to my understanding of this provocative play.

Off Center Festival, Segerstrom Center for the Arts (formerly Orange County Performing Arts Center), Costa Mesa. Continues next weekend. 714-556-2787. www.scfta.org.

 

Topdog/Underdog, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Sun, 7:45 pm. Sat-Sun matinees, 2 pm. 714-798-5555. www.scr.org.

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LA Stage Times

Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers:
Listen Closely

by Gary Ballard | September 15, 2010

The stage is alive with the sound of Cricket. That’s Cricket S. Myers who is so ubiquitous on the Los Angeles theatre scene a regular patron cannot attend often without hearing her work.

<p>Cricket Myers</p>

Cricket Myers

As a sound designer Myers infuses so many local productions with aural augmentations she reels off a resume full of hits and reels in recognition for those hits with auspicious alacrity. In the last year alone she captivated Ovation voters to honor her with four nominations for Battle Hymn presented by Circle X Theatre at [Inside] the Ford, Mary’s Wedding at the Colony and two at the Kirk Douglas, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and The Little Dog Laughed. This brings her Ovation total to 10 nominations in a mere three years.

She first heard her calling while a freshman at her Michigan high school. She relates, “My mother who teaches there ran the drama club. She encouraged me to try out for the school play, Toad of Toad Hall. I was cast as one of the ferrets. I don’t remember a lot about that production except all us ferrets were costumed in these cute flowery dresses. We were the villains but it’s hard to be evil when you’re dressed in flowers.

“I quickly found out I have extreme stage fright. I coped with it because I could sort of conceal myself among the other ferrets. I knew though acting wasn’t for me. But I met the most amazing people backstage. I became enchanted with their energy and their passion. I wasn’t meant to be onstage but I couldn’t keep away from that energy. Our high school did two plays a year and I worked on all of them in all kinds of capacities, working my way up to stage managing my senior year.”

She let herself be talked into taking one last stab at an onstage appearance her senior year. “My friend who directed Memorandum persuaded me to play the secretary. I didn’t have many lines. I mostly had to sit there brushing my hair. I managed to handle that okay.”

Cricket Myers – Audio Sample “Door Roll Closed” from Haram Iran

She then headed off to Colorado College in Colorado Springs where she earned her BA in theatre. She says, “When you’re 18, you just want to get out of your own town. That wasn’t the only reason I went there though. Colorado College doesn’t offer the normal semester of classes. They’re on the block plan where you immerse yourself. You go to one class all day five days a week for three and a half weeks. Then you take four days off and start the next class. The classes are structured for maximum focus on a discipline. For example I took an astronomy class that met from 9 pm to midnight which allowed us to concentrate fully on our subject.”

If that system precipitated great benefits in studying the celestial bodies, Myers truly harvested an untold abundance when she shifted her stargazing to the luminaries of the theatre. She explains, “They have two different campus facilities in addition to the main campus. One is about a half hour away. The other consists of some cabins about three hours away. When we studied Shakespeare, our professor took us to the cabins because he wanted us removed from the distractions of everyday campus activities.

<p></p>

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at the Mark Taper Forum

“Another class required us to see and discuss as many plays as possible. Well you can’t see too many plays in Colorado in three and a half weeks so that professor took the whole class to London. Each student chipped in $500 plus air fare but we got a refund from our dorm fees and cafeteria tickets for that time which just about covered our costs.”

Armed with her BA, Myers wanted more and decided to aim for a graduate degree but took a brief detour with an internship at Midland Community Theatre in Texas. “They have the third largest community theatre in the country,” she says, “and they require their interns to take stints in all the technical areas: lighting, props, set construction, sound, stage managing. I found I wasn’t geared for stage managing over the long haul of three months rehearsing the show and then running it. I needed the frequency of new creativity.”

Cricket Myers – Audio Sample “Cue J-225″ from Haram Iran

Gravitating toward sound design, she investigated California Institute of the Arts at that same time and says, “I liked how they encouraged all their designers to assume an integral part of their productions from the very beginning and not just having their concepts layered on at the end of rehearsals or the start of tech run-throughs.”

She also enjoyed the mentoring of her instructors Jon Gottlieb and Drew Dalzell who hired her outside of class to assist them on productions at the Geffen Playhouse, the Ahmanson, the Kirk Douglas, the Ricardo Montalban, the Kodak, the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Rep. “They introduced me to theatres in the area and actually guided work my way. If they couldn’t open a spot in their schedule, they’d say (to a producer), ‘I can’t do it at this time but you should call my assistant.'”

Her first solo job took place in 2002 at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre for Joy Gregory’s Dear Charlotte-The Story of Charlotte Bronte directed by Tracy Hudak. She remembers, “It was an abstract set so they wanted to use sound as underscoring to help plant us in each scene. For my first time on my own it was nothing too complex yet it gave me a chance to play.”

She admits to some initial concerns about this assignment but lessened her apprehensions through a good old-fashioned work ethic. She chuckles, “I had the first time jitters so I overcompensated. Whenever I met with the playwright and director, I took in about 15 versions of each cue to show them. I thought it might sound great in my apartment but not so great in the theatre. To this day when I listen to an effect in my headphones, it can sound one way but when I route it through a speaker in the theatre, it may sound totally different.”

When this kind of disconnection between controlled environment and performance space occurs, Myers starts experimenting to tweak it toward the desired end. She gives an example: “For one play we needed the springing of a mousetrap with the mouse in its obvious death throes. When I played it in the theatre, it came out like a tiny squeak, nothing like a mouse in real life. I tried different things. I finally got it by recording a child squealing, then shortening and compressing it.”

Cricket Myers – Audio Sample “Little Slash” from Haram Iran

She talks through the process of preproduction consultations: “At the first meeting with a director we discuss the genre of the play and the ideas we need to develop to enhance the production. We’re searching for what works best for the play. I recently worked on Free Man of Color at the Colony with (director) Dan Bonnell. He had read about the history of the banjo and learned it had started in Africa. He wondered if there was a big difference between the African banjo as compared to its American version and wanted to explore the idea of incorporating banjo music throughout the play. As he rehearsed his actors, he’d say to me, ‘I think this might be a good place for a clip of music.’ Together we found specific locations in the script where the banjo could add to the story.”

Through her personal collection Myers has the capacity to factor in entire orchestral arrangements as well as individual instrumentalists to any of her projects because, she avers, “I have at least 10,000 songs in digital format on my computer. I-tunes is a dream for me. I can buy tracks of what I need, not whole albums.”

With so much consonance at her command and a lot more confidence since her Dear Charlotte commencement she no longer feels the need to prepare a dozen samples for each cue. “No, I come in with only a few these days. If they don’t like what I have, I ask, ‘What don’t you like about it? Is it too fast, too slow, too busy, too simple?’ Then I have the flexibility to slow it down, speed it up, simplify or intensify.”

She also of course is on the constant lookout-or would that be listen-up? -for new sounds on her journeys. And she travels a lot, throughout the United States and to 23 different countries on five continents so far. She observes, “A city in Asia sounds very different from a city in New York. In Africa I was up at dawn on many mornings because that’s the best time to see the animals. The sounds there that early are fantastic. I carry a portable tape recorder to capture them. The quality is not good enough for the theatre but it helps trigger memories for use later. Environmental sounds speak to me. I’m always recording them. I can be in a park and be captivated by the squeaking of a swing set or the rhythm of the cloth bumping against a flagpole. The echo of a car passing between two tall buildings can be fascinating. When I was in the Middle East, the bells for the call to prayers coming out of the mosque were overwhelming because you heard them ringing forth so beautifully and then you heard them 15 more times as they echoed off the buildings and bounced around the city.”

Seems sort of like Myers is always working even when she’s vacationing.

That may be partly true but she has developed interests away from the theatre as well. She talks about two of them: “I joined a ski patrol in high school because I grew up next to a ski resort. I was on a ski team for awhile but I’m not competitive so I never cared if I was the fastest one down the hill. I learned EMT procedures for injured skiers. Our job is not to treat them but to protect the wounded and get them off the hill as quickly as possible where medical treatment will be available. I go once a month to June Mountain just north of Mammoth. Not only does it get me away, it keeps me active and on my toes while I’m up there.

Cricket Myers – Audio Sample “Cue aa” from Haram Iran

“I also volunteer at Zooh Corner Rabbit Rescue at the San Gabriel Humane Society. It started in 2003. Back then they held a rabbit only five to seven days before euthanizing it. We struck a deal with them so now it’s a 100 percent no-kill shelter. We haven’t lost one since then because we have volunteers in daily to care for them. Monday is my day. Right now we have 37 rabbits. I clean their pens, change their water and let them out for exercise. We also have foster homes for the sick ones that need extra care or help with medication. I have two bunnies in my home I’m fostering. It’s taken me two months to get the female which had been mistreated to lose some of her aggressive tendencies and not attack me.”

Her outright, overriding fervor though harks back to those passionate energies encountered behind the scenes as a ferret in a flowery frock. “I love to travel,” she maintains, “and I attempt to see theatre wherever I go. I’m fascinated by the different styles all over the world. I’ve seen Kabuki in Japan, water puppets in Viet Nam, the Black Light Theatre of Prague. But I’m always eager to return to work. If I take more than a week off at a time, I go stir crazy.”

One suspects she must rank our homegrown theatre with a regard comparable to those viewed abroad although she’s not unaware of its changing dynamics. She believes, “HDTV is destroying sound in the theatre. People can sit at home with their surround sound systems so loud it makes them want the same experience when they see a play. The audience is so accustomed to it they’ve lost the ability to sit and listen closely.

“The Ahmanson has everything miked now whether it’s a musical or not. The audience wants more so they push it harder. Look at Broadway’s revival of A Chorus Line. They said they wanted to keep it just like the original. The original Chorus Line wasn’t miked. The revival was because a modern audience wouldn’t tolerate it without it. My hope is the audience can go back to learning to listen again. I think it requires an internal peace.”

Cricket Myers – Audio Sample “Bengal Call to Prayer” from Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

The audience may have to search for its peace but it won’t have to wander far to arrive in earshot of Cricket S. Myers’ work. She applied her auditory arts to a trio of recent shows-Life Could be a Dream at Laguna Playhouse, Topdog/Underdog at the Lillian Theatre and Free Man of Color at the Colony Theatre-with another trio to open before year’s end- Bell, Book and Candle also at the Colony, Little Shop of Horrors at Cal State Northridge and Nine, the Musical at Cal State Long Beach-with the bonus of Halloween Horror Nights tossed in for Universal Studios for good measure.

Looks as if she’s ringing out this old year for us and will doubtless ring in the New Year as well. Sounds cricket to us.

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LA Stage Times

Rodney and Rauch, Titus Redux and Neighbors

by Don Shirley | September 8, 2010

Leave it to Bill Rauch to talk me down from my Rodney Dangerfield shtick.

I wanted to ask Rauch, the Cornerstone Theater co-founder and longtime artistic director who now runs Oregon Shakespeare Festival, about his impressions of LA theater, now that he’s largely removed from it. But as I was doing a little research, I found a telling reminder of why LA theater people often feel as if they’re doing a Dangerfield routine.

The LA theater scene gets no respect, no respect, I grumbled to myself, in my best Dangerfield impression.

Bill Rauch. Photo by Jenny Graham

Bill Rauch. Photo by Jenny Graham

Last year, the New York Times ran an article about Rauch’s initiatives at the Oregon festival since he became the company’s artistic director in 2006. Somehow, however, the article failed to mention that Rauch spent 15 years in L.A. at the helm of Cornerstone — surely the most important chunk of the credentials that got him the Oregon job.

Yes, it mentioned that he had co-founded Cornerstone and cited a couple examples of Cornerstone’s work from its itinerant, pre-L.A. days. But it included nothing about how Cornerstone matured in 1992 by settling in LA, where its home base remains.

The online version of the article also includes an appended correction, which more or less explained how Rauch’s LA’s years had been completely erased from it. Apparently a Times editor, noticing that LA wasn’t mentioned and smartly associating Cornerstone with LA, foolishly assumed that the company had been founded in LA and inserted an incorrect reference along those lines in the first published version. Then, when someone pointed out that Cornerstone actually was born in McLean, Va., the one reference to “Los Angeles” was replaced by “McLean, Va.” — and no one thought to add anything else about LA’s important role in the rise of Rauch.

This summer, the same Times ran yet another article about Oregon Shakespeare by the same writer, who this time focused on the festival’s new cycle of plays based on American history — which began production this summer with Richard Montoya’s American Night. This new article not only failed to mention L.A. in connection with Rauch (again) but also neglected to point out that Rauch got to know Montoya in LA Montoya’s Culture Clash pre-dated Cornerstone in choosing to move to LA.

Oh well — this time, at least, the LA Times stepped into the breach. In what looked like a reaction to the New York Times coverage, the LA Times ran its own story about American Night, which acknowledged the LA roots the other Times ignored and disclosed that Montoya hopes to bring the play to Culture Clash’s proposed new LA home. Meanwhile, the Times’ Culture Monster blog also ran an article about some of the many Angelenos whom Rauch has lured to Ashland — the small-town home of Oregon Shakespeare. And LA STAGE Times ran its own article about Montoya’s project.

Still, as I made a brief stop in Ashland last week, I wanted to hear Rauch’s own reflections on the experience of running a relatively small theater in a huge city, compared to that of running a huge theater in a small town. When I sat down with him in his Ashland office, I asked what he missed and what he didn’t miss about LA theater.

“I miss the sheer amount of productions, the energy,” Rauch replied. “Here [in Ashland] there are a couple of smaller local theaters, but nothing approaches the vibrancy of the L.A. scene. If I read about something happening at another theater, I probably can’t go see it.”

Well, that’s not always true. Rauch says he travels to LA. “a couple times a year, which is not often enough.” He directed Culture Clash in Peace at the Getty Villa last year, in his only directorial job outside Ashland since he started there. He came down to see the Geffen Playhouse productions of Equivocation and By the Waters of Babylon — plays that premiered at Ashland.

Rauch tries to keep up with Cornerstone “because so many of my friends are there and it’s so dear to my heart.” But he has “missed a lot of Cornerstone shows. My relationship to it is now historical” — although he hopes to see the group’s upcoming West Hollywood musical.

Of course he also keeps connected with LA artists by bringing them to Ashland. The Oregon festival’s casting directors Joy Dickson and Nicole Arbusto are based in L.A. “Given that I spent 15 years in L.A.,” says Rauch, “so many of my artistic relationships are L.A.-based. L.A.’s extraordinary theater scene is not known by the rest of the country” — but he says Dickson and Arbusto see a healthy share of L.A. theater.

What doesn’t he miss about L.A. theater? “The fact that a lot of the theater in L.A. doesn’t pay a living wage is a big challenge,” Rauch says.

Also, in LA, many theaters “have to scrounge for an audience.” By contrast, in Ashland, he doesn’t have to worry much about “the size and passion and loyalty of the audience. People who come to Ashland come to see theater, and a healthy number of them come back more than once each season.”

Rauch can do some material in Ashland that he wouldn’t be able to do at Cornerstone. This summer he staged The Merchant of Venice. He had “toyed with” the idea of doing a version of this dark, difficult play at Cornerstone. One of the company’s stalwarts, Shishir Kurup, wrote an adaptation called The Merchant on Venice, which shifted the play to contemporary LA and shifted the conflict from Christians and Jews to Hindus and Muslims. Although Cornerstone didn’t do it, Merchant on Venice went on to success at Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago in 2007 (maybe some other LA company would like to finally bring it to the city where it’s set?).

Cornerstone, however, is all about building bridges between different communities. The Merchant of Venice, says Rauch, “is a play about the limitations of people’s ability to cross those gulfs.” Cornerstone sometimes used tragedies as source material, but while tragedies like Romeo and Juliet can leave the audience with a feeling of reconciliation, no such feeling is apparent at the end of Merchant. Rauch says the closest Cornerstone came to such a play in his years there was AKA, a Shem Bitterman adaptation of a Wedekind text that was set in Beverly Hills and “leaves you with a sour feeling, without the catharsis of tragedy or comedy.”

Yet for a company named after Shakespeare, not doing Merchant would be a dereliction of artistic responsibility. It was one of the first two plays that the Oregon festival staged, in 1935, and it seemed appropriate to bring both of them back for the 75th anniversary (the other is Twelfth Night). Rauch, who seems a sunny and literally embracing man in person as well as in his previous work at Cornerstone, decided to explore the darker side of the street. “The characters are so hateful, it demands such ugliness, but it’s exhilarating to dig into those hidden corners,” Rauch says.

In a play that often seems to reek of anti-Semitism, Rauch cast longtime company member Anthony Heald as Shylock. Heald is not only a convert to Judaism but actually went through the conversion process at an Ashland synagogue. At a company meeting, he initially argued against doing the play, but he ultimately became the first Jewish actor to play the role in Ashland’s history.

Rauch acknowledges that in Ashland, his job is still collaborative but also more hierarchical than it was at Cornerstone. “Part of my journey here is learning to be an artistic leader.”

Also, he points out, Cornerstone “is something that [co-founder] Alison [Carey] and I started from scratch. Here I have a responsibility to legacy and history. I’m much more aware of my role as a temporary steward.”

TITUS REDUX and NEIGHBORS: And now a couple comments on two recent openings that bounce off my previous discussion of summer Shakespeare and the two dueling Topdogs/Underdogs:

 

<p>Jack Stehlin and John F. Bocca</p>

Jack Stehlin and John F. Bocca. Photo by Ed Krieger

Titus Redux, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an even more radical re-mix of a Shakespearean text than A Wither’s Tale, at the Falcon Theatre. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as cohesive. Nor is it on a par with director John Farmanesh-Bocca’s similar reworking of Shakespeare’s Pericles at the Douglas last summer.

Titus (Jack Stehlin) is now an American officer who has returned from years of duty in Iraq/Afghanistan bearing the ashes of a son who also was killed in the same conflicts, much to the seething resentment of his wife Tamora (Brenda Strong).

If this narrative were to correlate with the original, Tamora wouldn’t have been his wife. She would have been the wife of a defeated Iraqi or Afghan rival. Fortunately for America’s geopolitical reputation but unfortunately for Farmanesh-Bocca’s concept, U.S. military officers don’t bring home the wives of defeated war lords, so Farmanesh-Bocca pretends that Tamora is just one more unhappy American wife and that her remaining sons and Titus’ daughter are blood-related siblings. When the young men rape and mutilate their “sister,” the original’s political rationale for this bloodthirsty episode is, well, missing in action.

Once Titus Redux skids off those particular marks, it loses its way to the point where parts of it are virtually incoherent, although highly kinetic.

This is a co-production between Not Man Apart (Farmanesh-Bocca’s group) and the hitherto 99-Seat-Plan-using Circus Theatricals (Stehlin’s). Titus Redux never could have been produced in the smaller spaces that Circus Theatricals has used.

I hope that Circus continues to look for ways to move up to the bigger leagues. They’re presenting additional evidence — on top of what I discussed here — that companies that do so don’t necessarily lose whatever cutting-edge interests and reputation they have previously cultivated,  just because their potential audiences are larger.

Meanwhile, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Neighbors, at the Matrix, provides a fascinating counterpoint to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog.

Parks created a parched economic landscape in Topdog/Underdog. One African American brother is trying to master three-card monte and the other is trying to move one inch up the ladder of respectability by clinging to a job as a whiteface Lincoln impersonator at a seaside arcade. Temporarily, they share a desolate flat.

<p>Julia Campbell and Derek Webster. Photo by I.C. Rapoport.</p>

Julia Campbell and Derek Webster in Neighbors. Photo by I.C. Rapoport.

In Neighbors, a black university professor lives with his white wife and their biracial daughter in a suburban home on one side of the stage, while a family of itinerant black minstrels — wearing blackface — move into the adjacent house, on the other side of the stage. The former family is presented fairly realistically, while the latter family is presented as a surreal cartoon. The playwright’s primary concern is to demonstrate the differing reactions of the members of the would-be Obama-lite family to the vulgar black stereotypes who live next door.

The question of how these wandering minstrels (the Crows) can afford a suburban home — or anything else, considering the dismal commercial prospects of their grotesque artistic choices — is never seriously addressed, because most of the Crows are nothing more than clanging Symbols. In an interview, director Nataki Garrett indicated that maybe the Crows aren’t really supposed to be minstrels but are simply working-class blacks who are perceived as minstrels by the insecure professor. But this possible point of view isn’t readily apparent in the theater.

The play wallows in the stereotypes that it’s also (apparently) decrying. In the last couple scenes, the playwright doesn’t seem to know how to end his rather long script, so he decides to make the ending purposefully incomplete. I’d like to re-visit The Colored Museum and the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s I Ain’t ‘Yo Uncle, to see why those dissections of black stereotypes worked better than this one does.

Still, Nataki Garrett’s staging certainly creates sparks with its fully charged performances. And the producer, Joe Stern — with his last production Stick Fly as well as Neighbors — is making a startling change of emphasis that may well re-invigorate his aging Matrix Theatre Company.

Titus Redux, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tues-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 7 pm. Closes Sunday. 877-369-9112. www.CircusTheatricals.com or www.NotManApart.com.

Neighbors, Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Thurs-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2:30 pm.  Closes Oct. 24. 323-960-7774. www.plays411.com/neighbors.

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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. www.independentshakespeare.com.

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

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. www.theatricum.com.

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. www.fremontcentretheatre.com.

Topdog/Underdog, Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sept. 12. 323-960-7719. www.plays411.com/topdog.

A Wither’s Tale photo by Chelsea Sutton

Hamlet photo by Ian Flanders

Topdog/Underdog photo by Dove Huntley

 

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Topdog/Underdog:
An Important Play, Well Done

by Martin Head | August 24, 2010

Ovation Fellows are current students or recent alumni from Los Angeles area universities.  Fellows are paired with a Mentor, currently serving as an Ovation Award voter, and see productions and meet artists around Greater Los Angeles throughout the year.  Their articles, posted on LAStageBlog, are intended to be their personal responses to their experiences, and not as critical reviews or representing the views of LA Stage Alliance.

Martin Head is an Ovation Fellow from Los Angeles City College.

Topdog Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, is a powerful and intense two man drama that originated Off Broadway in 2001. I have read the book several times and studied the play and its characters. I have long looked forward to seeing a live production of this show and this production was everything I hoped for and more.

I have been fortunate this year to see some fine plays as an LA Stage Alliance fellow. Topdog/Underdog and The Ballad of Emmett Till rank as my two favorite productions of the season, hands down. This was actor M.D. Walton’s first shot at producing and, I say, he made all the right moves.  Topdog/Underdog will be playing at the Elephant Theatre Company’s Lillian Theatre through Sept. 12.

M.D., who also plays the role of Booth, saw the original production of Topdog Off Broadway and knew someday he had to do this play. In the program he writes, “This play hit my core like no other play I have experienced.” About a year ago, M.D. began the process of fundraising. He told me, “People were very supportive, and for the support for Susan-Lori Parks, and here we are! This is a dream come true for me.” M.D. first met his costar A.K. Murtadha five years ago at a UCSD showcase in New York. M.D. said, “I liked the way A.K. carried himself on stage. I knew someday we would work together.”

The actors have great chemistry and seamlessly manage the tenuous love/hate relationship of siblings Lincoln and Booth. The direction is clear and strong. Every subtle nuance of Parks’ creation is explored and the story is told quite effectively.

This is not an easy play. In addition to complex characters and difficult language, the text is full of imagery, symbolism and mystery. Topdog is an intricately woven piece that cuts to the heart of some very complex and deep seeded human conditions relevant to US history, family, poverty and the attainment of the American Dream. A.K. shared his thoughts about this work, “In the prologue, Parks’ says this as a play about family: two black men trying to make it in today’s society. One of them says, ‘Later for the man; let’s take from the man…any chance we get.’ While the other says, ‘I’m gonna go out there and try to pursue that American dream. Even if it means I have to put on another face.’ This is a true occurrence in our history,” A.K. adds.

Arguably, the most relevant and contemporary black play today, Susan-Lori Parks’ Topdog Underdog is not only significant to the African American audience. This play transcends and speaks to all. My thanks and congratulations go to M.D., A.K. and all the crew of Topdog/ Underdog. I would also like to express my extreme gratitude to Doug Clayton and Terence McFarland at LA Stage Alliance for this enriching experience as an LA Stage Alliance fellow. This has been a wonderful opportunity. I am truly honored.

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The Stakes Are Ridiculously High in Topdog/Underdog

by Ashley Steed | August 6, 2010

Topdog/Underdog, presented by Top Dog Productions in association with the Elephant Theatre, opens Aug. 6; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through Sept. 12. Tickets: $25. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; 323.960.7719 or plays411.com/topdog.

When Topdog/Underdog first ran off-Broadway it was regarded as one of Suzan-Lori Parks most traditional and accessible plays. The MacArthur “Genius” went on to win the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the piece.

The last time the play was done in Los Angeles was in 2004 at the Mark Taper Forum. Now it is heading towards a more intimate space – the Elephant’s Lillian Theatre. The story chronicles the lives of two brothers, Booth and Lincoln, who were abandoned by their parents and therefore are bound together through pure necessity. It is a seemingly straightforward storyline but as director Marty Papazian points out, “It’s not a traditional play.”

<br />Marty Papazian.

Marty Papazian.

Dressed in dark jeans, white tee, puffy black vest and a black ivy cap, he’s soft spoken with a subtle urban rhythm of speech as he continues. “It looks like one but it’s not. It looks fun and simple but it’s not. There are so many layers. It’s interesting hearing [Suzan-Lori Parks] talk about the play in interviews because she always has very simple responses. She’ll say, ‘This play is just about two brothers.’ And it is, just about two brothers.”

M.D. Walton, whose enthusiasm for the play immediately draws you in, is the man who made this production happen. He plays Booth opposite A.K. Murtadha as Lincoln and concurs with Papazian. “For me, it is just about these two brothers trying to survive. It’s a cyclical nature of survival that happens. They were abandoned by their parents at ages 16 and 11. Their father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke. There’s a historical significance of the piece as well. It’s like [Parks] says, the characters… they talk to her while she writes. It’s not like she plans this stuff in her head, which is amazing because there’s so many different nuances.”

“Yeah,” agrees Papazian, “she’s said this was the easiest play for her to write. And as we’re going through it…”

“It’s complex,” interjects Walton, releasing a boisterous laugh.

“…it just blows us away. And the nature of siblings – there’s so much in that,” Papazian marvels. “In a moment you could be laughing and having the time of your life; the next moment you could be at each other’s throats, wanting to kill each other. And the humor helps you survive through trauma. These guys have been through a lot together.

“Lincoln used to be a three-card Monte hustler, who used to be quite successful, but he had a friend who got shot and died. And he feels responsible. He now has this sit-down job as he says.” He adds, “Booth is a thief.”

“An aspiring three-card Monte hustler,” clarifies Walton with a grin. “He watched his brother be successful at it. It’s not just a play about playing this game; it’s a love story.”

Booth wants to emulate his brother Lincoln says Papazian. “If it wasn’t three-card Monte, it would be whatever his brother was doing. It’s that his brother does it.”

Walton stresses, “The stakes are ridiculously high in this play.”

“And they’re high everywhere,” adds Papazian. “There’s this whole thing too about what’s real and what’s imagined.” For instance, with three-card Monte, it’s essentially a magic trick.

As the characters’ names suggest the past and even the future play important thematic roles. “But everything is happening right here, right now; in the moment, on their teeth. And they start to lose a handle on what’s real and what’s not. Ultimately that is what leads to their downfall,” reveals Papazian.

Walton elaborates: “Each brother has a different story of how their parents abandoned them. We’re talking about opposing points of view. Lincoln’s always talking about a job; he just wants to set himself straight. Booth is like, I’ve seen how the job world cracked up my parents; they divorced; they left. There’s no way I’m going to get a regular job. I just have to hustle.”

“It’s interesting how they remember the past. And how we remember history,” says Papazian.

When asked what his approach has been to directing this play, Papazian laughs out loud, “Madness! We began doing improvisational work, playing with it, trying to find a bunch of different ways – we’re trying to find where it wants to be. Something we’re really trying to carve out in it is that there’s a certain absurdity we can have here and get away with. A certain larger-than-life quality the play will support. And yet on the flip side – is the absolute: two brothers who love each other and hate each other and all the emotions in between. And I think that’s why the play, like [Parks] says, it looks like a traditional play but it’s not.”

Stylistically it is her most traditional play. “Absolutely, but it has all of the other imagination and arbitrariness of [Parks’] other [plays] that are just popping and crackling all over the place,” he replies. “It’s here in this play too and that’s what we’re starting to find more and more, the absurdity. But we’re crazy in life! Like when we break up with people, the way we scream and yell and throw things. We’re ridiculous. People are ridiculous, you know? That’s what we’re trying to do here; capture the ridiculousness of these two people who love and hate each other. Who have been living together for years; all they’ve had is each other.” Taking a breath, he adds, “And also, to really try to personalize the piece. I have three brothers; M.D. is ironically an only child…”

“I always asked for a brother when I was a child,” recounts Walton. “It’s interesting because, I try to take myself back when looking at Booth as a character. There was a strong need for a brother; there was a strong need for companionship.”

Papazian resumes, “I see my two older brothers in these characters; it’s wild. I think there’s something about the universality of her writing. Like with Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller, you’re watching these families from another time, another place that we know nothing about, yet somehow they’re exactly like our families. And I think that’s what’s so amazing about this piece. I think that may be why she doesn’t try to define it a certain way because she’s certainly honest when she says she didn’t write it from that point of view; she didn’t write it with any sort of agenda in mind. I think it came from such a pure place, which is why we’re reacting to the play in that way.”

<br />M.D. Walton as Booth.

M.D. Walton as Booth.

Walton had seen Topdog/Underdog when it first played at the Public Theatre in New York with Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle. “I saw it then and I just fell in love with it, everything about it. [Parks’] writing and lyricism was the beginning of my obsession. It changed me as an artist.”

Now, nine years later, Walton’s been busy raising the funds and putting together the team.

Papazian speaks of Walton’s effort to raise money as a super human effort. “With the economy tanking it’s a pure example of determination and inspiration.”

Linking the current economic conditions to the play, Walton says its themes of poverty and survival are even more relevant now.

“There’s a certain anxiety in the world now,” comments Papazian.

“Lincoln loses his job,” says Walton. “Like he says, ‘what the f— am I going to do?'”

“Something seems to be shifting in this country,” observes Papazian. “Everything’s sort of crass. These guys are fixed on the past, on these certain ideas about what happened. Lincoln’s got this sit-down job and that’s what he’s going to do. He’s not going to go back to playing the cards.  So when he does go back, it’s like a guy who’s addicted to heroin – his whole world opens up. Again, it’s his downfall.”

Identity plays an important role in this play. What about identity in relation to race? Walton answers, “Lincoln wears white face and Booth is constantly on him: I hate your job; I hate your get up; you’re an Uncle Tom.”

Papazian expands, “We wanted to have these guys in a specific location, make them real. We wanted to start in a place of reality. These are guys we could see and meet and would know. [But] I don’t think we’ve approached it with thinking about [race].”

Walton agrees. They hosted a celebrity panel in which Harold Perrineau, who had played Lincoln in the Taper production, said any race could play these two characters.

“It is universal in that way,” admits Papazian.

“It’s just about the struggle. Anybody could be in this situation.” After a brief pause, Walton adds, “It’s deep.”

“For this production it’s just about M.D. and A.K. – them working it out and going through the journey,” says Papazian. “As long as it’s personal for them and personal for me and we’ve cut it with that, then it will stand alone, you know.”

Speaking of Murtadha, I ask where he went. Ever the diligent actor, he’s in another room going over his lines. Still wearing his rehearsal Abe Lincoln frock coat, I ask what drew him to the play.

“Well, it’s funny, I just finished a production of The American Play [also by Parks] where there’s a character named Lincoln that has to do the same thing as Lincoln does in this play. He’s in kind of an arcade set up; people come in, they choose from a phony set of pistols and they walk into a booth,” he laughs, “no pun intended, and they shoot him.”

“In short: Lincoln is a great character. He’s a great person to embody and go on a journey with. He’s got a lot of pain going on. Within that, he’s trying to save his life and his brother’s… from ruin. And not really knowing how to do that. I’ve seen people like that.”

<br />A.K. Murtadha as Lincoln.

A.K. Murtadha as Lincoln.

On playing a Lincoln impersonator the history of blackface comes up. “You think of minstrel characters and usually when blacks were doing minstrel characters, they were putting on blackface to make them even darker. That’s kind of the joke inherent as well. He puts on this white face. He takes less money. But he does it to survive. He does it so he doesn’t have to go back to a life that could be in peril, in danger, with three-card Monte.”

Why would a black man put on whiteface? Murtadha speaks from his character’s point of view, “Because I have to. There’s no other alternative for me. There’s no going back to hustling.

“That’s the thing – he wants to grow. He’s got dreams and aspirations but there’s not the father or mother there to coach him along and say, ‘hey, you can do this.’ There’s no one there that’s putting these aspirations in his mind. What is there is his surroundings telling him ‘no you can’t, you live in poverty, you live in crime, you live in lack and that’s what you know.’ So he’s fighting against that.” He takes a moment and then, “The pull of ruin verses the unknown aspects of deliverance, of rising above things. That speaks to me as a black man.”

What has the process been like for the three men?

Instantaneously, Papazian remarks, “Gnarly.”

Laughing with agreement Walton adds, “It’s a beast.”

Continuing, Papazian lets the experience flow: “It’s been fun; it’s been hard; it’s been emotional. It’s been wild. It’s taken its toll; it’s taken a lot of time. But here we are; we’re in the final stretch. Sometimes a play is just a play. And sometime it can really affect you, you know? In a real personal way. It’s been a very personal process.”

“Same here,” agrees Walton. “With this play, it’s putting your heart on a plate. I take the play home with me sometimes; it’s hard to drop it.”

Papazian urges, “You’re dealing with three people who are…”

“crazy passionate!” emphatically interrupts Walton.

“…and committed. 100%,” Papazian finishes.

He hopes audiences have a visceral theatrical experience. “I hope they cry. I hope they laugh. I hope they are freaked out. I hope it’s a roller coaster ride for them of imagination and [then] being slapped back into reality. And a truly inspirational theatrical experience.”

“That’s that feeling I had when I first saw the piece,” gushes Walton.

Murtadha speaks of the transcendent experience unique to theatre. “Audience, the stage and a performer – sharing. It is that idea we are, as Shakespeare said, holding a mirror up to humanity. And letting humanity see itself. Within that, you learn – we learn. You see and realize there are people out there who are struggling, who don’t have. And are trying to get along, who are trying to make it the best that they can. But, dig it, [the play is] funny. Because, as my mother use to say, you laugh to keep from crying, you know.”

He elaborates on Booth and Lincoln’s relationship. “They come in and are unleashing on each other, they’re cutting each other. But at the same time, it’s a cut with an embrace. It’s a hey, smack – cut. Hey, hug – poke. Hey, kiss – bite. And I think within that, people will have a catharsis.” And within that catharsis, hopefully people will appreciate what they have.

Feature image of M.D. Walton and A.K. Murtadha by Randolph Adams Photography.

Article by Ashley Steed.