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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at ISC

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The language of Elizabethan times most familiar to us through the epic plays of Shakespeare captures essential English speech: iambic pentameter. It is easy. It’s  lyrical and at once familiar and arcane.  Melissa Chalsma’s direction of Doctor Faustus flows like quick silver with a talented cast doubling, tripling and multitasking like anything through the basic story of one man’s lust for power at the price of his own soul.   As Faustus, Adam Mondschein finds the groove of the language and runs with it.  Each of the ensemble members reflects the voice of training that has been a signature for the Independent Shakespeare Company.  This is a stage play.  It’s theatrical. Simply, it works

The entire ISC production under Chalsma’s precision guidance, (she adapted the script as well from two different versions of Marlowe’s play) understands not only the language, but in the company’s rough hewn stage on Casitas, makes beautiful use of the space.  It is this dedication to the play itself, not being restricted by the tiny area and limited tech (though the lighting by Bosco Flannagan and uncredited projections are just fine) that bring Marlowe’s text to life. 


Mondschein shines as the power obsessed German doctor who uses arcane magic to conjure Mephistopheles, the gorgeous and talented Suzan Crowley. Crowley brings her full bag of tricks as an actor.  With some features that favor Katherine Hepburn, her mane of auburn hair frames a benign face that speaks evil truths about being damned to Hell while seducing the eager doctor. Her command of the language is arresting.   Only Mondschein and Crowley remain consistent in their roles while the rest of the cast soldiers on as a well tuned ensemble.  Outstanding Ashley Nguyen as The Evil Angel and half a dozen other characters, tempts Faustus to stay true to his bargain with The Dark One.  Like a cartoon image of a little angel on the other shoulder, Sam Breen brings light as the Good Angel. Lexie Helgerson as both malevolent Lucifer and Helen of Troy as well as a very lusty Lust is, simply, hot! 
 
Faustus is given the gift of invisibility and bedevils Andrè Martin as The Pope, reflecting perhaps,  Marlowe’s contempt for religion.  Matt Callahan as Robin has a moment with his bladder and a bucket.  Each character in the doubling is crisp and well executed. The social commentary and the morality tale come together well.  The language, though not always easy to follow, flows beautifully.   
This fine ensemble, also well known for their free productions of Shakespeare in Griffith Park makes Elizabethan Theatre accessible.  The actors play as a unit, sharing the stage and creating their world in a tiny, but serviceable space.  Director Chalsma’s stage pictures are beautiful.

The lobby is a hallway with a TV tray as the box office.  No frills, just excellent theatre.  For an evening of professional acting and a story well told, don’t miss Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Independent Shakespeare Company.  Bring a pillow.


DOCTOR FAUSTUS by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Melissa Chalsma
Independent Shakespeare Company
3191 Casitas Ave. #168
Los Angeles, California 90039
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30PM
Sundays at 2PM
Through November 23, 2014
Tickets and Information
818 710 6306  www.iscla.org

Saturday, October 25, 2014

WORLD PREMIERE: A or B? at The Falcon

Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre is unique.  The choices for productions vary and are always professionally presented in every aspect.  The World Premiere of Ken Levine’s A or B? is no exception.  In his program notes, Levine credits Marshall with virtually everything that his writing has come to, citing early episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show penned by Marshall and his writing partner, Jerry Belson as inspirational.  Certainly, situation comedy is at the forefront here, but with a bit of in depth soul searching that features well timed one liners (including a sly reference to Pretty Woman). It’s a comedy. A comedy with heart.

A or B?'s multifunctional set with New York skyline by Bruce Goodrich (who also did the appropriate costumes), with snazzy lighting by Jeremy Pivnik set the scene. Uncomplicated precision moves by director Andrew Barnicle keep the show moving a pace.  Sexy Jules Willcox as Abby Morgan and Jason Dechert as ripped Ben Steele: both superbly cast millenials, bring this somewhat bizarre piece to life.  
Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox in
A or B? at the Falcon Theatre.
Photo by Jill Mamey.

 The 1998 German film, RUN, LOLA, RUN captured the imagination by showing three different scenarios as the lithe redheaded Franka Potente as Lola sets out to save her boyfriend’s life by running to collect money to get him out of a jam.  Each time she sprints from her apartment, she has obstacles that make her frantic chase change. In each of the three episodes we see the minutes fly by as she dashes into three different futures. Levine’s play uses a somewhat similar approach by having Ben and Abby meet in slightly different ways.  Each character is the same person, but Abby is defined at first by a red dress and then by blue.  Each color then represents attitudes and even the same lines delivered with different approaches.  It works.  This is not Chekov it’s a modern take on relationships: business and romantic.  The twain shall meet and there’s the rub.

Levine says that television has pretty much defined his approach to writing and the situation comedy element is played here in broad strokes bringing gales of laughter from the opening night audience.  A or B?'s  cultural references and the use of cyber tools (“I hate ATandT!”) create a hip and happening atmosphere.  We open on Abby on the phone chatting with her cat making kissy sounds before getting back on with her mother in hometown Northwest USA discussing which dress to wear, hot red or cool blue,  to an interview with Ben for a position in his marketing analysis firm in New York City. The play asks the musical question, “Love or Ambition: A or B?  Choose one?” As the characters swap attitudes with sexual innuendo as well as in the sacko, we see the same characters under the influence of completely different takes on their lives, as well as a martini or two. It’s sweet and sour and bitter sweet as time passes and in the final analysis we see Abby in a purple dress, another shot at something special evolves as we may have hoped all along.

Supporting this professional theatre with a season ticket gets you invited to the Opening Night Performance and preferential parking.  Garry Marshall is a grand host and the goodies and champagne are not to be missed.  A or B? It deserves  an audience!!

A or B?
by Ken Levine
The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Toluca Lake, CA 91505
October 24, to November 16, 2014
Tickets and information 
818 955 8101
www.falcontheatre.com

Sunday, October 19, 2014

VILLA THRILLA by Anna Nicholas

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Circle X at the Atwater has been invaded by a ‘merry band of madcap actors’.. more or less.  Anna Nicholas’s Villa Thrilla bounces off a recent trend of whodunit mystery parties that invite the guests to solve a heinous crime.  Murder most foul!  What works like a charm in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! and Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep takes the premise in a slightly different direction.

The theme of the entertainment at The Thrilla Villa (it’s a creepy old mansion owned by the Thrilla Family in the past) is a 1960s party complete with shaggadelic Austin Powers look-a-like Zachary (Gregory Gilford Giles), Carol Wayne Clone “Cleo”  (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and a cast of actors ready with a script to enact an evening’s entertainment.  

At rise we discover a shady couple (Bruce Willis clone Brad Lee Wind as Tony Bonifacio / Oscar Fazzoli) and his Mercedes Ruehl clone wife, Donna / Jacqueline: Dayna LaBelle) at the spooky gate to the Thrilla  Villa.    It’s a dark and stormy night.  Great lighting and sound by Brandon Baruch and Peter Bayne set the scene as we learn that Tony and Donna are “connected” Italians (well, Tony is and Donna, apparently, is simply a browbeaten broad) arriving at the Thrilla Villa in search of an old acquaintance, “Mickey,” who has had plastic surgery and may be the connection to acquiring the old manse to take advantage of its New Jersey zoning for a casino/ entertainment destination.  They know nothing about the murder mystery event, but are welcomed as though they were expected.

Madison Rhoades' well turned set with scrim walls is elegantly tacky.  Seeing through the walls seemed to foreshadow something happening behind them.  It never did. 

Exposition and deliberately broad acting styles include the punked out and cynical Carolyn (Giulia Davis)
and her suave ‘uncle?’ Fredrick (Steven Connor).  The cast attempts to get along with the show with the Bonifacio/Fazzolis totally confused as to what’s going on.  All Tony/ Oscar wants to do is find the hidden passage and connect with his old pal, Mickey.

The opportunities for jokes are abundant, but few.  The set is loaded with doors for entrances and exits, but they are never really put to use as we might expect in a romp like Noises Off!  Why director Gary Lee Reed didn’t at least use the swinging door to the kitchen is a mystery of its own.  Andrew Villarreal as Tom, the house boy (who may have something going on with Zachary), camps to high heaven until the plot of the play within the play falls to pieces.  Rosalind (Carolyn Crotty) as the elegant hostess loses a contact lens, “Mickey” finally surfaces, the Voice of Doris Roberts is credited as the Voice of Camilla Thrilla, but her lines are difficult at best to understand…  as are the lines of some of the actors, especially in their guise of characters in the play within the play. 

This is a valiant effort at a silly premise, that with some work might fly through all the available doors a pace.  Keeping track of who’s who and the thread of the plot is reflective of Agatha Christie (Ten Little Indians is briefly referenced).  The fun of farce is the theatricality of it.  The mad nuttiness of Noises Off! is missing. The clever use of doubling in Irma Vep is missing, too.  With a bit more energy and enunciation by the actors and really using all those doors, it might become a clever romp. 

VILLA THRILLA
By Anna Nicholas
Produced by Bournos Productions
The Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 3PM
Through November 23, 2014
Tickets and information
800 838 3006
www.ThrillaVilla.com


2 Pianos 4 Hands Bach-to-Bach @ Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre

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Reviewed 18 October, 2014 by Robert Roll

2 Pianos 4 Hands: a play with music, or a piano concert with a light comedy narrative, earned a Canadian Tony Award in 1996 when authors Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt projected the A Chorus Line treatment onto the rarified world of classical concert piano.  Here is a concept that will either hook you right away, or give you pause.

As the characters Rick and Ted develop from squirmy kid prodigies into master pianists, their stories are embroidered not with poppy “I Hope I Get It” show tunes, but with the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and a half-dozen other masters of classical music.  When you talk about an all-star score, this show has it in spades.

Christopher Tocco and Thomas Frey 
PHOTO CREDIT: Suellen Fitzimmons and Stratton McCrady

The current program’s fulsome and technically flawless musical performances alone make the show worth attending. In the four very capable hands of Thomas Frey and Christopher Tocco, the Rubicon Theatre Company offers an elevating musical evening of piano virtuosity and colorful character study.  

What’s really fun about this two-man cast is the effortlessness with which they hand off to each other both musically and dramatically in the roles of secondary foils to the main characters they play— seamlessly finishing each other’s thoughts both at the keyboard and in the storyline.

If you have ever been the beneficiary—or victim—of early-life musical training, 2 Pianos will strike a diminished G 7th chord in you.  Whether your childhood direction ran to youth soccer, math jams or any other parental-compulsive activity, the themes in this play ring equally true.

The show presents a story of two polite Canadian kids run through the wringer of competitive art at an early age.  They bridle at having to practice long hours, attend endless local competitions, and struggle to find their true selves while facing a blizzard of conflicting instructors, judges and well-meaning relatives.

Once the polite Canadian kids grow into polite Canadian piano virtuosos, they begin to discover enough about themselves to decide whether they may be great, or quite good, or good enough to ultimately be themselves.

With A Chorus Line, the producers had a certain latitude in casting great actors who could “dance a little”.  Any casting choices for 2 Pianos 4 Hands must place superb keyboard skills as foremost.  Frey and Tocco fill the musical bill handsomely, their skills with the light comedy and character changes are more than sufficient to round out a diverting evening.  Thomas Frey’s direction places musical performance exactly where it belongs, front and center. Past visitors to the Rubicon know that its converted 1920’s church with fewer than 200 seats is a more intimate venue than the grand concert hall the play might suggest, but Scenic Designer and Lighting Designer Steve Lucas crafts a setting exactly as advertised: 2 Pianos, elegantly framed, with a few stagecraft surprises that delight, never detract. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is a scintillating presentation in a jewel box setting.



2 Pianos 4 Hands Bach-to-Bach by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt
Rubicon Theatre
1006 East Main Street
Ventura, CA  93001
Wednesdays at 2 pm and 7pm
Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm
Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm
Sundays at 2 pm
Through November 16, 2014
Tickets:  $35 - $59
$20/students (under age 22 with valid student ID)
805.667.2900



Monday, October 13, 2014

Free Readings at Circle X

CIRCLE X Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre

This is not a review.   

It's just a report that if tonight’s reading of a new play by Bill Lawrence of the Circle X Writers Group is any indication, there’s some good work happening.   Lawrence’s play in two acts, “Second Slip,” is funny and current.  Thank goodness someone is writing comedy for the stage. 

The Circle X Theatre Co. at The Atwater continues its Monday evening soirees with catered goodies by Johanna McKay through November 10, 2014.  The 99 seat theatre was filled almost to capacity tonight.  Upcoming readings Monday at Eight will feature 10/20 A Capella by Tim Mason, 
10/27 For the Loyal by Lee Blessing, 
11/3 ICU by Fielding Edlow and 
11/10 an Untitled piece by Lina Patel.  The actors are professional, the reading tonight was very funny without effort. 

Highly recommended.

Circle X at the Atwater
3269 Casitas Avenue
LA, CA 90039
Mondays at Eight
Free (but donations for the goodies are appropriate!)
Easy parking
Real theatre for those who care

Sunday, October 5, 2014

BETTER at The Echo Theatre

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Disclaimer:  I first saw Joe Spano with Julie Paine and others in a version of Dracula at the Zephyr in Hollywood in the seventies. Then, much later, I shared a dressing room with him while working on the pilot of Trapper John, M.D.  The guy is a terrific actor and a friend.  That said, Spano’s character, Marty, is the hub around which the plot of Jessica Goldberg’s world premiere play, BETTER, turns.  

Jennifer Chambers’s direction of Goldberg’s new play keeps the action cooking with the audience’s attention drawn left and right to represent several locations as the story unfolds.  We find ourselves at once remembering the not so distant past in small town Ohio as well as dealing with maturing siblings and others in the present day.   


Marty (Spano) is the patriarch of his family and has supported them by owning and operating a grocery store successfully for years.  His stage four cancer has him on his last legs as his children return home to comfort their mother, Laurie, (lovely Sigute Miller) and spend time with their failing dad. 

As the daughter, Annie, Meredith Bishop, brings life to a young woman pushing forty who is   beginning to question her life’s pathway.  Middle age crazy or crisis is going around as she arrives back home reluctantly morphing from her adult self as a mother and owner of her own restaurant in New York, to the teen she was while growing up in small town Ohio.  Annie’s battle with her past, her present and her future is well presented as she reunites with her high school squeeze, Frank (Malcolm Madera) who is now an older, divorced, handsome and very “interested” contractor who is assessing issues with Marty and Laurie’s aging house. 

Goldman is not Arthur Miller, however the depths of her appreciation for the feeling of family Miller exudes in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons creeps in.  Strong personalities clash and clatter.  We meet John, Annie’s brother (pumped Jeremy Maxwell), a health nut with pressing issues that may land him in jail back in California.  Maxwell’s rapid speech made some of the exposition a bit difficult to follow, but as with all of BETTER’s characters, he imbues his disappointed initials in the fabric of the play.  Frank’s Ex, Missy (far out Andrea Grano), inserts herself into the situation and winds up in the sack (well, heels to the ceiling in an easy chair!) with John!

Annie’s husband and father of their child, Cal (slick Johnathan McClain) is a successful  and very self involved self help guru who admits that he has lost the ability to see the future.  Annie has also had serious thoughts about her life goals while being prodded by Marty to take over the family business. 

Marty’s aging and confused mother, Anya (Eve Sigall) is slightly out of sync with the rest of the cast, none the less, the importance of this woman also near the end of her life, brings the story full circle. 

BETTER moves well with great energy that hurries the pace now and then, but brings each character and their issues solidly together.  The comparison with Arthur Miller’s work is mostly about the relationships of the characters to one another.   Eight different people with eight agendas that are all focused on one goal. The conflicts are real. 

Stephen Gifford’s beautifully executed set with subtle lighting by R. Christopher Stokes creates the perfect atmosphere for the story to unfold.  Goldberg’s ability to bring these three dimensional characters to life: emerging through twenty months of workshopping by The Echo pays off.  

BETTER by Jessica Goldberg
World Premiere
The Echo Theatre Company
@ The Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90039
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Through November 16, 2014
Tickets and information
310 307 3753

Friday, September 19, 2014

Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS at The Boston Court

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The Boston Court’s elegant little space just up the street from the Ice House in Pasadena takes chances. My first encounter was a while back with an experimental piece turning on the Russia / Ukraine issues.  There’s lots of parking and friendly / accommodating staff.  It’s a professional venue from the moment you step into the lobby.  I mention all of this because it sets the mood for the current production of Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS featuring Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub.  Both are busy actors whose performances we have enjoyed for years. Dedicating themselves to this strenuous play speaks to what most theatre people already know.  They enjoy giving a terrific performance.

This production is a total tour de force for Ms Adams as Winnie who appears smiling as the lights come up on Takeshi Kata’s rocky hunk of desolation. There’s a simple blue sky with occasional clouds, it’s surreal.


Winnie is buried up to her armpits and ample breasts in dirt. The mountain could be full scale and Winnie, a giantess who commands the peak.  Or life sized.  It really doesn’t matter because her ensuing rambling monologue ... all those words, words, words.. Flow like honey. Nuanced honey.  “Great Mercies…”  To memorize this play must have taken a wealth of love for Beckett.  Winnie calls over her shoulder to her husband, Willie (Brooke’s husband, Tony Shalhoub), who lives in a cave just on the back side of the mountain.  She has her bag.  It is black. It sits there.  She examines the contents.  She withdraws a chrome plated six gun;  kisses it and returns it to the bag. The black bag. 

There is optimism underscored by fate and futility in Beckett’s play.  He may want us to see the pointlessness of life and also still have Hope.  To endure. Adams’ nuanced approach and patience with her failing, flailing husband, even in the nodding off parts (for Beckett can do that to us)… Great Mercies keep her and the audience engaged. 

Adams is a beauty.  She impressed me as a Marilyn Monroe at first.  Blonde and buxom.  Frilly white dress.  All she has to work with are the words and her arms. Her facial expressions, especially in Act Two are priceless.  The black bag and her concern for Willie engage.  In Act One all we really see of Willie is the back of his balding head and stringy hair, as he attempts to relieve the heat of the day and protect himself from the sun.  Shalhoub’s elegant gestures: spare and complete, allow us to understand that great acting can still be accomplished silently by an actor who ‘gets it!’  A broken straw boater is carefully placed and then given a rakish tilt.  It defines unfortunate Willie.

A terrible bell keeps the couple on schedule.  The Waking Bell and the Sleeping Bell.  Where are we?  In some of Beckett’s work we may already be in Hell or Limbo.  In HAPPY DAYS, we are simply where Winnie and Willie are.  In Act II, things get more difficult for Winnie, now buried up to her neck. No arms. No tits.  She longs to see Willie.  Her revolver rests just out of reach.  At last Willie appears in full evening dress.  He is  formal from his battered top hat right down to his dilapidated spats.  Winnie can see him and knows that he’s coming.  The effort that Shalhoub exerts for the brief time he struggles and attempts to reach his bride is exhausting.  At once comic and tragic, his top hat battered, his attire in shambles, he tries and tries and tries and tries to reach sweet Winnie. 

Beckett examines the futility of life in many of his plays.  HAPPY DAYS confronts us and embraces us and, if nothing else, shows us how managing day by day may bring ‘great mercies.’  Melanie Watnik’s costumes are elegant in their shabbiness. Director Andrei Belgrader guides the show flawlessly. 

Highly recommended for an audience ready to be embraced by existential ideas and ready to see a perfect production of a difficult play. 

HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett
Opened September  13, 2014 
Thursdays  through  Saturdays  at  8  p.m.  
Sundays  at  2  p.m.  through  October  12, 2014  
One added  performance  on  Wednesday,  October 8, 2014
70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106
626.683.6883

Monday, September 15, 2014

Western Unscripted! Yahoo!!

Having had a close acquaintance with improvisation, I have to admit that heading to Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater in Toluca Lake for an evening of “give me an object/ give me an event/ give me an activity” … all essentials for any story, of course, made me skeptical.  Once you’ve encountered Paul Sill’s Story Theatre and have absorbed and digested all of his mom’s book, Improvisation for the Theatre (Viola Spolin is the grande dame of improv and her book is essentially the Bible of Theatre Games), one might wonder how that could be improved upon.  Fact is that the Impro Theatre’s The Western Unscripted delivers the goods and then some.   Directors Dan O’Connor and Stephen Kearin bring a mature cast to the stage. The authentic western set by Sandra Burns, who also did the authentic costume design puts us smack dab in the middle of a 1950’s "Oater!"
Kari Coleman and Michael Manuel in Impro Theatre’s The Western UnScripted at the Falcon Theatre.
Photo by Rebecca Asher


Cowgal Lisa Fredrickson solicits (well.. asks nicely) only two suggestions from the audience as the rest of the ensemble congregates on stage.  An earthquake and a music box with a ballerina are all they have to go on.  And, the play begins.  Lighting by Michael Becker and sound effects by Alex Caan become additional players as the story commences.

It’s tough to tell the characters without a program.  Of course, in a traditional show, the program lets us in on who’s who.  Not so for Impro.  I was having such a good time I neglected to note the characters’ names to later line up with the bios in the program.  The best part is that this company of players has rehearsed the genre of the Classic Western and their costumes define whom they eventually become as the show evolves.   Classic improv as we have been taught by Sills and locally by The Groundlings, sticks to a basic formula.  Accept the premise.  Establish a character and stick to it (unless you are doubling as a couple of the actors in Friday’s show did) and listen! while advancing the story line. 

Impro’s approach to immersing itself in the Classic Western genre succeeds.  The company is made up of well seasoned professionals who know one another and are respectful of the project.  It simply works!  It’s totally unscripted. Each player is respectful and attentive to the evolving story line.  There’s been an earthquake!  This evolves into an arc that involves an explosion at the Comstock Gold Mine,  an unscrupulous mine owner, gold, greed and chicanery. Working in the music box was a little 'iffy' but no one really cared because the audience was fully immersed and the players were having a great time.

Sadly, I didn’t make note of the actors and the characters whom they remind us of at the beginning of the second act.  All of the expected characters are there: The unscrupulous and greedy mine owner and one of his lackies, a crazy psychic lady, the tough saloon owner, a pair of ranchers who have been cheated out of their land, long lost siblings.  I’m sure I’ve missed someone, but this show is not to be missed if you enjoy on the spot creativity by professional actors who are having a wonderful time as their full length story unfolds.  The ability of the tech crew to anticipate sound and lighting cues is amazing, especially gun shots and appropriate music to fill the mood of each scene. Specific area lighting and a beauty of a blue sky backdrop fill in the gaps.

It’s fast paced entertainment with spontaneous laughter and spirited horseplay. 

The players:
Ted Cannon
Lisa Fredrickson
Brian Lohmann
Dan O’Connor
Edi Patterson
Paul Rogan
Michele Spears
Floyd Van Buskirk

For a totally entertaining evening, this is a must see. The company is made up of several other actors: guest performers as well as established members.  Every show is within the Classic Western genre, but the participants and the story lines are always changing. The audience was challenged to come back to see how talented these guys are.   Highly recommended. 

THE WESTERN UN-SCRIPTED
Improvised on the stage by Impro Theatre Company
The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Toluca Lake, CA 91505
Wednesdays through Sundays
Closes October 5, 2014
Tickets and information:
818 955 8501 / www.falcontheatre.com