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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


Friday, September 12, 2014

Magic! The Tempest at SCR

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (yes, that Teller)

It’s difficult to articulate with complete success the wonderful casting, staging and over all effect of this production. South Coast Repertory has brought drop dead professional theatre to Southern California for years and this is no exception.  Superior to every single venue that I’ve been fortunate to see theatre in, this jewel of a complex tucked away in Costa Mesa sparkles with the anticipation of the wonderfulness yet to come.  The money is on the stage!   

In the sixties when artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes rounded up some pals to do new theatre, South Coast Rep was a seat-of-the-pants operation.  Like all new theatre companies, store front venues and creative ideas were all they had to work with.  With the enthusiastic energies of dedicated company members Orange County beckoned Benson and Emmes.  Now, fifty years later, the success of SCR’s ability to read their audience, produce quality and exciting theatre virtually bursts at the seams.

As the audience filters in from the glittering foyer, Ariel (superior Nate Dendy), Prospero’s (Tom Nelis)  often invisible sprite, quietly builds a house of cards. Sleight of hand builds anticipation. The  magic yet to come is palpable. 

Aaron Posner and Teller’s slightly skewed retelling of the story of banished Prospero  and his lovely daughter, Miranda (lithe Charlotte Graham) evolves smoothly and creatively.   

In program notes, Teller mentions that he’s read The Tempest several times. He awakened one morning as a kid having dreamed that he was Prospero. The magician famous for his silence now ‘speaks’ in volumes  bringing The Tempest to life.

Prospero has been cheated out of his Dukedom by evil brother, Antonio (Luis Butelli).  After twelve long years stranded on an enchanted island, Prospero now seeks revenge.  The Tempest rocks the stage as Prospero and Ariel conjure the storm with a paper boat and a bowl of water.  The ship is… apparently … lost! The sailors and all survive:  dry and safe at different locations on the island: all manipulated by Prospero’s magic. 

The lovers, Miranda  and Ferdinand (goofy Joby Earle) fall immediately into passion.  Of course, Miranda, who arrived with her father on the island at the age of three has never seen another man.. unless you count Caliban and that would be a mistake.
Tom Nelis and Charlotte Graham in The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR

Without retelling the entire plot, a special nod must go to the choices for the role of Caliban (Zachery Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee).  Having seen two of the best Caliban’s in Los Angeles theatre history, John Ritter at the Globe way back in the seventies and the three limbed Caliban in the 1979 Anthony Hopkins production at the Taper, Eisenstat and Minniefee’s performance must be seen to be believed.  Sycorax must still be really smarting from giving birth.

The arrival by the musicians, Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim) and Stephano (Eric Hissom) into the presence of Caliban brings the show literally into the audience with pleasure.  Shakespeare’s clowns, when fully embraced as these are, add the exact amount of seasoning. 

Daniel Conway’s multipurpose set features Rough Magic on the upper level (A "spirit band," including a couple of chantoosies, featuring Miche Braden, Joel David, Liz Filios and Matt Spencer).
Liz Filios, Joel Davel, Matt Spencer and Miche Braden in The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR.
The percussionist is amazing!.  Paloma Young’s hodge podge definitive costume choices are perfect. 

The music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan lift the production to set sail on the seas of a tour that started in Boston and have landed beautifully here at SCR.  It’s a must see and a tribute to the genius of William Shakespeare.

THE TEMPEST
by William Shakespeare / adapted by Aaron Posner and Teller
South Coast Repertory Theatre
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Evenings and matinees through September 28, 2014
Ticket Services/Box Office: (714) 708-5555
Check website www.scr.org
or call the Box Office for specific
performance dates.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

It's all Greek!

PENELOPE by Enda Walsh



If one is unfamiliar with Homer's story of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, his ten years absence from the lovely Penelope and how the locals all came to court her, Enda Walsh’s play will be difficult at best to ‘get.’ A prolific Irish playwright,  Walsh (Tony winner 2011 for the book for the musical Once) is a romantic.  Odysseus is still absent after ten years away from home.  We find ourselves in Penelope's empty swimming pool where four men, Richard Fancy: Fitz, Ron Bottitta: Dunne, Scott Sheldon: Burns and in for Brian Letscher as Quinn: Gugun Deep Singh. These are the last four of a hundred suitors who have come to court Penelope.  They banter with one another in an attempt to impress her… and each other.




  As this is an Irish play, the choice for the actors to assume Irish accents (which come and go) may have been a questionable choice.  Understanding the dialogue is sometimes challenging.  The pecking order of the suitors may represent the playwright himself at  different ages and temperaments. They do their best to posture boldly when suddenly we see Penelope (silent and lovely Holly Fulger) observe them from above in her poolside cabana. They are trapped on video!  Corwin Evans’ excellent video design creates another world impression as the men posture, pose and plead for Penelope’s favor.  Designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has imagined a dirty pool complete with Greek tiles which give us the distinct feeling of No Exit. 



Recently, “Murray” the last of the suitors to “exit,” leaving a bloody mess on the walls, was a suicide.  Sticking it out for the favors of a beautiful woman loyal to her long lost husband plays cruel tricks upon the mind.  The business of having to be ready to show off your strength at a moment’s notice … at the whim of the beauty who is bound to reject you, takes its toll. 



Elder of the company, Fitz, Richard Fancy, collides with Dunne as the pressures of the contest build.  Understudy, Singh / Quinn, has the lion’s share of work to do and brings it off with bravado. His turn in the spotlight, literally, has him portraying famous lovers from history, including Napoleon and Josephine as well as both Romeo and Juliet.  His inflated heart rises to Penelope and bursts. 



As the least aggressive of the quartet, Burns, tries to explain how he cared for the now dead Murray, things get more strange.  Fitz, Dunne and then Burns turn on Quinn and in a scene right out of Julius Cesar, bloodily dispose of him.  A new term in the program credits Ned Mochel with “Violence Design.” The action is violent and well executed.  Indeed, the energies kept well in tow by director John Perrin Flynn, explode with the three remaining suitors covered in blood.



Burns seems to be the voice of the playwright, extolling the virtues of love and exclaiming that the remaining three are ‘dead men’ which may be Walsh’s reflection on the nihilism of Beckett.  Wearing different conical party hats that remind of Krapp’s Last Tape, Burns asks Quinn, “How can you talk about love with no regard for your own life?” This is prophetic as in the end, Odysseus returns and  the remaining three all become food for worms.



The pre-show music of the fifties (Why Do Fools Fall In Love?) helped to confuse the actual time for the story, though set in a limbo of time seems appropriate with modern booze and a gas barbecue. Walsh has messages for his audience.  Not always clear, the energy of the actors and the sometimes garbled dialogue still relay an interesting, even powerful and theatrical piece. Do the four men represent stages of the playwright’s life?  Out of shape guys in Speedos? Singh’s Quinn is younger and more hefty. It must mean something. 



PENELOPE by Enda Walsh

Rogue Machine Theatre

At Theatre Theater

5041 Pico Blvd  

Los Angeles, CA 90019

Extended:

8pm Fridays and Saturdays,

3pm on Sundays through August 17, 2014

Tickets $30. Reservations:

855-585-5185

www.roguemachinetheatre.com


Monday, July 21, 2014

THE DOLL via Unbound and Wicked Lit


THE DOLL Adapted by Jeff G. Rack

A unique opportunity awaits locals who love innovative theatre.  I’m late to the party, but there’s a week left to see THE DOLL presented by Unbound Productions at the astonishing Strub Hall Manor on the Mayfield School campus in Pasadena.

Wicked Lit and Unbound Productions have created a unique environmental theatre piece that sweeps us back in time and into the crisp and almost courtly era of the 1930s.  Similar to the production of Tamara, presented at the old American Legion Hall on Highland in the 1970s, The Doll moves a small audience from room to room as we sit or stand inches from the actors as they unfold a Gothic Tale of mystery and horror.  Horror may be a slight over statement, however, the two women in the audience in front of me were huddled tightly together and were holding hands as the spooky story unfolded. 

Designed by Wicked Lit specifically for Strub Hall, the short production immerses the audience in mystery. Our no nonsense guide/Hilda (Tanya Mironowski) is the head maid/servant of the manor.  She guides us into to the mansion’s dining room for the introductory scene and then through the mansion with efficiency. 
Amelia Meyers as Jane Joska
 

In the dining room, the delivery of an arcane parcel specifically for Colonel Masters (bombastic Andrew Thatcher) is misdirected to his slightly spoiled darling daughter, Monica (Asia Aragon), just before the colonel’s actual return from the British campaign in India.  Estate manager Jane Joska (beautifully prim and spotlessly precise Amelia Meyers) runs a tight ship.  She takes her management duties very personally. When troubles arise, she takes responsibility.  Mrs. O’Reilly (warmly portrayed by Jennifer Novak Chun), another maid, has heard strange voices coming from Monica’s bedroom.  Upstairs, we gather outside the bedroom door to witness the women’s attempt to find out just what is going on. Armed with a poker, a rosary and a Bible, they see and hear something through the keyhole!

All in all, the short play is a Penny Dreadful that brings the action inches from the audience, perfectly directed by Paul Millet. 

The Wicked Lit company has teamed with the drama department at Mayfield School to fully stage their gothic within the mansion built early in the last century by an oil magnate who was certainly a conspicuous consumer.  The intricately carved woodwork, marble floors and exquisite d├ęcor are from another, more elegant time.  Just to wander through the space is an experience that most common folks shall never experience.  To see the mansion is, alone, a very good reason to see this show!

Scheduled to close next weekend, I highly recommend this one to the theatre aficionado who appreciates a unique approach and highly professional acting. Director Millet has taken into consideration that the audience is inches from the action. The actors bring their characters to life with nary a hint of “acting.”  

Christine Cover Ferro’s costumes are perfect. Tech by Ric Zimmerman is spot on.  This is a short but memorable trip back to an elegant past with some really spooky stuff thrown in.  

A well done staged reading of The Shadowy Third is also being done in conjunction with The Doll.

Unbound Productions presents:
THE DOLL (A Wicked Lit Installation)
Adapted by Jeff G. Rack
Based on a story by Algernon Blackwood.  
Mayfield School
500 Bellefontaine
Pasadena, CA 91105
Final Performances:
July 24-26 at 7pm, 7:30pm and 8:45pm
All tickets are $25.00
Get Tickets at unboundproductions.org 
(323) 332-2065


Friday, July 18, 2014

ONCE: IN DUBLIN'S FAIR CITY

ONCE  

Dubliner, John Carney, wrote and directed a sweet little indy film in 2006 called Once.   It featured a simple story line with some dynamite music that reached into the hearts of not only the movie audience, but a couple of years later was expanded into a workshop theatre piece that brought The Guy and The Girl (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) and their movie story to the stage.  In the stage production, Guy (Stuart Ward) is busking on the streets of Dublin.  He is sad and depressed; ready to hang it all up.  Czech cutie, Girl (Dani de Waal), a sweet muse, comes to the rescue and in an innocent and loving way guides Guy back to the path he has been born to travel. Ward’s guitar licks on his ‘old Martin’ with signs of big, big passionate stroking are amazing to the point of beautifully unnerving.  
Stuart Ward guitar, Dani de Waal piano.  Photo credit Jamie Loeb


Opening Night at The Pantages Theatre was loaded with celebs and a huge crowd.  Somehow a drunk and his tweeter/texter girlfriend were seated next to me.  That the Pantages serves adult beverages and allows them in the audience is a choice, but in this case, a choice that was distracting until Tweetie kicked over her drink and left and the drunk split before the end of act one leaving a trail of trash.

That said, the audience is encouraged to take part in the festivities on stage where a working bar is serving up drinks before the show as well as at intermission.  The cast and audience mingle.  House lights dim. The audience is hustled back to their seats and a rousing pre-show warm up with all the musicians/actors dancing and singing and playing their instruments commences.  It’s a hootenanny.  It’s street music. It’s the film come to the stage with creative bells and whistles.  The bar becomes various locations, enhanced by scenic designer Bob Crowley’s well placed mirrors behind the bar giving us a double view of the action.  Natasha Katz’s subtle lighting continually enhances the mood. We are transported from the streets of Dublin to Guy’s little room over the Hoover repair shop and a dozen places in between.  It works.  Carney’s script has been nicely expanded by Enda Walsh using again, the soaring music of Hansard and Irglova. “Falling Slowly” is irresistible.  In Act II, “Gold” is sung very quietly almost like a hymn, acapella, by the entire cast. 

The cast is the orchestra. The orchestra is the cast.  Doubling and tripling, the talent scoops us up and transports us to Romance, Song, Subtle Nuance, Wit and a Rousing Celebration of what the Theatre, given the resources and this cast, sharing the stage, gift so generously to the audience.  ONCE is a celebration of music and muse and knocking the roadblocks clean off the stage.  Even in a huge venue like The Pantages, the story and the music bring the audience to its feet. Director John Tiffany and Chorographer Steve Hoggett team to move the actors / musicians through complicated paces that flow like clockwork.  No wonder this show won eight Tony Awards and a Grammy for best album from a musical.

Highly recommended.  Closer to the stage is a good idea.

ONCE
By John Carney via Enda Walsh
THE PANTAGES THEATRE
6233 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028
Tuesday – Friday at 8PM
Saturday at 2 and 8PM
Sunday at 1 and 6:30PM
July 17 through August 10, 2014
Tickets (Starting at $25.00) and information
HollywoodPantages.com or Ticketmaster.com


Monday, July 14, 2014

FAMILY PLANNING : A WORLD PREMIERE

LAUGHTER at The Colony!

Michelle Kholos Brooks’ brand new play (World premiere of FAMILY PLANNING) brilliantly directed by Cameron Watson, celebrates forty years of the Colony Theatre’s bringing new work and old to the stage.  After early beginnings down on Riverside Drive, The Colony landed in Burbank in their beautiful mini Taper in 2000. In her curtain speech, executive director, Barbara Beckley, welcomed an enthusiastic audience, which rose in one body to a standing ovation to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the theatre.  Overwhelmed with the ovation, Ms Beckley recovered to announce that after major financial struggles (Imagine that!  Money issues for the theatre??) the Colony is on its feet and in the black.  An atmosphere of fun filled the air. 

Playwright Brooks’ play may feel a little like a situation comedy as there are some major situations and there is comedy afoot, but on David Potts’s beautifully executed set (the money is on the stage) we see that “Family Planning” for the characters is very necessary and in more ways than one.

Sidney and Michael (Dee Ann Newkirk and Jack Sundmacher) now live in the home where Sidney grew up.  Her parents long ago divorced, but dear old dad, Larry (tweeting flower child Bruce Weitz) who has had some setbacks, is ‘temporarily’ back in the home. This forces the couple into the living room for an intimate moment.  Coitus interruptus ensues as rattling at the front door makes the couple think that someone is trying to break in.  It’s Mom, Diane, (lovely Christina Pickles).  Situations advance a bit predictably as the parents who raised their daughter together in their home (now the domain of the youngsters) are forced to become some semblance of a family again.

Watson puts the cast through its paces.  It’s professional actors in a well crafted piece of theatre.  The laughs are fast and furious as the parents pretty much take over and the kids reveal their desire to have a family.  Family secrets are revealed and a truly touching moment is shared by Weitz and Pickles as they slip into their cups via martinis and memories.
Christina Pickles and Bruce Weitz Photo by Michael Lamont


Brooks’ style is reflective of some of the best of Neil Simon, leaning toward The Odd Couple.  Clever dialogue and creative character development work especially well for Pickles and Weitz, both well known and well loved from their long television careers.  We are left wanting more. The story lines are well founded to possibly expand. 

Family Planning has surprises and well placed jokes that surprise and as with Simon’s best work, leaves us bursting with joy and stopping for a moment to consider a little pathos at the same time.  Lovely work.  Do not miss this one for a totally enjoyable evening in the theatre. 
FAMILY PLANNING : World Premiere by
Michelle Kohlos Brooks
The Colony Theatre
555 N. Third Street
Burbank, California
Through August 10, 2014