Feb 28, 2005

Race Matters

Is race a zero-sum game? In other words, does the building up of one color necessarily mean the diminishment of another? It's more complicated than that, certainly—and yet the feeling of holding or losing ground, of a racial pecking order with only winners and losers, seems to persist in our hearts, despite the infinite shadings and individual experiences that would seem to mitigate the whole notion of racial destiny.

Such are a few of the thoughts provoked by YELLOWMAN, which I saw today at the Fountain Theatre and can't recommend strongly enough.

Interestingly, the playwright, Dael Orlandersmith (pictured above) is about to open a new play, Raw Boys, at Wilma Theatre in New York. A story about Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants set in Belfast, South London, and New York, it's her first play with no African-American characters. But it does, according to this report, deal with the playwright's persistent themes of family dysfunction, class, power, sexuality, heavy drinking, and what can only be called race—after all, as my Irish friends have explained, the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland is at bottom as racial as it is religious, despite there being no "color line."

It's easy for me, as a white Protestant male, to stand outside issues of race bemusedly and wonder what the fuss is about. It's thanks to playwrights like Orlandersmith that I, and theatregoers both like and unlike me, can feel our way into dilemmas of race that may be beyond our imagining. And it's thanks to the Fountain Theatre, I must add, which programs first-rate African-American plays with reliable regularity, that L.A. audiences are privy to definitive productions like this Yellowman.

Welcome, Jack

Future quarterback for the Cleveland Indians or future theatrical visionary? His future is bound to be illustrious, given his parentage: Newborn John Walter Proudfit, a.k.a. Jack, enters the world in the capable hands of parents Scott and Kelly Proudfit.

The Proudfits are now Chicago-based; Scott, my colleague and friend at Back Stage West for five years until August, 2003, is now at Northwestern getting a masters in theatre and literature, and Kelly's working as a librarian. I sure do miss them. I send sunny wishes from SoCal to the Windy City, and look forward to meeting the little man.

Feb 26, 2005

New Back Stage Boss

Julia Kagan, an award-winning magazine veteran whose last two jobs were at the helms of Consumer Reports and the Zagat Survey, has been named National Editor-in-Chief of Back Stage and Back Stage West—a new position created to oversee both publications and BackStage.com. This strikes me as good news for the consumers of both papers, and for Back Stage West in particular, whose consumers seem to be voting with their feet: Circulation as of last October stood at 9,073 (it was 11,327 in October, 2002—a figure I wasn't happy with at the time, when I was at BSW, and which I hoped to increase).

Full disclosure: I did apply for this new position. But I can see why they went with a seasoned publishing figure. Until recently Kagan served as Vice President of Content for Zagat Survey. She was hired by Zagat in December, 2003, after an abrupt dismissal from the position of Editorial Director at Consumer Reports. As the New York Times reported in September, 2003 (roughly the same month I left BSW):
Joel Gurin, executive vice president of Consumers Union, said that its increasingly important Web presence—consumerreports.org, the Web site, has 1.2 million paying customers while the magazine, which carries no advertising, has 4 million subscribers—required editors with different skills.

"Historically, we have been magazine publishers," Mr. Gurin said. "What has really changed is the growth of the electronic business"...

...Mr. Gurin's memorandum announcing the changes left some employees worried that management's apparent desire for a closer relationship between the business and editorial sides could hurt a brand that defines consumer trust.

"Editorial must be an active, expert partner with publishing in shaping the business strategy for out (sic) publications," the memorandum read.

If Kagan stands for the opposing view—roughly, that editorial's only "client" is the reader and that only a "brand" that serves a legion of loyal readers will be worth a single advertising dollar—then she has my vote of confidence.

No Cause for Celebration?

"I don't think we need the Celebration Theatre anymore," opined a critical colleague last night. We were discussing the departure of Celebration artistic director Derek Livingston, and we were standing outside the NoHo Arts Center at the intermission of Angels in America, which was my colleague's Exhibit A. "It's gone mainstream," he concluded.

I happened to run into Sue Hamilton today with her lovely wife and 14-month-old daughter, and she told me that Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is still running at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza. It opened in late October last year. This is heartening proof that men aren't the only gay theatregoing gender that can support a hit run. But given that it's part of a Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner-sponsored program called LIT (for "Lesbians in Theatre"), this doesn't seem to be a case of mainstreaming per se.

It's true that gay-themed plays now turn up with matter-of-fact regularity at several non-gay-identified theatres, from Theater District at the Black Dahlia to Stage Directions at [Inside] the Ford to Leslie Jordan's Like a Dog on Linoleum at Elephant Asylum. But I wouldn't rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the Celebration and the Village can no longer claim exclusive rights to all plays gay, so much the better. But providing a home for gay- and lesbian-identified playwrights, directors, performers, and, yes, audiences remains a valuable service in principle and in practice. Have important plays and artists been nurtured by such venues who otherwise might not have the careers they have today? I think Tom Jacobson, Guillermo Reyes, Mark Savage, and Patricia Cotter (off the top of my head) would say so.

And after all, in L.A.'s sprawling, never-shrinking theatre scene, the operating philosophy seems to be the more the merrier, the greater the gayer.

The Story of O

My piece on composer/music man David O is online here.

Ritchie as Host

Incoming CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie, following up on comments he made to Sylvie Drake in LA Stage a few months back, seems serious about inviting smaller L.A. theatre companies to do their thing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And as I noted then, the most encouraging thing about this is Ritchie's perspective on why this is a good idea: As Don Shirley paraphrases him, Ritchie believes that "L.A. is an underrated theater town in part because many small companies receive little exposure."

The article is dotted, however, with a few telling quotes. From CTG board member Richard Kagan: "I can't imagine that any board member wouldn't think this was a smart thing." That's sweeping but also strangely circumlocutory; I had to read it over a few times to catch the "wouldn't." And Luis Alfaro's faintly despairing comment: "I'm trying to stay very positive about it." Aren't we all?

Feb 23, 2005

Great Shakes

An interesting literary exercise at the Guardian, asking historians and theatre folks to speculate on Shakespeare's personality. Given my own predilections, I immediately glommed onto a quote cited by playwright Alan Plater, credited to Peter Brook, that "Shakespeare's greatness lies in the fact that we never know which side he's on." Of how many contemporary playwrights—even, and let's tread lightly here, the late, great essential Arthur Miller—can this be said?

Feb 21, 2005

iPod People

Andrew Sullivan has this dead-on, faintly chilling observation about our increasing social atomization (or, in his quaint British spelling, "atomisation").

I must note a corollary to the zombi-fication of street life inflicted by the iPod: The malaise of Shuffle. It's hard for me to admit this, because for years—and I can't imagine I'm alone in this—I yearned for exactly what the iPod and iTunes have delivered: complete random access to my entire music collection. As I watched friends buy bigger and bigger CD changers and dutifully load their collections into them, seldom if ever retrieving the discs and returning them to their cases, I thought: That's just an elaborate, inefficient form of data storage. What if we could load all our music into one central player?

That day has dawned, and I have in my employment a ghost DJ, Mr. Shuffle, who rifles through my music files like an auditory I Ching. I've even occasionally done iPod "divinations": What does a random selection of five songs say about my day? I stopped doing that the day I got "He's in the Jailhouse Now," "Gloomy Sunday," and "Suicide Is Painless" in quick succession.

But I increasingly find myself feeling adrift in a sea of music, not content to enjoy each song by song but somehow always conscious of the vastness of the possibilities… and it exhausts me down in some intangible way. Now that I've removed my own choice from the equation, I occasionally have wonderful discoveries of tunes I'd forgotten about and would never think to pull off the shelf, so to speak; more often, though, I'm distracted and dissatisfied and wishing the DJ would play something else, then something else, then… When someone asks me what I've been listening to lately, I no longer have a ready answer. I don't have those phases where I play one record over and over until I know every note in my bones; I bought Elvis Costello's new record—when was it?—and just loaded it directly into the iPod, more eager to add the new files to the library than to hear the music. I've heard maybe a third of it since, and maybe one day I'll have heard the whole thing.

This doesn't seem healthy. Yes, I've economized my CD storage space and helped to stock the shelves of local used record stores. But the trade-off is that, now that my whole collection is gathered in one cigarette pack-sized white box, it feels heavier than ever.

Feb 20, 2005

Catch Up If I Can

Apologies for the light blogging. I had a couple of big features due this past week—check the Sunday Calendar on Feb. 27 for my piece on music man David O, and check newsstands in March (I think) for my piece on Martin Landau for a new magazine called Moving Pictures.

I'm in the midst of a four-show weekend—well, a long weekend, if you count Monday evening—so I have time only for an abbreviated version of my Review of Reviews. I've been diligently gathering the notices for the past two weeks (yes, I'm that far behind), and what I can offer is the following brisk sum-ups of everything that's out there, sans links (those take at least a third of the time with these things) but more or less in order of most recommended to least liked…

Snagging a pair of strong reviews is Dael Orlandersmith's YELLOWMAN, at the Fountain Theatre through Mar. 26. This tragedy set in the 1960s South, according to Steven Mikulan, is "a bruising journey through intra-racial bigotry and alcohol-fanned resentments." He found Orlandersmith’s writing "by turns profane and sentimental, cruel and soothing," and Shirley Jo Finney's direction "assured." Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner likewise wrote that "this scorching memory play attacks its theme with a raw passion that never cringes from its uncomfortable truth," directed with "enormous power and insight" by Shirley Jo Finney. Both critics unstintingly praised leads Diedrie Henry (whom I witnessed do extraordinary work over a few seasons at Oregon Shakes—it's good to have her here) and Chris Butler.

"The Actors’ Gang of lore"—and of yore—is recalled, according to the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, by director Jon Kellam's new commedia-style TARTUFFE, through Apr. 9. "From the opening tableaux, the ensemble seizes the stage and never lets go," Morris continues, quibbling only that Kellam "draws out his puppet-show style at the expense of momentum, so that this silken classic sometimes feels like it’s made of burlap." (I noticed a rather ticklish typo, though: Morris referred to title performer Andrew Wheeler's "facial ticks," which we must assume in context is praise for Wheeler's skillful twitching, not cause for the city health department to check in on the Actors' Gang's dressing rooms.) Back Stage West's Hoyt Hilsman had no problems with Kellam's take, calling it "a lively and effervescent rendition of Moliere's encomium to religious hypocrisy." (Doesn't Hoyt mean "satire of"?) And, praising David Ball's "sassy" new translation, the Times' David C. Nichols raved that "Jon Kellam's staging ingests the un-PC vulgarity, civic point and wicked ad-libs of Ball's text with rapt vitality."

I added my encomiums to the generally positive reviews for THE KNIGHTS OF MARY PHAGAN, at Theatre 68 through Mar. 20. In the Times, I wrote that director Scott Mlodzinski's "powerful, unfussy staging" is "almost unavoidably meaty," given the subject matter—the disgraceful Leo Frank trial and lynching of 1913.

Garnering two reviews with a breathtaking contrast in critical authority was BAAL, staged by Yale Cabaret Hollywood at the M Bar through Mar. 6. In one corner, there was the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, who wrote that "Peter Mellencamp beautifully directs his own translation in a cabaret’s plush environs," and that as the womanizing lead poet, Elijah Alexander "has a James Dean charisma." Then there was Back Stage West's Jenelle Rae, who informs us in her lead that "Bertolt Brecht, one of the many playwrights who paved the way for 'experimental theatre,' used experimental techniques, such as 'irregular verse,' that were quite novel for their time." Wow! Her verdict: "For a fair price, the spectator can enjoy a tasty meal and flowing drinks… The show moves quickly, but, if one is not familiar with Brecht, it may be more cumbersome than it's worth. This is not the show one might expect at a dinner theatre, which may mislead those who are expecting something more traditional." I'm sure that irregular verse doesn't help with digestion.

Two out of three ain't bad for RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, in a revival at the Hudson Mainstage through Mar. 13. Back Stage West's Terry Morgan called it this campy riff on stage ambition "delightfully twisted" and "hilarious," while the Weekly's Deborah Klugman wrote the show "pumps wry humor from a familiar theme." She did concede that "the show recycles the same jokes too often," while I, in my Times review, found the whole thing "a "flimsy, self-conscious exercise in low camp." None of us faulted the performers. (And let me make a correction here: I referred in my Times review to eight actresses—there are eight characters in the show but only six performers, one of them a man in drag. A girl can't help making mistakes now and then.)

The Colony Theatre's ACCOMPLICE, through Mar. 13, got evenly divided reviews, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson and Back Stage West's Terry Morgan in the plus column for Rupert Holmes' twist-heavy murder mystery/comedy, and myself (for the Times) and Variety's Joel Hirschhorn finding the show too clever for its own good, particularly in the suspense department.

Les Weider's SOJOURNER, at the Hudson Backstage through Mar. 27, was mostly cheered by critics, with Back Stage West's Dink O'Neal calling this "inspiring overview" of 19th century civil rights activist Sojourner Truth "a treat… a perfect balance of edifying artistry." The Weekly's Erin Aubry Kaplan did note that "the pitfall of this show is a tendency toward nobleness and historical line-readings," but she especially enjoyed Angeles Echols' "robust" take on Truth.

The production got raves, less so the show, in the case of FLOYD COLLINS, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's musical about an early American trapped-in-a-well media frenzy, at West Coast Ensemble through Apr. 3. Echoing the consensus, The Times' David C. Nichols called lead actor Bryce Ryness "amazing" but noted a disconncet: "Guettel's shimmering songs propel, whereas Landau's gravelly book impedes." The same verb popped in Miriam Jacobson's Weekly review: "The musical’s corny tone impedes the suspense," she wrote. Back Stage West's Les Spindle pegged the problem as a lack of "thematic continuity," though we went out of his way to praise the effort as "one of West Coast Ensemble's most ambitious and accomplished efforts." Finally, Variety's Joel Hirschhorn similarly called it "a sensitively directed but problematic musical." (I must correct one statement in Joel's review: that this is the show's West Coast premiere. In fact it premiered at the Old Globe in 1999.)

Garnering respectable but mixed reviews is yet another play by Renaissance Man Dakin Matthews, THE SAVANNAH OPTION, at the New Place Theatre through Mar. 13. The Times' Philip Brandes raved that it's "refreshingly literate and articulate new play" about evolutionary psychology, with "insightful staging" by director Anne McNaughton that brings its "intellectual and emotional" elements "to an unexpectedly poignant convergence." Back Stage West's Terri Roberts, starting her review with one of her classic deep-thought generalizations ("Hurt clashes with fear, sorrow smacks up against despair, and grief concerning what has been lost colors everything"), admired the play's "cerebral exchanges" but yearned for it to explore more than the "single-minded landscape of the head alone." Meanwhile, the Weekly's Steven Mikulan groused that the lead characters' "chats usually sound like seminars."

Getting respectable if not ecstatic reviews is THE CHEKHOV MACHINE at the Open Fist through Mar. 5. The Weekly's Neal Weaver called this free-flowing discourse by and about Chekhov's dissatisfied characters "a fascinating experiment," and Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner likewise labeled it "a swirling, funny, very human coming-together." The Times' Philip Brandes was less sanguine, calling the result of playwright Matei Visniec and Florinel Fatulescu's efforts "a mixed bag: an atmospheric, edgy and often provocative journey whose limitations nevertheless become obvious in comparison with its source of inspiration."

PROOF at East West Players through Mar. 6 has gotten a strange mix of positive, mixed-positive, and one outright negative review. What's strange is the lack of consensus on key elements: The Times' Lynne Heffley loved the lead performance of Kimiko Gelman, while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones found the performance "oddly costume-dependent, " and the Daily News' Katherine Karlin called her "an acquired taste." Most critics enjoyed the performance of David J. Lee as her love interest. The overall verdict: Jones called it "a vexingly inconsistent outing of David Auburn's lovely play," while Karlin called it "a beautiful staging of a top-drawer play," Heffley called it an "accessible new staging" that "plays up the intimacy, placing the resonance of familial and personal tragedy at the forefront." Only Luis Reyes at the Weekly questioned the merit of Auburn's Pulitzer winner—"a bland account," he called it—while also deploring a production "pocked with awkward blocking." Still, it must be doing well for East West, as the Mar. 6 closing date is an extension.

Another baffling critical Rorschach is Peter Hall's staging of AS YOU LIKE IT at the Ahmanson Theatre through Mar. 27. Previous reviews have been divided; newer ones follow the trend, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson calling it a "troubling production… a perilous journey" that emphasized the piece's "melancholy" at the expense of "zip," and the Weekly's Neal Weaver finding it "a handsome production, spoken with clarity and élan, and expertly acted," whose main liability was its length and its "dangerous reliance on charm." The Orange County Register's Paul Hodgins likewise had problems with the show's butt-testing duration, writing that "after three hours, the heavy green canopy of Arden turns oppressive."

I grumpily weighed in on BUS STOP at Fremont Centre Theatre through Mar. 20. Other critics enjoyed it but I found Inge's play "almost cartoonishly corny" in patches, and director Matthew Solari's production "faithful, plodding."

Not quite getting ringing endorsements was BROTHER JONES at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre through Feb. 25. Garth Stein's family-reunion drama, according to the Weekly's Tom Provenzano, "sounds like a less poetic Tennessee Williams, with characters brimming with intensity." He concluded: "The entire spectacle moves from provoking an initial sense of overacting to a final realization of bravura performances." Back Stage West's Jennie Webb wasn't persuaded; she wrote that this premiere staging "is even more dysfunctional than the relationships onstage."

Critics shrugged at the Sinatra revue MY WAY, at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Feb. 27. Back Stage West's Melinda Schupmann was quite disappointed, calling it a "surprisingly bland picture" of a colorful man, a "tame anthology." The Times' Daryl H. Miller likewise labeled the show, directed by Nick DeGruccio, "swank if insubstantial."

Getting some of the worst reviews of the year is a show variously called QUEEN AND FRIENDS (in the LA Weekly) and QUEEN OF THE BLUES (in Back Stage West), at the Stella Adler through Mar. 13. The Weekly's reliable Amy Nicholson led the charge, writing that Jerry Jones' musical-revue bio of Dinah Washington, not to be confused with the Yvette Freeman vehicle Dinah Was, is burdened with "leaden pacing, lack of plot and surfeit of middling talent," which she called "a pity, because Margarett Floyd invests her Dinah with the randy sass of an original diva (before the definition was reduced to prima donna) and a sinuous voice that could transfix a lion." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre was more blunt, calling the show "an unmitigated disaster" and "a disgrace." (Nicholson, by the way, also related a horrifying fact: that the show started 50 minutes late on the night reviewed. What a difference a near-hour makes.)

Feb 15, 2005

Missing Link

Not blogging much at the moment—buried with work, jury duty, and the like. But for those interested, here's the link to my review of The Goat.

Ram on, dear readers.

Feb 11, 2005

A Perfect Exit

When I spoke to Gordon Davidson last year for the Downtown News about his legacy and his final season at the helm of the Taper, he spoke—as he's wont to do—wistfully of the early, politically charged years at the theatre, when reportedly there were FBI agents in the audience of such controversial plays as The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. And he described the plays in his final season, a little apologetically, as "much more personal, much more about relationships, and about the nature of love and the nature of emotions. We need that also. Not that I’ve gone soft or anything. I would have loved to have in my last season a play that took on Iraq, but they’re not writing 'em."

Ah, but the Brits are, as I noted in an earlier post. And so it is with great relish that I read that Gordon's final play, to go up in June, will be David Hare's Stuff Happens, a kind of journalistic dramatization of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Davidson tells the Times it's not "docudrama" and it's not a "get-the-Administration play," and he's quite right, though of course the way Hare parses the facts and imagines the backdrop, the play doesn't end up as an endorsement of Bush foreign policy, either. Not surprisingly, its liveliest characters are Tony Blair and Colin Powell—portrayed here as men of principle caught between contending forces.

It's a perfect final play for Gordon, because it's a head-on political piece; it stops short of preaching, thank Christ, but it doesn't abstract or analogize its material, as Frayn's Democracy does. That's a better play but not the best match for Davidson's brand of big-hearted, often anguished liberalism. It's also a great final choice because it reminds us that Davidson has "juice"—that he can bring a Hare play about U.S. politics, whose original cast was mostly composed of Brits playing Americans, to its U.S. premiere here, in L.A. This is a big fat deal; as with Ragtime, another quintessentially American piece that premiered in Toronto but had its American premiere here in L.A., we will be the first American audience to see it. I hope Hare is on hand to witness that.

Gordon has said he's not going to go for "lookalike" casting, but could I suggest Dakin Matthews as Dick Cheney? Andy Robinson as Rumsfeld? Francois Giroday as de Villepin? Geoff Elliot as George W.? Tony Blair... hmm... Doug Weston is probably too young. I'm trying to think primarily of actors with strong L.A. theatre resumes. I welcome your suggestions, dear readers.

Feb 9, 2005

A Good Steward Lets Go

I'd heard murmurs about this, but now it's official: Founding artistic director Bill Rauch will leave Cornerstone, the community-building theatre company he co-founded with a bunch of Harvard grads back in 1986, as of March, 2006. Rauch—who will direct the final bridge show of the company's faith-based cycle this coming summer—took a good long sabbatical last year and solidified his resumé at such venues as the Guthrie Theatre, Yale Rep, South Coast Rep, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Recently he directed his first TV show, an episode of fellow Cornerstone founder Amy Brenneman's one-hour drama Judging Amy.

Those are promising career connections, but Bill told me he's not sure what he's going to do after he leaves Cornerstone—that is, except direct another Cornerstone show, its 2006-07 collaboration with the Guthrie, which will be his first gig as a "guest artist." He doesn't rule out running another theatre company, and I am of course intrigued that the search for a replacement for OSF artistic director Libby Appel, who has announced her departure after the 2007 season, will likely begin next year. Hmm...

I'm not particularly worried about the future of Cornerstone, which, Bill told me, is "as strong as it's ever been, in many ways." But I will miss his unique voice at the helm of that company—a "voice" that encompasses more than simply his work as a director but infuses the entire company's ethos of collaboration and unabashed world-changing ambition. I know that ethos won't leave the company with Bill—and in many ways, I salute his courage in being the kind of good steward who knows when it's time to let go.

I can't report this news without a twinge of sadness—of grief, even, at the end of an era. But congratulations are also in order for Rauch, who deserves the best his art and his life, with his husband Chris and son Liam, have to offer. Far from a retirement, this resignation signals the start of a promising new chapter in the career of one of American theatre's most essential artists.

Irresistible Off-Topic Tidbit

Could these be the new poster children—er, penguins—for gay unions?

Center Pieces

Sunday and Monday marked two auspicious openings at the Music Center as Gordon Davidson's last season enters its final stretch, and critics are, on balance, positive about this pair of imports—one from Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, the other from the Theatre Royal Bath.

The Times' James C. Taylor was mixed on Edward Albee's provocative play about bestiality, THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?, at the Taper through Mar. 20, calling its lead character Martin "one of Albee's greatest characters," and praising actor Brian Kerwin in the role for overcoming the Warner Shook's "slack direction and extended dialogue with some of Albee's most poorly written characters." Variety's Joel Hirschhorn was a bit more impressed, agreeing that the play is "not a masterpiece" but that Shook's staging exhibits "violent effectiveness" and that Cynthia Mace, as Martin's wife Stevie, is "like a multi-keyed instrument, a virtuoso producing sharply contrasting emotional chords." For my part, in my upcoming Downtown News review, I call it "an incisive, brilliantly modulated comedy of middle-class American mores strained to their ultimate extremity," and praise the cast for matching "the play's unrelenting dissonance note for note."

"What more could we want from the theater?" was the conclusion of Lewis Segal's Times review of AS YOU LIKE IT at the Ahmanson Theatre through Mar. 27. In Peter Hall's production, he finds Shakespeare's classic renewed "in ways "both surprising and profound," calling scenes between the director's daughter, Rebecca Hall, and her contemporaries "well nigh miraculous." He did quibble that "something crucial eludes" Philip Voss' cynical Jaques (and he did take a paragraph to recall the mostly disastrous productions Hall helmed at the same theatre between 1999-2001 with American actors). Variety's Joel Hirschhorn seemed to enjoy the production; he was less impressed with Rebecca Hall's Rosalind, writing that "her nervous line readings often have a hesitant, affected awkwardness," but he was blown away by Dan Stevens' Orlando, whom he compared to a "combination of Elizabethan hero and [John] Osborne's angry young man of the 1950s."

Feb 8, 2005

Up From Underground: Review of Reviews Update

I'm a little behind with this update, I know (and too tired even to make a pun about a "little behind"). I've had a very good problem lately: too much work. So thank you for your patience, dear readers, and I hope you enjoy this edition.

Adventurous theatregoers should rush to DOSTOEVSKY’S NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in North Hollywood through Feb. 12, according to most critics. The Times' F. Kathleen Foley, for instance, marvelled that adapter/director Josh T. Ryan "actually unearthed considerable humor" from the source material, and characterized his approach as "near-surreal archness." She praised in particular Michael Blomgren, who plays the Underground Man "with a trance-like intensity that never falters." Her witty conclusion: "This 'Notes" fascinates as a pre-Prozac study in tortured egotism." Back Stage West's Dave DePino seemed almost overwhelmed by the show: "Be prepared to get swept up by the sheer artistry of Blomgren's remarkable performance," he gushed. For his part, the Weekly's Steven Mikulan turned in a gnomic two-sentence review that describes "a spirited cast in [a] brief evening of angst, loathing and humiliation." Is this damning with faint praise? I can't tell.

According to Back Stage West's Terry Morgan, "William Inge would be pleased" with director Matthew Solari's new production of BUS STOP, at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena through Feb. 27. "This superb cast does… justice" to Inge's "bittersweet character study," he wrote, while the Weekly's Sandra Ross opined that "strong acting distracts from some of the less savory aspects" of the play, and that under Solari's "perceptive direction, the performances resist caricature."

Critics raved about a new production of THE KNIGHTS OF MARY PHAGAN, at Theatre 68 in Hollywood through Mar. 20. The Weekly's Miriam Jacobson called it a "riveting revival" of Jesse Waldinger’s courtroom drama about the notorious Leo Frank trial and lynching, thanks to a "superb ensemble" and Waldinger's "incisive script." While Back Stage West's Les Spindle wished that the play "ventured further beyond generic courtroom theatrics," he wrote that the production's "spellbinding ensemble [holds] our rapt attention under the masterful guidance of director Scott Mlodzinski."

Yet another tour stop of CHICAGO hit Hollywood's Pantages Theatre last week, where it runs through Feb. 20. In the Times, I wrote that the show is "still high-kicking its buckle shoes with the requisite snap and tickle," praising Gregory Harrison's Billy Flynn but noting that when Patti LaBelle, as Mama Morton, "stops singing," there's "a big hole in the show where a diva should be." The Daily News' Valerie Kuklenski agreed that "LaBelle is on foreign ground in acting her part," but raved about Bianca Marroquín's Roxie and Brenda Braxton's Velma.

Adding his measured praise to that of his colleagues for Charlayne Woodard's FLIGHT, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 13, was the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris. His full-length review, as always, is worth reading, but what struck me was this dead-on send-off for the Taper's departing father figure:
Flight…. appearing in the first season of the Center Theater Group in which Gordon Davidson is not artistic director, emerges as a kind of testament to the paradoxically soulful and sometimes thick-headed legacy of Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum—the primary CTG theater he ran since 1967… One moment in Flight—a confrontation between the gardener Alma and Nate—takes on the tone of a biblical allegory for vengeance and gang violence. Alma admits she saw Sadie reading but failed to act quickly enough to protect her from the plantation owner. Intending to beat if not kill Alma for her negligence, Nate explodes: "She doesn’t deserve to live!" The old conjurer, Oh Beah, intercedes like a minister: "Is the fightin' and killin' going to make it all right?" she repeats. "Is it going to bring Sadie back?"
Just in case the audience is too dim to know the correct answer to a rhetorical question, Nate and Alma provide it for them: "No, ma'am," they both intone. This tiny moment of overstatement emerges as the embodiment of everything that was ever right and wrong about the Taper: the profound, rare love and concern for the local community, the conviction that theater must be an instrument for teaching—preaching—social justice, that it must reach out to the underserved and the unknowing, it must bring them onto the dark stage and show them the light. Flight’s old conjurer conjures recollections of the Taper’s Zoot Suit and Black Elk Speaks, plays about L.A.’s Latinos and America’s native tribes, plays with crystalline and indignant delineations of right and wrong, and agendas to make the necessary social corrections for the sake of a better world.

I wouldn't choose exactly those examples to typify Davidson's reign, but Morris' point is well taken. In retrospect, it's probably not such a bad thing that Davidson's default position was '60s-bred liberalism—when he can't find a good play, he puts on a sermon, as I once wrote with exasperation. He will be judged, ultimately, both for the good plays he did put up and for the didactic sermons—and there are worse crimes than preaching to the converted.

Two critics agreed that director/designer Tiger Reel's tightly trimmed, vaguely Arabic-tinged MACBETH, at the Knightsbridge Theatre through Feb. 26, "succeeds to such a high degree in its accelerated pace, sharp acting and visual pleasures that it must be forgiven its multitude of flaws," as the Weekly's Tom Provenzano put it. These include, he wrote, Reel's drastic cutting and his "ultimate failure to wrap his general sense of passion around a specific concept," though Provenzano ultimately called it "a theatrical event well worth seeking out." The Times' David C. Nichols concurred that "the excessive edits… turn key roles into cameos and suck blood from the proceedings" and noted some problems with the concept, but wrote, in a conclusion I don't quite understand, that "even with a concept more decorative than disturbing, Reel's attack on the naked frailties of modern-day nihilism has impressive sound and fury."

Critics are divided, if not passionately, about the one-woman show GOLDA'S BALCONY, at the Wadsworth Theatre in Westwood through Feb. 20. The Daily News' Evan Henerson was bowled over by lead actress Tovah Feldshuh, "a small woman with a plus-size stage presence" who "channels" late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and "works within—not against—the gloss and technical bombast" of this production of William Gibson's play. The Times' Daryl H. Miller was less impressed, writing that while Feldshuh "does all that is within an actor's power" with a script that "sounds like a recitation from a young-readers' biography." (A bit of personal trivia, if I may: I first saw Feldshuh on the stage of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in the late 1970s—as Juliet, in an R&J imported from San Diego's Old Globe. She was pretty hot, if I recall correctly.)

Acme Comedy Theatre's new sketch show, ACME LOVE MACHINE, through Feb. 26, received a split decision. In my Times review, I wrote that this Machine "takes a while… to get humming," and that its sketches don't garner "more than a smile or two" until its second half. But Back Stage West's Jenelle Riley raved that "director Travis Oates confidently helms a flawless ensemble of eight talented and distinctive actors" in a production that "packs triple the laughs of a typical episode of Saturday Night Live in roughly the same amount of time."

"Too many jokes" was essentially the verdict of Back Stage West's Shirle Gottlieb on Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, at South Coast Rep through Feb. 27. Joining the mixed reviews of her colleagues, she wrote that while director Kate Whoriskey "has her fingers on the heart of Ruhl's intentions" (an interesting, almost surgical image) and "the five-member ensemble is flawless," the play "doesn't live up to its potential, because Ruhl's comedy and pathos are out of balance."

"A spiritual descendant of 'Rocky Horror' " was how the Times' F. Kathleen Foley described SAUCY JACK AND THE SPACE VIXENS, at the Ark Theatre in Los Angeles through Apr. 9. Her verdict: "Comically sharp but musically flat… there's much charm in this offbeat disco musical." Back Stage West's Brad Schreiber invoked "the Confused Artist Sometimes Known as Prince" in trying to describe the show's "pansexual glee," but he lamented that "as much as one wants to like this frothy concoction," it wears out its welcome.

Quipped the Weekly's Paul Birchall of Laura Shaine Cunningham's BEAUTIFUL BODIES, at the Attic Theatre through Feb. 12, "The women who dine together, whine together." He called it an "oddly sour sitcom" that "simply doesn't have a lot to say." And while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones was no more impressed by the play, he raved that actresses Paula Eliott and Amy Larion "bring vitality to their every moment onstage." Of course, Wenzel wouldn't be Wenzel without a colorful put-down, and this one's a doozy: "As Zoloft model Lisbeth, Megan Bello has a vexing way of closing her eyes and tilting her face up before delivering her lines in a whispery lisp. It plays like the beatification of Hello Kitty (if Kitty had a mouth, of course)."

Those who carry a torch for '80s schlock may not flock to ST. ELMO'S FIRE, at the Complex through Feb. 13. While the Weekly's Sandra Ross enjoyed the play's "time capsule-like glimpse into bad '80s fashion" and found actor/director Bryan Chesters' faithful staging "all the more engaging for its earnestness," Back Stage West's Paul Birchall longed for the "pure camp" of a previous stage rendition that highlighted the original film's absurdity. Chesters' "uninspired and totally by-the-numbers 'straight' staging," he wrote, comes off as "theatrical karaoke, [with] the cast enacting the frequently saccharine script with all the reverence of Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet."

A new revival of OF MICE AND MEN, at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood through Feb. 20, got mixed reviews for director Lisa Dalton's Michael Chekhov-based approach. Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner said the result "is occlusion—or to put it politely, constipation." (I think possibly Shaner has those two reversed in terms of politesse.) Continuing on a posterior-minded note, Shaner concluded that Dalton's "leisurely pace" made the play "a very long, cheek-changing sit." The Weekly's Deborah Klugman used kinder words to say similar things, calling the production "professionally staged but internally hollow" and lamenting that while Mike Rademaekers "gives it his all" as childlike brute Lennie, his performance "appears too externally crafted to be believed."

Layon Gray's Vietnam chicks-in-combat play SOLDIERS DON'T CRY, at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center in North Hollywood through Feb. 13, took some heavy fire, with Back Stage West's Terri Roberts writing that Gray's "rambling, repetitive, and overwrought drama" looks "like a first-draft screenplay." Meanwhile, the Weekly's Amy Nicholson (fast becoming my favorite new critic on the scene) incisively nailed Gray's approach as "the two-faced empowerment of ’70s rape-revenge flicks." On the one hand, he gives the female fighters "dignity through masculinization, strapping them with gun-dicks (yes, the dialogue makes the connection literal) and slicing them down to genderless last names," while portraying them as exploitation-film stereotypes. Nicholson wrote that while "the actors’ charisma and appeal nearly salvage the tribute presumably intended in Gray’s backhanded salute," his play's "grindhouse carnage drowns both his superficial feminism and the messages in pools of blood."

Critics delivered a "guilty" verdict on THE BUTLER DID IT, at the Knightsbridge Theatre through Feb. 26, with the Times' F. Kathleen Foley lamenting that this "innocuous send-up of the detective genre" gets a "floppy staging," and Back Stage West's Travis Michael Holder called it "just another feeble clone of The Mousetrap or Ten Little Indians."

Feb 7, 2005

It Was (Always) Better in New York

My colleague James C. Taylor certainly does get around—he makes regular pilgrimages to New York and London, which makes him uniquely positioned to inform L.A. theatregoers what they missed from the original productions of plays that are only now making it to our local stages. (As a friend waggishly put it, riffing on Taylor's namesake: "I've seen fire and I've seen rain... and they were better in New York.")

In today's Times, he informs us exactly how the Taper's current production of The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? falls shorts of the play's New York premiere:
…In the first third of the play… director Warner Shook too often goes for the easy laugh at the expense of atmosphere and character development. Not that Martin's early interactions with his wife and best friend can't be relaxed and amusing. The New York production pitched these scenes in much the same style as a Neil Simon comedy. Lines were played for small laughs, which worked to lull the audience into a sense of familiar complacency but also left space for the characterizations to breathe. In this staging, however, these exposition scenes are given the broad, punchy feel of an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Shook has the actors mine the text for big laughs — which, it must be said, they deliver — but at the expense of nuance that the play needs to make the darker, more complex scenes pay off.

He felt similarly about another production last year:
When it opened in New York two years ago, a combination of timing and casting made "Thoroughly Modern Millie" an unlikely Broadway hit. The city was reeling from the events of the previous September… But the main ingredient of "Millie's" success was Sutton Foster, a then-unknown actress who originated the title role… [She was] so perfect that one couldn't help wondering what the show would be like without her.
The answer, judging from the touring production that opened at the Ahmanson Theater on Friday night, is a definite sort-of. The show still works as a ditzy song-and-dance revue, but far from Broadway and without its original cast, "Millie" doesn't quite cut it as a thoroughly modern musical…
In New York, Harriet Harris' Meers was a strong villain who served as comic foil to Foster's plucky flapper. Harris oozed wicked cynicism, and every time she purred her signature line—"Sad to be all alone in the world"—the audience at the Marquis Theater went wild. As performed here by Hollis Resnik, Meers lacks any real sense of menace and, even more disappointing, any sense of humor. Harris interpreted Meers as an over-the-top parody of Asian caricatures dating from less politically correct times, but Resnik's Meers is merely one of those stereotypes.

And about another play last year:
The character of Louise is the key role in [Steve} Martin's version of "The Underpants." In the New York premiere, she was performed by Cheryl Lynn Bowers as a sort of urban Madame—or Frau—Bovary. Exuding a wide-eyed innocence, Bowers made it clear that Louise was a girl forced into marriage early and that she quietly had doubts about the whole structure of her middle-class life.
At the Geffen, Louise is played with considerable charm by Meredith Patterson. Patterson is a stable presence in the central role, and her comedic talents are well showcased, especially when she throws herself at Versati, a hunky Italian poet (Anthony Crivello). However, Patterson's Louise is decidedly too mature. Louise is written as a confused twentysomething newlywed, yet Patterson makes her feel like a resigned thirtysomething veteran of married life—instead of Emma Bovary, her Louise suggests Lucy Ricardo.

Oh, and about one other production last year:
[Marissa Jaret] Winokur is not the only member of the New York cast on hand to reprise a role [in "Hairspray"]: Matthew Morrison returns as the hunky Link Larkin. But most of the performers in this touring production are more than up to their tasks…
Then, of course, there is the Vilanch Factor. Most Angelenos will not have had the pleasure of seeing Winokur's Broadway co-star, Harvey Fierstein, perform as Edna Turnblad… Instead of a Fierstein's gravelly baritone, [Bruce] Vilanch delivers Edna's patter with a low-pitched bleat. With his large frame and fleshy, trapezoidal face, Vilanch in drag looks like Dame Edna's ugly stepsister—in other words, a perfect fit. But aside from his physicality, Vilanch's performance is often at odds with the material.

These are all undoubtedly valid observations. I'm just a little puzzled why these comparisons should matter to L.A. theatregoers. Could it possibly be that the LA Times has New York readers in mind? This much is true: For those who do want to find out how L.A. productions of major new American plays and musicals measure up to their New York equivalents, the LA Times is only paper on the beat.

Feb 5, 2005

Da Mayor

It was with a special twinge that I heard of the death of Ossie Davis. I had the privilege of meeting him and his wife Ruby Dee when they were in town for her show My One Good Nerve at the Canon. I remember his height, his raspy voice, and his utterly accessible air. As he put it at the eulogy he gave for Malcolm X, Davis "was always that rarest thing in the world among us Negroes: a true man."

Here, in its entirety, is the piece I wrote about Davis and Dee for Back Stage West in May, 1999.

American Dreamers
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have married artistry and family, showbiz and the Struggle, for more than 50 years.

by Rob Kendt

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are such an attractive and charming older couple, with such a long and revered public history on the stages of Broadway, the soundstages of Hollywood, and the podiums of union halls and churches, that it's easy to overlook the real miracle of their success: This is a pair of long-married artists who continue to dream and create, both together and separately, in their own self-made universe independent of the entertainment industrial complex. Though each has been well compensated for his and her various acting gigs onstage, in film, and on television, Dee and Davis have never had the kind of success that might have uprooted or seriously distracted them from their self-sustaining world of culture, creativity, activism, and family values.

As Davis admits in their recently published joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow & Company, 1998), "Ruby and I have been regarded as successful actors working continually in the entertainment industry for over 50 years, and many assumptions about us—some quite incorrect—are based on that longevity. We have survived, of course, and that counted for much of the attention; but we are not 'stars,' nor are we 'celebrities'. . . Neither of us has appeared in a 'breakthrough' role, or series of roles that finally elevated us to the ultimate heights of stardom... We simply called ourselves laborers in the fields of the arts."

At a recent breakfast meeting with L.A. theatre groups to promote Dee's one-woman show, My One Good Nerve—which opens this weekend at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills and for which Davis serves as executive producer—Davis amended his description of his and Ruby's careers to the more ironic "peace workers on the Hollywood plantation."

Indeed, from the beginning, Dee and Davis both have not rejected opportunities that came their way, from their first Broadway success in the American Negro Theatre's Anna Lucasta, which ran for more than a year and toured the country, to the film roles for which they may be most widely known—Dee as a series of dutiful wives in A Raisin in the Sun, The Jackie Robinson Story, and St. Louis Blues, and more recently as a fiesty oldster in the TV movies Decoration Day and Having Our Say, and Davis in more recent years in such films as I'm Not Rappaport, The Client, Grumpy Old Men, Doctor Dolittle, and Twelve Angry Men.

Still, they are probably best known as a unit—for their radio show and PBS series, With Ossie and Ruby, in which they showcased black writers and storytellers, and their roles in Spike Lee's films Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.

What is probably less known about them is that they're both writers themselves. Ossie, who stumbled fortuitously into an acting career, has always considered himself a playwright first (and proved it with 1961's Purlie Victorious on Broadway). Meanwhile Ruby, whose passion for performing was engendered in part by the writers of her generation, has culled her own writings from over the years—poems, character pieces, musings, shaggy dog stories—into My One Good Nerve, a "not-a-play" she performed willy-nilly at theatre benefits until Peggy Shannon, then artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, invited her to mount it there in 1995. Last year, producer Woodie King took Nerve to New York's Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse (at Hunter College, Dee's alma mater), with Charles Nelson Reilly directing.

Now Ruby, with Ossie backing her, will make her return to the L.A. stage—the couple's last professional appearance here being on the Anna Lucasta tour in 1947, before they were married. But while Ossie and Ruby do have their West Coast contacts and friends, they are clearly vacationing Easterners; their home is in New Rochelle, NY, and both prefer walking cities, like Ruby's native Cleveland or their longtime home, Harlem, to the sunny sprawl of L.A.

March and Live
In conversation, the petite Ruby has a softly feminine, lilting, cultured tone, accenting every other phrase with an ironic little harrumph that sounds something like the reverse of a sigh, but there is clearly steel—and certainly more than one good nerve—under the silk. For his part, the tall, grandfatherly Ossie has a voice that now rasps more than it booms, but for all his ready humor this is clearly the same man who spoke up for the blacklisted Paul Robeson at Equity meetings in the 1950s, who memorably stood to eulogize Malcolm X as "our own black shining Prince" after his 1965 assassination, and who can still stand and deliver rousing stump speeches at a moment's notice.

"Some people are very lucky to come into this world with a thrust, and soon into my life my mother recognized it—that I came with this thing to express," recalled Ruby. "As early as I can remember I was reciting something on some platform, and my mother was encouraging me; I was writing poems and she would send them to the paper. In school, I would get singled out in speech classes.

"That's what I've been doing all my life: reciting, reading, going into languages—I go into a community and before I know it I'm talking like the people in that community. I'm like this sort of sponge for people, so I'm always gathering things to put in my sack. As an actor, you know, you carry a sack, and something about everyone you meet goes in it."

Not every actor, though, collects these human impressions into their own words. My One Good Nerve contains not only first person musings and rhymes but character narratives from voices as diverse as travelling businessmen to Langston Hughes' trickster character Jesse B. Simple. The way Ruby tells it, these aren't necessarily her own words, either.

"I've decided this lately—I wish I'd known sooner—that I am a medium through which impulses come," she said. "I feel like I just have to open the door, just sit there, and if I relax properly, anbyody can walk through me. It's like staring into something and eventually it starts staring back into you; you become it, and it becomes you."

A similar insight came to her about her acting years ago, when the writings of such playwrights and authors as Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rosa Guy inspired Ruby to "become an instrument through which all these people and ideas that I was reading about in these books could march and live. After I decided I was never going to be a starlet in the Hollywood stable, after the grief of realizing that I was a black girl in America, and that because of it I would be denied access to certain roles—I deliberately decided to put that aside, I couldn't do anything about that—I was flooded over with love of black people, of black literature. I felt saturated with it.

"And then I realized that working with Ossie, discovering the literature and delving into the history, and communicating with people who have that in common—that spelled a life for me. I knew why I was on earth. Now I can't imagine what I'd be if wasn't like this. Would my life be significant? I mean, I start to think, Do other people have significant lives who are not black? What do they live about?"

She laughs as she says it, but she speaks from a pride and confidence which Ossie and Ruby wear like their skin, indeed on their skin—pride in their racial and cultural heritage which, though it has been tested as surely as any black person's must have been by the century that is ending, has been strengthened by their education and experience not only in the arts but in political activism, in what Ossie calls the "acts and arts of fellowship" with their community.

Backward and Forward
Actually, that should read "communities," for while they attribute much of their success to a sense of "belonging" to the African-American culture and audience, Ossie and Ruby's ties to the mainstream theatre community are long and deep.

As New York stage actors they were in the thick of the struggle against the anti-Communist blacklist of the 1940s and '50s, especially as it touched one of their friends, Paul Robeson. And their work with the blacklisted Morris Carnofsky and Howard Da Silva on the Off-Broadway show The World of Sholom Aleichem introduced them to a lifelong tradition of readings and "people's theatre" in synagogues, schools, and union halls, as well as introducing Ossie to a kind of scrappy humor in the face of suffering and oppression which he felt was "as black as it was Jewish," and which inspired him to turn a shrill would-be social-issue play about the Jim Crow South into a raucous satire, Purlie Victorious (later musicalized as Purlie!, a 1970 hit with Broadway audiences, though not with Ossie).

Their activism to this day focuses on theatre as a social force: In December, they used their 50th anniversary celebration as an occasion to raise funds for 12 small theatres, including the National Black Theatre, the Pan-Asian Repertory, and the New Federal Theatre.

"We always knew that we had to pay attention and make sure that the seedbed, the place from which we came, would be there for another generation," said Davis. "The American Dream is to make it from where you are to up there; it is not turning around and giving back. But somebody's gotta look back. So while we welcomed whatever opportunities there were, and took full advantage of them, we never cut the umbilical, we never burned the bridge. We've always tried to come back."

Ruby was quick to jump in here: "Looking back—we ought to change the word to looking forward. It's a looking forward thing to go back; it's a loving thing, it's a parenting thing, because you've got to get the territory prepared for your children."

Dee and Davis, who have three grown children themselves and seven grandchildren, may be right about the American Dream, even its African-American corollary (get out of the ghetto, move on up, it's another victory for the culture). And few fields are as cutthroat-competitive, or as auspiciously disproportionate in their assigning of victory and defeat, as the talent end of the entertainment industry.

All the more reason that these two old pros should be cherished, not only for their work but for what they've lived about. Ossie and Ruby's commitment to their craft and their culture is exceeded only by their commitment to each other—and, as they say, you can't have one without the other.

Feb 3, 2005

Audiences R (Not) Us

Today's Times piece on nabbing last-minute tickets to live events has some illuminating figures:
What is bad news for theaters can be good news for last-minute ticket buyers: Especially at nonprofit performing arts venues, there are ways to get into at least some of those empty seats if you know how to play the game. [Martin] Wiviott [of Broadway/LA] says that, no matter what's onstage, about 10% of ticket buyers don't show up. Frier McCollister, a local theatrical producer and general manager, says the no-show percentage is even higher, about 30%, for the under-99-seat houses — but most of those theaters operate with reservation lists instead of tickets, so they may admit the next comer if a person shows up too late.

Ouch! I noticed, coincidentally, a bold soul standing outside the Pantages last night as Chicago audiences poured out, handing out postcards for African Gothic" with this catchy phrase: "It just got Critic's Pick in Back Stage West!"

So What's His Porn Name?

You can't make this stuff up.

Feb 2, 2005

From Ruhl to Behn

A few early-week updates to the Review of Reviews are in order, anticipating the full end-of-week deluge.

Two reviews on Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, at South Coast Rep through Feb. 27, were divided, with the Times' Daryl H. Miller lauding the "lovely turns of phrase" in Ruhl's "funny-sad script," admiring Kate Whoriskey's direction and the actor's nuanced performances, but finally musing that something "unknowable" is missing. (Miller's closing prescription, though intended to riff on the play's house-cleaning theme, was almost chiling: When a show "simply doesn't work," he advised, "the best thing to do is to sweep the experience under the rug and open the door to the next adventure." But not until after you file your review, Daryl!) Meanwhile, the OC Register's Paul Hodgins was much more impressed with this emerging writer, conceding that some of the play's tonal shifts don't work but raving that Ruhl "has the makings of a sharp social observer with a keen, Almodovar-like eye for people in the throes of personal crises." He also noted the cast's obvious love for the material, lamenting only that a key role played by "one of American theater's national treasures, Mary Lou Rosato," isn't larger.

The Daily News' Evan Henerson weighed in, like his peers generally favorably, on the Furious Theatre Company's THE SHAPE OF THINGS, at the Balcony Theatre in Pasadena through Feb. 20, calling it a "smart if not overly daring staging" that is nevertheless "blistering entertainment." It's clear above all that critics are just glad to see the Furious, homeless for a long, bleak year, back and kicking butt.

Adding more admiring but mixed reviews to the chorus about THE NINA VARIATIONS at Company Rep through Feb. 19 were the Daily News' Katherine Karlin and Travis Michael Holder (on the site reviewplays.com.). Karlin called Dietz's riff on The Seagull "intriguing," noted director Hope Alexander's "astonishing set," and generally liked the performances, though she found the play's concluding moments "treacly." Holder, who's acted under Alexander at the same theatre, was a little warmer, hailing the director's "starkly visionary staging" and Alan Altshuld's "tour de force" lead performance. He didn't buy the triple-Nina conceit any more than I did, but he concludes on an ecstatic note," calling the show "the first great theatrical triumph of the new year." Wow! I guess Holder doesn't want to burn his bridges. (His inside experience does allow him an image unavailable to most critics: "One can almost hear Alexander breaking into a rehearsal from her perch on the stairs in the audience to jump up and say, 'Oh! no, wait! I know what it is! I know what it is!' ")

The Chance Theatre takes a chance in adapting Apra Behn's 1678 classic THE ROVER, at the theatre in Anaheim through Feb. 20, as a romp enacted by contemporary girls at a teen slumber party. For the Orange County Register's Eric Marchese, the result of director John Costello's adaptation was initially "fanciful and endearing" but also confusing, and Marchese lamented that "seeing it only increases our curiosity about, and hunger for, a full period staging." Back Stage West's Melinda Schupmann was, unsurprisingly, much kinder, writing that the four-member troupe "manages to be both worldly and unsophisticated, and it comes off very well." Schupmann, in vintage say-something-nice mode, gently finessed her one quibble: "Costello might be faulted for overtly excessive posturing, but, in the context of teenagers, it comes off as an endearing enthusiasm."

Feb 1, 2005

"Dead Man" Walks On

I've got to give props to Tim Robbins for this: He's released a play version of his penetrating script for Dead Man Walking to selected high schools and colleges, with an emphasis on Jesuit institutions. There's a production coming up at Nebraska's Creighton University, but what alerted me to this fine idea was an issue of "Men for Others," the alumni magazine for grads of Brophy College Prep, the Jesuit high school I attended in Phoenix, AZ. Brophy's young actors (with an assist, as usual, from the actresses of nearby Xavier, a girl's school) mounted their production in October of last year, and convened a Summit on Human Dignity in conjunction with the production. (Gosh, and all we did when I was at Brophy were musicals—and this guy was always beating me out of the lead roles.)

I'm particularly touched by this convergence of theatre and activism because Dead Man Walking happens to be my favorite Robbins film by leaps and bounds. I found Bob Roberts callow and earnest—as with Robbins' misbegotten Embedded, I could gladly forgive those faults if it were actually funny—and I found Cradle Will Rock mainly a guilty pleasure, being a sentimental lefty backstager (hard for me to resist on either count). Dead Man Walking, on the other hand, left me genuinely moved and shaken because it seemed infused with a sincere moral fervor—and not a fervor to get across one point of view but to explore the issues of sin, redemption, and forgiveness raised by capital punishment in more or less explicitly Christian terms (in the best, non-exclusionary sense of the word). That approach—evident not only in the script but in every performance, from Sean Penn's to Susan Sarandon's, to the contrasting portraits offered by Raymond Barry, Lee Ermey, and Celia Weston—struck me deeply, and I considered it a badge of the film's genuine empathic spirit that it got knocks from both the right and the left.

It seems only fitting that Jesuit schools should get first dibs at this meaty drama, since in my experience members of Society of Jesus (a cool name with a hint of the clandestine about it) are among the most socially engaged, least hidebound Catholics—or religious folk of any stripe—around. And such a ministry couldn't be more welcome in my conservative home state.

Troubie or Not Troubie

My recent joyous experience at the Troubadour Theatre's The Comedy of Aerosmith has spawned a terrible new habit: When I'm bored (occasionally—zounds!—this happens while I'm watching a show), I try to think of new Shakespearean/pop-music combos.

At least, that's what I did during a recent theatrical trial (which shall remain nameless), and I had so much fun I thought I'd share my doodlings with you (and with any Troubies who may read this—all I ask in return are some comps to your next show).
Ok, the Troubies have never done a Beatles show, nor have they done Hamlet, so I thought of two titles along these lines: I Wanna Hold Your Hamlet and Hamlet It Be. Other Beatles titles that might work with Shakespeare plays the Troubies have yet to do are Sgt. Pepper's Love's Labour's Lost Club Band, Magical Mystery Tempest, and Othello Submarine. (Yes, I know the Troubies' wont is to use the band's name in the title, but I figure with the Fab Four they can make an exception.) Another notion for the Great Dane is Hamlet, Prince of Paisley Park. I think Matt Walker has mentioned Paul Simon of Athens to me before, but Simon & Garfunkel of Athens could work just as well. And while I know the Troubies have done a show called simply Shrew!, what about The Taming of the Who? And for an '80s flashback show, there's the groaner title Two Gentlemen of My Sharona. For a popular history play I had two ideas: Hendrix the Fifth or Hank the Fifth (with the music of Hank Williams, natch). And while I'm stretching, I couldn't resist the title Coolio Caesar, even if that particular rapper's song catalog isn't deep enough to sustain a show (though I can't shake the image of "Gangstas Paradise" in togas). If they ever try on some Greek classics, there's the inevitable Electra Light Orchestra.

Enough of that for now. You'll find that once you start this parlor game it's hard to stop. I welcome your suggestions, dear readers.