Monthly Archives: June 2015

Brand devaluation – August: Osage County at Theatricum Botanicum

Executive summary:  American Indians serve, Indian Americans run motels.   Playwright Tracy Letts tries to be O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Hellman, Orlandersmith, and assorted Greeks.  And fails.  This three hour slog through combinatorial dysfunction won a Pulitzer.  Then again Kissinger won a Nobel. if you want to see for yourself.

Undead Uncles – ‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT

Courtesy International City Theatre

‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT through mid July is Molière by way of MAD Magazine. David Ives adapts a story by Jean-François Regnard into two acts of rhymed couplets set in not France at no specific time. Twenty-something orphan Eraste (Wallace Angus Bruce) wants to marry the lovely Isabelle (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne) but needs his wealthy miserly hypochondriac Uncle Geronte (Matthew Henerson) to hand in his dinner pail and hand him a sizeable fortune. Love doesn’t come cheap, no matter the era. Trouble is that Uncle is healthier than a horse and has designs on the girl himself. Add an ambitious mother (Rebecca Spencer), two clever servants, and stir for farce. If it sounds like ‘Imaginary Invalid’ and other famous French plays, Wikipedia tells us Regnard was heavily influenced by Molière.  Therefore it must be true.

Director Matt Walker effectively marshals an able cast, a large production team, and a small dog. Walker is best known for his work with The Troubadour Theatre where he sets Shakespeare to modern music, typically the rock and/or the roll. The troupe is therefore wildly popular with the young people and are reputed to sell out a show as soon as it is announced. ‘Heir’ is a good way for musical theatre haters to get acquainted with him.

The play’s central conceit is estate fraud. Uncle Geronte’s complaints are mostly digestive and are usually palliated by saucy maid Lisette’s (Paige Lindsey White) potions. The situation is obnoxious but hardly fatal. Lisette is of course enamored of Crispin (Adam J. Smith), valet to Eraste, who can’t marry her until Eraste comes into money. Act One has the robust Geronte bequeathing to distant American relations, coveting the young girl, and generally bypassing his nephew. Then he inconveniently appears to die without formalizing his bequest. What are young people to do in Act Two except to get a gullible lawyer (Adam von Almen) to draft a fake will and forge Geronte’s signature to it?

The script isn’t for analysis, ‘Heir’ is about as French as ‘Mikado’ is Japanese. This is comedy and Walker plays it broadly. The set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and lights (Jeremy Pivnick) well match the frenetic pace. Mark McClain Wilson’s sound design adds sibilance, flatulence, bleeps, plurps, and fleedles right on cue. Since part of the scam involves discrediting the American relations by dressing up as them, credit the wardrobe crew (Michael Greene) in getting several players in and out of Kim DeShazo’s fine costumes.

Smith turns in an excellent Crispin with the evening belonging to the booming Geronte who proves exceedingly difficult to kill – even when it looks like the plots have succeeded. Think Old Mahon from ‘Playboy of the Western World’ and you have him. Incidentally, Henerson played just that role at Furious Theatre in 2002, playing up at least two decades in age then and now. It is axiomatic that we all root for the attractive youngsters but eventually we feel more than a little sympathy for the old guy in the face of forgery, attempted murder, and signs that Eraste is himself a craven, entitled miser in the making.

Jessica Kubzansky, another renowned LA director, staged a riotous  ‘A Servant to Two Masters’ at ICT back in 2001 with sound legend John Zalewski providing live accompaniment from stage right.   ‘Heir’ doesn’t reach that level of mania. It isn’t clear if Ives’s script can benefit from pratfalls and physical comedy or if Walker just elected not to go that route. It all snapped and crackled but didn’t quite pop. Part of it is the script where the Yankee subplot ran a little long and the remainder can be put on the audience. The actors sent tremendous energy into the space but didn’t get enough back. Opening night crowds in LA are often criticized for being too enthusiastic. This one was far from hostile but the laughter and involvement didn’t reach the level required to get the comedic pot to boil. The same production deserves and, in front of different people, should get a much better reception.

Heir Apparent
by David Ives
Directed by Matt Walker
at The International City Theatre
June 17 – July 12, 2015
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Tickets online at Center Stage Ticketing
Box Office: 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)

The J-58 made simple(r)

I got a copy of the SR-71 Pilot’s Manual as soon as it became available in the early 1990s. It’s a throwback to the days of slide rules and handmade graphics and utterly fascinating. There is a lot of material on the Pratt and Whitney J-58 engine and the Lockheed inlets that powered the Blackbird beyond Mach 3 yet I have never been able to fully understand why and how that system did what it did. Thankfully, Blackbird enthusiast Tech Adams explains it all in his delightful video – The Mighty J58 – The SR-71’s Secret Powerhouse.

Achy-breaky embouchures – Yet another principal flute at the LA Phil

The LA Phil is going through principal flutes like Spinal Tap went through drummers.  There was the guy from Chicago, followed by the one from Portland, and then the chap from Lyon. Slipped Disc informs that Denis Bouriakov, 33, currently of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra will be in the chair later this year.

Here he is in Italy playing something written in France and adapted in Hollywood.

It’s alive! – Philae wakes from hibernation

Artist’s conception of Philae’s touchdown. Image courtesy the European Space Agency

The little European probe that landed, bounced, and settled in a shady section of a comet last November has awoken. Philae communicated with mothership Rosetta after getting light onto its solar panels and juice into its cold batteries. ESA scientists are looking at the data and are hopeful that more will follow. Great news for this audacious, decade-long mission. Long may it wave, wide may it flap.

Don’t bother, they’re here – The Four Clowns at the Hollywood Fringe Fest


(from left to right) Elizabeth Godley as Nimrod and Don Colliver as Butterbeans Arbuckle. Photo courtesy Drew Eiden and The Four Clowns Theatre Company

‘Halfwits’ Last Hurrah’ by The Four Clowns plays against routine floppy shoe and funny nose expectations of the form. It is, rather, a brisk, lighthearted hour of broad physical comedy and laughs designed for a festival audience and nicely played by a convivial cast.

Jamie Franta and Don Colliver’s storyline is loosely organized around cut-rate impresario Butterbeans Arbuckle (Colliver) and his carefully curated castoffs (the eponymous Halfwits) trying to keep their vaudeville going under external assaults. Arbuckle’s rival, The Real McCoy (Jolene Kim in a trouser role) left showbiz, made a killing in technology, and returns to engulf and devour. This could be an Inside Baseball smirk at the always beleaguered Los Angeles theatre community or just a point of departure for wacky hijinks and tragicomic mayhem – viewer’s choice.

The fourth wall in obliterated as soon as the audience filters in – these clowns can and will work with human props. Those who can roll with good-natured fun should come early and sit in the front rows. The premise is a show-within-a-show as the Halfwits strut their stuff against bad odds. A sturdy German brother and sister act (Jennifer Carroll, Dave Honigman) tumble, an operatic puppeteer (Charlotte Chanler) and her foil capably toss orff ‘O Fortuna’. Dissatisified with the slow progress of sabotage, McCoy and his henchmen (Tyler Bremer, Jamarr Love) resort to kidnapping the troupe including the stiltwalker (Hélène Udy), an unseen knife thrower, and even induce the burlesque dancer (Franta) to switch sides. Ego-driven Arbuckle resolves to finish the show himself with some help from his trusty, cuter-than-most-buttons sidekick Nimrod (Elizabeth Godley). Suffice it to say, things get dark shortly thereafter with an entirely unexpected character (Julia Davis) popping up to save what’s left of the day. Wayne Holland’s understated piano accompaniment neatly frames the carnage smartly lit and costumed by Donny Jackson and Elena Flores.

The Four Clowns formed in 2010 to perform at this same Festival and have since put down roots. They have a core company, tour nationally and internationally, and have assiduously cultivated an audience. It’s a large cast with a capable production team of designers and choreographers standing out among a large number of solo and small-cast shows. Director David Anis pushes the physically risky stuff as far as he responsibly can within the load-in, rehearsal, and strike times associated with shared spaces. The whole affair is reminiscent of the classic Jack Benny radio programs especially those where he feuds with Fred Allen. A sympathetic studio audience is essential in those cases to spackle over minor flubs and timing glitches.  A packed house at the Lillian Theatre ate it up vigorously.

‘Last Hurrah’ is theatrical dessert that wisely doesn’t push a premise beyond its limits. In so doing, it simultaneously whets the appetite for productions of broader scope, length, and complexity from this group. The late, lamented Edge of the World Theatre Festival allowed such risk taking in the past and it appears the Hollywood Fringe is carrying on that good work. Physical theatre has a strong tradition in Los Angeles with resident and touring companies alike setting a high standard for movement, commedia, maskwork, and dance. We can look forward to seeing how The Four Clowns takes a place at this table.

‘The Halfwits’ Last Hurrah’
The Four Clowns Company at The Hollywood Fringe Festival
Thurs. 6/4 at 8:30pm
Sat. 6/13 at 10:30pm
Thurs. 6/18 at 7pm
Sat. 6/20 at 11:55pm
Tues. 6/23 at 8:30pm
Fri. 6/26 at 10:30pm
at The Lillian Theatre
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Thrown together – Tadeusz at ESMoA

Image courtesy El Segundo Museum of Art

Not all collaborations are created equal. Some time ago, the jewel-box art museum in El Segundo teamed with the Getty and noted graffiti artists to compare and contrast ostensibly street art with medieval illuminated manuscripts. ‘Scratch’ was an audacious reach across centuries, comprehensive in its choices, and convincing thanks to its subtle yet driving focus on context.

‘Studio,’ ESMoA’s just-opened collaboration with LACMA suffers greatly in comparison. It’s a retrospective of the late Norbert Tadeusz (1940-2011) with twenty-seven paintings from moderate to large adorning the walls and leaving a lot of whitespace for all that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the art but nothing especially right about it, either.  All fall short of the promised monumental scale. Tadeusz seemed to like bold colors, moderate perspective, gymnastics, and cats. The works on offer are all about his studio, hence the title. A couple almost pull you in. Almost.

The website says he was important(tm) and that he studied and associated with other important(tm) people. It might even be true but the evidence and context woven so well together in ‘Scratch’ is startlingly absent here. Captions are limited to a webpage per piece with a thumbnail, size and material data, and ‘Q&ART’ a question designed to solicit comments.  The viewer can see these on two iPads or on his or her smartphone at  Even a linked Wikipedia article on the artist is in German.  Asking audiences to engage with the art is fine but it doesn’t relieve the gallery of its obligations in the matter.

The catalog has an unconvincing introduction from LACMA’s unremarkable Michael Govan and mostly shows photographs of the artworks with a few other images and an interview with Tadeusz’s wife. Whitespace again rules the day. It’s as if ESMoA had to meet its opening date and did what it could with time and money available. The artist deserves better.

Experience 17: STUDIO – June 7 until September 27, 2015
208 Main Street
El Segundo, CA 90245
Phone: 424 277 1020

Fri – 10am-5pm
Sat – 10am-5pm
Sun – 10am-5pm
Mon – Thur – appt. only


Water flowing underground – Subsidence in the Golden State

Into the blue again
After the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime
Water flowing underground
— The Talking Heads

Dr. Joseph Poland demonstrating Land Subsidence in the United States, USGS USGS Fact Sheet-165-00. Credit: United States Geological Survey

My late father was a groundwater hydrologist. He started his career in India, traveling to remote villages to study water, wells, and the lives they helped sustain. My mother and I often went with him.   I was far too small to remember it but, there are photographs. We came to the United States in 1970 so he could get his Ph.D. at Berkeley, which he did in 1975. He continued his work on the flow of water in groundwater systems at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and eventually ended his career back at Cal as a faculty member.

Our home always had the sounds of Dad and his colleagues talking about fluid flow in porous rocks, aquifers, and the impacts of man on both. When energy becomes tight, people look under the earth for geothermal power and agriculture has always relied on cheap, subsidized subsurface water for crops.  This all comes at a price. Take fluid out of the ground and the ground sinks. This is land subsidence, it is a problem, and it is getting worse. The hydrologic cycle is one of the marvels of the world that few think about. Evaporation, transport, condensation, rain. The only way to recharge the groundwater stores is to let this cycle happen and unfortunately, we aren’t. Part of it is the drought, influenced by many complicated factors in which we humans play a part. Part of it is development and a lot of it is rampant use with flagrant disregard for the future.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has paid attention and issued this warning: California is Sinking and it is Getting Worse
It is a concise and factual account that deserves a wide audience. The photo of Dr. Joseph Poland in that article and shown here demonstrates the effects of 50 years of 20th Century pumping in the San Joaquin Valley.  I’ve known this picture since childhood. Dad had a copy of it and would discuss it readily with anyone who was interested. The two of them were colleagues and friends; my father thought the world of Joe Poland and his contributions. In the last few years of his life, my father attempted to generate broader interest in the social implications of water. He organized courses, interdisciplinary symposia, and was at work on a monograph on water as a fundamental human right to be stewarded by people of good conscience in the public interest.   Dad assumed such people existed and that such ideals could be achieved.  The eternal optimist had a cynic for a son.  I agreed with his hopes but believed and still do believe that the darker forces will first make a market of this right and then set about cornering it.

Dad’s book was designed to educate the people of India where this access is under some threat but was actually a broader statement. Sadly, he was felled by the effects of lymphoma before he could complete it.   But, even on that very last day on this earth,  his laptop was with him in Stanford Hospital and he was work on it.   I have the files on my computer and perhaps someday I should undertake to try and have them completed.

Thanks to Kevin Roderick and LA Observed for the tip to the CIR article.