Tag Archives: theatre

Caveat Lector: “Anna in the Tropics” at Open Fist

On the surface Nilo Cruz resets Tolstoy in 1920s Tampa where workers in a family-run cigar factory explore life, love, and everything with the man brought in to read to them during their rolling sessions.   Director Jon Lawrence Rivera marshals a fine cast complemented by Open Fist’s traditionally strong stagecraft but the Pulitzer winning script disappoints with a bang.  The women we see, two sisters, their mother, and a silent factotum are taken metaphorically by both the Lector and ‘Anna Karenina,’ his choice of reading material.  The men are unsurprisingly less so.   As the action unfolds, one of the sisters is taken quite literally by yon Lector  while her equally unfaithful husband stews and belatedly asks for tips on how to rock her like a hurricane.   The aspiring half-brother of the factory owner, having lost his own wife to another Lector, isn’t any happier with this one’s presence.   It all strives to be dreamy, lyrical, mysterious, philosophical, and evocative but just plods along steadily and soapily and ends dangling in the air – one might say like a languid coruscating puff of bluish-white cigar smoke in the fading sunlight.  For it is that kind of play.  It may make sense to fans of the book.  Others beware.

Despite all the overt references to Tolstoy all the Moscow-longing, the clash between modernism and tradition, the general inertia of the characters, and a last-act gun suggest an homage to theatre’s favorite (albeit overblown, overpraised, and overdone) Russian.

Anna in the Tropics
by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for the Open Fist Theatre Company

Running through 8 June 2019 at:
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90039
(FREE parking in the Atwater Xing lot one block south of the theater)

Performances on selected Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm
See the website for performance dates and prices

Online ticketing: Open Fist’s secure site

Calling out Ritchie Rich: Robert Hooks exposes the scam

It’s always good when degreaser is sprayed on oily charlatans.  Emphases added:

Q: Is there a great theater company specifically for African American actors, like Alvin Ailey is for dancers?

A: The closest thing to a black theater company that is able to survive and sustain itself is the St. Louis Black Rep. And theater companies — let’s just take Los Angeles, for example — the Los Angeles Music Center downtown and Mark Taper Forum and all the people that run those companies are getting the grants from the foundations I couldn’t get because they did one black play in their season. The black theater producers, the people who are in the community need the grants, and they can’t get them because the established theaters downtown are taking advantage of those grants.

Robert Hooks; Washington Post 26 October 2018

WYSIWYG: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ at A Noise Within

“What’s it about?”
“It’s about to make me very rich”
— attr. Tom Stoppard to a friend’s question about ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

Mortality, predestination, and free-will are beloved literary fodder.  Tom Stoppard‘s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead‘ has for some reason been held up for fifty years as an exemplar of how to bring all those themes to the stage and is a surefire draw at midsized theatres.   It is the kind of work that audiences seek when they want to be challenged and Stoppard accomplishes that in spades.  Clocking in at nearly three hours, he constantly tests their attention, patience, and good will.  One hopes that a live performance by a reputable, classically-trained ensemble can bring some structure and coherence to a dense, difficult, often self-indulgent script.  A Noise Within’s current staging stays true to the text but regrettably offers little beyond it.

R&G may have been a refreshing hipper, youthful, comedic antidote to Beckett in the mid-1960s but time has taken its toll.  The tale told by and through two idiots is frustratingly digressive and the once-fresh ploys and devices now commonplace.  The protagonists –  bewildered by probability, abused by nobility, and manipulated by artists – are irreversibly yoked to fate.   Fragments of the play-surrounding-the-play take place between lengthy philosophizing and repeated doses of forced humor containing mostly empty calories.

Stoppard perhaps intentionally left it all open to interpretation with all the smugness that only the modern artist can muster.  Director Geoff Elliott estimates he has read the play over thirty times, finding ever-deeper undercurrents of the human experience each time.  This is highly encouraging since there is ample room for directorial opinion.  Unfortunately, that license is lacking in this faithful and respectful production.   Rafael Goldstein’s contemplative Guildenstern fares far better than Kasey Mahaffey’s nitwit Rosencrantz.   What’s frustrating are the tantalizing glimpses of a through line, some sign of a trail through the dense overgrowth of insufferable look-at-me cleverness that infests so much of Stoppard.  This is solely thanks to Wesley Mann’s virtuoso turn as The Player, an apt name that has taken on different connotations in the intervening decades.   Mann imbues the pivotal role with subtle, growing menace masked by a thinning veneer of humor.   This hangdog Charon knows more and is capable of far more than he lets on  – he is Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, Bulgakov’s Mysterious Traveler, the link among the many worlds within the play and the world outside watching it.   Sadly, no sooner does momentum and interest build than the character goes off stage for a while, taking the energy with him.

The production is typically handsome in the ANW house style with stronger leads than the wan 2016 ‘Arcadia’ which, for all that, has aged somewhat better as a play.  The words are all there, the stage directions are followed, everyone yells, sulks, rails, and brawls with precision and Opening night was technically flawless.   Stoppard is about as far from an idiot as one can get but all this sound and fury may not, in fact, signify anything.

[Note: Minor rewordings made on 15 October 2018]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Geoff Elliott
in repertory through 18 November 2018

A Noise Within Theatre
3352 E. Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets available online
or through the Box Office: (626)356-3100

Shaw on the golden rule

This little bit of truth is left out of the couple of professional adaptations and the 1941 Gabriel Pascal film of ‘Major Barbara’ available in the usual online sources. Having despaired of Youtube, Vimeo, and even Dailymotion, the answer was close to home.  LA Theatre Works‘s 2007 adaptation, recorded live at the Skirball, keeps it and it flies.  Upper class twit Stephen Undershaft (Hamish Linklater) attempts to lecture his plutocrat arms-maker father Andrew (Roger Rees) and gets dropkicked in the yodelay-he-hos for his troubles.  Dakin Matthews‘s production is available at prx.org .  Click on the image to open a new tab and listen at the site (the media player cannot be embedded here).  Hop to  1 hr 06 min and 30 seconds by clicking within the wave pattern.  Or, listen to the whole thing why not?

LA Theatre Works’s Production of “Major Barbara” via PRX.  Click the image to listen at prx.org

Of course, GBS, were he alive, would probably approve of 45.

STEPHEN [springing up again] I am sorry, sir, that you force me to forget the respect due to you as my father. I am an Englishman; and I will not hear the Government of my country insulted. [He thrusts his hands in his pockets, and walks angrily across to the window].

UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! _I_ am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus.Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays US. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn’t. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. _I_ am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune.

— Shaw, Major Barbara (Act III, Scene I)

(Minor update to the audio file timestamp on 5/25/22)

Lyrical Gangsta: Nature on Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire

Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre.
Lehrer agrees with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (one of the builders of the atomic bomb) that rhyming “forces novel associations … and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”. As he told me in 2008: “If ‘von Braun’ didn’t happen to rhyme with ‘down’ (and a few other words), the most quoted couplet in the song would not exist, and in all probability the song itself would not have been written.”

Closer to home, Nancy Keystone‘s ‘Apollo’ trilogy cast sharp, cynical, brilliant eyes on whitewashing Nazi rocket scientists into America’s space program.

Vimeo Channel: Nancy Keystone

 

Expectation Values: ‘St. Joan’ at The Broad Stage

Taken by itself,  Bedlam’s production of Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ was well-performed and well-received.  Four performers gave it their all and the audience acknowledged them enthusiastically at the end of the three hour evening.  Unfortunately it suffers when compared to director Eric Tucker’s 2005 effort in the SFV.   Fallible memory is part of the problem.  It is too easy to add details to an enjoyable evening – details that creep into memory even though they may not have occurred.  At more pressing issue is the misfit between the production’s ambitions and the venue.  The Broad Stage seats 499 in relative comfort, a far cry from the tiny warehouse off of Vineland with bleacher seating moved in-show by the cast.  The conventional proscenium stage dilutes the impact of the performances with every passing row.  Those of us who selected the “on stage” option were seated in the back of the hall for the first and third acts and brought on stage only for the second.   The website stated that the audience would be onstage for one or two acts, not being clear which production (‘Hamlet’ runs in rep) would have which.

The 2005 production had Tucker, David Neher, and Eloise Ayala performing the twenty-plus non-Joan roles to better effect than the three performers who divided the tasks here, playing from the aisles and seats as the show progressed – common festival approach that feels oddly out-of-place indoors.  It is hard to see subtle character shifts from a long distance and the uneven accent work didn’t help matters.    The second act allowed those onstage to see and hear up close the back-room dealings and intrigue that make so much of this play.  There is something about the maid, though. Aundria Brown is a compelling Joan, elevating the production whenever she’s on.  We get Shaw didactic, Shaw political, Shaw polemical, Shaw militant, and Shaw comical in spades.  The payoff is when imprisoned, tortured, and bullied Joan recants her confession in a marvelous third act speech preferring death to  dungeon life away from her land, her animals, and her soldiers.  For this seldom seen Shaw pastoral (‘Village Wooing’ being a notable exception), we are again in the back of beyond with the impact correspondingly blunted.  It would have made more sense to have the audience on stage for this than the courtly intrigue although it would have required a major rethinking of the staging and stagecraft. This production does include the final dream sequence where the characters reassemble and wrap things up in a sweet epilogue.

It would have been nice to see the Bighead/Bedlam minimalist aesthetic continue in Los Angeles but no one can blame Tucker for heading back east.  Grapes may grow best in stony soil but arts organizations need more arable land.  This  ‘St. Joan’ ultimately has to compete against its younger, poorer, fearless, and reckless self.   It’s fighting a fond memory and there are few tougher opponents.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Bedlam in Santa Monica: Hamlet and St. Joan at The Broad Stage

7 April 2018 Update: Post-performance notes available here

Photo courtesy C. King Photography

It’s just bedlam, I tell ya… I don’t normally pay attention to Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage but their recent postcard was a grabber.  Eric Tucker and his Bedlam Theatre are bringing their minimalist Shakes and Shav to town as part of a national tour.  Before Bedlam, there was Bighead Theatricalities where Tucker’s kinetic stage sculptures played to very enthusiastic yet typically tiny LA audiences in a San Fernando Valley industrial park.  We few, the happy few, would not forget what we saw.

Fast forward a few years, Tucker is the toast of New York and returns to Southern California, albeit briefly, with a new cast but to all accounts the same approach.  No one can know whether the magic will strike again, whether a production for 4 patrons will scale to 499, or if it will blend as the young people say.   It could be fun to find out.  Details, including the Program Guide, are available at The Broad’s website where  Tucker’s bio says nothing about his LA stay and success – also sadly typical.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Shakes vs. Shav: So, beware already

It is no secret that G.B. Shaw thought very highly of himself, so much so that his last play was a ten minute Punch and Judy encounter between him and his perceived rival, Shakespeare, with Shaw coming out on top.

The Encyclopaedia Brittanica commissioned a three-part film series for schools where this rather bold claim was brought to life through the lens (ha!) of their respective embodiments of  Caesar.  Writer/director John Barnes allows Shaw (Donald Moffat) to narrate in the manner of a lengthy GBS preface and thereby gives him the advantage.   Richard Kiley and Suzanne Grossman are featured and the perfectly named Ernest Graves as Brutus lets Julius have it in the rotunda.

Cosma Shalizi
once described Stephen Wolfram’s ‘A New Kind of Science’ as “A rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity.” The same may or may not be true here.  On these the Ides of March, we can sit down calmly, rinse the blood off our togas, watch, listen, and judge for ourselves. Scroll down within each video window for more information on each.

Films courtesy of the Barnes Family, the Academic Film Archive, and The Internet Archive.

Shaw vs. Shakespeare I: The Character of Caesar

 

Shaw vs. Shakespeare II: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

 

Shaw vs. Shakespeare III: ‘Caesar and Cleopatra

Caliban at the Improv: ‘Underneath’ at The Odyssey

This show will be popular because a good chunk of the theatregoing public will fall for anything delivered in a British or Irish accent.  Delivered in anything else, this 95 minute slog of derivative, contrived, vapid one-man hamfistery with hokey audience participation would be savaged high and low as LA showcase theatre at its worst.    Check the theatre’s website for details if you’re in the mood for it or the other two productions in repertory from this unclean alliance between the Odyssey and Fishamble of Dublin.

Youtube Channel: The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel

Keep an Eye on It: Ordinary Objects at Son of Semele

Surrealism fanciers, especially those of René Magritte, will be interested in the eventual performance of ‘Ordinary Objects’ by Strings & Things Puppet Theatre – a work-in-progress recently closed at Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival.   Director Joyce Hutter and a small ensemble look at the painter’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the women in his life through his deep dreamlike world of bowler hats, bilboquets, and bottomless pupils.

Magritte continues to fascinate the lay person although few of us can explain why.  As an artist, Hutter is much farther along that road, letting various storytelling methods contend in workshop to see how best  to convey her message.  Movement, video, and some beguiling shadow puppetry alternate as the piece pokes at the modern psyche through the Belgian’s lens.  A remarkable connection between surrealism and film noir  and a recurring chess theme that simultaneously confuse and intrigue.    One hopes that these win out over some of the talkier Freudian bits.   The early look clocked in at a snappy forty five minutes but there’s promise here of a longer, richer evening.

Youtube Channel: Joyce Hutter