Meet Jane Doe...and '$5 Shakespeare'

HIS_0025.jpgAleisha Force, Richard Azurdia, Tarina Pouncy and Matt Kirkwood in 'Human Interest Story. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The daily Bulletin is changing its motto from "A free press means a free people" to "A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era."

Is this the latest symptom of the continuing economic collapse of American journalism? Then why does the motto still bother to include that antiquated word "newspaper"?

In fact, this change of a publication's motto appeared in 1941. It was graphically depicted in the first post-titles image of the movie "Meet John Doe," which was released then, back in the days when newspapers still appeared only on newsprint.

Stephen Sachs of the Fountain Theatre had the inspired idea of not only updating this film's script to 2020, but also expanding it to include a representative of Americans who were hardly visible in the original. In his "Human Interest Story" at the Fountain, "John Doe" is now "Jane Doe" -- a black woman who became homeless after she was laid off from her job as a teacher.

As in the original screenplay, this new "Doe" fills a gap in a yarn that was cooked up by a newspaper columnist -- in this version a man named Andy Kramer. As he's about to be laid off by the cost-cutters who now run his newspaper, he writes and runs a protest letter that's supposedly by the desperate "Doe" -- whose grand finale is a vow to kill herself on the Fourth of July. This letter creates a sensation about the fictitious woman's plight -- and it saves Andy Kramer's job. But he's then asked to find the real "Jane Doe."

Enter the destitute ex-teacher, whose name is Betty Frazier. She agrees to assume the identify of "Jane Doe," initially welcoming the upgrade from homelessness to hotels. Using words mostly written for her by Andy, she soon becomes a celebrity, appearing often on national TV.

The newspaper's new publisher sees Jane Doe primarily as a cash cow -- and then as a potential godsend for his own upcoming political campaign, which begins to draw on funds contributed by Doe disciples. But will Betty Frazier remain as peaceful as, well, a doe? Or will she begin to resent her role as the mouthpiece of two white men -- who can't stand each other?

In other words, Sachs enlarged the scope of the old Robert Riskin script beyond the corruption of journalism and the spectacle of economic inequality to include other red-hot topics: race, gender, homelessness, and a rich media mogul who plans to bulldoze and bully his way into political office via elaborate lies, rallies and stunts. Does any of this sound familiar?

It might sound like too much of a stew, but Sachs has cooked the ingredients into a bubbling boil. He avoided most opportunities to make the play LA-centric. The script is set in "an American city," with a variety of place names that aren't tied to any one metropolis. However, we hear references to the success of the LA Times "Dirty John" podcast and to the fictional city's homeless population of 36,000 -- which also is the number of homeless people identified as living last year within the city limits of Los Angeles.

Under Sachs' direction, Tanya Alexander is equally compelling as Betty and as Jane Doe. Andy is played by Rob Nagle, who delivers solid work in a different new play just about every three months, or so it seems. Aleisha Force plays a sharp-angled, not-so-romantic partner and professional colleague of Andy's. As the media mogul Harold Cain, James Harper channels Trump more than Bloomberg, but the character's name also suggests another newspaper mogul - the Citizen Kane whose own movie was also released in 1941, like the "Meet John Doe" original.

Finding an ending for this saga is a challenge. The filmmakers reportedly found and shot several before picking just one. The play's ending should be open to discussion, but only after you see it; otherwise we're in spoiler-land.

By the way, a stage musical based on the original "Meet John Doe" attained some respectful attention from critics in DC in 2007 and Chicago in 2011. Not having seen it, I don't know how its version of the story ends. LA producers should consider creating the musical's West Coast premiere. It would be fun to see how it might bounce off "Human Interest Story," so start your engines soon. "Meet John Doe" has a lot more contemporary bite than I would have imagined before I saw "Human Interest Story."

Another play that addresses the economic collapse of American journalism -- although without the larger dimensions of Sachs' play -- is Steven Leigh Morris' "Red Ink," about to close in the tiny Playwrights' Arena space in Atwater. Befitting the playwright's experience as a journalist at LA Weekly, "Red Ink" examines the arena of alternative newspapers that are taken over by larger corporations -- but from within the context of Bellevue Hospital, into which the newspaper's former editor has been committed. In other words, it explicitly takes place in New York, not in LA, which was a little disappointing to any of us LA observers who were hoping to witness a more direct connection to the LA Weekly saga.

Speaking of local references in the current crop of new plays, a title couldn't sound much more local than "West Adams," Penelope Lowder's new play. It's set against the backdrop of gentrification in the eponymous LA neighborhood -- although the production itself is at the Skylight, in long-gentrified Los Feliz. Yet as a broad satire that gradually evolves into over-the-top soap opera, "West Adams" seems oddly distant from any actual gentrification area. All the characters are among the neighborhood's new arrivals. No one represents the displaced, who would seem to be an essential component of a play that addresses gentrification.

A much tighter fit between a local subject and a local play occurs in Matthew Leavitt's "The $5 Shakespeare Company." In fact, let's call it site-specific. Its fictional story is set in a small Hollywood theater, backstage as well as onstage, and the production itself is in the pint-sized Theatre 68 in NoHo. The title of the play doubles as the name of the fictional troupe within the play; the $5 refers to the price of tickets to the fictional company's cheaply produced Shakespeare.

THE-$5-SHAKESPEARE-COMPANY---3.jpgEmerson Collins and Cindy Nguyen star in the "The $5 Shakespeare Company. Photo: Karianne Flaathen.

Although "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is that company's current attraction, we see only a few glimpses of it. The heart of the matter is in the backstage comings and goings of the cast, which occasionally approach "Noises Off" territory.

A rumor spreads among the backstage actors that the audience tonight includes a delegation from the city's parks department, which is scouting for a classical company to perform in "Summer of Shakespeare" -- a parks gig that has been vacated by the "Globe-Trotters," whose leader is moving to London. (Perhaps this was inspired by the real-life Independent Shakespeare Company, which performs free Shakespeare in Griffith Park. Its leaders include the British-born David Melville, although he isn't moving to London).

The "$5" actors go agog over the prospect of better pay, larger audiences and greater exposure to Hollywood casting directors. It's an amusing situation, enacted with considerable verve by veteran director Joel Zwick's cast. Those of us who frequently see or are involved in theater in, well, petite LA venues might laugh the loudest.

FYI, the tickets to the real-life "$5 Shakespeare Company" cost $35, not $5. The real-life actors are working under Actors' Equity's 50-Seat showcase code, which limits the number of performances but doesn't require even minimum-wage payments. However, they're receiving small stipends for rehearsals as well as performances, according to a spokesman for the production.

Leaving behind the pint-sized theaters, let's move on to LA's commercial theater business, which has shown a few signs of revival recently. The kingpin of this domain, the Nederlander company that runs the Pantages Theatre near the east end of the heavily visited section of Hollywood Boulevard, is expanding its empire for at least two seasons into the even larger Dolby Theatre, at the boulevard's opposite end, beginning this week with "Escape to Margaritaville."

This is happening as "Hamilton" returns to its previous Pantages home for much of this year, and also as the city has begun to discuss a possible plan to make the boulevard -- already well-served by Metro's Red Line subway -- more pedestrian-friendly and less amenable to solo cars.

Meanwhile, "Rock of Ages" -- the musical set in a Sunset Strip club in 1987 -- has returned to Hollywood Boulevard in an actual club, the Bourbon Room. It's not far from the Pantages, which presented other "Rock of Ages" companies in 2011 and 2012. The new "Rock" is also close to the three other club venues that hosted the musical's earliest incarnations in 2005 and 2006.

rock-of-ages-cast.jpg'Rock of Ages' cast.

Judging from my several experiences with "Rock," I noticed its refreshingly self-deprecating moments more often than usual in this new and apparently open-ended version. Its arrival roughly coincided with a two-weekend-only commercial run of Tom Eyen's campy "Women Behind Bars," a few blocks away at the Montalbán Theatre, which (under different names) once was a mainstay of LA's commercial theater scene.

Also, for one more weekend at El Portal in North Hollywood, another would-be for-profit producer is trying to revive a project, the newly titled "Hamlet the Rock Musical." This Cliff Jones musical, now produced by David Carver Music, had a long life in LA under a nonprofit banner at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA, with a much better title -- "Something's Rockin' in Denmark," beginning in 1981. That previous title (and also the title for the show's brief Broadway run, "Rockabye Hamlet") indicate a sense of humor that seems to be mostly missing from the current production, but the disco-era costumes might be funny enough for aficionados of the genre.

Most of the original Shakespearean text is also missing from "Hamlet the Rock Musical." Some of the disillusioned characters in "$5 Shakespeare Company," a few blocks away, would probably conclude that this omission might actually attract audiences, because Angelenos "don't care about Shakespeare." But the hordes who attend Independent Shakespeare's productions each summer in Griffith Park might disagree.

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