Outside in Topanga and Griffith Park, inside in 'Luka's Room'

Mockingbird-theatricum.jpgTo Kill a Mockingbird outdoors in Topanga Canyon.

Alfresco theater is one of the best features of an LA summer, yet the big LA media usually ignore it. Charles McNulty, the LA Times theater critic for nearly a decade, wrote an essay last week about ensemble acting in three of LA's tiny indoor stages, but he has never written a word (according to a search of the LA Times database) about the ensemble acting or anything else at the two companies - Theatricum Botanicum and Independent Shakespeare — that consistently produce on Actors' Equity contracts in LA's considerably larger outdoor venues, for much larger audiences.

The Theatricum in Topanga Canyon is having an especially strong and wide-ranging season. It produces within the best alfresco theater venue in LA County (at least among those that are used regularly). The stage is wide and deep and easily extends into the surrounding arroyo landscape - even at night, with the assistance of lighting. Yet because the seats are relatively close to the stage and sharply raked in order to create unobstructed sight lines, the artists can take advantage of small subtleties as well as breadth and depth.

As usual, the Theatricum is offering LA's most prodigious displays of actors who appear in several concurrent productions. Melora Marshall is in four of this summer's Theatricum productions. Willow Geer appears in three. The two of them jointly directed the season's only other production, the annual "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which neither of them is in.

That these two women are part of the Geer family that founded the institution (Marshall is a sibling and Geer a child of Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer) normally shouldn't matter much to the theatergoer. Each of them has demonstrated an ability to thrive in an enormous variety of roles. One of the attractive features of a rep company is the chance to watch actors frequently over the years, as they take on those disparate challenges.

My favorite Theatricum production this year features a cast that includes not only Marshall and Willow Geer but also Ellen Geer herself and her daughter-in-law Abby Craden. In Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County", Ellen Geer plays the matriarch who has a younger sister (Marshall), and three daughters (Susan Angelo, Craden and Willow Geer). The familial relationships of the actors probably add extra depth to their fictional characterizations - but even if none of these women were related to any of the others, they have worked together for so long that their ensemble playing has an air of complete assurance.

ausuat-sage-geers.jpgEllen Geer as the matriarch with her daughters in August: Osage County.

I have to single out three of them in particular. Ellen Geer is astonishing. Theatricum veteran Angelo isn't a Geer family member, but she formidably, magnificently assumes command of the fictional family when the situation requires it. And Craden, who usually plays brazen and glamorous women, is reined in and almost unrecognizable in the role of the wallflower sister. Although this play is primarily about the women, the men in the cast are just as accomplished.

This round of "August" is much better than the production that played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009 (I've steered clear of the film version). This is attributable not only to the quality of the ensemble playing, overseen by director Mary Duprey, but also to the venue's combination of intimacy and expanse. I had anticipated that the production might lack the sense of mounting claustrophobia that an indoors production of this funny but extremely long play would offer, but the fact that all performances of it begin at 7:30 pm, amid encroaching darkness, encourages that essential long-day's-journey-into-night feeling.

"August" makes a perfect thematic counterpoint to "Green Grow the Lilacs," also part of the Theatricum repertory this season. Lynn Riggs' play from 1930, better known as the source material for "Oklahoma!" than for its own modest charms, is set very close to where "August: Osage County" takes place, although the two stories are separated by a century. "Lilacs" isn't quite as optimistic as "Oklahoma!"; the ending feels curiously unresolved. But when it's compared to "August," which is replete with disillusionment, "Lilacs" could almost pass as the winner of an Optimist Club contest for a play celebrating positive thinking.

Do we miss the score of "Oklahoma!"? Well, yes, somewhat. But this "Lilacs," staged by Ellen Geer, is dotted with interludes of traditional tunes that are much plainer but also more authentic to the time and place than the sweeping Broadway numbers by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Audience singalongs are encouraged. Anyone who has ever appreciated "Oklahoma!" should grab this rare opportunity to see its precursor.

The Theatricum, in its rustic locale which is outside not only the urban centers of LA but also the village of Topanga itself, is ideal for rural or small-town plays. "Lilacs" is a rural play, while "To Kill a Mockingbird" - also on this year's schedule, also directed by Geer — is a small-town play, and it feels much more natural in this venue than it has in the last couple of urban or suburban theaters where I've seen it. What are the chances that you'll hear actual birdsong - mockingbird or otherwise — in an indoor theater? And the play's invasions of a mad dog and the Klan are staged much more convincingly at the Theatricum than they could be in a 99-seat black box or La Mirada Theatre.

Likewise, "As You Like It" fits effortlessly into the Theatricum. After all, Shakespeare's comedy is about a forced retreat into the forest, leaving behind the chaotic court. Ellen Geer's staging is flawlessly cast and paced — if you can overlook her undercooked adaptation of the play to the post-Civil War period in the United States.

In this production's concept, Shakespeare's bad-guy usurping brother becomes a former Union general, while his good-guy brother who fled to the woods was a Confederate. But apparently the ex-Confederate encampment has been converted to colorblindness — as if the war had been simply a fraternal spat, without any racial issues.

One of the minor romantic couples in the woods is made up of an African-American woman and a white man, but no one seems to notice, and an African-American Touchstone has no problem making friends among the ex-Confederates. On the other hand, the old male servant Adam who accompanies Rosalind and Celia from the court into the woods, has been transformed into a not-so-old female African-American servant whose unfortunate costume looks a little too much like a Mammy/Aunt Jemima stereotype.

In a season in which even South Carolina has taken down the Confederate flag, the theoretical framework of this production — with its strange combination of sympathetic rebels, dastardly Unionists and uncertainty over whether we're supposed to acknowledge race — feels confused and becomes confusing. Fortunately, the rest of the production is good enough that the framework isn't that difficult to ignore.

much-ado-griffith-park.jpgMeanwhile, at Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company is currently offering a "Much Ado About Nothing" that's set in another postwar period — 1945, in the original Shakespearean locale of Messina, Sicily. Because the soldiers in this play have just survived a victorious campaign, I'm assuming that they were fighting for the good guys who won — the Allies — against Mussolini and Hitler, perhaps as part of the Italian resistance forces.

But director Jeffrey Wienckowski doesn't try to spell out their wartime roles in any obvious or specific way. He uses the time and place primarily in the musical scoring and the costumes, stopping short of the more ambitious conceptualizing that leads to confusion in the Topanga "As You Like It." Of course these good guys aren't entirely good — the villainous Don John is still making trouble, but actor William Elsman creates more fun from the role than most of the other Don Johns I've seen.

The production's most creative fun, however, is in its forays into the audience. ISC relies on these expeditions in order to make its relatively vast crowds — many of whom are no doubt attracted by the lack of a ticket price — feel connected as well as amused. The audience comes in especially handy in the matching scenes in which Beatrice (Melissa Chalsma) and Benedick (David Melville) eavesdrop on conversations about themselves.

Kudos also to ISC for acknowledging that Geffen Playhouse is about to present "These Paper Bullets!," a modern adaptation of "Much Ado." ISC arranged for a pre-show session in Griffith Park on August 2 in which "Bullets!" playwright Rolin Jones and the Geffen's Amy Levinson were invited to discuss their production in front of a "Much Ado"-oriented audience. This is an example of the kind of cooperation between companies that helps make the sprawling LA theater scene more cohesive.

ISC's "Romeo and Juliet," which already ended its primary run, has added three performances in early September, and I recommend it in part because its contemporary-sounding band The Lively Helenas charges the production and its many segues with yes, lively music. Also, Andre Martin's Mercutio demonstrates magnetism worthy of a rock star.

I also saw another alfresco "Romeo and Juliet" recently, Shakespeare Orange County's in Garden Grove. It was part of an ambitious effort by the SOC team to acknowledge the fact that the Garden Grove population is now more Asian-American (mostly with Vietnamese roots) and Latino (mostly with Mexican roots) than Anglo. But directors Mike Peebler and John Walcutt (who's also the artistic director) didn't limit themselves to any particular ethnicities or line them up on rigid sides of the play's central feud. Instead they mixed a multiculti salad.

Romeo was from a Korean family although he was played by the dashing Ramon de Ocampo, a Filipino-American; Juliet was from a Latino family although she was played by the impulsive Nikki SooHoo, a Chinese-American. English was occasionally supplemented by other languages. Relampago del Cielo, an OC-based Mexican folkloric group, provided choreographic interludes, one of which foreshadowed the tragic ending, but hiphop also permeated the production from time to time. Bo Foxworth (an Antaeus regular, as is de Ocampo), played Mercutio. The sheer size of the cast, which included students from Orange County School of the Arts, was staggering, and the street-fighting scenes assumed rather alarming proportions. Although there was an element of spectacle at the expense of the play, the play survived well enough. And compared to a traditional production, it must have felt much closer to home for young Garden Grovers of many backgrounds.


STRIPTEASE surely involves thinking as well as stripping. A stripper has to figure out what to reveal, and when.

Ditto with playwrights and theater critics. The creator of a play has to decide when to unveil the plot's most revelatory surprises. And especially if those surprises are the best feature of the play, a critic must know how to acknowledge them without spoiling them for those who would rather discover them in the theater.

The fascinating "Luka's Room," at Rogue Machine, brings all of this to mind — and not only because late-arriving narrative developments lift it into another dimension. "Luka's Room" also includes an impromptu striptease scene, as well as another scene in which nudity suddenly appears for more serious reasons, entirely unrelated to any stripteasing intent.

lukas-room.jpgRob Mersola's play is much more provocative than it appears to be at first glance. Initially it seems to be playing a familiar comic riff. When a 19-year-old (Nick Marini) moves in with his old-school grandmother (Joanna Lipari), he soon discovers that his black-sheep uncle (Alex Fernandez) is a fellow housemate in the old woman's apartment. Cue the multi-generational conflicts.

But a program note from Rogue Machine artistic director John Flynn suggests that something else will happen in the play. "What happens when nothing can be kept private?" he asks, followed by remarks that imply that he's thinking about the 21st-century online world. Only deep into the play do we realize the full extent of what he means.

I can't be much more explicit than Flynn is, without giving away too much. But I can offer a hint, for those who know their Pinter plays — I'd like to see a rep company produce "Luka's Room" in conjunction with Pinter's "The Homecoming."

It isn't difficult for an intrepid LA theatergoer to see both of these plays right now. "The Homecoming" happens to be playing in a sterling revival at Pacific Resident Theatre, at least through August 30. And here is the kicker — the director of this "Homecoming" is "Guillermo Cienfuegos," which is the directorial pseudonym of the actor Alex Fernandez. Yes, PRT's "Homecoming" was staged by the actor who's also playing the cheerfully shady uncle in "Luka's Room."

I'd like to hear Fernandez discuss the remarkable resonances between the two plays. Perhaps he'll do it in a talkback after a "Luka's" performance. But chances are he wouldn't want to do it in a format that could be read by anyone who hasn't seen "Luka's", because then he would have to talk more precisely about what happens in the "Luka's" story.

Actually, if I were able to conjure up productions by command, I'd place "Luka's Room" in one of the many theaters in NoHo, which is the general area where it's set, judging from a couple of references in the script. Luka supposedly attends Valley College, so perhaps that institution's theater department might also be interested in doing a production. While Mersola deserves kudos for writing a sharp comedy set in contemporary LA, staging it in the vicinity of where it's set would add an extra fillip for those of us who know the neighborhood.

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