Back to 'Eden' and cross-dressing in the 'Cloud'

children-of-eden-shirley.jpgEve, Cain, Abel and Adam in 'Children of Eden.'

On March 21, Cabrillo Music Theatre announced that it was closing, after 22 years as the resident theater company in the 1800-seat Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza - a complex that also includes the city hall. Escalating costs, declining grant income and ticket sales and "unmet commitments by the Civic Arts Plaza box office" were cited as reasons.

An editorial in the Ventura County Star predicted trouble for Thousand Oaks. It noted that a 2007 study demonstrated that for every dollar spent at the Arts Plaza box office or on rent for theater space (by other groups as well as Cabrillo), $8.15 was generated for the local economy. The editorial also cited Cabrillo's report that it donated more than 40,000 free tickets over the years, to disadvantaged children, seniors and military personnel.

"Now is the time for the Deus Ex Machina," wrote LA-based actress Linda Kerns in a letter to the Ventura newspaper, referring to the divine provider of happy endings in classical drama.

By April 6, Deus -- in the form of local donors - had intervened. The company announced that it will continue with its 2016-17 season, minus one of the four previously announced shows. Cabrillo's board chairman told the Star that the anonymous donations would also cover the following season.

This offstage drama happened to coincide with preparations for a remarkable onstage drama, "Children of Eden," produced by Cabrillo at the Kavli. Opening last weekend and running only through today, it ought to have attracted musical-theater fans from far outside the boundaries of Thousand Oaks.

I confess that I haven't seen many Cabrillo shows over the years, because the company usually seems to be producing a musical that I've recently seen elsewhere. But I couldn't say that about "Children of Eden." I had seen it only once, in a 1999 production by Fullerton Civic Light Opera. I missed a 2000 rendition in Long Beach, which was apparently my only chance to see a professional production of it in Los Angeles County.

The "Children of Eden" composer, Stephen Schwartz, has been quoted ranking it as his personal best. This is the same man who wrote such musicals as the wickedly popular "Wicked" and the regularly revived "Godspell" and "Pippin." He received Oscars for his contributions to "Pocahontas" and "The Prince of Egypt."

The text is drawn from what is probably the most widely read book in the world (no offense to "The Art of the Deal"). Specifically, act one is about Adam and Eve, and act two is about Noah and the flood. The stories were adapted by John Caird, whose resume also includes "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables."

Yet "Children of Eden" has never been produced on Broadway. It has never appeared under professional auspices within the city of Los Angeles. Why don't we see it more frequently?

Two reasons usually pop up. The critical reception to a London run in 1991 frightened Broadway investors. And "Children of Eden" requires an enormous cast, which would probably become prohibitively expensive in long runs with full union contracts.

The sheer number of people on the stage for the first scene of "Children of Eden," dressed in Biblical garb, gives it the look of a religious pageant. However, as soon as the snake arrives in the Garden of Eden, asking Eve some reasonable questions, "Children of Eden" quickly turns into a more humanist drama.

God is identified as "Father," and the unifying theme is the inherent conflict between parents and their independence-minded children. Schwartz and Caird depict a world in which Father gradually retreats, as parents must learn to do in order for each new generation to solve its own problems.

Schwartz's score is eclectic and, often, emotionally electric. Despite the scale of Lewis Wilkenfeld's staging, the lyrics are usually clear (sound design by Jonathan Burke). Noelle Claire Raffy's fanciful animal costumes for the creation and Noah's ark scenes (choreography by Michelle Elkin) help vary the visual palette.

The vast cast is led by the powerhouse performances of Norman Large as Father and Misty Cotton as Eve and Noah's wife. She plays the more inquisitive partner in her marriage(s), so Kevin McMahon's more passive takes on Adam and Noah are appropriate in this context - but don't expect him to age to the extent that Biblical literalists might prefer.

It's certainly fitting for Cabrillo right now that "Children of Eden" ultimately emphasizes the unimportance of deus ex machinas. As some of the wealthier citizens of Thousand Oaks have demonstrated, sometimes you have to support your community, without relying on help from above.

Quick-change artists

After three weeks away from LA last month, I returned to what seemed like a cross-dressing festival in LA's theaters. Men dressed as women or women as men in all of the following:

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at the Ahmanson. "Casa Valentina" at Pasadena Playhouse. "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" at the Kirk Douglas. "La Olla" at LATC. "The Real Housewives of Toluca Lake" at the Falcon. "Cloud 9" at Antaeus. "Kinky Boots" at the Pantages. I might have overlooked some other obvious examples; I'm still catching up with what I missed during my absence.

cloud-9-Geoffrey-Wade-Photography.jpgOf all of these, by far the most satisfying production is Casey Stangl's revival of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9," which is playing in NoHo through April 24, with two different casts and some performances in which members of both casts appear.

I had forgotten the sheer structural audacity of this play's two acts, the first of which is set among the ruling Brits in colonial Africa "in Victorian times," followed by a second act set in 1979 London. Some of the characters appear in both acts (albeit in the form of different actors). This concept is facilitated by Churchill's conceit that the second act in London defies real time and takes place only 25 years after the first act in Africa. This is explained in one of the most important "time and place" notices ever printed in a program. Each cast member pays two or three roles in the span of the play.

If all of that that sounds complicated, rest assured that the results are remarkably coherent. Churchill uses farce and satire to examine the evolution of seemingly arbitrary gender roles and sexual orientation issues over the decades. Some of the biggest laughs, as well as some of the most piercing insights, come from the cross-dressed roles. The play rivals Shakespeare's comedies in its ability to use cross-dressing for such a wide spectrum of results.

Harvey Fierstein's "Casa Valentina," which closed recently at Pasadena Playhouse, is much more explicitly about cross-dressing than any of the other productions listed above. It's set in a resort for male heterosexual cross-dressers in the Catskills in 1962. But I didn't understand its ostensibly realistic characters nearly as well as I understood Churchill's creations, even though the "Cloud 9" characters walk along the edge of caricature.

Considering my interest in observing LA-set plays, I should note that Molly Bell's musical, "The Real Housewives of Toluca Lake" (through May 1), is all about caricature, and hardly at all about Toluca Lake. The references to Toluca Lake are so negligible that they can, and will, easily be altered to fit almost any other affluent neighborhood where the play might be produced (the place name in the title also has a fill-in-the-blank flexibility).

These "Housewives" are trapped in stereotyped straitjackets, which is supposed to be parody (of the TV franchise) but comes off as overkill. In stark contrast, the one man in the "Toluca Lake" cast, Marc Ginsburg, at least gets to briefly play several caricatures instead of just one, and he almost walks away with the play as a result.

Evelina Fernandez's "La Olla" (through April 24) also deals in stereotypes, but perhaps I should say archetypes, since the play is based on a Roman farce by Plautus. Although ostensibly set in an LA nightclub, the local sensibility of "La Olla" - like that in "Housewives of Toluca Lake" -- has a tepidly token quality. Fernandez frames the play with a noir-inspired opening that appears to refer back to her much more successful "Premeditation," but noir doesn't blend all that well with the play's dominant commedia atmosphere. Still, the actors make momentary mirth out of many of the play's hectic comings and goings.

Lower photo from "Cloud 9" by Geoffrey Wade Photography.

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