June 6, 2018

LA stories: 'Soft Power,' Bimini Baths

soft-power.jpgConrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in "Soft Power." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

For years I've taken pokes at Center Theatre Group for not producing enough plays that are set in its home town. So I can't let spring pass into summer without cheerfully acknowledging that during two weeks in May, two of CTG's three main stages were occupied by plays mostly set in or around the Los Angeles area: "Soft Power" at the Ahmanson Theatre and "Die, Mommie, Die!," a Celebration Theatre production that recently closed CTG's Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Part of "Soft Power," which plays through Sunday at the Ahmanson, is actually set at the Music Center, within a few steps of where its audiences are watching it.

Not that its subject is hyper-local. "Soft Power" is hyper-international. It's about the relationship between the decline of America's democracy and the rise of China's dictatorship. But if that description makes it sound like a think-piece for the LA Times op-ed page, think again.

Most op-ed pieces aren't nearly as funny as "Soft Power." This satirical "play with a musical" is the most audacious production that CTG has nurtured since Michael Ritchie took over CTG a dozen years ago.

It has received a formidable advertising campaign, by theater standards. But if you haven't seen "Soft Power," your sense of it might be a bit hazy, because its narrative is...complicated.

It begins in LA in 2016. DHH (Francis Jue), a Chinese-American character named after the show's own writer and lyricist David Henry Hwang, is meeting with Chinese film executive Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora). Xue is hoping to enlist DHH in the creation of scripts that might help China extend its "soft power" to more American as well as Chinese screens.

The two of them, plus Xue's American girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), attend a performance of "The King and I" at the Music Center. There, Xue encounters Hillary Clinton (also Louis), who's raising money in LA for her effort to win the presidency.

We all know how well that went. Soon after Clinton's surprising defeat in the presidential election, DHH is the victim of a knifing near his home in Brooklyn - an event that mirrors a real-life crime against Hwang that occurred in 2015. In the hospital and presumably under the influence of medication, DHH hallucinates a Chinese-made musical about Xue and Hillary Clinton.

The story of this hallucinated musical-within-the play reflects aspects of "The King and I," but it's told from a future Chinese perspective. In it, the Xue character encounters a stereotyped version of 2016 America but somehow begins a chaste romance with, yes, the Hillary Clinton character -- as Anna did with the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which is set in the 1860s.

Got that so far? The structure of "Soft Power" is so surprising and innovative that, as with the experience of seeing "Hamilton" for the first time, it helps to begin with a little advance knowledge.

Another way to prepare for the style and mood of "Soft Power" would be to watch the delightful two-part YOMYOMF production of Hwang's "Yellow Face" on YouTube, based on the Hwang play that premiered at CTG's Mark Taper Forum in 2007. While its focus is less about China and more about the representation of Asians and Asian-Americans in the theater, it shares with "Soft Power" a breezy, ironic style, a plot point involving "The King and I" and a character named DHH, after the playwright. Leigh Silverman, who directed the premiere of "Yellow Face" at the Taper, is also directing the premiere of "Soft Power" at the Ahmanson.

One thing that "Soft Power" has that "Yellow Face" lacks is a brilliantly eclectic original score by Jeanine Tesori, the composer who was most recently represented at the Music Center with "Fun Home" and whose first breakthrough (but lesser) musical "Violet" is currently in a revival by Actors Co-op in Hollywood.

Tesori's music provides Ricamora and Louis with potentially star-making moments, which they perform with a pizazz that seems destined for awards. But even apart from the leads, how could I resist a score that so pithily and wittily expresses my own frustration with that peculiar but increasingly powerful institution, the Electoral College?

LA on smaller stages

Los Angeles is also the setting of several non-musical plays currently playing in our small theaters. Of these, the most ambitious project is a trilogy by Tom Jacobson that was inspired by the history of the Bimini Baths, a hot-springs-based spa. From 1903 to 1951, it occupied a spot in what is now the northeast part of Koreatown, on 2nd Street just east of Vermont.

Three separate companies are simultaneously producing the trilogy's components. Son of Semele opened "Plunge" first, not far from the Bimini site. It was followed by Rogue Machine's production of "Mexican Day." Playwrights Arena is scheduled to open the third play, "Tar," on Saturday.

mexican-day-3.jpgJully Lee and Jonathan Medina in "Mexican Day." Photo by John Perrin Flynn.

"Mexican Day" is the better of the two plays that are already open. In 1948, the Japanese-American reporter and short-story writer Hisaye Yamamoto instigates a protest against Bimini's "Mexican Day" policy, which prohibited non-whites from entering the baths until the day just before the dirty water was cleaned.

Staged by Jeff Liu (who also happens to be the director of the YouTube version of "Yellow Face," mentioned above), the play is a lively account of how activists from different communities unite to fight a common foe. Jacobson added the character of the African-American and gay activist Bayard Rustin, who was active in such protests at the time, to the Bimini protest, although the playwright hasn't confirmed that Rustin was actually there.

The character of Everett Maxwell, who was the real-life founding curator of LA's Museum of History, Science and Art (the precursor of more than one of today's LA museums), appears in "Mexican Day" as a hesitant helper in the cause and, more than 30 years earlier, in "Plunge" as a man who loses his big museum job because he molested teenagers. It's one of two intertwining stories about men who molest teenagers in "Plunge." One of the victims, a Mexican-American kid fictitiously named Zenobio Remedios, appears in all three of the plays, at different ages, played by three different actors.

The problem with "Plunge" is that it becomes somewhat confusing, as two separate stories are combined, with all of the characters played by only two actors. In "Mexican Day," four actors play small roles in addition to their main characters, but the "Mexican Day" quartet maintains a sense of clarity.

For a small-theater play set in contemporary LA, I recommend "Forever Bound," by Steve Apostolina. It begins as a comedy set in the seldom-dramatized world of LA's struggling rare-book dealers. But then it transforms into something more serious, although its concerns are still related to the theme of people who love their books. The plot twist is too surprising for me to spoil. But director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky and Apostolina engender eye-opening suspense as well as laughs, with the help of a sensational cast -- French Stewart, Emily Goss and Rob Nagle as well as Apostolina himself. It's at Atwater Village Theatre.

Finally, a few words about "Bordertown Now," at Pasadena Playhouse. This Culture Clash collage is a somewhat updated version of a 20-year-old show based on interviews about border issues, newly staged by CTG's associate artistic director Diane Rodriguez. The three permanent members of Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza -- are joined by Sabina Zúñiga Varela, the actress who was so powerful in Luis Alfaro's "Mojada" at the Getty Villa. She adds a dash of welcome variety to the otherwise all-male trio.

"Bordertown Now" starts strong. But it gradually loses much of its momentum and power, as jokes and possibly obscure references outnumber and sometimes undermine fresh insights. On the spectrum of recent Culture Clash productions, it's better than "SAPO" at the Getty Villa but not as good as "Culture Clash: An American Odyssey" at LATC's Encuentro festival.

Parts of the "Bordertown Now" script refer to events from the past year. But other than a one-line reference to a quote from Jeff Sessions, there is no attempt to dramatize the currently tender topic of the government's new detention policy of separating children from their parents.

When Montoya plays the nearly 86-year-old ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. he looks and moves like Jon Stewart more than he looks like Arpaio. And his Arpaio doesn't even refer to the fact that since January he has been busily running for Jeff Flake's Arizona Senate seat against two Republican women -- unless you count a hasty "Arpaio for Congress!" line that appears to have been tacked on at the end of a scene.

The second word in the title "Bordertown Now" needs a little more attention.

June 3, 2018

A "Rigoletto" to revel in, plus Dudamel and Uchida

rigoletto-dp.jpgAmbrogio Maestri as Rigoletto and Adela Zaharia as Gilda in LA Opera's "Rigoletto." Photo: Karen Almond / LA Opera.

Just how many hats can an unencumbered contender wear? Ask Matthew Aucoin, for his answer.

This hot young composer/conductor who presides over LA Opera's "Rigoletto," and conducts his own opera, "Crossing," for the company's Off-Grand series of chamber works, boasts a whole rack of them.

But don't forget that the Harvard grad's mortarboard, along with a Juilliard tassle, is also a poet, an educator and has penned a passel of pieces that have landed him awards, high-powered posts and any number of commissions from A-circuit ensembles -- all by the age of 28.

Call him a wunderkind who fears no threshold. And, perhaps more important, is the fact that he can mesmerize, even "thrill," the heads of those very institutions that clamor for him, as well as some critics.

Or should we say: "Hats off, gentleman, a genius!" as Robert Schumann wrote, on the advent of Chopin?

Just picture the conductor at hand: very small in stature, slight, a bounder on the podium whose legs crank up and down constantly, with arms pumping in similar perpetual motion. What's more, if he didn't now sport a dark beard and mustache this man of the hour could pass for a high-schooler.

matthew-aucoin.jpgThat does not matter at all for one who leads the "Rigoletto" pit orchestra -- yet Aucoin (pronounced oh-coyn) made an instrumental shambles of the first act . (I hardly recognized these same musicians as those we regularly hear, the ones from whom James Conlon drew such sumptuous playing eight years ago in this production.)

Things improved for Aucoin after intermission where there was a cohesion, an orchestral urgency that finally jelled. Besides, it was what took place on stage that carried the day. This Mark Lamos edition of the Verdi favorite is a stunner (last performance at Music Center Pavilion June 3). More on it later.

But Aucoin, as LA Opera's first ever artist-in-residence, truly was the "kid in a candy store" he once claimed to be re: this post, and being on the Wallis podium for his "Crossing."

While it enjoyed a full staging in Boston and at BAM in New York, here we got a concert version -- male principals and chorus in black, plus a female cameo, all fronting the orchestra.

Aucoin's libretto, with Walt Whitman as the central figure, is based on the poet's texts. He is an Everyman -- alone in the world, suffering an infinite variety of self-doubts. During the Civil War he drifts to a shelter for wounded soldiers seeking answers to the other side of life. His own?Theirs? His longing for love? His homosexuality? His "crossing"? Finally comes his epiphany: "Where else would you find a hundred helpless boys" but at a fallen soldiers' hospital?

What he finds among them is a feeling of disaffection, deserters' guilt, cowardice, not even a sure sense of relief at the war's end.

And what Aucoin delivers is a rich, lively score with all kinds of arresting currents that tell of seething resentments, barely buried conflict, but also tender moments and jubilant choral outcries on nature's joys -- even some overblown passages toward the ending. Benjamin Britten's stylistic flourishes in a glorious opening are easily recognizable, as are snatches of John Adams, Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein.

In this concert format the piece comes across more as oratorio than opera -- especially because so much of the singing is stentorian, with very little shading or nuance or expressive dynamic. I kept imagining that Sprechgesang, a manner of speech song, would go a long way to improving its dramatic value.

You could not ask for a more impassioned cast -- with Rod Gilfry (LA's own beloved baritone) as Whitman; Brenton Ryan, whose piercing tenor captured so well the deceptive deserter/victim Wormley; Davone Tines with the sensitively burnished tones and profound utterances of an escaped slave who wearily longs to go home to the South; and the simply gorgeous warbling of Liv Redpath who signals an end of battle.

So did Aucoin's cast of "Rigoletto" ring in at a high level. Especially Lisette Oropesa as a Gilda who actually finished off "Cara Nome" with the loveliest trill. Throughout, in fact, the soprano sang with open-throated presence, not as a tiny-toned canary, but pure in her passion and moment-to-moment expression. As the womanizing duke Arturo Chacon-Cruz matched her with his tenorial gold intact but could also turn mindlessly cruel while pursuing his next conquest.

The title character, though, who represents that split between fiercely protective, paternal love and his work as procurer-in-chief within the duke's court, was Juan Jesus Rodriguez. Sadly, even with a clear, sturdy baritone, he could not quite summon the anguish of a father watching the boss seduce his virginal daughter -- although Robert Wierzel's dramatic lighting of her death while cradled in his arms, gave us pathos galore.

What should not go unmentioned is Michael Yeargan's set designs -- leaning structures in dark reds and blues that suggest the surreal distortions of a decadent court . For that is the key to "Rigoletto": a play on power abuse and corruption, as in a Michael Cohen as procurer/fixer, underling to a philanderer-Trump in a Mafioso-like setting. But here, Verdi conjures an ironic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Otherwise, only joy was transmitted -- spectacularly -- during the LA Philharmonic's "Schumann Focus" at Disney Hall. A huge chunk of it animated by Gustavo Dudamel and Mitsuko Uchida. What was this we wondered. What connected our resident podium-meister to this revered pianist, one who has wedded music to her soul like few others. What was this new-found love fest? And on their very first outing together?

UchidaDec2011color.jpgMitsuko Uchida, photo by Chris Lee.

Well, something happened. Two hearts locked in a mutual appreciation that flowered in their music-making. It was the Schumann Piano Concerto, of course, that they communed in. Dudamel & Co. seemed to pick up her impulses and, as to be expected with Uchida, no musical statement is ever rote. Everything has an idea that stimulates its emotional response and her virtuosity goes without saying -- not as display in itself, but as illuminating function.

So tickled were they with their collaborative experience that they hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed all the way from stage to wings and back again -- spreading a contagion of cheer in the audience.

Even Schumann's 1st Symphony ("Spring") took off, although revealing its compositional drawback of perpetually short phrases. A few nights later while driving (and in an always curious state to check in on KUSC-FM) there was a recording of same. It turned out to be Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Phil and, big surprise, those short phrases sounded far less prominent, far more integrated.

Dudamel and Rattle, who once resided with the LA Phil as guest principal conductor, seem to be on a single wave length. Both recently did Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" -- Sir Simon at Lincoln Center with his new band, the London Philharmonic, in a unique performance that held the song cycle wonderfully together. And with their respective orchestras, they both chose to do Schumann's very rarely performed "Das Paradies und die Peri."

On another high point, let's hope that Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," in a New York production that is some kind of miracle, comes on tour to Los Angeles.

While this superb show (its kind of music and lyrics simply do not get written anymore) loses out in Jack O'Brien's second act and doesn't really surpass Nicolas Hytner's historically stellar staging, the Billy Bigelow of Joshua Henry (the first black Billy) is a dynamo who is burning up the boards. He must be seen and heard. Otherwise you can't imagine his knockout portrayal and his electrifying baritone.

May 11, 2018

From stage to screen with 'Baby' and 'Rock'

THE-BABY-DANCE---MIXED---4.jpgTracey A. Leigh, Krystle Rose Simmons and Gabriel Lawrence in "The Baby Dance: Mixed" at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. Photo: Jeanne Tanner.

As a theater critic in a city famous for making movies, I sometimes meet new acquaintances who assume that I see a lot of movies and TV. With the theater, movies and TV often drawing on the same talent pools, wouldn't critics keep up with all of it?

Sorry, but no. Several hundred professional stage productions are produced in LA each year. Many of them require travel time as well as viewing time. Trying to also keep up with most movies and the relentless streams of acclaimed TV programs sounds impossible.

Nevertheless, many of my new acquaintances probably imagine that I would surely see most of the movies that are directly based on plays, right? Not necessarily. I've seen too many examples of bad movies based on plays - and bad plays based on movies.

In the last several weeks, however, I saw a couple of stage productions that inspired me to then watch the movie versions, for very different reasons.

Let's start with "The Baby Dance: Mixed," Jane Anderson's rewrite of her "The Baby Dance." The original initially opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1990. It quickly found its way to off-Broadway, where it was trashed by then-New York Times critic Frank Rich. Nonetheless, it survived to be transformed into a 1998 Peabody Award-winning and Anderson-directed Showtime movie - which, of course, I hadn't seen. Now Anderson has written a new stage version. It opened last weekend at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura.

The title refers to the uneasy negotiations that occur between a wealthy LA couple, unable to have their own child, and a poor Louisiana couple, who are expecting but who can't afford their fifth child. The Angelenos hope to adopt the soon-to-arrive infant and endow her with a relatively prosperous life.

In the original play and in the film, the LA couple specifically advertised in adoption circles for a "healthy white baby." Both of the couples were white. The story's conflicts were primarily class-based. In 2016 terms, that means that the Louisiana couple probably would have voted for Trump and the LA couple for Clinton.

However, in the new version of the play, the would-be mom from LA is African-American. So is the Louisiana couple. And the LA couple requests "a healthy African-American baby,." although the would-be dad from LA remains white - and Jewish.

The play is still set entirely in Louisiana, first in a trailer park and then in a hospital. But while the Louisiana white couple in the first version looked down on their unseen black neighbors, the Louisiana black couple in the rewrite sneer at their unseen Mexican-American neighbors.

In both versions, the unemployed biological father, while seeking more lucrative benefits from the would-be adoptive father, briefly unleashes a burst of anti-Semitism. In the older version of the play, that same Louisiana man questioned the all-white LA couple's liberal credentials by citing their request for a white baby; now he challenges the biracial LA couple's biracial credentials by asking about their request for a black baby.

Out of concern about spoilers, I won't discuss how the play ends, but at least one of the characters probably emerges with even more psychological distress in this version than in the earlier edition. However, that feeling isn't articulated as much as it could have been. I wanted to hear more of it.

This doesn't reflect on the strong Rubicon cast or its director Jenny Sullivan, who also staged the first version of the play. The production is deeply involving. Yet as I left, I had a nagging sensation that the play could be improved if the ending were somewhat more extended. So I decided to find a copy of the film version of the play, which apparently is available only on VHS. I wanted to see how Anderson resolved her story in her screenplay.

The verdict? The movie feels much more complete than either stage version, and it's even more poignant. Of course we see more of the Louisiana environment. Through the eyes of all four of the prospective parents, we also catch evocative glimpses of the four growing children of the Louisiana couple, who are completely absent in the stage plays. In the film, the two potential fathers interact in a somewhat more relaxed setting, before they later come to literal blows.

Finally, the movie closes on a stunningly powerful image, which reminds us of which individual really has the biggest stake in this "baby dance." This film deserves a long-overdue DVD release, if not widespread streaming options.

On to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical take on "School of Rock." I had never seen the popular 2003 film comedy - about a would-be rock star who lies his way into a temporary job as a substitute teacher at a prep school, where he hijacks the curriculum and turns his young charges into a rock band. Nor had I seen the recent Nickelodeon series.

On opening night at the Pantages Theatre, the Lloyd Webber/Glenn Slater/Julian Fellowes musical struck me as almost entirely implausible, overblown and just a little Trumpian in its disdain for anything other than cheesy showmanship. The designers attempted to suggest a rock concert in the 2700-seat hall, complete with sometimes inaudible lyrics in too many songs, more than they tried to suggest a stuffy prep school or the protagonist's crummy apartment.

Having lowered my expectations with the musical, I then watched the movie - and I had a much better time. Written by Mike White and directed by Richard Linklater, the film naturally relied on authentic-looking exteriors and the greater subtleties of close-ups to underline the contrasts between the protagonist's over-the-top dreams and the more repressed universe of the other characters. Although the story and the overall attitude didn't change much from movie to musical, I sympathized a lot more with the movie's depiction of the children's crusade led by Dewey (Jack Black), perhaps because I caught more convincing glimpses of his ability to actually teach these kids something about his passion.

Now that I've been somewhat charmed by the movie, which probably puts me in the same boat as many of the audience members who see the musical at the Pantages, I'm wondering if I just might like the musical a little more if I were to see it again. Would I feel a little closer to already being "in the band" (to quote from perhaps the show's best musical number) than I did when I walked into the Pantages as a "School of Rock" first-grader? Might I better appreciate the ways in which the musical is different? I'll have to test that theory, the next time a production opens in LA.

Bad-Jews_6513.jpgLila Hood, Austin Rogers,
Jeanette Deutsch and Noah James in "Bad Jews." Photo: Enci Box.

And now for a few words about a wonderful play that should never be turned into a movie - "Bad Jews," by Joshua Harmon. It's about four young adults having scalding but also funny conversations in one crowded apartment, where they're all trying to spend the night under very emotional circumstances. The story takes place in real time.

I initially saw "Bad Jews" in 2015 at the Geffen Playhouse. It was effectively intense there, but in the hands of a skilled team in a much smaller venue at the Odyssey Theatre, a few miles from the Geffen, it's even more red-hot. Perhaps I especially felt the heat because I was sitting in the front row.

For those who haven't seen it, it's about two millennial Jewish cousins treating each other badly, in a dispute over who gets to inherit a token from their late grandfather's tragic history. The two of them articulate contrasting views on a cultural and religious spectrum that could easily resonate with non-Jews from many other cultures. Two other characters -a mostly passive observer and a blonde non-Jew who more or less represents "the other" here - also contribute to pivotal moments in the conversation. Director Dana Resnick keeps Harmon's pot boiling.

That's a lot more than I can say for a another four-character play, Amy Herzog's "Belleville" at Pasadena Playhouse or even for Harmon's own "Significant Other," which recently played the Geffen. The latter play, about a gay man who feels abandoned as his women friends begin getting married, also displayed Harmon's facility with exquisite rants but wasn't the real-time powder keg that "Bad Jews" is.

And finally, a grateful nod to one other four-person ensemble - the quartet who sing "Blues in the Night" at the Wallis, as well as the great band that backs them up. The director is Sheldon Epps, in his first major post-Pasadena directing job in the LA area. He conceived "Blues in the Night" more than 35 years ago, and now he's demonstrating that even the denizens of Beverly Hills can feel the blues in the night.

Blues02-Bryce-Charles-Paulette-Ivory.jpgBryce Charles and Paulette Ivory in "Blues in the Night." Photo: Lawrence K. Ho.

April 29, 2018

Mahler's celebrants raise high the roof beam

Who can retrieve their senses -- in these days of our numbingly nasty national melodrama? Those lucky Angelenos who flowed into downtown's Disney Hall, that's who.

michael_tilson_thomas.jpgThere they found humanity. Profound humanity. Because the music's composers -- Mahler, Beethoven and Bernstein -- arguably could not countenance life without it. And their proponents, Gustavo Dudamel and Michael Tilson Thomas (pictured) leading respective bands, the LA Phil and the San Francisco Symphony, simply reveled in their scores.

Even the Colburn Orchestra's conservatory musicians got into the act -- a case I cannot overstate. Match them with many professional boldface bands and they'd win.

Besides hearing their sheer technical mastery, all you had to do was watch. Sitting on the edge of their chairs (not leaning into the back rests as long-time practitioners do), bobbing like Berliners and unafraid to move physically into the music, they swept up every corner of Mahler's First Symphony -- at the notable behest of MTT.

How he tapped such expressive sophistication from these musicians had to be a matter of equals responding to each other at a terrifically high level. There was a delirium of joy, a gemütlichkeit born of old Vienna, a galvanizing, robust energy that took my breath away.

So do we look forward to MTT returning for more of the same here? Without question.

The native Angeleno stands atop the major American maestros now among us. He always counted, along with the late Bernstein, Maazel and (retired) Levine. From that early time -- when he sat at the feet of Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky here and conducted LACMA's Monday Evening Concerts, and performed at USC as pianist for Heifetz and Piatigorsky, collaborated with Bernstein, led the LA Phil as principal guest conductor -- to now, as he retires from his 25-year tenure in San Francisco.

And what an event his recent tour with the SFO also was at Disney Hall -- one reason being their account of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Prior to that I remembered one night hearing a drive-time radio-play of its famous Adagietto (as recorded by MTT and his San Franciscans). Especially this movement, which came across then and again in Disney as a myriad of nuances, of dynamic levels, all in feeling states of longing and separation that were continuously elastic, continuously plumbed, not the smoothly streaming surfaces so many others deliver.

Virtually everyone has picked up the excerpted Adagietto. Visconti in his film "Death in Venice," (based on Thomas Mann's novella) with Dirk Bogarde[fixed - .ed.], dying from cholera while looking wistfully from afar at the young blond Adonis Tadzio. And even Gerald Arpino whose ballet was set on it, with a pas de deux reminding me -- ridiculously -- of how a trained seal could learn to balance a ball on the tip of its nose. That dance together with that music. An almost illicit coupling.

But when it came to Dudamel's single performance of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" (The Song of the Earth), the one (among four) that was unfettered by an ad hoc fanciful frame, the one that was left to stand on its miraculous own, I felt blessed.

Yes, it gave us only what we needed -- not blasphemy -- just direct access to the LA Phil, its astute podium meister and the two prescribed, stellar singers. After all, Mahler told his life story here -- about a daughter's death plus his own impending end. Perhaps no one has ever translated so deeply into words or music the ecstasy of life and the exquisite pain of losing it as this composer in this work.

And here the musicians brought us the Mahler who converted old Chinese poems into music. Dudamel led them into the score's refined sensuality, its sheer orchestration revealing the most gorgeous solo and chamber playing in memory; into the delicate "mourning for forgotten joy" the composer spoke of, and of being "thirstier than ever for life... where "the habit of living is sweeter than ever." (quotes from Herb Glass's superb notes).

Tenor Russell Thomas, whose exuberant top voice burst like fireworks in a sparkling spray, sounded its apt drunken heroism and mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford evoked the farewell's softly burnished sorrow.

All of it was immensely moving, even while we cannot forget the revered Carlo Maria Giulini's 1984 performance here, along with Jon Vickers -- its infinite closing of the work, to the whisper, to the gauged last dying breath.

But with this big perspective Dudamel did not pass over Beethoven or Bernstein in his centennial year. And although we hardly go for long without the great 9th Symphony raising the roof beams our resident maestro brought it out again in a pairing with Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

Only a third as long as the 9th, this boisterously gleeful work is pure Americana -- its open-hearted lyrical theme, its great lush string outpourings, its dancey cross-rhythms and its tender innocence all conspire to make it a Dudamel &Co. specialty. Add to that the splendid, full-throated LA Master Chorale. There you have it: a double bill that all orchestras should consider.

Program planners, in fact, are crucial for all of the performing arts. And that's just what the enterprising Benjamin Millepied is so good at doing for his L.A. Dance Project.

Call him the curator par excellence. Because, as in his other ever-questing events, he rounded up a program of wide interest. This time, as resident company at the Wallis, he chose a gamut from Martha Graham duets to Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's period prior to his current body-analytics craze, called Gaga. And can you imagine how fascinating it is to glimpse that span of decades-ago creativity in an artist's life?

Well, what "Yag," showed us is that Naharin always was a master of the stage, of how to keep an audience engaged moment to moment, of how to use themes and language snippets, and scenic settings that prompt intrigue, and all the things that make up a theatrical whole. And we now know that his current Gaga shenanigans, which shunt aside those qualities, are devoid of such sensibility.

LADP_Yag_3_Erin-Baiano.jpg"Yag" photo by Erin Baiano.

But take it when you get it and here it was: "Yag" (1996), a superbly designed piece that has digested what Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch both put out there and Naharin apparently saw. An aesthetic that includes life in its ordinariness, its journalism, its psycho-conscious narrative -- all of it constructed from lines spoken, confessions made, interactive movements and mysteries unveiled. In this case, the metaphoric workings of a family. Mesmerizing.

And the talent of former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson is no longer in the shadows now that her company, Dance Theatre of Harlem (founded by Arthur Mitchell) has resurfaced after a hiatus of several years. Nothing is lost, judging from how it looked at the Broad Stage. And I'm talking about the small, subtle ways in which all dance must find the heart of its music. "See the music and hear the dance," as Balanchine so brilliantly put it.

So there was the piece set to Brahms' "Variations on a Theme of Haydn," with Robert Garland's choreography capturing the score's internal phrases and how it flows, while the dancers, in sync with its spirit, caught those choice moments of piquancy.

Then there's also music that invites a pianist to fill in the blanks. And Jeremy Denk went all the way down that page. In his Wallis recital he seemed to be painting pictures, writing novels with Schubert's B-flat major Sonata.

He found a haunted quality to the composer's searching key modulations -- ghost-like, reverberating. His voicings were dramatic, his songfulness took flight. In fact all that he played on the program found some distinctive affect, especially, Mozart's Rondo, K. 511 which was melancholy and introspection personified.

Wallis-JeremyDenk-4-25-18-KevinParry.jpgJeremy Denk at the Wallis by Kevin Parry.

March 25, 2018

The power of 'pluribus' plays

cam-mini1.jpgJoe Ngo ​and Brooke Ishibashi in "Cambodian Rock Band." Photo: ​Tania Thompson/SCR.

The family unit used to be the lodestone for serious American playwrights. Yet judging from recent offerings in LA, those who run America's theaters increasingly want plays involving larger social groups, with at least some visible roots outside America. They want writers who'll explore how and why these characters arrived in America, how they fit or don't fit into the national culture.

These plays can still revolve around a focal point of one particular family, but a wider context raises the stakes, in an era when immigration and assimilation issues are on the front burner.

Take the premiere of "Cambodian Rock Band," at South Coast Repertory. Lauren Yee's play is about a man who fled the Khmer Rouge in the '70s and managed to surface in Massachusetts. There, he raised an American daughter - all grown up in 2008 -- who has returned to her father's previous country in order to help prosecute a Khmer Rouge prison commandant. Little does she know about her father's personal connection to this war criminal.

It sounds grim, and parts of it are indeed bleak. But the title is our big clue about how Yee manages to make this play lively in the face of death, joyful in the face of profound sorrow.

In a flashback to 1975 in Phnom Penh, the script focuses on the teenagers in an American-influenced rock band -- including the future Massachusetts father, just before the Khmer Rouge took charge and enforced an ideology that forbade such Western lures as rock music. This emphasis on the band requires a cast who can credibly perform cover versions of early-'70s Cambodian pop (and more recent but similarly inspired compositions by the LA-based band Dengue Fever) and then also portray themselves or other characters in 1978 and 2008.

Under the direction of Chay Yew, Joe Ngo does a remarkable double turn, toggling between the younger would-be rock star and the middle-aged immigrant and dad (Ngo appears to be the only cast member who is actually descended from parents who fled the Khmer Rouge). Daisuke Tsuji also plays only one role, the Khmer Rouge prison commandant, but he doesn't have to age in it. Although the real-life commandant on whom the role is based is still alive, in a Cambodian prison, Yee allows this character to stay young, cynically observing the events from a distance, in a style akin to the use of the emcee in "Cabaret."

Nevertheless, with the valuable assistance of the musical stylings that managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, the play doesn't seem cynical, nor does it even seem sentimental. It feels vibrantly alive. It's much better than "King of the Yees," by the same playwright, which Center Theatre Group produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last year. Someday I want to see "Cambodian Rock Band" produced alongside "Harmony," the underrated Barry Manilow musical - which CTG presented at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2014. It's about a pop group who faced the German Holocaust.

None of "Cambodian Rock Band" is set in the United States, but "Allegiance," the musical based on the incarceration of Japanese Americans in remote camps during World War II, is set entirely in the U.S. Of course, American residency and roots weren't enough to provide safety and security for the play's characters. In the early '40s, even Japanese Americans who had never set foot in Japan were regarded as potentially dangerous enemies and lost their homes and freedoms as a result.

Originally produced at the Old Globe in San Diego before a short Broadway run, "Allegiance" is now in its LA premiere at the 880-seat Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. It's a welcome co-production of East West Players (whose smaller and much narrower home venue is three blocks away) and Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, under the direction of East West artistic director Snehal Desai.

Allegiance-9.jpgScott Watanabe, George Takei, Jordan Goodsell, Elena Wang and Ethan Le Phong in "Allegiance." Photo: Michael Lamont.

"Allegiance" delves sharply into the friction between two factions within the camps - those who want to prove their loyalty by enlisting in the war effort and those who are so outraged by the discrimination against them that they refuse to sign the government's loyalty oaths. This dispute, personified in the rift between Sammy Kimura (Ethan Le Phong in the 1940s, George Takei in the 21st century) and his sister (Elena Wang) who raised him, provokes misty eyes as well as what-would-I-have-done thoughts.

The performances and production values are impressive, but Jay Kuo's music and lyrics and the book he wrote with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione occasionally become heavy-handed, with one especially contrived moment of melodrama interrupting the second act.

"The New Colossus," at Actors' Gang in the Culver City area, takes its title from the Emma Lazarus poem that refers to "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." No wonder. The leading character in this production is not any particular immigrant but rather a "huddled mass" - a group of 12 people who are depicted in the course of an extremely perilous journey toward freedom in America. Each actor's performance is based on a family member's or ancestor's or friend's immigrant journey. But we don't hear many details about these personal stories - and when we do, we usually have to read them in English supertitles.

These characters don't speak a common language or (except in one case) English. They're traveling together, even though they're from different eras - their birth years, listed in the program, range from 1830 to 1984.

This largely word-free production uses group movement to express the inchoate anxieties of these strangers as they wander between unseen dangers, often literally going in circles, sometimes just waiting, occasionally banding together in a common effort to accomplish a small task. The movement never quite crosses over into choreographed dance. Or at least I'm guessing that was the intent, because no choreographer is credited. Presumably the movement was developed by the ensemble and coordinated by director Tim Robbins.

"Colossus" creates an air of quiet suspense. But it remains somewhat abstract until the curtain call, when the actors face us and identify the people who inspired them. Then director Robbins appears and leads a brief audience discussion about our own roots and immigrant journeys. It's one of the only productions I've seen in which the audience talkback seems almost as important as the play itself.

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is one of the classics from the post-World War II era that most clearly connected the dots between one family's story and the larger cultural clashes taking place in America. That's probably why the classics company A Noise Within, in Pasadena, chose to revive it in the current moment. It depicts a black family in the late '50s, trying to use the deceased patriarch's life insurance to buy a house in the previously whites-only neighborhood of Clybourne Park in Chicago.

Of course Hansberry's characters weren't immigrants per se; their ancestors had been forcibly brought to America as slaves. Different generational attitudes toward Africa, which doesn't much interest the matriarch but fascinates her daughter, are among the topics Hansberry explored.

Director Gregg T. Daniel converts this "Raisin" back into a fresh grape. By the way, A Noise Within has explicitly paired "Raisin" in repertory with a brisk, inventive rendition of Shakespeare's "Henry V," powerfully staged by ANW artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Why? Well, both Henry (Rafael Goldstein) and "Raisin" protagonist Walter Lee (Ben Cain) are young men who are seeking to use the legacy they inherited to accomplish something big and vital that they can call their own. They have to rely on previously untouched reserves of eloquence to get the job done, during a moment of crisis. They succeed. So does A Noise Within.

And elsewhere...

art-couple.jpgPlaywrights can also juxtapose different famous people as well as different groups. In "The Art Couple" at Sacred Fools Theater's Broadwater complex, Brendan Hunt places an already famous Neil Simon and an unknown Sam Shepard into the same room so that they can collaborate on what Hunt imagines was an early draft of Simon's "The Odd Couple" -- in which the characters were not Felix and Oscar but rather Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, who actually were roommates in Arles, France for nine weeks in 1888.

The ingenuity and wit here are abundant. If I had to choose, however, I'd still pick Hunt's "Absolutely Filthy," his 2013 play with adult characters loosely inspired by the "Peanuts" people. As an actor, Hunt hula-hooped throughout "Filthy" with unforgettable results, although his brusque van Gogh in this play is very funny, too.

In my last column, I wrote that I wouldn't comment on the recent trilogy of "Elliot" plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes until after I had seen all three. All are now closed, and I have to join the chorus of disappointment. The best production was the first, "Elliot: a Soldier's Fugue", directed by Shishir Kurup at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, but at the time it felt like a mere prelude to the presumably meatier "Water by the Spoonful" at the Taper and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at LATC.

The opening night of "Water" was plagued by an actor's missed entrance, followed by an unplanned five-minute pause that put a damper on the rest of "Water." Also, this production's Elliot sounded too different from the Elliots in the other plays. "Happiest Song" is the least cohesive of the plays, and consequently the least memorable, or so it seemed at LATC.

Why did this trilogy receive a collaboration between CTG and LATC's Latino Theater Company, when the two companies might have joined forces much more easily and successfully on an effort to spread Evelina Fernandez's "A Mexican Trilogy, An American Story" beyond the relatively small audience that saw it at LATC, where it premiered in its trilogy format in 2016?

I'll speculate that the answer to that question is probably that "Water by the Spoonful" somehow won the Pulitzer Prize, while "A Mexican Trilogy" or its components never had a reasonable chance of competing for the Pulitzer. But Fernandez's work is easily the better trilogy, and part of it is set in Los Angeles - yet another reason to revive it for a wider, different LA audience. Unfortunately I'm afraid that the failure of the Hudes trilogy could now postpone the return of "Mexican Trilogy" for years to come.

On a brighter note, Sarah Jones' "Sell/Buy/Date" at the Geffen Playhouse is my favorite solo show so far in 2018, with large doses of insight, virtuosity, humor and humanity - and many diverse American women and men from many backgrounds, all embodied by the astonishing Jones.

March 21, 2018

Joffrey does double duty downtown

joffrey-dp.jpgJoffrey Ballet. Photo: Cheryl Mann.

Just for starters, you've got to call two current shows at the Music Center a remarkable fusion. What else, when an antique opera (Gluck's) and a modern ballet (Prokofiev's) hold the same stage?

That would be thanks to the collaborative spirit of those handling affairs at the Chandler Pavilion, particularly Rachel Moore, the Center's President and CEO.

Yes, the Joffrey Ballet, our former resident dance company now based in Chicago, brought its "Romeo and Juliet" to the Pavilion on the first night of a week-long run, and 24 hours later performed in LA Opera's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" running month-long.

How's that for scheduling ingenuity? The benefits were many. So were the common narratives.

Tragic loss, for instance. In Shakespeare's play of star-cross'd lovers and in the Greek myth of a lover put to a heart-breaking test, everyone loses -- but for a hopeful afterlife, spiritually.

So whatever the calamity's causation -- either an understandable chink in the hero's armor ("Orpheus) or a teen's struggle under her father's unbreakable edict ("Romeo") -- both tales take their human toll.

orpheus-dp.jpgDancers from the Joffrey Ballet in LA Opera's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice." Photo: Ken Howard.

The theme gets revisited all the time. In Mozart's "Magic Flute," for instance, Tamino must take an oath of silence and ignore Pamina's plea to acknowledge her. Heroically, he resists. The same happens when Eurydice, being brought back to life from the underworld by Orpheus, begs in vain for him to look at her, until he fatefully gives in.

There's something about glancing back and disobedience, it seems, even for Lot's wife, what with all that turning to salt.

No matter.

In Gluck's 244-year-old opera, staged here by John Neumeier, the choreographer opted for this long, Paris version with extra music in order to create his many dances. He also updated the setting. Now Orpheus figures as a ballet troupe director (shades of similarity to expat Neumeier who led the Hamburg Ballet for decades). And here, the eponymous hero is teaching company class -- with the marvelous Joffrey dancers going through their maneuvers -- when his angry ballerina wife breaks from the ranks, runs to the street and is killed by a car.

This sort of story-framing really doesn't alter the original plot or the ongoing cascade of pretty music, which includes the well-known "Dance of the Blessed Spirits." And only because there has to be space for the frequent ensemble dance episodes throughout, does Orpheus retreat for much of his singing time to a far-away park bench at stage-end (watch out for a stiff neck.)

Otherwise, Neumeier's production becomes a shimmering dream -- with its modernistic angularity marking the costume/set design and choreography, its stage flow a thing of considerable craft.

Maxim Mironov, as a blond Adonis of an Orpheus, sang the high tenor role with a warm, resonant, forward-placed voice and even negotiated an agreeable melisma in dense arias. Lisette Oropesa made a lovely and vulnerable Eurydice vocally but should not have been tasked with doing quick steps in unison with the dancers -- which proved awkward for her. Liv Redpath was a pert provocateur as Amour.

Reliably, James Conlon supported the whole enterprise with his orchestra unearthing the many beauties and the austere nobility of an opera that, at bottom, remains dramatically static.

Its opposite came in the Joffrey Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" -- but no, not in the familiar John Cranko version formerly danced by the company. This time Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor cloaked its three acts in 20th century Italy's different political eras, starting with Mussolini. What happens, of course, is an uptick in relatable menace. We're no longer in the territory of palace intrigue, namely, the Montagues and the Capulets, but we're seeing the background of whole nations going to war and dictators enslaving citizenry.

Still, even this superimposition on the Prokofiev score, led ably by Scott Speck, does not dim its theatrical potency, at least not as far as the dance is concerned. The designs, though, take a toll. After all, there's only so far you can go with multi-media. And when giant movie images dwarf the stage and its human-size dancers there's certain dissolution of impact.

That's what's wrong with Pastor's ideas, as put into practice. His actual choreography, though, is utterly arresting. It's both original and character-oriented. You get to know the personalities and their points of conflict through gesture and expression, which he incorporates into the dance. The whole thing takes us light years ahead of classical mime.

So much so that I don't even mind the score's re-arrangements. But lately many choreographers ignore its graphic cues, for example the music that ends the balcony scene, where Juliet is supposed to run up the outer stairs to her bedroom. Here too the pitter-pat of steps Prokofiev designates musically are not to be found; instead she rides smoothly up in a glass elevator.

As a wondrous Juliet there is Christine Rocas, who embodies Pastor's choreography as though hand to glove. She moves in it physically through the sly energy of her perfectly turned-out, straight legs, supple arches and, of course, an upper body expressive of innocent ardor and those first moments of awakened sensuality.

Rory Hohenstein, however, comes across more as a slouching lover, rather than a virile Romeo in this ill-fated match, even while his technique is never in question. Others, though, raised temperatures to red-hot -- namely the powerful Fabrice Calmels whose huge, looming size as the authoritative Capulet overwhelmed all in his presence; and Yoshihisa Arai, a Mercutio who, in every moment, could taunt and tease a saint to murder.

Yes, character definition counts, in all of the performing arts. So now pardon me, for this musical detour to the Oscar-winning Chilean film "Fantastic Woman." Here the trans heroine escapes the scene of her sordid debasement by society and takes her rightful, elevated place -- onstage with a chamber orchestra -- singing in a countertenor voice "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's "Xerxes." It's a touching, poignant apotheosis, a brilliantly redemptive closer to a movie about how someone marked as "other" learns to value her highest ideals and mourn her lover's death at that same level.

Allied to it was a piece at the Broad Stage, "Betroffenheit," concerning the shock of loss. An existential mirage choreographed by Crystal Pite and written by Jonathon Young, it lurks in that certain territory -- theater of alienation flirting with the absurd. And it spills over in show-dance routines that tell us all the world is a vaudeville act just waiting for godot.

Back from the fringes I was surely fortified by hearing Beethoven in the hands of violinist Vilde Frang, soloist with the LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. A young Norwegian who plays with an individuality that her physical presence also portrays, she captured that sense of intimacy that marks the concerto's deepest interpretation, especially in a prayerful cadenza and again in the slow movement.

It's as though the composer's very breathing was heard, the utterance of his innermost feelings -- so refined, so small-scaled, so unmuscular, so canny in its phrasing. To boot, Frang comported herself without any show-off antics. She looked like a fine piece of Dresden -- slender, long-limbed. An Ingres? A pale Modigliani?

And Salonen, typically sensitive to an aura like this, brought the orchestra to a shared state. Then, in a flash, they changed course -- going on to an absolutely robust and cheering overture to Mozart's "Impresario."

February 18, 2018

The best (and worst) of all possible Lennys

candide-dp.jpgKelsey Grammer and Jack Swanson in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Candide." Photo: Ken Howard.

Yes, all the world loves Leonard Bernstein. And rightly so.

Who else composed in an haute Broadway idiom, as few others could, and yet was profoundly immersed in the European symphonic literature? Who else could also deliver from the podium a transcendent Beethoven, Strauss and Mahler that put the world at his feet? Who else, as explainer-in-chief, could seduce a whole generation with his ultra-engaging TV series, "Young People's Concerts"?

No surprise, then, that we're in the throes of celebrating what would be the 100th birthday of America's most famous music man. See for yourself, take a drive downtown.

There you would find both the LA Philharmonic and LA Opera starting off 2018 with two of his big-time works, "Mass" and "Candide." Now is the moment for a seeming orgy of Bernsteiniana. But none of this is to say that Lenny didn't over-reach, didn't throw out too big a net -- and so, didn't suffer his critical slings and arrows.

In the case of "Mass" (which drew such brutal invectives at its 1971 premiere as pretentious, schlock-ridden, gimmicky, crass) you can point to his unremittingly liberal heart. It was so full, protesting McCarthyism and war, for instance, that he stocked the stage with cavorting hordes of street people -- the disaffected, those who stood against society's establishment, its economic inequities and its hypocrisy.

What grist for his theatrical mill today would be! But sadly, the overload onstage easily swamped his grave musical realizations.

A paean and pageant that is rarely revived, with Disney Hall its terrific venue for this multi-tiered mounting, "Mass" follows the format of a Roman Catholic exercise. What we get is an amalgam of '60s hippiedom and all-purpose churchiness, with a passel of simplistic homilies, additional texts largely by Stephen Schwartz.

The Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel went all out in embrace of the piece; its purely orchestral/choral segments glowed under their sheer sonic and interpretive glory.

But I'm surprised that its now-dated realization -- with period bell-bottoms, beads, bandanas, shag cuts -- stayed intact. Bernstein searched out universal themes so why not an abstract, cleaner staging that allows more focus on the deceptively complex music and also achieves a sense of timelessness? After all, the theme is loss of faith, a term of the eternal human condition.

Apparently, director Elkhanah Pulitzer thought otherwise. So what she served up (as others have) was a tambourine crowd of singers, dancers, blues and gospel musicians, and a marching band that jumps into the polyphonic fray, à la Charles Ives -- all of them together in the Dona Nobis Pacem, a wildly spirited and movingly mournful moment that exploded into a rock n' roll scene with everyone jamming and swaying back and forth.

Along with all else, Lenny sought here to capture his vox populi issue. That he did, without doubt. The cast, led by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as a versatile Celebrant who performed with exuberant/anguished conviction, drew its collective identities accurately. Unforgettable was a gorgeous off-stage soprano (taped), floridly decorating the "Kyrie Eleison's" vocal line.

Across the street from Disney, the Music Center Pavilion was alive with LA Opera's "Candide" -- Bernstein's ravishing hybrid of operetta and Broadway musical, his 1956 opus that also points a discerning path to human foibles. This time, with the help of 18th century philosopher Voltaire -- who, during the Enlightenment championed civil rights and satirized all forms of authoritarianism, including Christianity -- he had a bona fide hit.

Like "Mass," it too crouches in despair only to resurrect hope and faith at the end. Yet here he gives us mock but sweet idealism ("the best of all possible worlds") and mock misery, sometimes alternated with a sincere sense of loss -- before arriving at its bravely optimistic conclusion "to do the best we know and make our garden grow."

As other versions have done, LA Opera's current incarnation by John Caird/Francesca Zambello sends folks home whistling its deliriously lovable tunes and reciting its devilishly witty lyrics (courtesy of such paragons as Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself, et al).

"Candide" does still have its flaws (especially with the original Hugh Wheeler book) -- even after being tweaked and edited and added to and re-written ad infinitum through the years. But it gives back so very much; the music enchants us with its extravagant ballads, dancing patter songs, delicious waltzes, insinuating tangos, baubly coloratura, grandly spirited big numbers and masterly orchestrations.

If only the spoken recitations of this picaresque odyssey did not go on and on, like a shaggy dog tale covering every bad happenstance in every part of the world. Yet the music triumphs.

So thank James Conlon and his orchestra for their rich handling of a sublime score. And don't forget the glitteriest and gayest Cunegonde of Erin Morley or the sweet-voiced Candide of Jack Swanson. Or the perfectly credible sooth-sayer Voltaire/Pangloss of Kelsey Grammer or the homesick Old Lady of Christine Ebersole.

Above all, hie thee hither. Last show: Feb. 18

jonas-kaufman-dp.jpgAnd for those drawn to more intimate events there was a chance to hear Jonas Kaufmann (right) locally -- despite all the disappointment he's caused in New York among other places. You see, the German heartthrob who currently heads the world list of operatic tenors is only available for a certain number of cancellations. But he came -- to the Broad Stage -- he sang, he conquered.

For sure, I did not expect to be captivated by his account of Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin," a song cycle of exquisitely detailed poetry. Kaufmann's popularity comes from the big, dashing roles he inhabits on the opera stage. He's strikingly handsome, a crack actor and has the vocal chops (a darkly dramatic tenor) to expand to most big roles. For one thing it was the Met's opening, a new production of "Tosca," that he unceremoniously canceled, giving the impression that any contract is his to keep or reject.

But among his fans no doubts were in evidence at the soldout Broad -- I sat next to a woman who drove six hours one way from Modesto and planned to return right afterwards. Quite worth it, she likely thought.

And if Kaufmann, together with his astute piano accompanist Helmut Deutsch, had not performed the work with so much refinement and sensitivity, the event would still have been a boon -- a rare chance, these days, to hear German Lieder, that special genre of close-up artistry, with those microscopic searchings of the soul in all their varied moods and modes.

The Broad atmosphere certainly proved perfect for such traversals, and the now-graying singer even handed spoken compliments to his host stage. Yes, he liked the way he came across, as the Schubertian proto-hero -- young, innocent, mortally vulnerable and written from that vantage point when the composer was 27.

Was there the lad who feels his life hangs on the yes or no answer of the girl he's spied and loved instantly? Certainly. Was he unsullied and hopeful, free of dread and anxiety at first? Of course. Did he find in surrounding nature the apotheosis of his love? No doubt. But did lost love ultimately cause despondency unto death? Just imagine.

Specifically, Kaufmann defined those contours vocally. He lightened his dark tones with soft ardor, and suggested simple glee by letting some pure notes pop up like coins thrown in the air. He did not resort to that effete, precious mouthing of words often invoked but used his whole dynamic range from pianissimo to ravishing bursts of excitement. Poetry abounded. Music flourished.

No wonder the singer has found this niche.

February 11, 2018

Keeping up with the Trumps in LA theater

HotHouse-JoshClarkMelanie-Lora.jpgJosh Clark and Melanie Lora in "Hothouse." Geoffrey Wade Photography.

The awakening of LA theater from its usual late December/early January slumber coincided this year with the first anniversary of the Trump presidency. Oddly enough, these two events aren't entirely unrelated.

Of course we've long known that Trump likes to put on shows. With the Miss Universe pageant and "The Apprentice" on his resume, reality TV seems to have been the best forum for Trump's talents.

But Trump's showmanship isn't solely for unseen audiences in living rooms He's closer to the world of the live stage during the debates and his ongoing rallies, with the audible feedback from reporters, rivals or live audiences. More recently he complained that those members of Congress who didn't applaud his State of the Union address are "treasonous." And now he's engineering another theatrical pageant, in the form of a big, shiny military parade that's expected to pass his DC hotel and his current home.

Trump displays little interest in "the theater" per se. He probably lacks the patience to sit though most plays, which would require listening to the voices of others. He prefers to create his own personal spectacles.

But in a city such as Los Angeles, it's increasingly difficult for theatrical creators to ignore Trump as much as he ignores them. A large proportion of the audience that might naturally be interested in paying for theater tickets is also devoted to keeping up with the onslaught of commentary about Trump - on TV news, TV comedy, social media, newspapers and magazines. Keeping tabs on Trump news could derail plans to see some other show outside the house.

So it isn't surprising that when some of us in this Trump-obsessed audience go to "the theater," we begin to look for a Trump angle, or imagine that we see a Trump angle, in our theatrical fare. A Trump angle helps make a theatrical event feel more immediate, more of an answer to that perennial question, "Why now?," which is something that producers are often told to ask themselves before they schedule just about any production. Open Fist Theatre is about to appeal to this impulse quite literally, opening a bill of 14 very short politically-themed pieces (probably even short enough for a Trumpian attention span) under the banner title of "One Year Later," a reference to Trump's first year.

Of course, with around-the-clock eruptions emanating from the White House, no theatrical creator can hope to keep a rehearsed production up-to-date on the very latest Trump lore. So a frequent response is to revive works that bring Trump to the mind of theatergoers without actually using any specific references to the actual Trump.

Perhaps the best use of this indirect-Trump technique right now is on display at Antaeus Theatre in Glendale, in Harold Pinter's seldom-revived "The Hothouse." A character named Roote, who supposedly runs a late-'50s British mental institution, could have trained Trump in how to be a boss. He's uninformed and incompetent but brash, narcissistic and abusive.

As I watched Josh Clark in the role, particularly in his interactions with his underlings (primarily Leo Marks, Rob Nagle and Melanie Lora), I felt as if I could have been watching a 60-year-old guidebook for the TV series that surely will be adapted, eventually, from "Fire and Fury." (As with all Antaeus productions, the roles are double cast; Peter Van Norden sometimes plays Roote).

In the first sentence of her director's note, "Hothouse" director Nike Doukas admonishes the audience to avoid reading the rest of her note until after seeing the play, because "seeing it with no expectations will enhance your experience." I guess I've just blown that strategy, by reporting my own Trumpian lens through which I saw this play, so at this point I might as well add a reflection from the rest of Doukas' note. She calls Pinter's script "the perfect play for our times. We watch as a despotic, increasingly addled, ineffectual leader gets through his day. One of his tactics is to divide and conquer, and in response, those around him scheme and scramble to maintain their footing or move up the ladder. Amazingly, Pinter accomplishes all of this with a relentless barrage of farcical, almost vaudevillian humor."

Watch out, Stephen Colbert - here comes Harold Pinter.

Cabaret---La-Mirada.jpgFor those who feel uncomfortable about finding humor in what's going on in our current White House, "Cabaret" reminds us of the more grisly effects of extreme despotism. The Kander/Ebb/Masteroff musical's most chilling moment is usually the first glimpse of the swastika on someone's arm. Probably only a few Americans are regularly wearing swastikas right now, but the appearance of the torches in Charlottesville and the chants of those carrying them were enough to send similar chills up the spines of many Americans.

La Mirada Theatre's production of "Cabaret," which closed Sunday, was the first revival of it that I've seen since the events in Charlottesville. Larry Carpenter's staging is powerful. Particularly notable is the performance of Jeff Skowron as the emcee. Skowron is best known in LA theater for playing Leo Frank in the 3-D production of "Parade," but he flawlessly executes a 180-degree turn to play the Emcee, who is temperamentally the opposite of Leo Frank. When we consider that both of these characters ultimately met similar fates - Leo was lynched by good-ol'-boy anti-Semites in the South and the emcee presumably was killed by the actual Nazis - the casting of Skowron in both of these roles becomes almost eerily resonant.

At Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, Kate Hennig's "The Last Wife" depicts a famously sexist head of state, Henry VIII (David Hunt Stafford), although the primary focus is on his final wife, Katherine Parr. The characters use modern language and wear modern costumes, so Henry and Katherine appear much more 21st-century than you might expect. Although Stafford makes no attempt to mimic Trump, I soon thought of Trump's own history of wives and affairs -- although here is at least one case where Trump can actually seem relatively enlightened, compared to his murderous historical predecessor. However, Hennig is more interested in portraying Parr as a proto-feminist who helped prepare young Elizabeth for her long monarchy. Under Flint Esquerra's direction, the play succeeds in bringing these historical figures closer to our era.

Not every current theatrical venture into Trump-adjacent territory is nearly as subtle. An adaptation of Max Frisch's post-World War II farce "The Chinese Wall" features an explicitly Trumpian interpretation of an emperor who built the Chinese Great Wall, as well as too many other famous figures from history and literature. It's a scattershot mess. So is "SAPO," a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes' "The Frogs," in a Getty Villa premiere at the museum's indoor auditorium (instead of its outdoor amphitheater), featuring two of the three Culture Clash members and the band Buyepongo. At least "SAPO" begins with a bang, using video shot from the freeway in the Sepulveda Pass during the recent fire; you can read the signs to the Getty Center off-ramp against the backdrop of the flames.

2018_Pirates_0072.jpg Tina Muñoz Pandya, Amanda Raquel Martinez and Leslie Ann Sheppard in "Pirates of Penzance" at Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham.

For those who prefer to flee from any Trump thoughts when they go to a theater, I couldn't detect many traces of him in a lively "Aladdin," the stage version of Disney's take on the tale, at the Pantages. Pasadena Playhouse has reconfigured its main auditorium in order to turn "The Pirates of Penzance," as interpreted by Chicago's the Hypocrites, into a half-immersive 21st-century beach party, complete with an in-theater bar. It's light fun, and it clearly makes a case that the playhouse welcomes younger theatergoers who won't mind dodging the movements of the actors.

Finally, Center Theater Group has launched a trilogy of related productions by Quiara Alegría Hudes with "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, soon to be followed by "Water by the Spoonful" at the Mark Taper Forum and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at Los Angeles Theatre Center, in conjunction with Latino Theater Company. I'm going to withhold any comment on these productions until after I've seen all three.

January 22, 2018

Artist Ana Serrano creates an unusual garden in Pasadena

ana-serrano-iris-schneider.jpgAna Serrano. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Ana Serrano loves to build. Equal parts sculpture and architecture, the artist's colorfully painted cardboard cityscapes, installations, and scaled-down buildings are informed by the Latino culture of Los Angeles and the US/Mexico border. Her pieces pay particular attention to the details. Shop facades, security bars, plants and flowers all figure in to her vision of everyday scenes in the predominantly Hispanic areas she has come to know as a native Angeleno.

Serrano, 34, recently got a lot of attention when her 2008 piece Cartonlandia (made when she was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena) was featured in the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibit "The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination and Possibility" at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Inspired by her trips to Tijuana, "Cartonlandia" depicts the serendipitous nature of hillside neighborhoods there and in some areas of Los Angeles.

I caught up with Serrano last week during a break from installing her latest piece, "Homegrown," at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Made of cardboard, wood, paper, and acrylic paint, the room-sized immersive "garden" will compliment two other new exhibits, "The Feminine Sublime" and "Testament of the Spirit: Paintings by Eduardo Carrillo." Museum executive director Susana Smith Bautista says the three exhibits were curated to address issues of divergence, dichotomies, conflicts, and solutions. Serrano was chosen to complete the narrative, and her piece will be viewable in the museum's "project room," a smaller gallery space.

ana-serrano-garden-iris.jpgSerrano with elements of "Homegrown." Photo by Iris Schneider.

"Ana is dealing with not only her Mexican American heritage, but with issues of urbanity and how you can build creative environments within an urban state," says Bautista.

Serrano traces the beginnings of "Homegrown" to her move to Portland, a little over a year ago. "I'm much more aware of plant life there, which is something I wasn't always interested in or aware of in Los Angeles," she says. "You're surrounded by nature [her Portland home is close to a forest], so I notice the absence of it when I come back here."

Explaining her choices for "Homegrown," Serrano says "I really wanted to find a way to mesh the visual aesthetics I'm attracted to here in Los Angeles, and also find a way to bring in these plants that are important in my family, plants we've always grown wherever we are."

Originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, Serrano's grandparents and mother came to Los Angeles in the 1970s. She often went back to Sinaloa as a child to visit her relatives. "My family in Mexico lived a very rural lifestyle — no running water, grew their own food. My great-grandmother would kill the chicken for dinner. I started paying attention to how my family here in Los Angeles had access to small amounts of land and were still able to grow things to re-connect them to the same traditions they had in Mexico."

Concurrently, Serrano is working on her first solo show, "La Yarda," for Bermudez Projects/Cypress Park. Included will be three-dimensional sculptures of homes and courtyard gardens and a small installation. She says that ideas can come to her "at any second. I might just start building, or in Los Angeles when I drive around and take photographs."

Cartonlandia at the Craft and Folk Art Museum
last year. Photo by Judy Graeme.

Google maps are an important tool for her and have been an especially useful way to explore her hometown since the move to Portland. Serrano's work may be LA-centric but it seems to have a wide-ranging appeal. "A lot of people relate to it from different parts of the world," Serrano says. "Sometimes I hear, 'it reminds me of Brazil, reminds me of South Africa, or Italy.' It will remind them of a place they lived or visited."

Bautista hopes that in "Homegrown," visitors to the Pasadena museum "will find a space they can imagine and remember. I think that Ana's work is a lot about memory. It's not something you can plan for, but you always hope that people will make those connections and have a memorable experience they can bring back to their own lives."

Ana Serrano: Homegrown is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until June 3.

"La Yarda" opens at Bermudez Projects/Cypress Park Feb. 17.

January 8, 2018

Testament of the Spirit: Paintings by Eduardo Carrillo

selfportrait-carrillo.jpgSelf-Portrait, 1960. Private collection.

Was Eduardo Carrillo a founding patriarch of the Chicano Art movement? "Yes" is the answer based on an early introduction to "Testament of the Spirit: Paintings by Eduardo Carrillo" that opens in January at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Born in Santa Monica in 1937, the late Carrillo graduated from UCLA with a BA and MA, studied in Europe, and taught crafts in Baja California before returning to the States and embedding himself in art academia — first in Southern California, then migrating north. A revered spiritual leader of Chicano art and muralism, Carrillo passed away in 1997.

The exhibition isn't part of the canon of the Getty-led Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, but it is another example of revisiting Latino/a artists with social importance, adding gravitas of Chicano Art through new exhibitions and scholarship, and clarifying the bloodline throughout all of California. "He was an interesting player in this," says curator Susan Leask, "He may have done his best work in Northern California."

lastropicanas-carrillo.jpgLas Tropicanas, 1972-73. Crocker Art Museum, Promised Gift of Juliette Carrillo and Ruben Carrillo.

"Testament of the Spirit" will be 60 paintings and watercolors by Carrillo, spanning from the late 1950s through the late 1990s, that show his range from Renaissance and Baroque art to pre-Conquest sculpture, which often merged with the craft culture of Baja California, Mexico. "His social activism was shaped by the 1960s," says Leask, adding that Carrillo's work grounded two schools of Chicano Art: works that affect change and the action of artist participating in mainstream events.

"He was an inspirational leader who was a visionary. Bringing people together in a collaborative way. Ways making sure there was a window open when talking to people," says Leask. "With gentleness he could approach hard topics."

Carrillo also fit mystic realism within an art movement that was first inspired by social realism, bringing it closer to indigenous culture, all while becoming known as a philosopher with a brush. "[He] created a platform for giving all kinds of people an awareness of Chicano Art and Latin American culture; that was one of his greatest gifts," says Leask.

Carrillo's career as an educator was mostly up North, though his mural presence has been in Los Angeles for decades. El Grito (The Cry) is the ceramic tile work created from 1977 to 1979 at Placita de Dolores, where it now sits in quiet contemplation. Another important piece is "Chicano History," a mural he worked on with artists Sergio Hernandez, Saul Solache, and Ramses Noriega at the request of UCLA's MEChA, for the third floor of then Campbell Hall. It was completed in 1970, two weeks before the Chicano Moratorium, and considered the earliest Chicano history mural painted on a university campus in the U.S. It was taken down in the early 1990s. The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, working in collaboration with PCMA and Leask, are hoping to reassemble it as a temporary installation during the Pasadena run of "Testament of the Spirit," logistics permitting. If not, there will be an essay on the mural by Tim Drescher for the exhibition catalog.

While Carrillo did murals, a staple of Chicano Art, he moved away from the usual visual references in smaller works and used his own personal experiences, and "Testament of the Spirit" offers this artist as a person, not just a patriarch of a broader movement. "I see him more as an individual," says Leask. "He was wise."

Testament of the Spirit: Paintings by Eduardo Carrillo
January 21, 2018-June 3, 2018
Pasadena Museum of California Art


The Aerialist, 1994. Private collection.

December 23, 2017

The 2017 remodel of LA theater

RottenTour_0014.jpgIf you see only one satire of musicals this month, "Something Rotten!" is the better choice. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

2017 was a pivotal year for Los Angeles theater, but not because the quality was better or worse than usual. It's because of institutional changes.

After two years of heated debate, new Actors' Equity rules finally took full effect in smaller theaters. Receiving far less attention were changes in the leadership of four of LA's larger nonprofit theater companies. Meanwhile, "Hamilton" - at the Pantages -- dominated the second half of the year, not only in terms of attendance, attention and profits but also in terms of innovation.

In most of my previous year-end summaries, I briefly comment on my favorite shows, arranged in alphabetical order. I'm still mentioning most of my personal theatrical faves this year, but I'm weaving my references to them into the context of discussions about these larger changes. Because I've already written about most of my favorites in earlier columns (which are available here), I'm going to restrict longer mentions only to those few shows that were highlights but which didn't fit into earlier columns.

Also, for those readers who simply want some recommendations about what to see during the holidays, feel free to skip to the last section of the column.

Let's start with our biggest nonprofit company, Center Theatre Group - the proprietor of the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre. Its artistic leadership hasn't changed this year, but I have some new respect for CTG due to one change in its branding. It has stopped billing itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company" -- which too often sounded as if CTG was claiming to be LA's only theater company. Bravo.

CTG was at its best this year with imported tours at its largest venue, the Ahmanson. They included three productions of superb musicals that are among the year's highlights: "Fun Home," Fiasco Theater's freshly minted revival of "Into the Woods," and the currently running "Something Rotten!" (see below for more on "Rotten!"), as well as National Theatre's revelatory production of the non-musical "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time". The Ahmanson also hosted "Bright Star," an amiable musical entertainment but not exactly a highlight.

Let's skip the regular seasons inside the Taper and the Douglas (gulp - I don't think I've ever done this in a year-end roundup). Instead, let's look at the other end of the CTG spectrum, "Remote L.A." This was a Taper "bonus" offering that never set foot inside the Taper. It was an example of literal street theater. In "Remote L.A.," the headset-wearing audience walked and rode trains around downtown LA as a group, guided by unseen GPS-like voices that also offered commentary on the ironies and complexities of what we saw. This production was part imported and part local -- an LA-specific version of a concept originated by a German company, Rimini Protokoll. As someone who has often chided the current CTG for ignoring new work about its own city, I found "Remote L.A." roughly comparable to manna from heaven.

Danny Feldman took the throne at Pasadena Playhouse this year, combining the artistic leadership with oversight of the business challenges, as producing artistic director. I was especially impressed with the playhouse's recent LA premiere of Mike Bartlett's "King Charles III," which explores what might happen when Prince Charles finally takes the throne of the UK. The script transcends royal gossip to become a portal into deeper themes and characterizations, aided by a modern form of Shakespearean blank verse. In the title role, Jim Abele created a very human king, who has waited decades for his moment and now wants to make it count for something substantive. Director Michael Michetti and a sterling cast made "King Charles III" entirely engrossing, and the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry and LA's own Meghan Markle (who are more or less depicted in the play), during the Pasadena run, could hardly have been more serendipitous.

MWP-127web-500x500.jpgMichetti's staging of "King Charles III" was preceded in Pasadena by his direction of A Noise Within's revival of Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," another British play that also seems strikingly contemporary in its themes -- even though it was written in 1893. Judith Scott and Erika Soto, as the dueling mother and daughter, created theatrical sparks, perhaps in part because the idea of women finding their voices is such a burning issue right now. Last spring I admired A Noise Within's "Ah, Wilderness" just as much, but "Mrs. Warren's Profession" was a better fit for 2017.

Speaking of women finding their voices, let's turn to South Coast Repertory, which artistic director Marc Masterson ls leaving at the end of the 2017-18 season, after seven years. Over the last couple of years, Masterson has provided southern California's strongest platform for successful new plays by women writers, who have traditionally been under-represented in America's theaters. I mentioned the company's strength in this department in my year-end roundup last year, but the 2017 crop of new plays by women at SCR was just as strong.

Besides Sandra Tsing Loh's "Sugar Plum Fairy" (covered in more detail below), Masterson offered Jen Silverman's "The Roommate," Aditi Brennan Kapil's "Orange," Amy Freed's "The Monster Builder" and Rachel Bonds' "Curve of Departure." Except perhaps for "Orange," all of these are among my picks for the year's best new plays.

Oddly enough, this particular specialty of Masterson's wasn't even mentioned in the official statement about his exit, released by South Coast in September, even though it approvingly cited several other highlights of his administration. As the company's board members search for a successor, they should keep women playwrights in mind and look for someone who is at least as committed to this goal as Masterson. We might assume that women candidates would be likelier to honor this goal than men. But Masterson has proven that an artistic director's gender isn't as important in this regard as much as her or his ability to find and produce wonderful new plays by women.

The Geffen Playhouse has been going through the rockiest time of transition among LA's major companies. Outgoing artistic director Randall Arney sued the company for age and disability discrimination in August after he was replaced by Matt Shakman, who is about 20 years younger. Stay tuned. Still, the company came through in 2017 with the moving solo musical "Lion" and the raucous comedy "The Legend of Georgia McBride."

East West Players' new artistic director Snehal Desai assumed full command this year and announced that East West's entire 2017-18 season would consist of co-productions with other LA nonprofit companies. In far-flung LA, it's always encouraging to hear that artists even know about each other's work, let alone co-produce, and I imagine that joining forces allows some more expensive projects to take place that otherwise wouldn't. Of the two collaborations mounted so far, I enjoyed "Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin" (with Rogue Artists) more than the revival of "Yohen." Earlier in the year, I also admired East West's own revival of "Next to Normal," staged by Nancy Keystone. It will be interesting to find out if this co-productions model will become the new normal at East West.

By the way, "Kaidan" was one of several fascinating productions this year (besides "Remote L.A.") that used unconventional spaces - or conventional spaces unconventionally. "Kaidan" took place in a mid-city warehouse. Also this fall, "Caught" was a site-specific piece inside the Think Tank Gallery. And Sacred Fools Theater enhanced its LA premiere of "Mr. Burns," a futurist epic about how an episode of "The Simpsons" enters the realm of myth, by staging it sequentially in three adjacent spaces at the company's Hollywood complex. Cornerstone Theater's "fellowship" rotated among four food-bank facilities, enrolling audience members in the effort to pack actual sack lunches for the hungry while they watched the actors.

All of these productions were restricted to relatively small audiences at any one performance. The creativity on display in them should be encouraging to the doomsayers who foretold the death of small theater in LA after the recent Equity rules changes.

Of course solo shows or almost-solo shows (such as "Turn Me Loose," starring Joe Morton in the smaller venue at the Wallis) are especially well-suited for intimate spaces. The most riveting solo of 2017 was Ensemble Studio Theatre's production of the autobiographical "WET: a DACAmented Journey," written and performed by Alex Alpharoah. It first played the bustling Atwater Village Theater, which was also the home this year of Echo Theater's premiere of Bekah Brunstetter's topical "The Cake" and Open Fist Theatre's premiere of the remarkable "Walking to Buchenwald," by Tom Jacobson. After its Atwater run, "WET" transferred to Los Angeles Theatre Center as part of LATC's valuable Encuentro festival. As the DACA struggle goes on with no resolution, "WET" deserves an even wider audience.

Finally, I can't forget another small-theater play, Evangeline Ordaz's "This Land." This intricate production crossed chronological lines in depicting the stories of more than a century of residents on one particular block in Watts. As director Armando Molina assembled the theatrical puzzle piece by piece, I realized that this is one of the most LA Observed-friendly productions ever. It was also an auspicious introduction to the new home of Company of Angels, in a corner of Boyle Heights that had never previously been on my theatrical map.

Laugh out loud

RottenTour_9089.jpgBlake Hammond and Rob McClure in "Something Rotten!" Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

During the holidays, comedy that lacks any obvious political overtones might be the best way to temporarily expunge some of the sky-high anxiety that has dominated the public mood in 2017.

So take note -- "Something Rotten!" at the Ahmanson Theatre is playing through New Year's Eve, and "Sugar Plum Fairy" is at South Coast Repertory through Sunday afternoon, December 24. These are two of the funniest shows of the year.

"Something Rotten!" is the Mel Brooksy musical (but not by Mel Brooks) about two brothers and playwrights in Elizabethan England, one of whom is bitterly jealous of the reigning superstar William Shakespeare. Their latest plan to one-up the Bard? Invent a new theatrical form -- the musical.

If you see only one satire of musicals this month, "Something Rotten!" is a better choice than "Spamilton" (a fellow CTG production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through January 7). On the night I saw "Rotten!," audience members launched a standing ovation halfway through the first act, instead of waiting for the curtain call.

The creators of all this mirth are the Kirkpatrick brothers, songwriter Wayne and screenwriter Karey, plus Brit wit John O'Farrell. Their first pitch of the project to producer Kevin McCollum occurred in Karey Kirkpatrick's tiny LA studio. So maybe we can categorize this musical as slightly LA-bred, even though it played Broadway first?

sugar-pro4.jpgShannon Holt and Sandra Tsing Loh in "​Sugar Plum Fairy." Photo by ​Debora Robinson/SCR

"Sugar Plum Fairy" is definitely LA-bred, as is its creator Sandra Tsing Loh. It focuses on Loh's memory of her initially traumatic participation in a Chatsworth dance-studio production of "Nutcracker" when she was an adolescent in the '70s. An earlier solo version played the Geffen Playhouse in 2003, but this one is better, thanks largely to the addition of two other actors, Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco, to play the non-Loh characters -- all of them in a deliriously-designed staging by Bart DeLorenzo. For sheer hilarity, "Sugar Plum" easily tops not only its own previous incarnation but also Loh's "Madwoman in the Volvo," which was recently seen at South Coast and the Pasadena Playhouse.

By the way, our most reliable purveyors of holiday hilarity, the Troubies, are venturing outside their usual lair at Burbank's Garry Marshall Theatre (previously the Falcon) in order to explain "How the Princh Stole Christmas" - a mashup of music by Prince and story by Seuss -- at the larger El Portal Theatre in NoHo. Performances start this weekend and continue through New Year's Eve. "The Latina Christmas Special," in its third year at LATC, is also laugh-oriented, through January 7. And "Luzia," Cirque du Soleil's "waking dream of Mexico," in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium through February 11, includes some expert clowning along with its jaw-dropping spectacle.

Of course "A Christmas Carol" also usually comes with a few laughs. South Coast Repertory, A Noise Within and Independent Shakespeare all have their own versions. But if you want to observe the spirit of the Dickens classic, with or without seeing it (again?), consider Rubicon Theatre's "Carol" in Ventura, closing Saturday. Its opening was delayed by the power outage and the clean-up required after the Thomas fire passed nearby. Rubicon lost $50,000 in expected ticket sales and incurred $10,000 in clean-up expenses. So it's appealing for support beyond the residents of Ventura at a Gofundme page.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim at the end of "Carol," God bless the Rubicon, every one - or at least everyone who has ever appreciated the presence of such a professional theater company in downtown Ventura.

December 17, 2017

Downtown upended and Millepied finds a home at the Wallis

persona_17pr.jpgScene from "Persona." Larry Ho/LA Opera

Okay. It's not the epic rebellion in our national discourse. Or the raging fires. But anyone who happened to be at our downtown arts citadels recently might think the sedate world of classical music had been upended too.

Suddenly the usual audiences had disappeared, along with a healthy supply of their canes and conveyances. Big crowds came garbed in T-shirts (some of them exhorting others to "Fuck Trump"). Revelers with trendy haircuts wearing Melrose Avenue fashions jammed the sidewalks surrounding Disney Hall, bustling through its doors and sprawling along its gardens and onto every spare surface.

They heard the call. It was to the annual DTLA festival titled Noon to Midnight and sponsored by the LA Philharmonic, a new music marathon headlined by what we now define as opera, Annie Gosfield's "War of the Worlds," its libretto by Yuval Sharon. He's the hot new director of all things avant-garde, including car rides with sopranos, and this piece is based on Orson Welles' radio show that rocked the air waves back in 1938.

But there's more.

One level down from Disney, at REDCAT, we got to see composer Keeril Makan's "Persona," quite a bit more recognizable as opera than the above, with Jay Scheib's libretto based on the Ingmar Bergman film. It turned out to be a thoroughly engrossing venture -- the superb contribution of LA Opera's Off Grand wing, created at MIT. And we can remember how often these artistic transliterations drain off the impact of the original.

Not so here. A concentrated study of two women -- one a traumatized mute patient, the other her live-in nurse -- delivers both the music and the interplay that binds them to mesmerizing effect.

Also, Redcat's small raked stage makes a perfect venue for the work's intimacies. With cameras positioned all around the performing area the action can be picked up either way -- watching it on screen or directly.

What becomes the central drama is how a silent partner can stimulate the other to do all the talking, to reveal what she has never thought of or deeply reacted to before. And in the process a kind of counter-transference occurs; the therapist and patient step out of their roles. Here it's the nurse, Alma, who dredges up her own secrets and painful feelings while Elisabet, her charge, merely listens, but, by so doing, triggers the outpouring.

Amanda Crider, as the central character, carries 90 percent of the work, singing the altogether apt musical lines of anguish and reverie and longing before the mute patient -- all of it set off by the chamber ensemble's instructive underpinnings and accents.

If only the other major event at the Disney complex, "War of the Worlds," reached this level. But no matter what Welles had envisioned for his Halloween entertainment -- he based it on the H.G. Wells science fiction novel -- his radio audiences back then tuned in and mistakenly took it as reality news: The planet was being invaded, so panic arose among that small number who listened.

Yet what Yuval and Gosfield wrought from it was a fanciful graphic comic. And I can't say the fun-loving Noon to Midnight crowd on that afternoon didn't rally to the piece as a semi-hilarious circus. It had sirens and street noise, and ominous clattering, clanging, squalling episodes, along with jazzy, big-band accompaniments and sound effects to Sigourney Weaver's mock-serious narrations. Think of it as an off-pitch Broadway musical with happy shenanigans.

But I'm happy to say that Yuval's installations of last year are gone -- those giant marshmallow clouds hovering over the indoor escalators from parking garage to lobby, the ones that totally obscure Frank Gehry's linear design. And gone also are their industrial drone accompaniments that conflict with the orchestra's last tones, the ones we're still savoring, the ones still reverberating in our ears from a just-ended concert. Ah... free at last.

It's enough to make a music lover happy all over again. Especially in hearing the LA Phil play Bernstein's Serenade, this time with Hilary Hahn. She's actually the third violinist to bring this ever-more seductive gem to Los Angeles recently. And proving -- in this, the composer's centennial year -- just how many interpretive paths it invites. No chance it will stay in the undeservedly neglected drawer any more.

With Jonathon Heyward stepping up to the podium authoritatively for what is really a violin concerto, Hahn -- in bare feet peeking now and then from her long, glittery gown -- gave us a clear-voiced and easy, lyrical, lilting account of its varied landscape. She and the 25-year-old conductor delivered its delectable waltzes made modern in a warm Mitteleuropa way, along with its soulful characterizations, its sentiments of quiet sorrow, and even its jazzy coda, à la "West Side Story."

Heyward and the orchestra seemed like old familiar partners in "The Firebird" Suite -- irresistible music played with all the mysterious glitter and melodic tenderness that Stravinsky can evoke in the very best performances. This was one. You had to believe your ears.

Back on the Westside, there was more music to prick up your ears -- as accompaniment to LA Dance Project's altogether intriguing bill at the company's new residence, the Wallis.

And it proved my point, that music makes the dance. Credit goes to Benjamin Millepied, arbiter of the five-year-old troupe's repertory. His choices, throughout the time he's been in our midst, cover a remarkably wide spectrum -- both as a choreographer himself and the works he collects from others.

A standout in the Wallis show was his "In Silence We Speak" -- underpinned by David Lang music, selections from several of the composer's albums.

janie-taylor-ho.jpgI'd say that this work, a duet for Rachelle Rafailedes and Janie Taylor, achieves a brilliance from its totality of effects. The music has an ethereal quality at once emotional and Millepied answers it with his dance design; the two women bend and arc together in empathy, feeling sorrow or loss or hope and connecting for each episode. The music binds them, speaks the tone of their relationship, a one-ness that goes beyond unison routines.

Photo by Larry Ho/LA Dance Project

And visually, well, they look like Modigliani in motion -- both of them tall, lean, lithe in silky, flowing jumpsuits and sneakers. The rust-to-gold hues of the costumes (Ermenegildo Zegna and Alessandro Sartori, no less) and the burnished lighting complement the whole scene. Artistic perfection. If dance could live as a museum installation, this would be the ticket.

Another ticket, when it comes to the big picture, is how Millepied opens himself to new vistas, "Orpheus Highway," as an example. Here he does something similar to the Keeril Makan/Jay Scheib opera, "Persona," with simultaneous tracks for the audience, both stage and film version. And it works in provocative ways.

This Orpheus and Eurydice travel a roadway, in place of the River Styx, and we feel the urgency of their trip to possible salvation driven by Steve Reich's Triple Quartet. The piece is never less than exhilarating, even suspenseful and physically draining as we watch its epic journey.

With this first Wallis season Millepied seems to be in his finest fettle to date.

November 28, 2017

Judith Baca legacy at Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is still not enough

baca-csun-ed-fuentes.jpgBaca exhibition at CSUN Art Galleries. Photos by Ed Fuentes.

Under the Getty-led Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the University Art Galleries at California State University Northridge are host to The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Judith F. Baca's Experimentations in Collaboration and Concrete. Like PST:LA/LA, which has 60 galleries partnering to take a stab at an all-encompassing introduction of Latin American and Latino art in concert with Los Angeles, one venue for muralist and educator Judy Baca is simply not enough.

On loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is Baca's "Las Tres Marías" (The Three Maries) (1976), on exhibition in "Radical Women; Latin American Art, 1960-1985" at the Hammer Museum of Art. Photography for "Documentation of Vanity Table," Baca's performance at the Woman's Building in 1976, is on display in "Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA" at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Finally, at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, her "Pancho Trinity" are napping in the gallery in "The U.S.- Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility."

great-wall-segment-csun-ed-fuentes.jpgSegment of Baca's Great Wall at CSUN.

At the campus gallery, her solo show comes close to being a legacy exhibition made of mural images, sketches, archived film and administration artifacts, including her 1980 Master of Arts abstract from CSUN. These documents of the Great Wall and mural programming guide you through the process of experimentations with collaboration that transferred the teachings of Los Tres Grandes, specifically David Alfaro Siqueiros, to the walls of Southern California.

The thesis abstract, titled "Great Wall of Los Angeles," is reprinted in the exhibition's catalog by Mario Ontiveros and published by Angel City Press, and includes essays by Ontiveros, Anna Indych-Lopez, Carlos Rogel, and Amelia Mesa-Bains. Of historic cultural significance is the essay by Andrea Lepage, who tracks Baca's studies at El Taller Siquerios and notes how the institution become aware of the work from "Chicana/o artists from Los Angeles ("la comunidad chicana de Los Ángeles"). They understood that artists from Los Angeles had "the capacity to export Siquerios's aesthetic ideals and ideology to international audiences," writes Lepage.

Baca took time away from the Great Wall in 1977 to attend the Siquerios workshops, which reopened after his death in 1974. The exhibition and catalog show how The Great Wall, and Baca herself, are a direct link to the Mexican mural tradition.

What is also compelling is to see renderings next to large-scale reproductions of later segments of The Great Wall. That is a testament to Baca's role as a teacher in guiding artists, some untrained, to create a mural for the people, led by the traditions of the masters, and driven by the stories of Los Angeles. History was moved forward with the help of LA's youth while they made a transition into adulthood with paint brushes.

At the exhibition are also samples from many of her major works. In true Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC) method of what I call the "Quad-M Aesthetic" — Mexican-Mural-Metaphor-Madness — there is a detail that is very telling. In "Balance," a segment of the portable World Wall, under the painted symbol of harmonious balance where man becomes one with the world while holding on to respect for all life, the child cradled by hands is also seen as a soft reflection on a body of water with a poetic horizon line. Walk up to it at eye level and you will see the image in the passive waters is made with fierce emotional brush strokes. Fury makes up the quiet reflection.

detail_balance-ed-fuentes.jpgDetail of Balance.

"The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Judith F. Baca's Experimentations in Collaboration and Concrete" closes December 16. Baca and Amalia Mesa-Bains will talk about the exhibition at a free event in the CSUN Art Galleries on Saturday, December 2, at 2 p.m.

Radical Women; Latin American Art, 1960-1985 closes December 30.

Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. closes December 31.

The U.S.- Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility closes January 7.

November 12, 2017

'This Land' is whose land?

CUmana_JMcKay_NCalame_JTorres_IAlda_RAzurdia_LTomlinson-(1).jpg"This Is Your Land." Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.

Neighborhoods change. Change often causes conflict. Conflict is usually an important ingredient of drama.

So it isn't surprising that modern dramatists sometimes reflect on changing neighborhoods, from "The Cherry Orchard" to "Clybourne Park" to... "This Land."

In "This Land," at the new Company of Angels home in northeast Los Angeles, Evangeline Ordaz takes a very long view of the changing occupants of one particular parcel of turf, located in what is now known as Watts.

The story begins in the 1840s, as the Tongva inhabitants are being displaced by a Mexican land grant property, Rancho La Tajauta. The narrative skips the brief period (1907-1926) when Watts was an incorporated city with a mostly white population, before its annexation by Los Angeles. But it covers the post-World War II era of the "Second Great Migration," when Watts became mostly African-American, and one of the characters in those scenes is a longtime white resident who isn't eager to join the white flight. The play also moves to 1992, as the area was becoming predominantly Latino, and 2020, as yet another chapter might be underway.

Ordaz shuns chronological order in her storytelling. Instead, she intersperses scenes from six different eras, creating characters in each era who are at least somehow related to other characters in other eras.

She's illustrating the commonalities as well as the more obvious differences among her characters. Achieving this goal is helped by using six of the seven actors in two or three roles each, from different time periods. The transitions between scenes set in one decade and those in another include moments in which similar gestures or other movements help make the connections.

RAzurdia_NCalame.jpgNiketa Calame and Richard Azurdia in "This Is Your Land." Grettel Cortes Photography.

This dramatic structure is remarkably ambitious, and it works remarkably well in Armando Molina's staging. Although there might be a few moments of initial doubt about who's who or when something is happening, clarity emerges.

This is not a dry experiment in dramaturgy and history. The human passions within scenes also become clear. Two marriages cross racial lines. Riots erupt. Culinary tastes change. The century-spanning, epic qualities are supplemented by nuanced human touches, all of it compressed into a running time that doesn't exceed the usual running times of more conventional realistic plays.

Center Theatre Group, which decades ago became known for its acclaimed multi-part epics such as "Angels in America" and "The Kentucky Cycle," commissioned "This Land." If a larger CTG production isn't already in the works, CTG should immediately start those wheels turning. This is a shining example of the kind of script that the last decade of CTG productions has been lacking - a fresh story that's grounded in LA, past and present, but which could easily touch wider audiences far from LA who might see their own local neighborhoods and cross-cultural conflicts reflected in its characters. A production at CTG's Mark Taper Forum would greatly facilitate that journey.

Meanwhile, the Company of Angels premiere is playing through November 20. This company, which has wandered through several changing neighborhoods within LA over the past five decades, is now producing on a surprisingly expansive stage near the County/USC medical complex, inside the Hazard Park Armory - the home of Legacy LA, a nonprofit that focuses on youth development in Boyle Heights. Judging from "This Land," I hope that the Angels will inhabit this land for a long time.

Also in Boyle Heights, one of the most conspicuously changing neighborhoods in LA, Casa 0101 recently produced Oscar Arguello's "Sideways Fences," a realistic family drama set in Boyle Heights itself. It focuses on an unmarried couple who face imminent parenthood as well as looming eviction from their apartment, which was converted from a detached garage. Although much more limited in its range than "This Land," "Sideways Fences" paints a grim picture of the challenging economic pressures that exist for low-income residents of neighborhoods that are becoming more upscale. It would be worth reviving in a year or so.

That sense of a very immediate connection to local concerns is missing from Casa 0101's current production, "An Enemy of the Pueblo," which is inspired by and loosely based on Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People." Playwright Josefina López took Ibsen's 19th-century tale of an upright doctor, who warns against the contamination of the local springs that serve as the headwaters of the local economy, and relocated it to "Milagros," a fictional Mexican border town. López transforms Ibsen's crusading doctor into a crusading curandera, who warns against similarly contaminated springs, even though she doesn't seem to care much about obtaining scientific proof of the pollution.

I saw "An Enemy of the Pueblo" last Saturday, the same day that the LA Times ran an article about action that's finally being taken against outdoor animal rendering plants that, for decades, have aggravated the predominantly Latino citizens of the communities of southeast L.A., and Boyle Heights itself. The article also mentioned the lead contamination in the same neighborhoods from the now-closed Exide Technologies battery recycling plant and other sources.

I wondered why López set "An Enemy of the Pueblo" across the border in a fictional small town when she might have adapted Ibsen's narrative to Casa 0101's own neighborhood, with its recent real-life environmental conflicts.

Leimert Park is another LA neighborhood that has gone through demographic changes over decades, and Velina Hasu Houston uses one specific chapter of that history in "Little Women," her new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel. The play is set in the aftermath of World War II, when Leimert Park - previously mostly white but on its way to becoming mostly black -- became a destination for some of the Japanese Americans who had returned from the internment camps during the war and found their previous neighborhoods disrupted (a topic examined in "Bronzeville," a play by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk, produced by Robey Theatre at LATC twice in the last decade).

Alcott's 19th-century style, generally maintained by Houston in this Playwrights Arena production, seems somewhat anachronistic in this context. I couldn't quite tell how seriously we were supposed to take it. Still, the performances are vivid under the direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera, in the Chromolume Theatre on Washington Boulevard in mid-city LA, not far from (northwest of) Leimert Park.

LWPressPhoto4.jpgRosie Nagasaki, Sharon Omi,
Jacqueline Misaye, Jennifer Chang, Nina Harada in "Little Women." Kelly Stuart.

Lots of Latinx theater

Right now, no one can complain about a dearth of Latino theater (or "Latinx" theater, if you want to use the gender-neutral alternative to "Latino" or "Latina," as many theater practitioners do these days).

Los Angeles Theatre Center and its Latino Theater Company are in the midst of hosting a second Encuentro festival, which is presenting 14 mainstage productions from six countries, plus a variety of shorter late-evening shows and a "Latinx Theatre Commons" conference in the downtown building. It's a theater-oriented answer to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the current Latino-oriented visual arts-oriented festival.

As the above discussion of Casa 0101 programming indicates, Encuentro isn't the only such fare in LA. A few weeks ago, Musical Theatre West in Long Beach revived Lin-Manuel Miranda's and Quiara Alegria Hudes' "In the Heights" -- a very savvy and popular move in the wake of the arrival of Miranda's even more popular "Hamilton" in LA. "In the Heights" scales new heights every time I see it, in part because I discovered that I can now appreciate the fast-moving lyrics more easily by listening to them while reading them on the Genius website that offers the same services for "Hamilton."

I sampled five of the Encuentro shows at LATC last weekend. Judging from those, my strongest advice is to see the festival's double-barreled mini-festival that depicts the plight of DACA "Dreamers": LA's Ensemble Studio Theatre production of Alex Alpharaoh's "WET: A DACAmented Journey" and "Deferred Action," from Cara Mía Theatre of Dallas, Texas.

Instead of competing, they complement each other. "WET" is a stunning autobiographically-based and mostly LA-set solo that EST has been presenting in Atwater for several months. "Deferred Action" is a fictionalized nine-actor play, by David Lozano and Lee Trull, about a Texas Dreamer who becomes embroiled in a presidential election in unexpected but not implausible ways. Both of them are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, and about as topical as theater gets.

I'll also recommend "Culture Clash: an American Odyssey" in its Encuentro incarnation. The satirical energy of this three-man group (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza), now in their fourth decade together, remains as sharp as ever. This collection of sketches and solos, some of them adapted from previous productions but others created for this occasion, produces a more consistent level of comic catharsis than many of the trio's full-length productions. Although Montoya's brief impersonation of his host, LATC artistic director José Luis Valenzuela, might be too much of an inside joke for some in the audience, most of those who know Valenzuela will find it irresistible.

Deferred-Action-2_by-Karen-Almond.jpg"Deferred Action." Karen Almond

October 29, 2017

Carmen joins Pearl Fishers as LA's orchestras soar

mirga-laphil.jpgConductor Mirga Grazynte-Tyla. LA Philharmonic.

Just in case you thought that we, in headline-exploding Hollywood, suffer a paucity of music performances, think again. All venues are up and running in this new season -- no one need hunger for more.

The LA Opera, for instance, gave us a tasty double dollop of Bizet, with a revived (but too-well-traveled) production of that grand perennial "Carmen" and a new-to-Los Angeles staging of the composer's lesser work, "The Pearl Fishers." To boot, both the LA Philharmonic and LA Chamber Orchestra have rocketed some extraordinary music into the cosmos.

You think they bumped some other less salutary news from the front page? It all depends...

Take "Les Pecheurs de Perles," for example (yes -- that's how we used to refer to this flawed pearl, in its original French). Nino Machaidze, who has delivered to us every type of role -- from her unforgettably sardonic comedienne in the hilariously inventive "Turk in Italy," to the fragile Juliet and now Leila, the girl of every fisherman's dreams -- does it again. Here the Georgian soprano reveals yet another gift: her most gorgeous French
vocalism -- think freshets of spring water trickling around a pure and light and agile coloratura; think revelation.

Well, that was one of the high points in an opera whose libretto dallies with shallow silliness via an impoverished Ceylonese community consoled by religiosity of a Hindu sort. After all, Bizet was a just a kid when he got the assignment to compose a score for it. He took another 12 years before his masterpiece, "Carmen," the existential music drama based on Prosper Mérimée's novella, came to the stage.

So say what you like about "The Pearl Fishers," its music is often glorious. And conductor Plácido Domingo traces every hemidemisemiquaver of its best parts in lucid, delicate lyricism, with his orchestra maximally up to the challenge. So, too, do the other cast members excel: Javier Camarena's bright, finely focused tenor (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza's sturdy baritone (Zurga); together they gave us the opera's hit tune duet, "Au fond du temple," swearing eternal brotherhood, until, that is, love for the same woman turns them to enemies.

Just know that director Penny Woolcock, who staged some of our era's most forward-looking contemporary productions, concocted a ramshackle, uncoordinated mess here.
The fishing village shacks, which do aptly suggest misery, make no sense with the next scene's modern office that has shelves of organized business folders and men's costumes that look like today's black jeans and t-shirts -- especially if you note the hootchy-kootchy, belly-dancer costume of Leila, a Hindu priestess until she turns femme fatale.

At any moment I was expecting Yvonne De Carlo to come out hip-switching -- what with Machaidze adazzle in her bare-navel drapery.

Just the opposite image -- no aliveness-- projected in "Carmen." This time, after many revivals of the Madrid-loaned production, we saw just its bare bones. Gone was the sun-drenched Seville street, in a lovely long vista with palm trees; now it's all dull and gray; the trees are missing, the lighting is dim and nowhere are Jesús del Pozo's summery pastels with men in borsalinos and berets.

Maybe these items got lost in transit?

And neither did we see a wholly alive cast interacting down to a hair's breadth, as last time, when directed by Trevore Ross; now Ron Daniels gives us an under-rehearsed, ill-considered show that lets performers merely trot out their routines, take center stage and sing, not to each other, but facing front.

But it helped that conductor James Conlon whipped up the score's searing drama and drew out its ravishing lyricism in the orchestra pit. What's more, Ana Maria Martinez, in the title role, sang with strong presence and solid vocal placement and greatly pleasing tone, even if she came across more like a CEO than the fatalistic gypsy bent on testing the limits of life and love. Too bad that Riccardo Massi, her Don José, often sang off-pitch, with strain, and barely gave definition to the hapless corporal Carmen tormented.

To get a livelier sense of character we crossed the street to Disney Hall where Gustavo Dudamel led the LA Philharmonic and a cast of resourceful singers in a concert version of "The Magic Flute." Ah, the musical joys. Even the dramatic joys, given the fact that there were no stage settings, just individual enactments. All shone as Mozarteans -- but let me single out Julia Bullock, whose purity of voice and heartfelt emotions rippling and nuancing through it, stay in our minds.

So do other encounters at Disney, where you can enter another world -- a special, sonic world far removed from the din of the day.

And sometimes you just want to sit back and let yourself be deluged by and wrapped up in the music. It can be that overwhelming -- in heightened, heart-touching tenderness, seraphic pleasure, compassion, un-nameable nostalgia.

I'm describing what happened when maestra Mirga (let's simply dispose of her last name for now) did Mahler Four with the Philharmonic. She let out all the stops, gave Mahler his head in each touchstone of the above and let the score dictate those emotionally graphic environments in full-out dimension.

Now understand the 30-year-old Lithuanian (full name: Mirga Grazynte-Tyla), who has taken over the Birmingham Symphony, is enormously talented -- not just based on various critical observations but, more important, on the elite professional company she keeps. But she's a new breed. The feminine breed. Not the masculine stereotype at all, although in these days of fluid gender -- the next Playmate of the Month is a transie! -- who's to say where the line gets drawn. (And while we're at it, there's hardly a male conductor -- not Bernstein, not Dudamel -- who has not used an expressly feminine gesture to cull an effect from players, proving that gender i.d. can be multi-faceted.)

So get this: In front of a huge orchestra playing Mahler, gargantuan music that often looms over the world, she remains a slight figure, as they say, a mere slip of a girl. When it storms she jumps up and down -- like a feather, not with power. She leads with her undulating arms, mostly bare arms (while all orchestra members and all conductors, even other women baton-wielders, are sleeved).

And because Mirga uses no shoulder engagement, the kind needed to lean in and down to embrace low strings and draw a sense of sweeping depth, the sound doesn't match the picture that players usually rely on. Instead, she resorts to fiercely gesticulating fingers, powerful facial animation and, in rhythmically geometric music, angular arm movements.
One observer wrote: "Mirga needs to find her inner man" -- for which he was roundly criticized.

But then the creative connoisseur Gidon Kremer, who knows best, has given Mirga a big nod -- so that pretty much takes care of that issue. He joined her and the orchestra for the Weinberg Violin Concerto and together they summoned up this grave, dense work so darkly gripping in the eastern European spirit of Shostakovich -- as Kremer's playing conjured distant, far-away cries in the night, aptly enervated.

Nor was he the only major violinist around town lately. The LA Chamber Orchestra opened its 50th season at Royce Hall, celebrating both its venerable history and Leonard Bernstein's centenary year with Joshua Bell finding the unremitting intensity and passion in the beloved composer's Serenade (a virtual violin concerto), led ably by Jaime Martin. It's no wonder we'll be hearing Serenade a lot this year based on its endearing Bernstein signatures -- they add up to a musical biography.

First, though, let me note that it's not everyday a 97-year-old founder gets to address onstage his orchestra's half-century mark; but Jim Arkatov -- a cellist who was brought by Fritz Reiner to the Chicago Symphony as the youngest orchestra player all those years ago -- did just that. With arms opened wide to the audience, he gestured a big embrace and warm thank-you for those sustaining the LACO as the greatly deserving little band that it is.

And no slouches, either, are its program directors who mix contemporary music and rarities of worth. A dazzling example came with Jennifer Koh, a violinist who has yet to find a thorny new score she doesn't play with life-or-death zeal. The vehicle, Lutoslawski's "Chain 2," (a concerto, really, although that genre name is passé), gave her that option and she took it with such striking ferocity that her bow's horse hairs ended in shreds.
The stellar Peter Oundjian led the ensemble -- he was an able cohort in that piece and opened the concert with the Pergolesi-based "Pulcinella," letting us hear Stravinsky laughing up his sleeve, all in jaunty fun, simple gracioso sweetness and swirling energy.

October 18, 2017

Symphony for auto

auto-symphony-main.jpgPhotos and video by Iris Schneider.

Ryoji Ikeda, an electronic and visual artist, added some magic to Sunday night's magic hour when he presented his original composition "A [ For 100 Cars]," a symphony based around A440, the standard tuning note of the Western world, played through the sound systems of 100 automobiles parked on a downtown roof, within sight of City Hall.

As any experienced photographer knows, the magic hour is the time just after sunset when the sky deepens with the colors of twilight just as the city lights come on. So kudos to Ikeda for planning his performance at the perfect time to appreciate not only the sound but the sight he created. Being a Christo fan, I love artists with big ideas who are undaunted by the logistical somersaults needed to pull them off.

I wish I could have been there for the car auditions that were held to determine whose sound systems were good enough to be a part of the piece. The cars ran the gamut from lowriders to vintage and everything in between. With their doors swung open to give their speakers their due, and headlights on, the autos looked like they were ready to take flight.

The performance was presented by Red Bull Music Academy — according to their website, RBMA "is a global music institution committed to fostering creativity in music." Begun in 1998, it now runs events all over the world--events were listed in Italy, Greece, Ireland, Germany, Argentina and the United States--from lectures to concerts, talks, dance events and more.

Nice to add many more notes to the repertoire of car culture in Los Angeles. Now when I hear a honking horn, I will remember the sight and sound of 100 cars humming "A" in unison as the sky goes blue around LA's City Hall.



October 14, 2017

Plays prescient and not so prescient

buchenwald-46.jpgBen Martin, Laura James, Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera in "Walking to Buchenwald." Photo by Darrett Sanders.

In two remarkable new plays, same-sex Angeleno couples are traveling with their parents or other older relatives in uncomfortable circumstances. But the discomfort has nothing to do with whether the older travel companions accept the same-sex couplings. Within these families, that acceptance is a given.

As its title indicates, Tom Jacobson's "Walking to Buchenwald" tackles much bigger topics. The Holocaust reference is, if anything, too specific. Jacobson's play resonates uncannily in the current political climate, in which so much attention is again focusing on the possibility of a nuclear-based catastrophe. This is all the more surprising when you learn that the play actually was written more than a decade ago, as the U.S. launched its campaign to find and destroy Iraq's ostensible weapons of mass destruction. Still, Jacobson never mentions George W. Bush or Iraq, just as he never mentions Donald Trump or North Korea.

No, his play's wider concern is the awkward position of 21st-century Americans, now so worried about nuclear posturing when in fact the U.S. is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons in warfare.

That might sound like too much territory to cover in a play that initially seems like a somewhat light-hearted comedy. The LA couple Schiller and Arjay, veterans of many foreign trips, decide to introduce Schiller's aging Oklahoma-based parents to Western Europe -- England, France, Germany. Because the parents are examples of a rare species -- liberals in Oklahoma -- the comedy arises not from any gay-straight collisions but rather from the differences in travel preferences and habits that might accompany any cross-generational quartet of traveling companions.

This interplay is fun for a while, but fortunately Jacobson gradually and subtly raises the stakes and expands the range of the play's themes. First, before we get to the existential crises mentioned above, his characters' conversations also embrace such topics as the roles of museums (Schiller is a museum executive) and theater (Schiller's father is a retired theater professor) -- which reflect Jacobson's twin professional interests. Then suddenly, a potential bombshell appears on the horizon.

Another unusual aspect of the play is that the roles of the same-sex partners can be cast with two women or two men. In the premiere, directed by Roderick Menzies for Open Fist Theatre at the Atwater Village Theatre, women and men alternate in the two roles. I saw the women (Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera), but I would also like to return to Atwater to see the two men (Christopher Cappiello and Justin Huen). Laura James and Ben Martin are delightful as Schiller's parents, and Will Bradley is a skilled chameleon in a half-dozen roles as the varied individuals this group encounters in Europe.

Is it all too much? No, non, nein. Jacobson tempers his vaulting ambitions with a light touch. At one point, the retired theater professor mentions how the Greek playwrights usually avoided front-and-center displays of violence, and Jacobson follows their example. Instead of shock and awe, he adds eerie uncertainty to his light-comic ingredients. The results are perfectly in tune with the mood of many of his fellow Americans right now.

Rachel Bonds' "Curve of Departure," at South Coast Repertory, features another same-sex couple from LA, Felix and Jackson. They're in Santa Fe to attend a funeral, sharing a two-bed motel room with Felix's mother and with his late father's father. Felix's recently deceased dad was estranged from all of them, preferring the new family that he had started in New Mexico. But the trio has nevertheless arrived to pay their token respects, accompanied by Jackson, Felix's LA boyfriend.

We soon learn that Jackson has some challenging demands from within his own family back in Bakersfield -- he's the temporary guardian of a two-year-old niece. Meanwhile, Felix's aging grandfather needs more and more help, and Felix's mother is considering ditching her teaching career to become her father-in-law's caregiver.

The racial and ethnic mix in this quartet in the motel room is extremely diverse, but any issues stemming from that fact are barely mentioned, about on the same level as the same-sex-couple issues. Instead, Bonds concentrates on a realistic depiction of this family at the intersection of these pressing situations, laced with a few gently lyrical passages that are likely to open tear ducts. Mike Donahue's staging, exemplary even by South Coast's high standards, features Kim Staunton, Larry Powell, Christian Barillas and Allan Miller.

By the way, for LA Observed readers I should note that the forgetful but still-articulate grandfather (Miller, wonderful in the role) is a staunch advocate of New York City, often at the expense of LA. When he praises New York's "secret pockets" that aren't immediately visible, Jackson replies that he has never thought of LA in that way. Actually, many observers over the decades have remarked on how so many of LA's attractions are under-the-radar. I've often thought of LA as generally less public than New York. But that was the only exchange in the play that rang even slightly false.

Grover's Corners, USA, North America

Our_Town_0236-1200x800.jpgSpeaking of our town, Pasadena Playhouse has mounted a new revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in collaboration with Deaf West Theatre. Naturally, it's ASL-infused in the distinctive Deaf West style, which should now be familiar to most LA theatergoers. The addition of ASL almost always manages to highlight previously unexplored nuances in a classic script. That's certainly true of Sheryl Kaller's lustrously designed staging of the American theater's most important and beloved non-realistic, non-musical play.

On opening night just about everything flowed smoothly except for Jane Kaczmarek's performance as the voice of the narrating Stage Manager. Although she brought a sturdy and congenial personality to the role, she bobbled a few lines, and I wondered if it was attributable to the fact that she was doing a little ASL signing herself, in addition to her spoken words. Several professional Deaf West-trained actors also interpreted the Stage Manager's lines in ASL, so it didn't seem necessary for Kaczmarek to divide her attention between speaking and signing.

As is common now with "Our Town," the Pasadena cast is racially diverse, the better to bring the play home to contemporary audiences who might not have felt welcome in a small town in New Hampshire a century ago. But it's not quite as multi-culti as the cast I saw just six days later, in another production of "Our Town," at a tiny black box in north Chicago. In this Redtwist Theatre production, as the audience sits around the perimeter of the room, the teen-aged lover George Gibbs is played by an actor described as "gender-fluid" in a local review. The gossipy and emotional Mrs. Soames is played by a black man, and the milkman's mechanized wheelchair serves as his horse-drawn vehicle. The Stage Manager is played by an actor described as "hearing-impaired," who signs and also uses his own voice, which was completely comprehensible, although he sounded as if he had a slight accent of unknown origin. It was an utterly charming "Our Town," but after seeing Pasadena's, I did wonder if ASL-reading audience members would feel slighted in the Chicago version, because only the Stage Manager appeared to be signing his lines.

Stormy stages

In the wake of recent hurricanes, it's easy to conclude that the programmers of the Mark Taper Forum and Fountain Theatre might have been prescient in choosing to produce plays, during the usual hurricane season, about big storms in Louisiana.

head-of-passes.jpgThe Taper and director Tina Landau are staging Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Head of Passes," in which the dying Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) is honored at a birthday party, only to be plunged into Job-like horrors that leave her alone in her slowly flooding home, providing Rashad with a platform to emote like crazy as she tries to converse with the Lord. The Fountain is producing Jeremy J. Kamps' "Runaway Home," directed by Shirley Jo Finney, in which a teenager runs away from home three years after Katrina, amid the still devastated precincts of the 9th Ward. Neither script is great; both could have benefited from additional rewrites.

But I'd like to raise a subject that concerns me more than the merits of either play. The recent hurricanes certainly were made worse by the warming of the ocean water due to climate change. Yet many of our putative leaders are either sticking their heads in the mud or actively taking steps to weaken the battle against climate change. If we're going to see plays about big storms, shouldn't the playwrights clearly focus on this current crisis, not on God's or Shelah's culpability ("Head of Passes") or even on individuals coping with the failures of our recovery efforts ("Runaway Home")? Surely we have playwrights who would know how to dramatize the potentially esoteric subject of climate change in human terms, illustrating how it's causing disasters for, say, Puerto Ricans.

That son of Puerto Ricans, Lin-Manuel Miranda, released a music video for Puerto Rican relief last about a new musical?

September 28, 2017

Look inland for more PST:LA/LA art

MissionInn.jpgMission Inn, Spanish Court with Anton Clock. Photo: Douglas McCulloh, 2016

Breaking down borders and walls is the call to action for "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA," the Getty Foundation-supported initiative showcasing Latino and Chicano art and artists who infiltrated over 70 institutions around Southern California. PST:LA/LA is so committed to the idea of crossing borders, there was even outreach to institutions from San Diego to Santa Barbara. To my delight, inland cities are also included as venues.

On Saturday, Riverside Art Museum's "Myth & Mirage: Inland Southern California, Birthplace of the Spanish Colonial Revival" will have a joint reception with UCR ARTSblock's "Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas," two exhibitions that refer to different fantasies: California infrastructure creating a myth of the land, and science fiction-driven identity of aliens.

riverside-art-museum.jpgRiverside Art Museum. To the left, a hint of the The Riverside Municipal Auditorium. Photo: Paul Speaker.

"Myth and Mirage" is housed in the Riverside Art Museum, a Mediterranean Revival standout with a red clay roof, designed for the YWCA by Julia Morgan in 1929. The building shows how the architect behind Hearst Castle and the Herald Examiner could create intimate curbside appeal that fits in with a California fantasy. That built mirage is the main theme of the exhibition: how Spanish Colonial Revival came from an imagined history that gave California a visual identity.

"We sought to make clear that Mexican and Spanish Colonial artistic and cultural traditions were the fundamental basis for the majority of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, but that the mostly-Anglo patrons, architects, and civic leaders who commissioned these sites created idyllic, hybridized, and ultimately completely fantastical interpretations," says Lindsey Rossi, curator of "Myth & Mirage."

In the 184-page catalogue there are rarely people seen with buildings being reinterpreted as sculpture, though the exhibition has dedicated references to the Native American and Latino workforce declared as an integral part of early local architectural history. "We were curious to know how residents of the Inland Empire, particularly the majority Latino population, interact with this architecture that is so widely believed to be rooted in their culture; many of us take for granted the proliferation of stucco, tiled roofs, and arched colonnades seen in nearly every Southern California outdoor shopping area or Home Depot," says Rossi. "We intend to clarify people's understanding of it and hopefully inspire thoughtful appreciation for their surroundings--both old and new."

In an essay for "Myth & Mirage," Riverside-based novelist Susan Straight wrote: "Alta California. Colonized eternally, murderously, artistically, and architecturally, and inextricably by many nations. The perfect coalescing of architecture and style, climate and desire, and open space and money, the California people see even now in film and print as vision all over the world." When attendees walk from the Riverside Art Museum to UCR ARTSblock they will walk past examples of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, making downtown Riverside an outdoor gallery.

Hector-Hernandez,-Bulca,-2015.-Courtesy-of-the-artist.jpgHector Hernandez, Bulca, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

About Those Aliens at UCR: Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas" at UCR ARTSblock in Riverside brings in international artists from across the Americas to test science fiction's genre to imagine utopian and dystopian realities. "We always imagine indigenous people being part of our past," said Beatriz Cortez, an El Salvador-born artist, to the New York Times. "I wanted to imagine indigenous people as part of our future." That runs through February 4, 2018.

Julio LeParc, Kinncchromatic Object, 1969/1986. Metal, wood, motor, gears. © Abraham Palatnik.

More Inland Presence: Palm Springs Art Museum surveys South American artists of the international Kinetic Art movement, which may challenge Southern California's claim to be the only North American source of Light and Space art in the 1960s, a response to European centers for kinetic art. Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954-1969 features 50 works--primarily kinetic sculptures and sculptural installations--by artists including Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Le Parc, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Martha Boto. Lights are on through January 15, 2018.

Jose-Clemente-Orozco_Prometheus.jpgJosé Clemente Orozco, Prometheus , 1930. Fresco, 240 x 342 inches (610 x 869 cm), Pomona College, Claremont, CA. Photo Courtesy: Schenck & Schenck, Claremont, CA.

On the Edge of LA County: Prometheus 2017: Four Artists from Mexico Revisit Orozco at the Pomona College Museum of Art is testimony to a long-lasting influence. The exhibition has four contemporary women artists from Mexico: Isa Carrillo, Adela Goldbard, Rita Ponce de León, and Naomi Rincón-Gallardo, responding to José Clemente Orozco's 1930 mural with new socially-engaged artworks. Through December 16.

Tatiana Parcero, Cartografia Interior #43 , 1996. Lambda print and acetate. 43 x 31 in. Scripps College. Photo credit: jdc Fine Art.

Revolution and Ritual: The Photographs of Sara Castrejón, Graciela Iturbide, and Tatiana Parcero is nearby, at Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College. "For these artists, identity is not based on an abstract concept but lived experience," writes Mary Davis MacNaughton in the exhibition catalogue. It runs through January 07, 2018.

When you are on the Scripps campus, seek out the Margaret Fowler Garden, home to "The Flower Vendors," a 1946 mural by Alfredo Ramos Martinez. It is not part of PST: LA/LA, but Martinez is a link between modernism and murals, and his works are one of the many featured in "Found in Translation" at LACMA.

the_purification_2013.jpgJudithe Hernández, The Purification , 2013. Pastel mixed-media on archival wood board. 30 x 40 in. © 2016 Judithe Hernández.

Activism: Another important show is Judithe Hernández and Patssi Valdez: One Path Two Journeys at Millard Sheets Art Center; this exhibit runs through January 28, 2018. It is the first time Hernández and Valdez share exhibition space with each other, even though they blazed similar paths in leading an aesthetic in a male-dominated art world, including through art collectives. Hernández was the only woman invited to join Los Four; Valdez was a founding member, and the only woman, in Asco.

Final Note: A full list of exhibitions that are inland, and other neighborhoods, are listed at PST: LA/LA. While it is almost improbable for Angelenos to view everything, the regions that the Getty Foundation reached out to in the spirit of expanded curation makes it easy for Southern Californians to find a way to be enlightened by PST:LA/LA.

Bourne again: 'The Red Shoes'

1_THE_RED_SHOES_Photo_by_Johan_Persson.jpg"The Red Shoes" photos by Johan Persson.

It was just a matter of time. When would Matthew Bourne attempt to cross Niagara on a wire? That is, make his stage version of the ever-enthralling Powell-Pressburger film, "The Red Shoes." Even if -- only a dare-devil would undertake such a feat.

He says himself that "it took 20 years" of musing on it, of hectic producing and creating other dance shows -- to a point of his being the most popular contemporary choreographer world-wide today. In other words, would he feel confident enough with his success, which includes the honor of knighthood, to do the deed?

4_THE_RED_SHOES_Photo_by_Johan_Persson-V.jpgThe answer, of course, is, yes, and "The Red Shoes," his engaging gloss on the Oscar-winning movie that has also won other universal awards -- not to mention the hearts/minds of movie and dance fans since its 1948 release -- is causing rapture everywhere it plays and here at the Ahmanson in its U.S. premiere.

All the elements find their way on stage: the ballet within the movie, namely, Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the girl who wished to slip on the gleaming red satin ballet shoes in the window and dance the night away -- but then finds herself trapped in them, and can't stop their demonic journey until she gets literally danced to death.

(Lovely. A metaphor we know for all the young, aspiring obsessive-compulsive ballet dancers who come to grief.)

And then there's the screenplay itself, which tells the same story but with real life characters in the dance world. Bourne suggests them all. He also fashions the choreography for the ballet-within-the-ballet; the debutante ballerina who is given the role of a lifetime; her cohorts and masters; her one-and-only-love, the ballet's composer.

What's more, he creates a movement narrative. Because Bourne tells a story as dance theater, strictly without words, there are his signature ensemble divertissements to carry things along. A favorite one would be the beach-ball frolic at Monte Carlo with its cartoonish hi-jinks, showing the Lermontov Ballet Company members at their summer retreat.

For music he turns to excerpts from Bernard Herrmann's various film scores -- momentous, mysterious, often engulfing and able to effectively raise the theatrical level to narrative needs.

And you can't discount all the rest of the dancing, with the main characters in identifying solos, duets, trios masterfully performed. Nor the cleverness of the stagecraft.

But what comes back to me over and over, thank you Sir Matthew, are the indelible scenes from the movie, the rich images that won't be shoved aside, the compelling drama that stops you in your tracks.

What Powell and Pressburger conjured is the deliciously haute atmosphere of a European arts-world realism, circa 1948. The time some years after Russian elites had fled to and inhabited Paris and London where they lifted their own creative quotient, through collaboration, to a zenith.

Imagine: Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, connecting with painters like Cocteau, dancers Nijinsky and Pavlova, choreographer George Balanchine, composer Igor Stravinsky et al. And did these movie masters make a feast of the material. Not as museum pieces, though. But as up-close fictionalized beings whose instincts and needs and passions and style revealed those entities down to their very fiber in "The Red Shoes."

Needless to say, the film is captivating -- its art direction and its utterly vibrant Technicolor (now restored), not the least of it; its skill in taking us to the interiors of this human realm. There's the Diaghilev figure, Boris Lermontov, and Anton Walbrook plays him as the unremitting autocrat -- resplendent in a silk dressing gown, presiding in his luxe office/suite, breakfast tray before him while he hardly deigns to look up at the various supplicants, one of them at the piano sampling different themes of ballet music.

In the now-famous dialogue between this suffer-no-fools impresario and ingénue Vicky Page, he asks: "Why do you want to dance?" To which she answers: "Why do you want to live?"

And that sets the tone, in this upscale scene where he'd been subtly set upon by the gorgeous redhead (Moira Shearer) who will fatally become his prima ballerina.

His horror at her eventual bloody death when she leaps onto the tracks of an oncoming train (with the fabled red shoes still on her feet), defines the anguished conflict. Which will it be: her heart's need to dance or to be with the man she loves, who demands her exclusively.

Yet there's nothing forced. There's no cliché. Not even when company director Lermontov appears onstage before the curtain and says to a waiting audience that the ballet "The Red Shoes" -- will never play again. It was made for her and only her.

Now Lermontov (Walbrook) is really the other half of Victoria Page, kindred spirits in their hell-to-pay beliefs. Martin Scorsese singles him out as the figure "who haunts my dreams."

But whatever Bourne intended, he did not compete with that assessment when he cast Sam Archer, who, in no way, resembles the movie Lermontov. Nor, on opening night did he coach him to be that distinctive character. A Clark Gable look-alike, Archer was only mildly in charge, rather nondescript as company chief and artistic arbiter.

Instead, we got a parody of a company ballet-master in Glenn Graham, who strutted around, with his puffed-out chest, jutting jaw and arched brow -- correcting dancers in class by tapping them with his cane. Yes, he was funny. And yes, we prize Bourne for his acute eye in spotting types we all know and blowing them up to caricature size.

Just remember that the film boasted two marvelous personages, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who each lent profoundly real dancer identities. He left them alone.

Otherwise the cast members acquitted themselves brilliantly. The dancing, as always in this company, boasted style and gusto and virtuosity. Ashley Shaw was the very picture of the dance-or-die Victoria Page. And the audience adored the whole thing.

It runs through Oct. 1. The film can be downloaded on YouTube

red-shoes-movie.jpgMoira Shearer and Anton Walbrook, "The Red Shoes," 1948

September 13, 2017

Why the LA Times' new theater column needs a new name

daca-mented.jpgAlex Alpharoah in "WET: A DACAmented Journey." Photo by Youthana Yuos.

Oops. The first show that was discussed in "The 99-Seat Beat" - a new, weekly LA Times theater column -- was "Silent Sky," at Long Beach's International City Theatre. ICT is not a 99-seat theater. It offers 249 seats at each performance. The column didn't mention the actual seating capacity.

Three days later, the Times ran a correction: "An article in the Sept. 1 Calendar section with recommendations for small-theater productions implied International City Theatre is a 99-seat theater. It is not." The accurate seating capacity remained unknown to Times readers.

A week later, the final part of the second installment of "The 99-Seat Beat" was a brief discussion of "Incognito," at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, which has 185 seats. Again, the larger capacity wasn't brought up - so again, as with International City Theatre, it would be easy to assume that the Rubicon has only 99 seats. So far, no correction has appeared.

In defining its turf, the first "99-Seat Beat" had initially mentioned "Hamilton," at the 2,703-seat Pantages -- but did so only to vow that this new column would be devoted to "the other side of the SoCal scene, the so-called 99-seat intimate theaters," as if "the SoCal scene" consists only of the Pantages and the 99-seaters.

The corrected online version of the first column, as well as the second column, tried to be a little more precise, using the phrase "99-seat theaters and other smaller venues" to describe the column's bailiwick. But "other smaller venues" remains ambiguous. Does it mean "smaller than the Pantages" or "smaller than the Mark Taper Forum" or the Geffen or what? It could even be interpreted to mean "smaller than 99 seats." Some of the venues mentioned in the column so far, apart from International City Theatre and the Rubicon, have capacities that are indeed smaller than 99 seats.

The confusion in the LA Times column isn't reflective only of its shrinking, multi-tasking staff. It's also reflective of the changing landscape of theater in Los Angeles County.

Until this year, the 99-seat mark in LA professional theater meant more than it means now. For decades, productions that occurred in venues with fewer than 100 seats were free of the obligation to use Actors' Equity contracts when their casts included Equity members. Instead, they operated under much less demanding agreements with the union, which didn't require any payment at all during the Equity-Waiver years (1972-1988) and required only token per-performance fees during the 99-Seat Plan years (1988-2016).

Now, after a recent change in Equity rules, many companies that operate with fewer than 100 seats are required to use Equity contracts that pay at least the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. But others, known as "membership companies" because they're supposedly self-produced by Equity members, don't have to pay anything at all.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that LA still has a level of "midsize" theaters that use Equity contracts in spaces with more than 99 but fewer than, say, 500 seats (although the contracts themselves have changed somewhat).

International City Theatre is one of the midsize companies that began at the 99-seat level but raised enough money and community support to advance to Equity contracts, in a midsize venue. Others in this group include A Noise Within, East West Players, and Los Angeles Theatre Center (formerly Los Angeles Actors' Theatre in its 99-seat days). Independent Shakespeare Company started in 99-seat theaters, long before it began offering free Shakespeare in Griffith Park to thousands.

These companies were justifiably proud of their ability to make that difficult ascent from the 99-seat world to bigger audiences and budgets, more professional standards and supposedly higher profiles. It's depressing that Craig Nakano, the current arts editor at the LA Times and the writer of the first "99-Seat Beat," doesn't seem to notice that these companies moved beyond the 99-seat realm years ago.

On the other hand, the 185-seat Rubicon never was a 99-seat company. It's in Ventura, and Equity didn't allow its 99-Seat Plan to spread beyond LA County. But there are also midsize companies in Los Angeles County that have almost always used Equity contracts - for example, Theatricum Botanicum, Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), the Shakespeare Center.

And of course there are other companies that never used the 99-seat plan but operate on Equity contracts in larger or upper-midsize venues, such as those run by Center Theatre Group (CTG), the Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, La Mirada Playhouse, Musical Theatre West, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Native Voices, the Getty Villa, and the relatively new Wallis Annenberg Center.

In other words, it was never accurate to boil down the non-Pantages or even the non-CTG LA theatrical community to "the 99-seat scene." But it's an especially inappropriate time to do it now, when new differences in the Equity requirements within the sub-100-seat arena have made that previously pivotal number "99" lose much of its point.

The LA Times should find a new name for its new column.

It appears on Fridays, and I'm glad that the Times has returned to its long tradition of including theater in its coverage every Friday, when many readers are making theater-going decisions for the weekend. But the new column would also benefit from a clarification of how it operates.

In the first installment, any hints about which shows Nakano had actually seen (if any) remained hidden. For example, how should a reader react to this unattributed yet oddly specific sentence about "Silent Sky": "Last weekend, the audience seemed particularly pleased by a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Parsons, an ICT and South Coast Rep veteran, and Leslie Stevens, who originated the role of Anne in 'La Cage aux Folles' on Broadway"? Who exactly was this "audience" who "seemed" to be "pleased" by two particular supporting actors? Nakano? A critic? Someone on Facebook?

Nakano twice cited Times reviews of earlier productions of two of the plays that were featured in his column - but he misquoted the 2010 Times review of "La Razón Blindada."

The second column, by regular Times free-lance reviewer Philip Brandes, did a much better job of using language that indicated whether the columnist had seen the production. Apparently the authorship of this column will rotate among regular Times free-lance reviewers. I can't yet decipher whether a mention in it will enhance or will eliminate a show's eligibility to receive a separate Times review.

By the way, the first-mentioned show in Brandes' column, "WET: A DACA-mented Journey," is one that should not be missed. Although Sunday had been its apparent closing date, it's now scheduled to return, on a different schedule, starting October 9. LA-based Alex Alpharaoh tells his own gripping story of being a "Dreamer" in the Obama era and now the Trump era, and he tells it very well, as staged by Kevin Comartin for Ensemble Studio Theatre, in Atwater. This production can only increase in topicality as he and we await the next turn in the DACA saga. I'm hoping to have an opportunity to see an updated version.

Finally, a nod to the above-mentioned Native Voices. The Autry Museum-based company, devoted to Native American talent and topics, has achieved a significant boost in its national reputation with the current production of its artistic director Randy Reinholz's "Off the Rails" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It's the first play by a Native writer that OSF has produced. And it's staged by OSF's artistic director, Bill Rauch, an LA favorite from his years as a co-founder and artistic director of Cornerstone Theater (another company, by the way, that often has used some Equity contracts in spaces that seat more than 99).

Native Voices first produced "Off the Rails" at the Autry in 2015. I liked it then, and I like the new version even more, at the OSF campus in Ashland, Oregon.

It remains an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" that's set in 1880s Nebraska, against the background of one of the infamous de-Indianizing boarding schools. It has a bitter side, considering its historical context, but it also features a rowdy set of scenes at the local saloon/whorehouse where the locals are planning their auditions for Buffalo Bill. It's almost a musical; for this production, Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit from Alaska, wrote original music and sound and Nick Spear added original music and lyrics, making up a rich sonic blend from various cultures. The design elements, especially Tom Ontiveros' projections of eloquent period photos, are memorably poignant.

I'd like to write more about "Off the Rails" when it returns to LA, as it certainly should. The Wallis would be a likely contender to present it, because the Wallis has imported previous OSF productions. But perhaps those who run other big LA theaters should go to Ashland and consider the possibilities. The final performance is on October 28.

photo-2017-off-the-rails-4.jpg"Off the Rails" ensemble in Oregon. Photo by Jenny Graham.

August 29, 2017

Dancer Melissa Barak visits her Chagall costumes at LACMA

melissa-barak-looks-iris.jpgMelissa Barak with Chagall costumes at LACMA. Photo by Iris Schneider.

The moment I walked into Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage I knew I was in for a treat. The newly opened LACMA exhibit is a magical and engaging intersection of music, costumes, sets, original design sketches and paintings. It highlights a lesser known part of the artist's oeuvre that many will be surprised by. While he flirted with aspects of modernism, Marc Chagall is primarily known for his fantastical, figurative style. The Russian-born artist was a prolific painter, illustrator, and designer and began collaborating with ballet, theater, and opera productions early in his career. His use of vibrant, saturated color and fairy tale imagery translated brilliantly to the stage.

Modern art curator Stephanie Barron collaborated with LACMA's Costume and Textile department to bring together elements from three ballets ("Aleko," 1942, "The Firebird," 1945, and "Daphnis & Chloe," (1959) and one opera, ("The Magic Flute," 1967) that create a multi-sensory experience for museum visitors. Music from each production and theatrical lighting add to the overall effect.

Personal confession, I am a big ballet fan. The Firebird, which continues to be part of many companies repertoire, is on my bucket list of ballets to see. Visiting the LACMA exhibit with former ballerina Melissa Barak gave me a sense of what it was like to actually wear Chagall's costumes. The choreographer and founder of Los Angeles-based Barak Ballet was a member of the New York City Ballet for nine years (starting in 1998) and performed in "The Firebird" multiple times with the company. For her, seeing the costumes again took her back to her early days as a professional dancer. "This is exactly how I remember them," she says, "and I remember exactly who wore what."

melissa-barak-cost-iris.jpgMelissa Barak at LACMA with costumes from "Firebird." Photo by Iris Schneider.

Barak was just 19 when she first learned "Firebird" as a new member of the corps de ballet. Struggling to survive in the notoriously fast-paced company, there wasn't much time to research the iconic creator of its costumes and sets. "I knew it was a big deal that Chagall designed for the ballet, but it was, 'we've got to learn this because it's going on in a few nights,'" she recalls. "There was no time to give lessons in art history. Now that I'm older, I can look back and see how amazing it was."

"The Firebird," set to music by Igor Stravinsky, was first performed in 1910 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Inspired by Russian folklore, the ballet tells the story of a young prince who strays into the magical kingdom of an evil sorcerer. There he discovers the magnificent "Firebird." There are also princesses and monsters, and enough drama and excitement to have given George Balanchine and his fledgling New York City Ballet its first box office hit in 1949.

Chagall was first commissioned to create the "Firebird" costumes and sets by Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theater) in 1945. Balanchine purchased the Chagall designs from Ballet Theatre in 1949 and updated the ballet with a speedier pace. In 1970 he asked his costume designer, Barbara Karinska, to rework the Chagall costumes "in her way," according to the exhibit's catalog. Balanchine invited Chagall to come to New York to supervise the work and there is ample evidence he that was extremely pleased with Karinska's interpretation.

"They're quite different from the 1945 costumes," says LACMA costume and textiles curator Kaye Spilker. "Karinska made big, fat monsterish kinds of things, whereas in 1945 they were much closer to the dancers' bodies." What did remain was Chagall's sense of whimsy and fantasy, which Karinska enhanced with the use of wire, feathers, horsehair, fur and fabric. Chagall's hybrid creatures and monsters took on new life. The company continues to use the 1970 designs today.

Barak was cast as a Winged Character (part of the monsters scene) and as one of the princesses, depending on the season. Unlike some fellow dancers who had to wear bulkier, more elaborately constructed costumes, hers were relatively easy to perform in. The Winged Character costume was a unitard with a mask, eliminating the need for the usual makeup and hair.

chagall-winged-lacma.jpg"When I first did "Firebird" it hadn't been performed in a long time. My group were all new to the company, so we were the new crop of monsters," said Barak. "I guess there was no time for a dress rehearsal because the first time we put on the costumes was for the actual performance!"

Right: Chagall design for "winged character" costume, 1945.

For classically trained ballet dancers, Chagall's cartoon-like monster costumes are a departure from what they're used to wearing onstage. She remembers everyone laughing in hysterics seeing each other in them for the first time. She especially recalls her amusement at seeing two of her friends, Jared Angle (now a principal dancer at NYCB) and Ellen Bar, acclimate to their slightly unwieldy and eccentric costumes.

"It was one of those pieces where you could totally have fun," Barak said. In contrast to the ballet's leading roles, the monsters choreography is playful and silly. "No one took it that seriously or really complained about it being difficult to dance or move," she said. "We had fun and laughed a lot. There was nothing technically demanding whatsoever, you were just part of a big picture."

August 17, 2017

'Hamilton' in LA in the time of Trump

Hamilton-Company-Joan-Marcus.jpgThe national company of "Hamilton," now at the Pantages in Hollywood. Photos by Joan Marcus.

"Hamilton" was one of the great cultural achievements of the Obama years. The president nurtured its growth by hosting a 2009 performance of the show's titular song in the White House, before the rest of the musical was even written. Then, after "Hamilton" had opened to widespread acclaim in New York, where its story is set, Michelle Obama called it "the best piece of art that I have ever seen" at yet another White House event in 2016.

That's not all. Both Hamilton himself and Barack Obama were young men from islands who came to the mainland and became brainy political superstars. And, yes, while Obama was serving as our first African-American president, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical was intentionally cast with actors of color in the roles of the white founding fathers.

Of course, now that "Hamilton" has opened in Los Angeles, the Obama years have been replaced by the Trump years - or at least the Trump months.

This week Trump, whose political rise coincided with his lies about Obama's birthplace, defended the crowd who chanted "Jews will not replace us!" while protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a Charlottesville park. To the extent that these fledgling Trump acolytes are aware of "Hamilton," you can imagine how they probably feel about the production's casting of black actors as Washington and Jefferson.

This doesn't mean that "Hamilton" is less relevant. It means that "Hamilton" is more urgent.


The casting isn't the only component of "Hamilton" that was designed to entice the larger, younger, more diverse audiences of the 21st century into a story about the founding of our nation - and into musical theater. Listen carefully - Miranda's score reflects a deep relationship with the music of his generation, as well as the music of Stephen Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Many of the lyrics are rapped, using intricate, ingenious rhymes that Sondheim himself has praised.

Beyond reaching a younger audience, Miranda's score also introduces older audience members to popular sounds that many of us started ignoring, decades ago. Simultaneously, Miranda satisfies the previous tastes of boomers with such examples as the music for the story's priceless appearances of King George, who sounds like a British pop star from decades ago.

Speaking of the '70s, the "Hamilton" narrative is more reminiscent of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice "Evita," a boomer-era classic, than of any other musical that quickly comes to mind. Or consider certain similarities to another '70s script, "Amadeus," in their two stories about rivalries between two men in the same profession - one of whom was clearly more naturally gifted than the other.

Yet "Hamilton" is much more complex than either of these precedents. Its story achieves the stature of classic tragedy. Hamilton's explosive, verbal personality contains the roots of his own destruction - and even that of his son.

Miranda gives the "damn fool that shot" Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry in LA), such rich dramatic texture that some observers have questioned why the show's title has only one man's name. When "Hamilton" received its Tony awards, the actor who played Broadway's Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) won for best leading actor in a musical, defeating Miranda himself, who played Hamilton. In LA, Henry's Burr creates more of a visceral response from the audience, especially in "The Room Where It Happens," than Michael Luwoye's performance as Hamilton.

In other words, although "Hamilton" is clearly an Obama-era creation, it's hardly a "kumbaya" version of how happy we'll all be if we can just get along with each other. The exuberant spirits of the first part of "Hamilton" are severely chastened before it ends. In 2017, this emotional arc corresponds more accurately to that of Obama's fans than it did to their 2008-2015 (or pre-November 2016) journey.

I didn't see earlier versions of ""Hamilton," so I can't compare the experience of seeing it at the Pantages Theatre here to any of its previous incarnations. In Hollywood, I was near the front of the mezzanine, which gave me an expansive view of the stage and the choreography but limited views of the actors' facial expressions.

The sound quality inside the Pantages is presumably state-of-the-art, but (as I predicted in my column a month ago) the live experience also brings aural distractions in the form of audience reactions, especially when there are 2,700 people in the room. Listening to the score in advance (it's free here) is still the best way to hear and appreciate all of the sometimes fast-moving lyrics and to understand in greater depth what's happening, scene by scene.

However, there were certainly moments at the Pantages that I had not yet appreciated by only listening to the score. One of them was the profound silence of those 2,700 people during the pauses as Eliza Hamilton (Solea Pfeiffer) sings "Burn." Another was a cheeky lighting effect in one of the appearances of King George (Rory O'Malley) and his deployment for a few moments outside his own solos.

Miranda had the dramatic license to take a few liberties with the actual facts, apparently with the blessing of Ron Chernow, the biographer whose "Alexander Hamilton" inspired Miranda's idea. Chernow took a bow during the curtain call on opening night at the Pantages, along with Miranda and the other key creators - music supervisor Alex Lacamoire, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail.


Still, as a reader of Chernow's tome, I'm going to mention a couple of historical subjects that aren't addressed in "Hamilton." First, although the script makes several references to Hamilton's abolitionist activity (an especially apt theme in the wake of Charlottesville), it doesn't mention the inconvenient truth that his in-laws' family, the Schuylers, owned slaves in upstate New York.

Second, how can a chronicle about the early days of the American nation entirely ignore the original inhabitants of America, especially when it's a show that's so devoted to diversity?

Chernow notes in his book that in 1781, the Schuyler home was the target of an attack by a group of about 20 Tories and Indians but also that Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, negotiated with Indians around Albany to guarantee their neutrality. Hamilton himself "championed a humane, enlightened policy toward the Indians" and in 1793 joined the board of a new school that was designed to educate both white and Native Americans boys, in English and in Indian languages. That school, initially dubbed the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, was later named Hamilton College when it received a new charter in 1812, after Hamilton's death. It still exists (now with women as well as men).

Dear Mr. Miranda - please apply your remarkable theatrical and musical savvy to the subject of how to mention these topics in your inevitable movie.

Elsewhere around town

"Hamilton" is hardly the first production to update and diversify seemingly antique stories for the current times. Directors have long been interpreting Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. Two of my favorites among the professional Shakespeare productions in LA this summer were adventures along these lines.

Only one of them, Independent Shakespeare Company's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" in Griffith Park, is still playing. It's a model in how to handle this famously difficult comedy. Director David Melville applies a lively rockabilly sheen to the music (directed by Dave Beukers), choreography (by Katie Powers-Faulk) and costumes (by Ruoxuan Li), and he argues persuasively in a director's note that this sensibility is in accord with the original play's spirit.

His cast deciphers sometimes-laborious comic exchanges with remarkable verve and clarity. And Melville nimbly traverses the script's most controversial moment with the help of an original musical finale that takes a feminist stance that's more modern than rockabilly. In fact, just about everything he attempts works so well that he apparently had a problem knowing what to cut, so the production runs a little too long. Plan on three hours in the park, including the long intermission, which will only become longer as more fans of no-admission-charge theater realize that this great deal won't last forever.

TWO-GENTLEMEN-ds.jpgNikhil Pai, Sylvia Kwan and Evan Lewis Smith in "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Old Zoo at Griffith Park. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

The other highlight of my Shakespeare experience this summer was farther from LA - Shakespeare Orange County's "The Tempest" in Garden Grove's alfresco Festival Amphitheatre. Director Peter Uribe added Korean drumming and dancing (choreographed by Josh Romero and Miock Ji) and Asian-inflected design (sets by Dipak Gupta, costumes by Jojo Sui). Two Ariels (Daniel Kim, Jay Lee) had a fleet of "Midsummer"-like assistants, apparently cast from among the Korean dancers.The script's island appeared to be located somewhere off an east Asian coast instead of in the Mediterranean. Yet the vision remained strikingly coherent, even with non-Asian heavyweights in the cast, including Harry Groener as Prospero, Morlan Higgins as Caliban and Hal Landon Jr. as Gonzalo. Apparently the play's Italians were taken or blown way off course by the titular storm.

Meanwhile, at our other major summer alfresco venue, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, my top pick isn't one of the Shakespeare plays but rather "Trouble in Mind." This Obie-winning Alice Childress play from 1955 isn't as well-known as her later "Wedding Band," but in some ways it's a more assured script. Maybe it's because in "Trouble," Childress was writing about the world of black actors in the New York theater in the '50s, which she had experienced firsthand. The luminous performances of Earnestine Phillips and Gerald Rivers, as black actors in a white liberal's would-be anti-racism play, help raise the emotional and political stakes.

Only one of Center Theatre Group's three summer productions is still playing, and fortunately it's the best of the three - Simon Stephens' adaptation of novelist Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," at the Ahmanson Theatre. It begins on the seemingly intimate level of a case study of a 15-year-old British kid who's apparently on the autism spectrum, as he investigates a dog's death. But it soon begins to fill the large Ahmanson stage thematically, scenically and choreographically - although it's not a musical. The second act attempts to give the audience a visceral feeling of what it must feel like when this young man ventures outside his comfort zones, using a variety of non-verbal methods. As staged by Marianne Elliott, it's a revelatory journey.

Stephens also wrote "Heisenberg," the two-hander that played CTG's Taper this summer, but it was small and forgettable in comparison to "Curious Incident." Meanwhile, over at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre, Lauren Yee's "King of the Yees" initially stirred interest as a meta-theatrical examination of the playwright's relationship to her father, a member of a Chinatown social club in San Francisco. The first act incorporated intriguing references to the real-life case of the imprisoned ex-Sen. Leland Yee, but the second act devolved into excessive flights of fancy.

Finally, a nod to the late Sam Shepard. Can we count him as an LA playwright because of his youth in Duarte? Maybe not, but he certainly appeared to bring an LA sensibility to such plays as "Curse of the Starving Class" and "True West."

Curious-Incident-ds.jpg"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at the Ahmanson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

August 8, 2017

A Tchaikovsky cartoon (or not) and a Sondheim show stopper

sondheim-show-dp.jpgSondheim on Sondheim. Photo: Mathew Imaging

Will the real Tchaikovsky please stand up? The one who wrote transcendent music that stormed the heavens, waltzed in chandeliered palaces and drank to the depths of morbidity?

Well, the Russian composer did actually climb out of the bin of busy name-traders when the LA Philharmonic played his Fifth Symphony at Hollywood Bowl. It was eminently reassuring to hear the whole musical mind materialize -- thanks to the superb playing led by Rafael Payare.

And when Dudamel himself opened the Bowl season -- with ABT's starry dancers on the bill -- he illuminated some of Tchaikovsky's most striking ballet characterizations, letting us hear them as though for the first time. I never knew, for instance, that the bent-over, old crone of a wicked fairy, Carabosse, ("Sleeping Beauty") was a gargantuan menace, just from the music. That's the long and short of it.

But earlier, at the Music Center, we had Boris Eifman's bio-ballet "Tchaikovsky, Pro et Contra," an over-packed epic that leaves you spent in its bathos. Over what? The composer's homosexuality -- not to mention its kaleidoscopic use of sketches from "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "Eugene Onegin."

And even more, there was Hershey Felder's Tchaikovsky bio-drama at the Wallis. (More on this later.)

Still, it took Tchaikovsky's own full-length, uninterrupted symphony to give us the non-verbal, non-danced portrait of the creator and to demystify his allure, his great musical powers -- not some puerile, billboard concoction of his life's personal turmoil.

Payare, a baton-wielder who is yet another incarnation of Venezuelan music men (and an ironic success message in contrast to the besieged nation's roiling state), even looks a bit like Dudamel: somewhat slight, with a massive mop of black curls draping his face.

But his stick technique is nowhere near as defined or refined. What mattered more, though, were the sophisticated musical values he drew from the orchestra. It was an all-enhanced reading -- with thanks to Dudamel's previous rehearsals -- that dug deep into the fabric without focusing on the commonly asserted bombast and spectacle. Here we could believe that Tchaikovsky was a composer whose hyper-expressive chronicles were structured in complexity, yet not slighting them.

Too bad, though, that re-creators of Tchaikovsky's life glom onto just the emotional trauma surrounding it. Yes, many believe that he committed suicide by cholera, deliberately infecting himself to that end. Yes, he was often overwhelmed with depression. Yes, being gay back in the 19th century took a heavy toll socially and legally, not to mention the despair felt from his thwarted desire to lead a tolerable straight life.

But just imagine handing this scenario to a movie auteur, Ken Russell, or to the Eifman Ballet choreographer, or to that pianist-actor-writer Hershey Felder who weaves stage dramas of famous composers. All of them are capable of exalting hysteria to the highest degree, given half a chance. And I can report they did just that -- instead of drawing a true artistic composite. Remember the powerful Nijinsky portrait, just last year at UCLA, the show created by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson? Think back.

Curiously, Eifman's 2005 "Anna Karenina, " whose score also used healthy doses of "Serenade for Strings" and the "Pathétique" Symphony, was not only within the choreographer's grasp, but it marked his highest standard. Lighting, sets, costumes forged to make a work that was extravagantly cinematic and theatrical and coherent. Maybe the Tolstoy novel set a course that the choreographer could sensibly (and brilliantly) follow.

As for Felder's opus, all I can think is that the longer he continues down his list of composer bios, the more clichéd the staged result. It's one thing to send up detractors Leonard Bernstein encountered early in his career, but when Felder uses exactly the same cartoonish takes on Tchaikovsky's senior Russian academy naysayers, we have to think we've been here too often.

Overall, the story rolls out as a storybook tale for sixth-graders as told by a doily-minded grandmother -- overly earnest and simplistic.Surely Tchaikovsky was not that. What's more, Felder's intermittent trips to the onstage piano, playing excerpts here and there, seem arbitrary.

Back at the Bowl things improved mightily. First of all, the Philharmonic's artistic/marketing mavens certainly know how to woo, uplift and inform the city's cross-sections. How about a program of Beethoven's Ninth (its joyous idealism a breather in our time of governmental degradation) joined with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait," narrated by none other than Vin Scully. Is that a coup, or what?

We remember back eight years ago when Los Angeles welcomed Dudamel to its cultural citadel, Disney Hall, and the podium star then returned the favor at the Bowl with the free concert, featuring Beethoven's Ninth, the one he titled "Bienvenidos Los Angeles, " bridging all the Americas.

This performance was even better, of course. Because now, he and the orchestra read each other like a still-stimulated married couple who can luxuriate in the back-and-forth of knowing dialogue maneuvers. Not incidentally, the sound system currently delivers quite an upfront punch, without too much distortion or unnaturalness.

Before all that, at the opening of summer's Cahuenga Pass showplace, we had yet another encounter with dance. And even though the LAPhil/Bowl ongoing arrangement with ballet eminences seriously deprives them of their theatrical impact, Dudamel and Co. are going for the impossible: trying to follow these lovelies prancing on the stage apron -- while sitting behind them!

misty-copeland-marcelo-gomes.jpgMarcelo Gomes and Misty Copeland. Photo: Mathew Imaging

Still, who could discount Marcelo Gomes as the White Swan undulating elegantly with muscular power as Matthew Bourne's male hero in the Tchaikovsky classic. How I'd love to see him on a proper stage. Or Natalia Osipova with Sergei Polunin, their starkly reined-in, pale pathos as Giselle and Albrecht. Or even the most publicized ballerina of all, Misty Copeland (a Time magazine cover, 60 Minutes subject, big-time endorsement queen). She danced Juliet to Gomes' Romeo, a wonderful match-up as the star-cross'd lovers who have a pin-point definition, physical thrust, and energy to spare.

But the best Bowl production put on by the Philharmonic and its resident maestro (who spun around to face the 18,000-strong crowd -- a sellout -- and sing a few lines from one song) had to be "Sondheim on Sondheim."

It was glorious. And you can be sure every Sondheim fan beat a path to this one-night-only shrine. To wit, the terrific orchestra (not a scratchy pit band) under an inspired Dudamel, the cast, the arrangements, the four-part vocals, the choreography, the show excerpts, the interpolated interview clips with the master, the nostalgia, the songs with their subtle, poetic meanings that make us cry -- "Losing My Mind," "Not a Day Goes By." All of it.

July 19, 2017

Now on stage, the apocalypse


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht had been living in exile from Nazi Germany in Denmark for six years when he published "Motto," the famous epigraph to his Svendborg Poems in June of 1939. In less than three months, Hitler's invasion of Poland would plunge Europe into the swirling madness of World War II. By then Brecht was on the run again, to Sweden, Finland, and by 1941, to the United States, where he made his home in Southern California for the next six years. In 1947, Brecht was called to testify about past Communist affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and to the consternation of his friends, acting on the advice of his lawyers he agreed to do so. He denied Communist Party membership and named no names, but the following day, Brecht left for Europe, never to return. He eventually relocated permanently to East Berlin, where he died in 1956, a proud holder of the Lenin and Stalin Peace Prizes, at the age of 58.

As a Jewish émigré and committed Marxist during the rise of fascism in Europe, and later Cold War anti-communism hysteria in America, Brecht knew something about living, and singing, in and about the dark times. A friend first sent along his little verse to me shortly after 9/11, which until the election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, had been easily the darkest day of my political life.

Today, however, we find ourselves in a political crisis without precedent in American history. We've had wars, we've had depressions, we've had political assassinations, we've had widespread civil unrest and even a civil war. But never has our federal government been taken over by a group of people so utterly lacking in experience, judgment, competence, temperament, respect for the Constitution and laws, transparency and accountability--lacking even in their fundamental obligations to serve the public and protect and defend the country against foreign adversaries. We have elected the enemy, and he is us.

So yes, dark times. In this context, then, what is the role of the artist? To expose, to comment, to criticize, to amuse? Since last fall, it's been all of the above onstage in Los Angeles, where the theatre community has risen mightily to the challenge with a range of both original and classic material that in various aspects speaks directly to our unique and unsettling historical moment.

Under the guidance of artistic director and executive producer Marilyn Fox, Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice has just opened its revival of "Rhinoceros," the legendary but rarely performed absurdist parable by Eugène Ionesco, set in an unnamed French town in "the middle of the last century" where the populace inexplicably begins transforming into rhinoceroses. The Romanian-born Ionesco wrote it in 1959, informed by his youthful experience watching friends, teachers and colleagues increasingly embrace Romania's homegrown but Nazi-aligned fascist Iron Guard movement. Written and first produced in French, its English-language London premiere in 1960 starred Laurence Olivier and was directed by Orson Welles. Despite its critical and commercial success, and an extended run in a larger house, the clash of egos and backstage tension helped ensure that it would be the last stage play Welles would direct.

With its slapstick moments, broadly drawn characters, and sometimes nonsensical dialogue, audiences could easily mistake "Rhinoceros" for simple farce, or an anodyne endorsement of individuality against a tide of conformity, of letting your freak-flag fly, as did a lame 1973 adaptation reuniting Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in what played more like a flabby sequel to "The Producers" than taut political allegory. But the more discerning critics and playgoers recognized it for what it was: a horror story, as PRT's accomplished company properly plays it. Actor-playwright Keith Stevenson is Berenger, the play's baffled but ultimately brave everyman hero, while the production is directed sensationally under his nom de directeur "Guillermo Cienfuegos" by Alex Fernandez, a seasoned actor who plays Jean, the other leading role originated on Broadway by Zero Mostel. His transformation scene is truly a show-stopper.

Early last September--when we could still contemplate a totalitarian assault on our freedom from what seemed like a safe remove, with Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight giving Clinton a 69.6% chance of winning against Trump's 30.4%--we attended a different kind of political horror show: the current presentation of the Actors' Gang sturdy adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," directed by Tim Robbins. Effectively condensed into a torturous interrogation of Winston by his tormentor O'Brien, backed up by four nameless Party functionaries, the whole thing is imaginatively staged in the Gang's signature bare-bones format, relying more on lighting, sound, and creative blocking than on conventional sets, props, and costumes. Disturbing, yes--but like a ghost story that gives you a good shiver, secure in the knowledge that such things can't possibly happen in real life.

Until they do. And so in late November, still reeling in shock at the election results, we saw the Kirk Douglas Theatre's production of "Vicuña," a sharp and timely political satire that had been feverishly written, rehearsed, and mounted roughly between the primaries and Labor Day by Jon Robin Baitz, best known for "The Substance of Fire" and his prolific episodic and mini-series TV work. The story revolves around a vulgar, blustering Trump avatar, Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), whose presidential campaign is in desperate need of a boost heading into the final debate. As he is being fitted for a bespoke vicuña suit--a sly if unsubtle nod to a notorious Eisenhower-era scandal--by a high-end tailor, Anselm de Paris (originally a poor Iranian immigrant who has reinvented himself), Seaman's racism, sexism, and narcissism emerges on full display. It's all too much for Anselm's woke, and outspoken, Muslim protégé Amir, who--to the embarrassment of his patron--fearlessly confronts Seaman over his intolerance. The play's happy ending seemed a safe bet on its opening night of October 23, when FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton an 86.2% chance of winning against Trump's 13.8%. Who could have known that only five days later, FBI Director James Comey's email announcement would, in Nate Silver's analysis, cost Clinton the election?

Finally, there was "Transition," a one-act maiden effort for last month's Hollywood Fringe Festival written by longtime entertainment reporter, commentator and author Ray Richmond. He imagines the awkward meeting two days after the election between Barack Obama (an uncannily convincing Joshua Wolf Coleman) and Donald Trump (a bombastic Harry S. Murphy), as the outgoing president earnestly attempts to orient his terminally inattentive and distractable successor about his new responsibilities. While lacking much dramatic structure or story arc, Richmond's play offered a wry but insightful exchange between two emphatically unequal characters.

It has been said that art is not a mirror, but a hammer; it shapes, not reflects. Small wonder, then, that along with his incessant attacks on a free press, independent fact-checking sources, and political dissent generally, President Trump's "America First" budget would eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In dark times, that's all the more reason to wield that hammer, as these artists have, with both force and purpose.

July 5, 2017

Cramming for LA's 'Hamilton,' Shakespeare's problematic "Me" plays

Michael-Luwoye-&-Isaiah-Johnson---HAMILTON-National-Tour-(c)-Joan-Marcus.jpgMichael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson in the national tour of "Hamilton." Photos from Hamilton by Joan Marcus.

In the fall of 1931, the grand opening of "Alexander Hamilton" was in Los Angeles.

The debut of the Warner Bros. biopic about 2017's-most-fashionable Founding Father was the initial attraction at the brand-new Warner Western palace, now known as the Wiltern -- at, yes, the corner of Wilshire and Western. Back then, the Wiltern had 2,344 fixed seats (now it has flexible configurations). A title card in a newsreel about the star-studded opening night claimed that "the most tremendous crowd that ever attended a theatre opening any where [sic] in the world was present."

Next month, "Hamilton," the acclaimed stage musical about the same Founding Father, will open its first Los Angeles engagement. Lin-Manuel Miranda's creation will be performed eight times a week from August 11 through December 30, at the 2,703-seat Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It's likely that more Angelenos will see "Hamilton" this year than any other theatrical production.

I haven't seen the 1931 movie or Mary Hamlin's 1917 play on which it was based, nor have I yet seen the contemporary "Hamilton." But I've listened to "Hamilton" online, and I've watched excerpts from the filmed "Alexander Hamilton" on YouTube.

What a difference 86 years can make.

George Arliss, the English actor who played Hamilton in the movie, was 63 in 1931, even though Hamilton was in his 30s during most of the events the film chronicles. If you're wondering why so few of the actors on stage in "Hamilton" are white, when their historical characters were white, consider that the stage actors are at least more age-appropriate than was Arliss.

Solea-Pfeiffer,-Emmy-Raver-Lampman-&-Amber-Iman---HAMILTON-National-Tour-(c)-Joan-Marcus.jpgOf course neither of these productions aimed for a photorealistic or an entirely accurate representation of the historical characters and events. The larger goal of the "Hamilton" casting policy is to make the political events in the late 1700s matter to the diverse young people of today's America. The larger goal of the movie's casting of Arliss was probably to take advantage of his celebrity. Two years earlier, he had won the best-actor Academy Award for playing another historical political character, Benjamin Disraeli.

Before I see most musicals for the first time, I try to avoid reading the script or listening to the songs. I like to be surprised by the drama and the music as they unfold in the moment, in their original context. Normally it's only after I see a show that I want to have the script and/or a recording handy, so I can fact-check what happened, as I consider my own recollections of what I just saw.

Earlier this year, however, I decided to violate my usual policy for "Hamilton."

The show is already swimming in the cultural mainstream. Hordes of people who have not seen "Hamilton" have already listened to its score. The cast album rose to third place on the Billboard 200 list and first place on the Billboard rap chart. "The Hamilton Mixtape," a compilation of covers of "Hamilton" songs (and songs inspired by the show) debuted in first place on the Billboard 200. Even more important, anyone can listen to the "Hamilton" cast album free of charge on the Genius website -- and read the spelled-out lyrics and notes on each song.

The sounds of "Hamilton" have created a modern version of a pre-rock phenomenon, when songs from hit musicals often appeared on the pop charts and radio playlists, becoming easily accessible to millions of people who hadn't yet seen the actual shows.

Meanwhile, "Spamilton," a parody revue from "Forbidden Broadway" creator Gerard Alessandrini, is running about a block away from the Broadway production of "Hamilton." And Center Theatre Group will open an LA version of "Spamilton" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City next November, while "Hamilton" is still playing in Hollywood.

Going into the show, I didn't want to be less acquainted with "Hamilton" than so many other people who also haven't seen it. And so earlier this year I embarked on a pre-"Hamilton" syllabus.

First, I read the Ron Chernow biography "Alexander Hamilton," which inspired Miranda to write the musical. Yes, it's long, but it's completely engrossing for anyone who has the time and inclination. If you can't afford to buy the book, the Los Angeles Public Library and other local libraries offer many copies, in hardbound and electronic formats, although you might have to wait in an electronic line for a copy to become available, especially as "Hamilton" draws closer to LA.

After finishing the book, I listened to the cast album on Genius, reading many of its notes as well as the lyrics. This might well be the most valuable pre-"Hamilton" step anyone can take.

"Hamilton" has a lot of words, often rapped very quickly. According to Leah Libresco on the FiveThirtyEight website, the recorded "Hamilton" word count reaches 20,520 - 144 words per minute over the 2 hours, 23 minutes of its cast-album running time. Libresco compared that to seven other cast albums of musicals that might be seen as similar in one aspect or another, and "Hamilton" easily outscored all of them in words per minute.

One song in "Hamilton," "Guns and Ships," has one verse in which 19 words are uttered in three seconds, which tops anything in the famously tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" -- although Libresco noted that the Sondheim song requires the singer to keep up a rapid-fire pace longer than does "Guns and Ships."

If you need yet another reason to read the lyrics in advance, consider this - because of the extreme popularity of "Hamilton," some of the initial lyrics of certain songs might be drowned out by unfortunate whoops or even applause from avid fans at the "Hamilton" performance you attend. Of course I can't swear that this will happen, but I wouldn't be surprised. If it happens, it would be smart to have an idea of what was drowned out, based on your previous research.

If you don't have time for either Chernow's book or even the Genius website, you could do worse than to turn to Wikipedia. The articles on Alexander Hamilton and "Hamilton" in Wikipedia don't have any of those unsettling warning flags at the top that offer editorial criticisms of what you're about to read. The article on the show offers a useful summary of the historical inaccuracies in the musical, for those of us who want to know that sort of thing.

Still concerned about spoilers? Well, if the only thing you remember about Hamilton from your history classes is how he died, then you already know how the play ends, more or less. If you don't know even that much, so be it. I'm not telling.

"Hamilton," of course, is hardly the only old story that has been infused with a contemporary perspective in recent years. Last Sunday, I saw an "Oklahoma!." produced by 3-D Theatricals, that acknowledges the presence of Native Americans and black settlers in Oklahoma in 1907, when the story takes place. Three Indians (by the way, they're played by actors who offer no clue in their program bios as to whether they're Native Americans) open this version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic with a brief nocturnal scene — but with no dialogue — before the "Beautiful Mornin'" begins. These characters remain as members of the chorus during the rest of the show. Several African-Americans are also among the Sooners, most notably Rufus Bonds Jr. as Jud Fry, the show's lonely villain.

Still, race remains largely an unspoken topic. The goal of the African-American casting of Jud was to make Jud more sympathetic, according to a program note. Yet I've seen other halfway-sympathetic Juds -- and the casting here could also be interpreted as re-inforcing a negative stereotype of a black man who covets a white woman. Whether we're supposed to think that any of these revisions represent what Oklahoma was actually like in 1907 remains somewhat unclear (would no one have mentioned race in 1907?), in contrast to the purely imaginative leap in 'Hamilton" of casting white roles with actors of color.

Still, it's good to see director T.J. Dawson wrestling with these concerns. The production looks and sounds great at 3-D's new second home at Cerritos Center, with especially fresh choreography by Leslie Stevens and strong performances of all the prominent roles.

Shakespeare's thorny 'Me' plays

Measure-for-Measure---2---Mike-Ditz-Photography.jpgEvan Lewis Smith and Kalean Ung star in "Measure for Measure." Photo: Mike Ditz.

LA's two major alfresco theaters have opened their summer seasons with problematic plays by Shakespeare, "Measure for Measure" and "The Merchant of Venice." Not only do these scripts appear side by side on alphabetical lists of the Bard's plays, but they also share momentous concerns - the qualities of justice and mercy.

Of the two, the later "Measure for Measure" is the better, somewhat more cohesive play. Although it has a few loose ends, it lacks the uncertainty provoked by "Merchant" over whether the play is exposing anti-Semitism, embodying it - or both. This concern is somewhat similar to the question hanging over the casting of Jud Fry in 3-D's "Oklahoma!" (see above).

Independent Shakespeare Company's "Measure for Measure," which is offered free of any admission fee at its venue in Griffith Park's Old Zoo area (through July 23), is deftly directed by Melissa Chalsma. As Isabella, Kalean Ung credibly transforms from a tentative novitiate into an impassioned advocate. David Melville's Duke provides a few non-verbal suggestions of the surprising question that he will pop near the end of the play, and his snazzy jacket at the beginning and end suggest that he enjoys his game of subterfuge almost in the manner of a game-show host. The comedy is funnier than usual, thanks to some anachronistic references, expert clowning and bright, imaginative costumes.

Despite the best efforts of Alan Blumenfeld in the problematic role of Shylock in "Merchant" at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, plus a couple of extra-textual touches that attempt to depict Shylock's sense of pain at the hands of his fellow Venetians and his daughter, the play retains an discomfiting awkwardness. It seems simultaneously dated (exhibit A -- Shylock's chosen method of revenge) and unfinished (the way in which Portia ignores her own fine speech about "mercy", the blithe and heedless trivialities of the final act). It's an artifact from history, not a transcendent glimpse into our humanity.

June 25, 2017

A new team of Yuja and Gustavo

Yuja Wang performing in Switzerland. Nicolas Brodard | Verbier Festival

She's perky, slight, cute as the dickens, gorgeously attired, unfazed by her own personal chic -- not to mention her fashionably revealing concert garb -- and, by now, she's the paragon that much of the world knows her to be: a whiz-bang virtuosa who is utterly indefatigable.

Yuja Wang is that singular pianist.

So do forget any previous notions you may have of how a keyboard wonder should appear. Were you thinking the bearded Radu Lupu, shlumpfing onstage to his little straight-backed chair (not a piano bench) where he communed with the Brahmsian heavens? Or the bespectacled Alfred Brendel, who duck-walked unprepossessingly to his Steinway before unraveling the likes of Beethoven? Or other deep-minded poets of pianism? Or those fustian personages of the classical concert world?

None of those fits Wang. For starters, she steps out onstage to audience oglers, wall to wall, who are rightfully expecting a runway vision. She belongs to her millennial generation. And to its current culture. She is her own person, with highest credentials in a music realm that no mere pop performer could even conjure, much less master.

Remarkably she tosses off gargantuan challenges with the ease of a wizard. No sweating brow to be mopped at intervals. No sign of exhaustion at the end of her travails. Just petite Yuja bouncing around on her bench, hair flying, long svelte bare arms and curved slender hands going at blur-speed over the keys.

It was Bartok this time, an actual mini-fest with Wang and Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic closing out their Disney Hall season with the Hungarian composer's piano three concertos book-ended by other eastern Europeans, Stravinsky and Janacek -- all of it a swell sweep through the 20th-century sound of the region.

dudamel_dp.jpgWhat's more, Wang's and Dudamel's focus on the Bartok concertos was a boon for concert-goers who routinely visit the same war-horse repertory year in, year out.

Especially so was the 2nd Piano Concerto in the duo's expert hands -- she letting loose a glittery splash of passage work with octaves exploding in a spray of splintered crystals, then pressing back in a feathery mist of languor haunted by a percussionist's low drum-roll rumble.

And let's pause here to note the astonishing Bartokian innovations throughout these rarely played pieces, which Dudamel keenly noted in cueing his ever-alert musicians. Often a single unexpected instrument entered into a dialogue with the piano protagonist. And the crashing orchestral accents were in perfect sync with her. All of it was scintillating.

But just in case that featured work was not enough Wang played an unprecedented three encores -- count 'em, three -- to audience demand: her own flashy (of course) extrapolation of Mozart's "Turkish" March rondo, the three-part "Petrushka" excerpt and, in case, you thought there might be too little inwardness in her musical mind, Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade."

Finally she traipsed offstage, her long slinky spandexy gown covering her spike-heeled shoes and uncovering her back to the waist, while some ticket buyers might have asked "What's wrong with this picture?" Or "Does the phenomenal performance match the high-glam vision?" And "Can the two co-exist in the mind of the beholders?"

The answer: Get used to it. And don't be surprised when every major concert presenter not only books Yuja Wang regularly but makes sure to splash her picture across its brochure. Who says an eyeful doesn't crank up the concert hall boxoffice? After all, a rarity like this is an audience draw. And besides, there's the suspense factor: Will her next costume, again, be a thigh-high bandage dress? Atop 5-inch platforms?...

But life goes on in the ordinary realm, too, where black formal attire, and stiff white shirts bring their own accustomed comfort -- the magic there surely does not escape us when Dudamel & Co. ply their deep musical resources.

That's what happened in the orchestra's Schubert/Mahler cycle. The playing, on the night with Schubert's Fifth Symphony, had a chamber music quality that was unearthly -- an overall delicacy, with instrumentals finely-honed like bells pealing, their voices so distinct and clear yet unified. This was not the formatted Schubert we often hear, pedaled on rhythmic repetitions.

It was different. And so was the Sixth, which ended the evening. Dudamel had the band springing and swinging to rhythms he alone perhaps could elucidate. Much of it is a dance, according to his ear. And the orchestra had him -- as a dancer -- at its helm, with every hemidemisemi-quaver transmitted through his raised eyebrow, his shrugged shoulder, or his elegant swoop down to urge on the violins.

We're left to wonder: has there ever been a conductor who telegraphs the music so indelibly through his entire mobile body?

At the mid-point, a perfect juncture between the two symphonies, came Mahler's Rückert Lieder, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke penetrating the pure unadorned stream of mortal release these poetic songs speak to -- hard to do in these times when everything comes in coarse, overblown rhetoric.

Not least, the evening boasted the valedictory sentiments spoken to the outgoing CEO Deborah Borda and by her. So if you were not there, just try to imagine the hugs and kisses and spontaneous affection pouring out on the Disney stage.

Leave-taking is one thing but repeat visits are also an occasion-- as with choreographer Matthew Bourne and what he calls his current touring production, "Early Adventures," hosted by the Wallis.

Of course everything Sir Matthew does and always has done is an adventure -- remember his "Swan Lake," our first encounter with his style of upending the classic ballet? How he included the Royals (specifically the Diana-Charles saga) as narrative and gender-swapped the swans' personas?

At first glance the purist New York critics cringed, without penetrating his brilliant satire tinged with sweet comedy, his portrayal of menacing male swans (no fluttering females), his masterly dance segments -- but later caught on. And his record of sold-out shows over the past two decades, not to mention awards in every theatrical arena, has easily topped other dance companies.

So it's no surprise that umpteen productions later he's bringing us works he made before that time, the early '90s, and while they may not ultimately measure up to his best efforts they offer some delicious kernels of insight woven into movement.

Nothing struck me more than the urban episode of "Town and Country," which Bourne subtitled "Lie back and think of England." Perfect. It entailed the Brits' fussy, outdated norms of behavior, barely hiding the under side of libidinous cravings -- all seen at a posh hotel. Especially evocative is the shy, awkward beginnings of a couple -- one man sitting timidly, legs tight together, and embroidering (yes, embroidering) while the other, a punctilious waiter, serves him tea. Later on, we see them strutting arm in arm, a unit of woven togetherness, almost smugly inviolable.

It's these images that stay etched in the mind. Dance theater at this level needs no words, nor endless choreographed routines.

June 15, 2017

Low and slow all for show

justin-favela-pinata.jpgJustin Favela in Las Vegas with the Gypsy Rose Piñata, the life-size paper sculpture of the famous lowrider. Top three photos by Ed Fuentes.

Diverse and complex commentary on the symbolism of lowriders through traditional and alternative art is the promise of In High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Curator Denise Sandoval, who earned her doctorate by reading lowriders as cultural markers, sought new visual approaches for this, her third such themed exhibition. She cruised the mean streets of Google to find how the Mexi-conic lowrider is being interpreted "as an art object" by a younger generation of artists.

That's how she found the life-size lowrider piñata by artist Justin Favela, 30, whose green machine, based on a 1964 Impala, was first created in 2013 for "Next Exit: Route 66," a group exhibition in Las Vegas. When the artist was selected as one of 102 artists for "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now" at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, it was reassembled and delivered.

Do you still have it, Sandoval asked Favela.

No luck. It was scrapped for parts in 2015 for "Chop Shop," a ceremonial lowrider piñata disassembly exhibition.

Marveling that there hasn't been another artist who plays off the symbolism and form of the piñata, Sandoval asked Favela if a new one could be ready for the Petersen Automotive Museum's upcoming exhibition.

Karla-Lagunas-pinata.jpgUNLV art student Karla Lagunas matching side panels on "Gypsy Rose Piñata," the life-size paper sculpture of the famous low rider.

Fortunately, some larger pieces were still stored away, so Favela called on Karla Lagunas and Jessica Vanessa Alvarez, plus art history professor and LatinosWhoLunch podcast partner Emmanuel Ortega, to make an underground Las Vegas Chicano Art skeleton crew. They labored to assemble and glue tissue paper on cardboard frames. That at on blocks in a large space looking like a car waiting for repairs. Next to it, the "hoods" were mounted on a wall, giving the warehouse the feel of a custom car shop.

This time, however, a generic ride wouldn't do. In less than two weeks, in between two out-of-state art residencies, Favela and friends recreated the Mexi-conic lowrider, Gypsy Rose, the metal and motor, pink paint and red rose artifact that is as sacred to Chicano-ism as a Guadalupe mural on an East Los Angeles tienda.

"We researched to study the three versions of Gypsy Rose," said Justin of the series of lowriders named after Gypsy Rose Lee, built by the late Jesse Valadez. The third incarnation was passed on to Jesse Valadez Jr., who recently saw his father's creation chosen by the Historic Vehicle Association to be inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register and archived by the Library of Congress.

Jessica-Vanessa-Alvarez-pinata.jpgChicanx artist Jessica Vanessa Alvarez, a recent UNLV BFA grad, details the hood of Justin Favela's "Gypsy Rose Piñata."

A few times, Favela paused to step back and look at "Gypsy Rose Piñata" to talk over details so the crew would be guided on how to keep the spirit of the car intact with paper and cardboard. It is also one way Favela, who is Mexican and Guatemalan-American, speaks to his hometown where constant appropriation of culture has made casino sculptures as temporary as piñatas. The life-size piñata may not stash candy, but it is a treat of waggish Latino Art ephemeral.

"He's turned left and creating his own lane," says Sandoval.

"Gypsy Rose Piñata" was completed last week and took a direct route along Wilshire Boulevard. Hopefully it took a detour down Whittier Boulevard.

The exhibition at the Petersen opens July 1.

The completed Gypsy Rose Piñata. Photo by Justin Favela

Previously on LA Observed
Jesse Valadez, co-founder of The Imperials

How the Gypsy Rose Became the Most Famous Lowrider in the World

June 7, 2017

Sebastião Salgado on a life in photography

salgado-ZoeGroup.jpgSebastião Salgado. Zo'e Group, State of Para, Brazil, 2009. ©Amazonas Images/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Sebastião Salgado, 73, has not taken kindly to the age of iPhone cameras and images that disappear within seconds. He much prefers tattered family albums with pictures looked at again and again, until the edges are frayed from years of use, but the memories remain strong and pass from one generation to the next. Salgado spoke to a small crowd Tuesday night at the Getty Center to coincide with an exhibition at Bergamot Station and a retrospective of his work in San Diego.

He spoke about his life as a photographer and made a very distinct point: "Today there are very few photographers," he said, "but there are a lot of people with cameras." He feels that a photographer is one who puts his life into photography, 24/7, who has become truly comfortable with his subjects, something that can only be gained over time. Indeed, as many of his beautiful images flashed on the screen, images well-known to any devotee of documentary photography, one seemed to epitomize what he was talking about.

It stays in my mind. A beautiful portrait of a young woman from an indigenous tribe found in the Amazon, she has her arms over her head, at peace in a hammock, totally comfortable in her skin and with Salgado, who has recorded the moment with an ease that can only come once you have been fully accepted by the community.

"I never made pictures like a butterfly...You must spend time living with people, and allow yourself to participate in their lives," he says. He is not one to flit from flower to flower. "I prefer long term projects."

His latest project, "Amazonia," on the Amazon and its people, is halfway to completion. After decades of documenting the worst that man can do — to each other and the planet — he has chosen to see that which makes him optimistic: the idea of community and the commonalities that we share as human beings on the planet. He sees the Amazon as the last forest, and if we keep killing it, he says, we will be lost as a species.

So he has spent the last four years, and three or four more to come, recording the beauty of the Amazon and its people as a call for us to preserve what remains before it is too late to save. He sees his body of work as a record of our species, telling the human story. Salgado invoked what Lorca said: man alone is like dust, but together we are something.

He doesn't see himself as the instrument, making photographs. Rather, by immersing himself in these communities, his photography becomes something that both he and his subjects participate in, a very personal connection. "People come to the camera like they are speaking into a microphone," he says. And Salgado seems fulfilled and happy to let his images be their voice.

MOPA San Diego
Sebastião Salgado: Genesis
24 May, 2017 - 30 Sep, 2017

Peter Fetterman Gallery
Sebastião Salgado: A Life in Photography
3 June - 2 September, 2017

Related on LA Observed
Sebastião Salgado and 'Salt of the Earth'
Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

June 4, 2017

LACMA costumes curator on Queen Victoria as fashion icon

clarissa-dress-iris.jpgClarissa Esguerra shows Victorian-era silk taffeta dress from England. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Britain's Queen Victoria has been gone for 116 years but she lives on in the world of popular culture, continuing to attract and fascinate audiences. Played on the big screen by actors Judi Dench ("Mrs Brown", 1997 and "Victoria & Abdul", 2017 ) and Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria", 2009), she is currently being portrayed on television by Jenna Coleman in the PBS Masterpiece series "Victoria." The UK-produced show's first season aired in the U.S. earlier this year and is now in production for the second, to air here sometime in 2018.

victoria-pbs.jpgIn any screen treatment of Queen Victoria, the clothes matter. When she reigned, the silhouette of women's dress changed dramatically, and not just in England. Early women's fashion magazines in America and Europe took their cues from what Victoria wore.

Recently I visited with Clarissa Esguerra, LACMA's associate curator of costume and textiles -- and the department's resident expert on all things Victorian -- to talk about Victoria as fashion icon. During her 64-year reign, Victoria was hugely influential and her style of dress was a large part of that. The museum houses over 2,500 pieces of Victorian-era clothing. Costume designers and students of fashion history are able to study them up close at the museum's Doris Stein Research Center for Costumes and Textiles.

"Victorian fashions were strongly influenced by Queen Victoria, her reign, and the society that she ruled," says Esguerra. "Unlike monarchs before her, she was not fickle, but very steady, traditional, and serious." She points out that the look of women's clothing shifted when the Romantic era transitioned to the Victorian. "The silhouette had been an hourglass shape with exaggerated, wide sleeves and skirt hems with small, slightly elevated waistlines. Dresses were also considered more whimsical with elaborate trims. When Victoria became queen in 1837, you started to see a general sobering of fashion, still beautiful and delicate but color became more somber and trims were less loud."

Victoria was 18 when she inherited the throne. She married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, just 3 years later. It was a love match and the marriage was passionate and complex. Though Victoria was known to detest pregnancy, the couple had nine children. "She was kind of a model of what would become middle class virtues, of respectibility, hard work, gentility, and kindness. She liked stability," Esguerra said.

Example of cartridge pleating.

Clothing historians often refer to Victorian women's fashion as "hyper feminine." Huge skirts (which depended heavily on multiple petticoats) and tiny waists (corsets required) were de rigueur. The fitted bodice, sloped shoulders and bell-shaped skirt were key to the period's silhouette. A sign of status was to show off as much fabric in their skirts as possible. A technique called "cartridge pleating" (above) allowed dressmakers to fit the maximum amount of fabric possible into a waistline.

"All of that volume made the waist look even smaller and created 'area' around the woman," Esguerra says. "Women became less mobile and there began to be physical distance from men." When it came to their clothing, Victorian men were very rule oriented. The goal, according to Esguerra, was to "look genteel -- it was all about the tailoring." Padding was used to create the "ideal torso." Men were not supposed to show any kind of finery. "If anything it was more about being respectable and dressing in a very methodical way." she said.

Victoria's sartorial influence was made possible by a revolution in ladies magazines in the early 19th century. Widely circulated, they were "very much structured like magazines now where you have a section of what's fashionable, who is wearing what and where they wore it, including court functions," says Esguerra. Before photography, hand-painted engravings served as illustrations, documenting the clothing worn by ladies of society and the queen herself. The ladies magazine Godey's was instrumental in spreading Victoria's fashion influence in America. Started in 1830, Godey's was published in Philadelphia for 48 years. It's editor, Sarah Hale, admired Victoria and published images of her.

Photo by Iris Schneider.

Plaid became popular in the mid-1850's when Victoria and Albert built Balmoral, a retreat in the Scottish highlands. "It became the rage" Esguerra says. "I think wearing plaid was a way for her to connect to the land where she built this estate. Plaid became fashionable in mens, womens, and childrens clothing for years after this. She made it fashionable for the masses."

Later on, Victoria also set the standards for mourning dress. Devastated when Albert died tragically at the age of 42, she outwardly expressed her profound sorrow by wearing black for the rest of her life. "She made it fashionable to mourn your loved one," said Esguerra. "There were very strict rules and and specific stores for mourning wear."
When asked what advice she would give to a costume designer about to design for an actress playing Victoria, Esguerra didn't hesitate. "Think about the silhouette and think about her subtlety. She wasn't glamorous -- she didn't want to be a glamorous woman. She wanted to be a genteel, respectable wife and queen. She wasn't flashy, but she was beautiful."

And just what is it about Victorian-era clothing that might pique a modern audience's interest? "It must seem so otherworldly to people today," says Esguerra.

"Social rules were followed as to what was appropriate to wear according to time of day, company and occasion. The time it took for men and women to dress -- with all the layers of underpinnings -- is completely different from how we dress today."

She speculates that perhaps the desire to be transported back to another time is the answer. In any case, I'll be checking back to hear Esguerra's verdict on the costumes for the PBS Masterpiece series. I know she'll be paying close attention.

victorian-trail-coat-lacma.jpgvictorian-dress-lacma.jpgTail coat circa 1840, woman's plaid silk taffeta dress circa 1855. From LACMA collection.

Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty
Talking hats with 'Trumbo' costume designer
Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'
Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum
A peek inside Universal's closet

May 30, 2017

Satirical salvos in 'Monster' and 'Archduke'

monster-builder-scr.jpgSusannah Schulman Rogers and ​Danny Scheie in ​"The Monster Builder." Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

South Coast Repertory produced three new plays this spring that referred, in different ways, to groundbreaking classics of the late 19th century.

Fortunately, the best of these is still playing one more weekend. It's Amy Freed's "The Monster Builder" — a wild and woolly present-day takeoff on Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder."

Earlier in the spring, SCR produced Michael Mitnick's "The Siegel," which is in part a modern variation on Chekhov's "The Seagull," and Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," which is an explicit sequel to Ibsen's part 1.

Calling "The Monster Builder" the best of these three plays might surprise observers of the national theater scene, because it's Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," in a different production, that subsequently opened on Broadway, following its premiere at South Coast. The New York rendition received eight Tony nominations - more than any other non-musical play. Laurie Metcalf, who played Nora in that production, is considered the favorite to win the Tony for best actress in a play, when the awards are announced on June 11.

I haven't seen the Broadway version. But Charles McNulty of the LA Times summed up the differences between South Coast's premiere and Broadway's subsequent production this way:

"What in Costa Mesa plays like a thought-provoking drama has become most emphatically a comedy of ideas...What was somewhat awkward about the play in California - the contrived set-up, the smattering of anachronistic cursing, the fuzziness of Nora's emotional truth - now seems less problematic in the more explicitly comic context. But some dramatic strength is sacrificed in the quest to wring as many laughs from Broadway theatergoers as possible."

I agree that the "A Doll's House, Part 2" at South Coast wasn't very funny and that the plotting felt contrived. But I didn't notice the "dramatic strength" that McNulty cited. The production's virtually academic austerity wasn't redeemed by any ideas that sounded surprising, after a century of similar discussions about gender and marriage and parenthood. Of course if Metcalf is willing to give the role a second shot in L.A., I'll be glad to give the play a second shot; sometimes the production's the thing, as opposed to the play.

Meanwhile, South Coast's "The Monster Builder" is at least 10 times funnier than was SCR's "A Doll's House, Part 2." Of course Freed's "Monster Builder" is a satire instead of a serious sequel. Satirists have a lot more latitude for exaggerating the comic elements to the point of absurdity - in fact, that's usually how satire works. "Contrivances" are not necessarily bad in this genre, as long as they're done skillfully enough to take us along on the outlandish journey the playwright has contrived.

It also helps that "Monster Builder" is satirizing a topic that is seldom examined on the stages of America, especially in comparison to the gender- and family-related subjects that were addressed in "A Doll's House."

Freed is mocking "starchitects" and other urban developers who seek to impose their egos on the landscape in the form of big, bold new buildings that dominate or even uproot everything around them.

At first I found it refreshing that here is a satire that doesn't mention Donald Trump. But then it occurred to me that Trump, in fact, spent most of his life doing exactly what I described in the previous paragraph. Freed might not have been thinking about Trump initially - the play pre-dates Trump's candidacy. But nowadays it's hard not to think of the Trump Towers titan while watching this play.

South Coast's production, savvily staged by Art Manke, features a dynamic performance by Danny Scheie as Gregor, the title character. And its cartoonish set looks as if Tom Buderwitz must have enjoyed designing it. We certainly enjoy watching the crazy antics that take place on it.

Rajiv Joseph also uses satire in his new "Archduke," the springtime offering at the Mark Taper Forum, also still playing through Sunday. But Joseph doesn't hit his targets as precisely as Freed does in "The Monster Builder."

His central character, "Gavrilo," is clearly meant to suggest the historical Gavrilo Princip, who ignited World War I by assassinating an archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. But satirists who use real-life names while discarding much of the real-life context are often headed for trouble. In modern drama, flights of fancy are much easier to swallow when they're clearly fictitious.

archduke-ctg.jpgStephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in "Archduke." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In this case, Joseph's Gavrilo is a complete newcomer to politics, drafted into activism for transparently absurd reasons that depart from the historical record. And the grisly effects of Gavrilo's actions remain entirely offstage. We're supposed to understand that the assassination will set off a devastating conflagration, but Joseph doesn't bother to give us a taste of the results, lingering instead in a prolonged and often strained attempt to keep us laughing.

Joseph is probably trying to say something about the deluded stabs at glory that are made by contemporary young male terrorists. But Taper audiences already saw a much more successful satire about that subject, Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," which looked at a group of fictitious contemporary terrorists. McDonagh brought the gory details of the carnage onstage.

"Archduke" is a pale echo of "Inishmore." For that matter, it's not nearly as strong as Joseph's previous plays about somewhat similar but made-up characters, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" (also seen at the Taper) and "Guards at the Taj" (seen at the Geffen Playhouse).

Los Angeles Theatre Center's Latino Theater Company also is completing its spring season with a new play, "The Sweetheart Deal," that includes elements of satire, in the form of brief doses of the actos that El Teatro Campesino used to spur on the farm workers during the California UFW strikes of the '60s and '70s. The playwright, Diane Rodriguez, was a young actor in some of those actos back then.

But the focus of her play isn't on the actos, the performers, or even on the farm workers themselves. Instead, she sets most of the action inside the headquarters of the UFW newspaper, with her primary attention on a middle-class Latino couple who volunteer their services and end up paying a steep price.

The play maintains a mostly realistic style, and it's mildly involving. But as I watched, I kept wondering if it was ever going to migrate over to the farm workers themselves, and perhaps the growers as well. It didn't. To use a phrase from journalism, it seems as if Rodriguez has "buried the lede."

Ebony Repertory Theatre's production at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Boulevard also feels somewhat off-target. For its annual mainstage production, Ebony usually presents something much more substantial than "Five Guys Named Moe."

This musical revue "celebrates the music and persona of the seminal saxophonist, singer and bandleader Louis Jordan," according to the producer's note in the program. But Jordan, who spent most of his post-1942 career in LA and died here in 1975, isn't a character in the revue's bare-bones book. And according to the music credits, he contributed to the writing of only nine of the 25 musical numbers (one of his five wives, Fleecie Moore, is credited with two others). "Moe" offers momentary pleasures, but I would have enjoyed learning a lot more about Jordan.

In the smaller theaters

Given my frequent campaigning on behalf of telling LA stories in LA theaters, I should mention that "The Gary Plays," Murray Mednick's three-part, six-play creation, set mostly in LA, is being produced in its entirety by Open Fist Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre. I saw the first and second parts, which include plays 1-4. I especially appreciated the third play, "Gary's Walk," in which the titular small-time actor is homeless and walks around large swaths of LA, with the assistance of Hana S. Kim's projections. I saw play 5 in an earlier production.

I wasn't caught up in "The Gary Plays" to the extent that would appear to be necessary for something that requires so much time. Even "Angels in America" was in two parts, not three. Compared to a living room, a theater isn't necessarily the best place for binge-watching.

In "I Carry Your Heart," at the Bootleg, Georgette Kelly manages to tell the tale of a heart transplant from the perspectives of the recipient, the donor's daughter, the recipient's partner, and even the donor's spirit -- in 90 minutes with no intermission. Skillfully staged by Jessica Hanna on an unusual circular set by Sibyl Wickersheimer, it's an intriguing and gently moving story.

It's also interesting for its funding, much of which comes from a Templeton Foundation grant for an academic study on hope and optimism - a study in the disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences, but with a theatrical component. It's an example of the kind of enterprising fund-raising that will help small theaters survive, as Actors' Equity's new requirement to pay actors the minimum wage gets off the ground.

May 18, 2017

'Tosca' glitters, Calleja swoons, Abraham and Taylor dance

sondra-r.jpgSondra Radvanovsky

Finding a nugget of gold just may be worth a whole, long dig. But trust me, it wasn't easy to spot in the case of LA Opera's "Tosca" -- which nearly covered up Puccini's musical pointers and even distracted all eyes from the composer's dramatic focus.

So often I found myself peering at the first-act set: a scaffold holding the heroic artist's painting, a Madonna face with each section arranged on different landings, and wondering how he and his diva could climb up and down the steep, spiral staircase while trying to act out their romantic exchanges -- she wrongly in peasant dress, not as a grande dame of stage, he looking and acting like a pudgy accountant.

None of this, in the John Caird/Bunny Christie revival at the Music Center Pavilion, James Conlon conducting, served Sondra Radvanovsky well in the title role, as surroundings go. But with her, we hit gold. Shine she did -- like no other in memory, barring Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. Especially in the hit tune, "Vissi d'arte," where her voice's thrilling power at the top, its plush and plummy tone, its fullness everywhere on the scale was also what it needed to be: an anguished call to the heavens for mercy.
And the audience knew it had witnessed something extraordinary, even beyond the instant applause-getting result, jumping from their seats in explosively long, loud ovations.

Still, this Tosca and her Mario, Russell Thomas, a sterling-voiced tenor, behaved more like sister and brother than as inseparable lovers. And in the second act we had Scarpia, the villainous chief of police, operating from a bombed-out warehouse crammed with giant sculptures, art booty atop packing crates -- and not from an elegant apartment at the Palazzo Farnese. Ah, but the veteran Ambrogio Maestri, as that bullying, lecherous monster, asserted his authority vocally and dramatically and sure looked like today's known power-abuser, Roger Ailes, in his lusty pursuit of Tosca.

Often, though, and at any event, just the music and its stellar performers can sweep you away. That's what happened at the Broad Stage's Joseph Calleja concert the other night when a woman nearby whispered, "To hear a singer like this in an intimate hall with a blazing orchestra simply knocks me out." Understood.

And so it was that benefactor Jamie Rigler, an heir to the Lloyd Rigler-Lawrence Deutsch Foundation, made it possible once again, as he's been doing all season. Calleja, the man from Malta, gloried in his evening, with a greatly spirited pickup orchestra led by Jader Bignamini -- what with the audience glorying in him and the whole output, justifiably.

The first time I heard Calleja, roughly a decade ago on my car radio, sent me searching -- because his was the type of singing not common today: a genuine bel canto style with a light vibrato that he called upon as easily as his glide up to soft head tones, a warmth and intimacy and also the ringing Italianate sound. Now his lyric voice is bigger but equally terrific. He sang a standard program --typical arias and "Three Tenors" songs, some grandly robust Spanish numbers, and even found that perfectly gorgeous French timbre for the "Flower Song" from "Carmen."

After the formal program came encores, and the affectionate back-and-forth gemütlichkeit between him and his ultra-gratified fans. First, he sang the Chopin étude, here in German, that was turned into a popular song by '50s paragon Jo Stafford et al -- "No Other Love" -- as a request by Rigler in the front-row. Then in a burst of appreciation Calleja waltzed offstage and came down to serenade his sponsor up close with "La Vie en Rose,"moving along the aisle to include everyone.

Strange contrasts to all this personalization came with the LA Philharmonic's recent program of Wagner's "Ring" highlights, played magnificently by the band under Philippe Jordan, director of Opéra National de Paris. Why strange? Because without the opera cycle's mythic stage trappings and character enactments -- and heard on Disney Hall's brightly lit stage, not as emanations from the pit -- it brought back the words of former LA Phil maestro Carlo Maria Giulini who once explained that "the composer's universe of übermenschen and üntermenschen does not show our humanity." A thought to consider when hearing that unadorned Germanic triumphalism.

But if you travel a world away from such a sensibility you just might catch our contemporary dance scene. It takes place on the street, that is, the choreography reflects an actual population just as it is. And it springs from the mind of Kyle Abraham, the famously awarded former hip-hop dancer -- deeply thoughtful and schooled -- who now creates a whole array of pieces for his company, A.I.M (Abraham in Motion).

abrahaminmotion.jpgAbraham in Motion. Photo: Steven Schreiber

At the Broad we got to see his mind-set, which turns away from the face-front entertainment that has long dominated dance. Others try this inward tack as well. But Abraham does it compellingly, especially in ensemble pieces like "A Quiet Dance." Its performers seem to find inner voices that animate their idiosyncratic movements, original and quite powerful expressions that are subtle but lock your eyes to the stage. There's very little dance out there I can say that about.

Even when he applies specifics, like the policing tragedies that spawned "Hands Up," "I Can't Breathe" and "Black Lives Matter" it is with a sense of abstraction, of limning the inhumanity in our culture, not its full-out depiction. Here, those catastrophes are almost unidentifiable even while telegraphing their essence.

But it's the big mingle with Abraham that is virtuosic, his way of absorbing all the elements of various dance vocabularies, not patching them in as often seen, but fusing them to create a semi-narrative shadow of personal interior resonances. He uses flight, stillness, velocity in his creations and mirrors the gestures and postures of the sub-culture he observes with such arresting accuracy.

Abraham is what's new. Paul Taylor has been making dances since the '50s and his still-active company, which houses a mere 146 works, stopped off at the Wallis to deliver several little gems from earlier decades. Each was a specimen of his rich imaginings on the human condition: how insect behavior mirrors our own in sexual domination theory ("Syzygy") and how the socio-political landscape also speaks to power struggles.

In "The Word" we see a picture of evangelist authority, served by a slavish group (in uniforms of shirts, ties, suspenders, short pants) and marching in a terrifying "sieg heil" manner. Midway through, a pagan figure appears, competing for their loyalty and signaled by David Israel's intimations of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Taylor, as always, reminds us that the art of dance at its highest level has a story or a moral to tell.


May 5, 2017

The Fountain flows

Building-The-Wall_5.jpgJudith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in "Building the Wall." Below, Robert Schenkkan. Photos by Ed Krieger.

Fountain Theatre is assuming an especially prominent profile this week, with concurrent productions at its tiny home base in east Hollywood and at the larger Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

The somewhat mixed accomplishments of the two productions aren't as important as their aims. Both "Building the Wall" at the Fountain and the company's "Citizen: An American Lyric" at the Douglas are specifically addressing the current moment in American public life. Their creators appear to believe that at least some theater - a largely ephemeral art form -- should speak immediately and directly about what's happening now. Apparently they're not worried about whether these plays will still be revived in 10 or 50 years.

Robert Schenkkan's "Building the Wall" examines not only our early-Trump-era turmoil, referring to events that actually occurred as recently as February, but it also describes a possible worst-case scenario that could occur during the next two years.

Because a three-week trip out of town complicated my attempts to see "Building the Wall" when it opened in March, I didn't see it until last Monday. The following morning, the front page of the LA Times greeted me with this headline: "Trump's wall slips further out of reach," referring to the dwindling chances that a giant border wall will ever be approved, let alone built. So is Schenkkan's play already out-of-date?

Robert-Schenkkan.jpgNo. The title is misleading. Schenkkan isn't discussing a literal wall. Set in 2019, his play contends that the Trump/Sessions notions about detaining and deporting the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already on this side of the border could result in a nightmarish sequence of events that might be worse than even a border-wall boondoggle.

The play has only two characters - a prisoner (Bo Foxworth) who had been in charge of one of the detention centers established to hold undocumented immigrants, and a historian (Judith Moreland) who's interviewing him, behind prison walls. Although the characters already know the major turns in the story that resulted in the imprisonment of this man, Schenkkan maintains a modicum of suspense before revealing the gory details to the audience.

It's easy to imagine a more exciting framework in which to tell this story - either for the stage or screen or both. But it's hard to imagine that any other format could have been assembled so quickly. Most of Schenkkan's and the Fountain's efforts occurred since the November election.

Besides the play's premiere at the Fountain, another production of it already had a short run in Denver, and a third is currently at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. (it will soon transfer to a run in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring). A commercial off-Broadway production is scheduled to open in New York on May 21.

A more imaginative, larger-scale telling of the same story would have taken months or even years to write and produce. If Schenkkan's goal was for his play to serve as an alarm, he was right to seize the quicker route.

Indeed, if his ultimate goal is to help prevent the feds from approving the kind of detention centers mentioned in the play, he would probably feel gratified if his efforts succeeded to the extent that the play eventually feels dated. Right now, however, that probably isn't one of his concerns.

Beyond its tacit endorsement of the play's message, the Fountain was smart to volunteer its venue as the original room where Schenkkan's alarm went off. Intimate theaters are ideal for intimate two-character plays. This particular production, as staged by Michael Michetti, is so small-scale that it allowed the company to add extra seats on the Fountain's usual sidelines, expanding capacity from the venue's regular 78 to 94 (and selling more tickets). While four performances per week, in front of only 94 people each, aren't likely to influence the masses, the cumulative effect of several productions - especially the one in D.C. - might make a modest difference.

The Fountain had another reason to revamp its planned season to accommodate this play. New Actors' Equity rules went into effect in December that mandate payment of at least the minimum wage to Equity members by many sub-100-seat companies. The Fountain did not qualify as one of the many "membership companies" (run by Equity members themselves) that were granted waivers from the new rules.

Although the Fountain was among the vocal opponents of the proposed changes during the protracted campaign that "pro-99" activists waged against Equity. the company decided to move on, after a federal judge ruled in favor of the union, in December. In a statement on the Fountain blog in January, the Fountain didn't commit to using the new Equity contract for every show, but it also declared its intention to hire Equity actors much of the time, unlike some of the smaller companies that are planning to use fewer or even no Equity members.

In the program for "Building the Wall," the names of both actors are accompanied by the usual asterisk that denotes Equity membership. So the fact that there are only two of them in this production probably helped the company adjust to the new pay scale and the fact that it now covers rehearsals as well as performances.

Also in the program, three "executive producers" receive bios for "generously supporting our world premiere of Building the Wall." Others who love the Fountain should donate whatever they can to make sure the company has the funds to support the use of even more Equity actors in future productions.

For example, in an ideal world in which funding weren't a problem, the Fountain might have revived its wonderful 2016 production of "My Mañana Comes" to run in rep or simply on alternate weeks with "Building the Wall." The former explores the lives of undocumented immigrants, while the latter speculates on their possible deaths -- but without actually representing any of them on the stage.

Meanwhile, the Fountain also received some much-needed support from Center Theatre Group that enabled a remount of "Citizen: An American Lyric" at the Douglas. It was selected to be a part of CTG's Block Party, in which three smaller productions from LA were chosen for sequential two-week runs at the midsize Douglas.

"Citizen," based on a book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, focuses on being black in a society where many whites are still uncomfortable, sometimes on almost subconscious levels, around black people. Most of its Stephen Sachs-adapted vignettes are barely sketch-length. Each of six actors plays many different roles, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. Not much of it convincingly justifies the transition from page to stage, except for an extended section in the middle that covers the racial politics of being Serena Williams. This section at least whets the appetite for an actual play about the great tennis star.

In my last column, I mentioned that none of the three productions in Block Party (all of which I saw in their earlier versions) is explicitly related to the LA area. "Citizen" largely ignores the prominent roles played by other ethnic or racial groups, not just blacks and whites, in America's general cultural stew and LA's in particular. The first of the three Block Party productions, Coeurage Theatre's revival of Philip Dawkins' "Failure: A Love Story" was remarkably Chicago-specific, in the sense that CTG's recent revivals of "Zoot Suit" and "Chavez Ravine" were LA-specific. I appreciate Block Party's recognition of other LA theaters, but shouldn't "L.A.'s Theatre Company" insist on including at least one previously-untold LA story in its 2018 Party mix?

"The Bodyguard," now at the Pantages Theatre, is an LA story, with scenes set in an LA mansion, at the Mayan, at an Oscar ceremony. But it certainly isn't "previously-untold." It's based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Houston as a pop diva and Kevin Costner in the title role. Deborah Cox now has Houston's role, but the stage musical still uses Houston's songbook - including a few numbers she sang in the movie. Such star turns produce a few moments of glitzy fun, but the thriller side of the script isn't very thrilling.

Bodyguard0091r.jpgScene from "The Bodyguard."

The real action at the Pantages this week was on the sidewalk, where long lines turned out Sunday for the first general sales of "Hamilton" tickets. Performances begin in mid-August. Don't worry - I won't expect "Hamilton" to include any scenes set in LA.

In the meantime, anyone looking for a classic musical fix has two excellent options. La Mirada Theatre's "West Side Story" staged by Richard Israel, has an exceptional Maria (Ashley Marie) and Tony (Eddie Egan). Fiasco Theater's "Into the Woods," directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre, offers refreshingly distinctive orchestrations and musical direction plus a winning ensemble.

The 'uncanny' 'originalist'

While "Building the Wall" wins points for being provocative, another play with some relevance to today's political climate tries to mediate, if not to unite. In John Strand's "The Originalist," at Pasadena Playhouse, Justice Antonin Scalia hires a liberal African-American woman as a law clerk, more or less to provide him with a sparring partner. Edward Gero's impersonation of Scalia is uncanny, but the woman's role feels like a playwright's pawn contrived to create artificial tension resolved by artificial amity.

While "Building the Wall" makes the most of its constraining two-actor format, set slightly in the future, Thomas Gibbons' "Uncanny Valley" at International City Theatre in Long Beach feels somewhat too constrained by a two-actor format, in a story that's set decades in the future. In this case, one of the two characters is a (male) robot, and the other is an older woman who has been training him to take his eventual place as the repository of a dying old man's genetic information. It's a fascinating set-up, but it feels unfinished because three or even four characters who appear to be important in the narrative are simply talked about instead of seen.

April 23, 2017

Desert X marks the spot

Desert X 8 Curves and Zigzags 3-17 - Copy.JPG
It's the final week for Desert X, the Coachella Valley-wide free public art exhibition composed of 15 installations.
Desert X 6 Curves and Zigzags 3-17 - Copy.JPG
This work, "Curves and Zigzags," by Claudia Comte, is part of a series of free-standing walls. This one decorates the landscape in Palm Desert west of Highway74 just north of the Cahuilla Hills.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

April 16, 2017

Grand nights for singing and dancing

tales-of-hoffman.jpgVittorio Grigolo and So Young Park in "The Tales of Hoffmann" at LA Opera. Photo: Ken Howard.

Forget New York. Right now Los Angeles looks like the new center of vocal arts, with Plácido Domingo as its long-time major benefactor.

Yes, the tenor-turned baritone/conductor whose celebrity and insider connections lifted the LA Opera that he directs to upper reaches -- now in its 31st season -- can be called the promoter-in-chief here.

After all, you don't go around the world for years sponsoring opera contests, then grooming the best of the winners for international careers and come up with nothing.

Even if you are the most over-achieving, immensely prolific and famous singer of our time. Even if most others of such high note wouldn't dream of adding more activities to an already pressured schedule.

Well, he's still doing it. And we just witnessed his last talent roll-out filled with names you never heard of. But you will. The ravishing results of these performances attest to that. More on Domingo's downtown debutantes later...

michael-fabiano-dp.jpgMeanwhile, Santa Monica's Broad Stage continued its singers' extravaganza and added to our riches with Michael Fabiano (right), another tenor unknown hereabouts, judging from the sea of empty seats at his concert there. Next time, I predict a box office stampede because this American, who won the 2014 Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills prizes respectively, is a genuine artist. Not only because he can sing Lensky's Aria ("Eugene Onegin") with deep Russian soulfulness and two contrasting Straus lieder --"Morgen," lit with poetic subtlety and Cäcilie," infused with heroism -- and Don José's "Flower Song" ("Carmen") in pure ardor and with a gorgeous soft ending as Bizet instructed.

But because Fabiano has that same deliciously liquid tone as Franco Corelli, a vibrato cultivated for warmth, a musicality to his phrasing and a dimension to his singing that turns every note leading to a melodic climax into a multi-colored revelation. Can this happen in a house with 4000 seats, as opposed to what we heard in the Broad's much smaller hall? I don't know. But we'll see next season when he performs in LA Opera's "Rigoletto."

Not surprisingly, some of those featured at Domingo's Music Center song-fest were spotted in the audience at Fabiano's concert. And just like their illustrious predecessors starting out at LA Opera -- Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, et al -- so are Liv Redpath, So Young Park, Theo Hoffman, Brenton Ryan just some of those who could go on to become bold-faced names at the Met and its world-wide facsimiles. That's how gifted and poised and theatrically adept are they.

The final dollop of the program's delight came with the diva Sondra Radvanovsky (soon to repeat her role of Tosca here), singing Puccini and Verdi. Her uncanny technique --in spinning out a line of high soaring tone, legato-sure, shaved to a thread -- held us in thrall. And the pathos she unearthed in ("Senza mamma" from "Suor Angelica") was shattering.

But what can be said about the revival of LA Opera's hodge-podge "Tales of Hoffmann"? Offenbach's beloved rendering -- with its bouncy drinking songs, seductively swirling waltzes and romantic outbursts of lyricism -- is hard to defeat.

In Marta Domingo's directorial hands, though, it did not show much power of imagination at its premiere, nor does it now -- but makes us wonder why such blatant nepotism continues to pervade the company, aside from budgetary concerns. Take a look at any of the other stagings visible on YouTube and you'll see what better editing and more coherence mean.

This time there were deficits beyond the production itself. Two of the principals struck out with throat infections -- so we had the indisposed Nicolas Testé standing silent onstage as the multiple nemeses while another's voice emanated as some disembodied thing from the pit (with Plácido, himself, laboring heroically to preside over orchestra and stage). And Diana Damrau reduced to just one of the three-role heroines. But the absence of coaching could be seen in Vittorio Grigòlo's over-the-top Hoffmann, particularly in his drunken careening around, almost comically bent-kneed and wild throughout the first tavern scene.

(Given guidance, as was his case in the PBS airing of the Met's conventional "Roméo et Juliette," the tenor uses his strengths to great advantage. He certainly did so here in Ian Judge's production 6 years ago.)

Still, there's no question that LA voice-fanciers are having a bonanza this season.

And so are dance fans. But I'm sure that LA Ballet, notably, does not get enough recognition from the city's controlling establishment or philanthropic institutions. Because the company's last Royce Hall program -- all-Balanchine -- was masterly. If I could wave a magic wand directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary would repeat it at the Music Center and elsewhere, even tour other cities.

There was "Divertimento No. 15," with the dancers engaged in Mozart's music as though breathing in it, floating on its airiness, living in its pauses. Balanchine choreographed those features with classical design and here you got to see what he understood.

His "Prodigal Son," created back in the day of Diaghilev, boasted that same performance level. It's a marvel of expressionism based on biblical lit that fits into my own take on the Balanchine biographical profile: the allure of a woman, the ballerina, to the young man. But here, of course, he flees from her, back to the father. Elizabeth Claire Walker personifies the Siren's statuesque imperiousness, as an all-out Kenta Shimizu enacts the Son's physical do-or-die drama.

That's not all. Completing this brilliant choreographic spectrum there was "Who Cares?" And to see these three pieces on a single bill had to answer anyone wanting to know why Balanchine qualifies as an absolute master.

Here's "Who Cares?" It's Gershwin. It's American sweetness of another age. It's Hershy Kay's orchestrations. And Balanchine got it. He designed these undying dances with affectionate spirit and director Neary knew how to transfer that quality to the dancers. All were stand-outs, but newcomer Tigran Sargsyan, Armenian-born, even pulled off the Baryshnikov trick: he exuded the bravura style like a Broadway native.

Also from a time of highest creativity there was the José Limón Dance Company at Beverly Hills' Wallis Center. And it's endlessly gratifying to know that an innovator's death does not mean the end of his/her company. The new director, Colin Connor, is serving notice of this living enterprise.

So even though it's hard to duplicate the Othello character that Limón himself created for "The Moor's Pavane" (where would you see again that powerful neck and upper spine, erect and commanding? nowhere, in my experience), the piece yields a myriad of dramatic details each time you watch it. Especially so in this performance.

And "Concerto Grosso," to Vivaldi, reminded us where Paul Taylor came from, with an upward élan that once was a mainstay. (Ah, yes, his company is coming here next month.) Also, choreographer Connor's contribution "Corvidae," set to the 1st movement of Phillip Glass's eminently atmospheric Violin Concerto, reminds us that lively, engaging dance/theater ideas can grow up even in the shadow of a towering figure.

la-ballet-reedhutch.jpg"Who Cares?" at LA Ballet. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

April 5, 2017

Costume designer Mary Zophres moves on from 'La La Land'

mary-zophres-judygraeme.jpgPhoto: Judy Graeme

As one of the most in-demand costume designers in Hollywood, Mary Zophres has worked with many high profile directors, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau and Nora Ephron. Until last year she was best known for her 20-year collaboration with Ethan and Joel Coen. That is, until December when a little film called "La La Land" came along -- thrusting all involved into an awards campaign spotlight the likes of which Zophres had never experienced. Her boldly colorful and dance-friendly costumes married perfectly with director Damien Chazelle's vision for his exuberant musical and earned Zophres her second Oscar nomination.

"This one was different," she said during a recent chat in her home office, located in a quiet West Los Angeles neighborhood. "The other films I've worked on that were nominated (Zophres' first Oscar nod was for "True Grit" in 2010) were with the Coen brothers and they're not particularly interested. They're happy that awards bring better box office, but they never would have tolerated the amount of work like screenings, Q&A's, and interviews." Zophres is used to hearing from peers and costume geeks when her films come out, still she is amazed at the amount of La La Land-related fan mail she's received.

"I've gotten letters from all over -- from the UK, Asia -- people wanting those dresses that Emma (Stone) wears. That was not my intention! I just wanted them to be pretty and feminine. They want to know if I have the patterns and if I can loan them."

Zophres' library of film, photography and design books along with artwork by her young son dominates her work space. I've caught her on a rainy Tuesday during a rare in-between phase. Even on this gloomy day her energy and exuberance are contagious. Coming to the end of an eight-month hiatus, she's ready to tackle two films back to back. This summer she will go on location for the Coens' new project, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and in the fall will begin work on Chazelle's follow up to La La Land, "First Man," the story of NASA's mission to land a man on the moon.

Although already deep into prep for the next projects, Zophres is still enjoying the La La Land euphoria. "We all loved working on it," she says. "Damien was so communicative with everybody in his crew. From crafts services to grips, everybody had a special experience on that film. If you're shooting dance numbers and music's playing in playback I defy anyone -- you're a grump if you don't get some kind of energy off of that!

"I've done lots of dark movies and I'm good at characters and making people understand character through clothes but at heart I'm a schmaltzy little kid who loved the musicals my mom and I watched on AMC when I was a kid. I had a blast designing it."

She especially loved working with Chazelle. "Damien is a Coen brothers fan and he had seen "Hail, Caesar!" -- which has a big musical number.

He also responded to the buoyancy of Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." "He knew my resume. What he definitely didn't want was the look of any other musical that had been done in the last ten years. He wanted a nostalgic feel and he knew that I had done period films."

Zophres sounds slightly bemused with her professional ascent. "I didn't come out of the womb or out of college intending to be a costume designer," she says. Growing up in South Florida she worked at her parents' clothing store and experimented with sewing. "My mother's favorite story to tell was that I had 100 projects going that I never finished," she recalls. While an art history major at Vassar she had a revelation during a screening of Truffaut's "Day for Night" -- that one could actually work on a film. It was at this point that she also realized she wanted to be behind the camera. To her parents dismay she moved to New York after graduation. Bartending and retail jobs (including a stint with designer Norma Kamali) paid the bills until she began to get small film production jobs, one of which was in a costume department. She says that her background in art and art history, and dressing people in her parents' store from a young age, strangely synthesized into preparing her to be a costume designer.

The turning point in Zophres' career came when she began to work for costume designer Richard Hornung, who she knew socially in New York. She started as a production assistant and considers the experience her graduate school. She gained a new level of confidence working with Hornung as his assistant designer on the Coen brothers' "Hudsucker Proxy." When "Fargo" came along, Hornung was too sick with AIDS to do the film. She interviewed and got the job of costume designer.

Kevin Jones, the curator at FIDM in downtown Los Angeles, admiringly describes her design aesthetic as "modern and dynamic with strong lines and frills." Zophres credits Hornung with instilling in her an "intuitive" sense of working: "You kind of go and go until you get it right. Keep on going until that person becomes the character you're intending them to be." She has grown comfortable with the delicate balance her job requires. "As a costume designer your first duty is to the director and the script," she stressed. But when working with actors, she says, "I'm myself, I'm a social being and I'm empathetic. I make sure they know I would never send them to camera in something they're not comfortable in-ever. We're building this character together."

Filmgoers will next see Zophres work this September in "Battle of the Sexes," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the film recounts the buildup to the much-hyped 1973 match at the Houston Astrodome between tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

In a recent article, The Guardian's Angelina Chapin set the scene:

Billie Jean King's entrance on to a Houston tennis court on Sept 30, 1973 was more suited to a Las Vegas stage than a sports stadium. The top-ranked 29 year old player arrived atop a gold throne framed by flamingo pink feathers and carried by four shirtless men. Her opponent, the 55 year old former No. 1 player Bobby Riggs, arrived on a rickshaw pulled by models dubbed 'Bobby's Bosom Buddies'. This wasn't a regular tennis match. It was the Battle of the Sexes.

Chapin goes on to write, "When King battled Riggs, she was fighting a widespread cultural attitude that women were inferior to men. She knew a theatrical face-off was the perfect means through which to grab the nation's attention and change their minds." She quotes King as saying, "Had I lost, women's tennis would have suffered, Title 9 would have been hurt and the women's movement would have been damaged. I knew it was very important I win the match if I wanted people to take women's tennis-and women-seriously."

Zophres says, "I was really moved by the whole topic of the women's lib movement because I remember as a kid my mom was into it. Doing the research for that film reminded me so much of my mother, who I lost a couple of years ago, so it was really heartfelt for me." For the costume team, "a lot of it was about getting into Billie Jean King's 'style vibe' in the '70s." King's actual dress from the Battle of the Sexes (replicated in the film) is now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"Battle" reunited Zophres with Emma Stone and the designer says the two have fallen into an easy working relationship. "Emma is a very open, loving person, a professional. She's there on time if you need her for fittings. She knows what it takes to get it done. She's collaborative but not in an obnoxious way." For the tennis movie, Stone had beefed up into a "wildly different build" than on "La La Land." The challenge for Zophres and her team was dealing with lots of costume changes, for Stone as well as for the rest of the cast. "We had to shoot big matches, big scenes with lots of background. We worked every weekend on that film. It was hard and exhausting but I really got a kick out of it."

emma-steve-battleofthesexes.jpgFox Searchlight

Nowadays, Zophres finds herself balancing the demands of career with family and parenthood (she has been married to comedian and writer Murray Valeriano since 2006.) She is clear about the fact that her choices of projects are guided by wanting to do something different each time, but that's not the only criteria for the veteran designer.
"The film industry can be really hard on relationships," she says, referring to the often long periods spent away on location. Zophres relishes any opportunity to work in Los Angeles. "If it upsets me to imagine someone else designing that film, then I'll go on location. It's my litmus test and I still do it to this day. If I don't care, then I'm not going to uproot my family. I want a balanced life."

Mary Zophres' costumes from "La La Land" and "Hail, Caesar!" can be seen at FIDM's Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition until April 22.

April 3, 2017

Paul McCarthy and Paul Schimmel


Take My Picture Gary Leonard runs weekly at LA Observed. Click on the picture to see it bigger.

March 21, 2017

Heather guides us through Mister Ritchie's Neighborhood

RLA350.jpgParticipants in "Remote L.A." Photos by Craig Schwartz.

In many LA voters' minds, the city's recent electoral battle over Proposition S boiled down - perhaps simplistically -- to choosing between LA's past, represented by the Yes campaign, or its future. Should the city try to better preserve its single-family homes and their reliance on cars or should it continue to develop its denser urban hubs and their reliance on other forms of transit? The urban-hub camp, No on S, won decisively, garnering about 7 out of 10 votes.

So there should be an eager audience for "Remote L.A.," Center Theatre Group's engrossing headset-guided walk through parts of LA's primary urban hub, in the vicinity of CTG's own downtown headquarters.

"Remote L.A." is not a traditional city tour. Participants don't follow a personable guide who relates colorful historical anecdotes and explains the architecture of the landmarks.

Instead, we follow the instructions of "Heather" and then "Will," unseen GPS-like voices who speak primarily about bigger and more current matters - the relationships between human beings and robots, groups and individuals, public manners and private thoughts, democracy, death -- often with wry undertones and recorded musical accompaniment.

This daytime-only tour (11 am and 4 pm on weekends, 4 pm Tuesdays through Fridays, through April 2) gathers at the Music Center. But the group then walks to the actual trailhead, so to speak, in the lush and currently blooming gardens of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, near Olvera Street. After the donning of the headsets (choose from three types) and the distribution of free TAP cards, Heather takes "the horde," as she calls the group, to Union Station, where we watch and applaud a "performance" by actual passers-by.

Then the "horde" boards a train for Pershing Square station. After exploring the area southeast of the square, including the seldom-noticed St. Vincent's Court, the group returns to the square, where it briefly pretends to stage its own faux-"demonstration" for whatever cause an individual might choose. It's a minor echo of the actual Women's March demonstrations that occurred there on January 21.

"Is this one of the places where democracy starts?," asks Heather. Then, a few moments later, "I like the idea that the majority decides. As long as I'm able to predict the result."

RLA320.jpgPassing through the Biltmore Hotel and beyond on 5th Street, the tour becomes more active, including brief moments of light dancing, foot-racing and step-climbing. Soon after the more acerbic "Will" takes over the narration from "Heather," the "horde" breaks into three smaller "herds" and enters the maze of the Bonaventure Hotel. But it re-unites in time for a scenic conclusion, on a terrace with a view.

The total walk, including before-and-after walking, covers about four miles in about 100 minutes, requiring a level of physical effort that is perhaps unprecedented at CTG performances. Some CTG regulars who frequent the company's more sedentary programs might not feel comfortable with these challenges. But apart from that consideration, "Remote L.A." takes a giant step in the right direction for CTG.

I can't recall a new production, at least in Michael Ritchie's decade-plus of running CTG, that focuses on contemporary LA as intensely as "Remote L.A." - which is an overdue achievement for a company that has long called itself "L.A's Theatre Company." The concurrent "Zoot Suit," at CTG's Mark Taper Forum, examines an important chapter in LA history, but creator Luis Valdez hasn't devoted much effort to overhauling this Taper landmark in order to reflect present-day resonances. By contrast, "Remote L.A." seems as up-to-date as the hordes of young adults who have flocked to live in downtown LA in recent years.

The parents of this production aren't from LA or even from the United States. It's from the German company Rimini Protokoll, created and conceived by Stefan Kaegi and Jörg Karrenbauer, who have staged many other "Remote" tours customized for other cities. CTG's Diane Rodriguez saw the Santiago version at a theater festival and was inspired to generate an LA version.

Normally, I would hope that something called "Remote L.A." would be created by LA artists. But I didn't hear anything from "Heather" or "Will" that sounded inappropriate for LA. Perhaps it takes an outsider's eye to notice certain dramatic qualities of downtown LA that most residents might overlook.

I left "Remote L.A." with the impression that there is nothing remote about this notion of downtown LA as a vibrant urban hub. I wish that "Remote L.A.," which accommodates only about 50 people at each performance, could be extended for a much longer run, so that more Angelenos and maybe some tourists, too, might discover this unforgettable urban adventure.

Speaking of theater that's literally in the LA streets, you might be amused by this clip of James Corden's version of "Beauty and the Beast" in a crosswalk at Beverly and Genesee, as broadcast on his "The Late Late Show:"

Besides "Zoot Suit," each of the two current occupants of the other major CTG venues is, oddly enough, a woman's memoir-like tale set in Pennsylvania. Each of them involves, among other things, the unexpected death of the leading male character.

The better of the two is the wonderful Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron musical "Fun Home," based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, at the Ahmanson Theatre. It depicts "Alison" as an adult piecing together her own memories of her realizations that she's a lesbian and that her late father was gay. Sam Gold's staging makes sure that the audience has a lot of fun at "Fun Home." As a minor bonus for L.A. theatergoers who followed the recent Actors' Equity decision to require minimum-wage payments for Equity members at 99-seat theaters, the adult Alison is played by Equity president (and former Miss America) Kate Shindle.

At CTG's Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Ngozi Anyanwu's "Good Grief" is a young Pennsylvania woman's recollection of her relationship with a friend/boyfriend who dies young. The fact that her family members appear to be the only Nigerian-Americans in the Pennsylvania suburbs is given hardly any attention. The results seem somewhat generic, despite the many poetic flourishes of Anyanwu's writing.

Last year I skipped my previously-annual survey of the extent to which CTG would be covering LA in its scheduled mainstage programming, primarily because CTG had not yet announced the titles of the productions from smaller LA companies that would participate in its "Block Party" at the Douglas later this spring. However, in another column, I expressed my hopes that at least one of these three productions would be set in LA and that one of them would be an original musical.

CTG paid no attention to these worthy suggestions, instead picking Coeurage Theatre's "Failure: A Love Story", Fountain Theatre's "Citizen: An American Lyric" and Echo Theater's "Dry Land." Having seen the earlier incarnations of these productions, I doubt that I would have chosen these three from all of the applicants. But maybe some of them will become not only bigger but also better at the Douglas, so I look forward to seeing their second incarnations. Besides, in terms of LA content, "Remote L.A." buys quite a few points for CTG's efforts in that particular department, at least for this current season.

orange-scr.jpgAlso in the local-content category, Orange County's South Coast Repertory is running a play called "Orange" (closing Sunday) that follows three teenagers through the course of an all-nighter road trip to several of the county's more obscure nocturnal hotspots. The protagonist of Aditi Brennan Kapil's play is a smart, mid-spectrum-autistic young woman, who was born in OC but raised in India by her mother, while her father works in OC.

Mother and daughter have unexpectedly dropped in on the father, on the occasion of a family wedding, but it soon becomes clear that the mother wants to re-unite the family, while the father is hesitating. Although it's a fascinating situation, with virtuosic performances by two actors in all the roles other than the protagonist, an OC road trip probably isn't the best vehicle for the exploration of this family crisis. Jessica Kubzansky directed.

Photo by ​Debora Robinson/SCR.

And elsewhere...

A Noise Within in Pasadena is current reviving Eugene O'Neill's comedy "Ah, Wilderness!," a brisk and playful tonic for those of us who grew impatient while sitting through the torments of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Geffen Playhouse. Steven Robman's staging is so strong that it allows us to consider the contrarian view that "Wilderness!" is actually a better play than O'Neill's supposed masterpiece, "Journey."

ANW is also currently doing a "King Lear," dynamically staged by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Of course, compared to "Ah, Wilderness!," it's closer in mood to "Long Day's Journey" -- but fortunately not nearly as long. It's programmed to play in rep with the yet-to-open "Man of La Mancha." I'm looking forward to seeing if Geoff Elliott, playing both Lear and Cervantes/Quixote, will draw these two characters closer, in a cross-cultural conversation.

AtHomeattheZoo-wallis.jpgThe Wallis in Beverly Hills and Deaf West Theatre united to bring us an enterprising "At Home at the Zoo," a double bill that the late Edward Albee created in order to supplement his early triumph, the one-act "The Zoo Story," with a one-act prequel, "Homelife." Although Charles McNulty of the LA Times felt that "Homelife" diminishes the impact of "The Zoo Story," I contend that the newcomer actually enhances the classic and probably makes it likelier that we'll see "Zoo Story" more often - because one-acts as short as "Zoo Story" don't usually receive full professional productions, no matter how much they're revered. Coy Middlebrook directed.

I must commend McNulty, however, for reviewing the Pasadena Playhouse's "God Looked Away" and the decision of his employer, the Times, to spring for its critic's admission. The playhouse didn't invite critics, calling this a "development" production, which might have been OK if the top ticket price for the public hadn't been an eyebrow-raising $196. Al Pacino starred in the role of Tennessee Williams, which the playhouse apparently figured was enough of a draw without running the risk (or receiving the necessary feedback?) of negative reviews, such as McNulty's. But "development" productions, especially at non-profits, generally should charge less, not more, than the same company's non-"development" productions.

Finally, a nod to Native Voices for Mary Kathryn Nagle's "Fairly Traceable" at the Autry. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, it's probably the best play related to climate change that I've seen, although that's admittedly a thin crop. The title stems from an Antonin Scalia phrase, so it would have made an ideal play to run in rep with the Pasadena Playhouse's upcoming "The Originalist," in which Scalia is a leading character. However, it's also timely right now, in its closing week, as Scalia's disciple and intended successor, Neil Gorsuch, finally appears before a Senate committee.

March 19, 2017

Orchestras play musical chairs... and more

deborah-borda.jpgDeborah Borda. Photo: Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

For roughly a year, the classical music world waited. Who would be appointed the next maestro of the illustrious New York Philharmonic? And when word finally came I read about it as:

"Yep. It's Jaap"

That was from the New Yorker magazine. A hilarious announcement naming the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den) to begin his tenure there in 2018.

And that's not all. Deborah Borda, CEO of the LA Phil, has just announced that she'll head back with him to swap for the same top job there -- after 17 years of building vast symphonic fortunes in the City of Angels. (Curiously, van Zweden has been canceling his guest gigs since signing with New York, but did get here to Borda's realm last week.)

So bear in mind that what happens in Berlin resonates in Boston, as it does in Los Angeles and London. When an elite orchestra puts out its international search for a music director, whispers abound, with one speculation spilling after another. The game of musical chairs is on. In fact, Gustavo Dudamel quickly renewed his contract here in time to allay rumors that he would be in the NY running.

jaap-van-zweden.jpgNaturally, van Zweden (right) aroused great interest when he came this month to guest conduct the LA Philharmonic. Yes, we wanted to see just what arsenal this small, muscular no-nonsense man packed, what won him the plum New York job.

Especially because he was not quite the starry eminence of a Boulez or Bernstein or Mahler -- past NY Phil directors. And even considering that he actually did not more than sit in the Concertgebouw's concertmaster chair for 19 years before he became only a conductor of lesser orchestras.

Mysteries prevail sometimes. But NYP musicians are said to eat their maestros for lunch -- so avid music followers are even more curious to see how the marriage works out.
Leading the LA Phil, van Zweden was every bit the workman in full command. In Beethoven's Fifth, with its four fateful knocks, he showed himself to be a galvanic force, if not so much a pensive soul who can dwell in the shadows. And in the Shostakovich Fifth we heard its powerful Russian militarism but felt less its abject hollows and spaces.

Whatever else the Dutchman inspires, as a key to his winning New York's big conductorial prize, we can only know by the smiles on our resident musicians' faces at concert's end Saturday -- their widely beaming smiles and his more than ample appreciation of them -- that orchestras are keen on this man, that they give their utmost.

Others give their utmost, too. Jamie Rigler is one. As executor of the Lloyd Rigler-Lawrence Deutsch Foundation, he has been sponsoring an exclusive opera series at the Broad Stage presenting celebrated singers and putting on lavish pre-concert spreads.

The format goes like this: A full orchestra accompanies two singers, with the three taking turns so as to showcase each individually and even lessen the burden all around. The latest: Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé.

It turns out that Damrau is currently the Met's hot draw ("Puritani" and "Roméo et Juliette"). No wonder. The German soprano just might be the most animated singing actress around today. She doesn't need supertitles, she enacts the words and the music like no one else. Humor? She's a comedian. Irony? She's an ironist. Drama? She's a tragedian. And of course there's the voice -- coloratura precise, high notes intact, a bit shrill at full volume but soft beautiful tones elsewhere. She opens in LA Opera's "Contes d'Hoffmann" March 25.

Testé, her French co-star at the Broad, made a striking contrast as a stage personality. Almost retiring, the handsome bass-baritone with the gorgeous mahogany tones sang a wrenchingly sorrowful "Elle ne m'aime pas." And finally the two joined onstage for "Bess You Is My Woman," where Damrau coaxed from her shy Porgy passionately ringing outpourings, along with a smooch.

The program in general, though, had a lot of nearly esoteric numbers not so winning with an audience -- it's hard to imagine they are touring this same show on two continents, with conductor Pavel Baleff, who relished the orchestral interludes he led between arias.

Also relishing: I got the sense that James Gaffigan, with the LA Philharmonic, luxuriated in the blazing sensuality he drew from the band's account of Ravel's 2nd Suite from "Daphnis et Chloe." Does it matter how often you hear it when performed at this level, as an enchanting gossamer mist, the epitome of French voluptuousness? Some music stays. It's there for a virtuosic orchestra to revel in, especially with a flutist like Denis Bouriakov et al. (And even for a composer like Brian Easdale, back in 1948, who picked up a fragment from it for his score, "The Red Shoes.")

Another piece, say, James Matheson's "Unchained," need remind us only once that a composer can experiment within its various instrumental sections for his own amusement but not our own.

And then there are those who straddle several idioms without excelling in every one. Take Patricia Racette, a real trouper. Few could fault the soprano's Verdi or Puccini, as in "Butterfly" -- where we've melted in the presence of her extraordinary word-painting, her musical sensitivity and legato technique. But "Salomé"? Now that's an opera (still onstage at the Music Center) with the game Racette. She brings it physical and vocal grit, but just doesn't pierce the decadent perversion of it all, no, not that Baudelairean necrophilia so inscribed by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss.

This Judean princess pranced about, up and on the cistern imprisoning the holy man who is her fatal attraction -- even to the final stark nude moment of shedding her seven veils. She telegraphed wildness but of an ordinary, tomboy sort, not the perfumed dementia we saw years ago in Maria Ewing's Salomé, trapped inside a schizoid world of isolation.

Different kinds of prancings and prisons saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater once again at the Music Center Pavilion. On this visit the choreography left behind the recent bright, tight, highly controlled mechanics of abstract movement and gave us two dark, moody pieces that showed its dancers in loose, gauzy streetwear.

matthew-rushing-dp.jpgMatthew Rushing.

Most impressive of these was Kyle Abraham's "Untitled America" which vaguely hints at the anguish of incarceration but consoles itself with ambience and poetic reflections, along with moving personal testimonies as voice-overs. "r-Evolution, Dream" is a compendium of street dance modes in revue style capped off by Matthew Rushing's singular presence -- an elegant, utterly imperious, noble figure, bubbling with good vibes. He commands your gaze with his every gesture, his every eyelash flick.

The company, still reliably producing top dancers, celebrates them generously. And it never fails to give audiences their favorite going-home gift: the heart-felt, uproarious Ailey signature "Revelations."

March 5, 2017

Many, many words for female genitalia

slang-words-neon-rhoades.jpgPhoto by Judy Graeme

The crowd pleaser of the current exhibition at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is a gallery filled with artist Jason Rhoades' neon tubes spelling 240 slang terms for female genitals. The subject was an obsession for Rhoades, a UCLA art graduate who died in 2006. His "My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage..." was conceived on a drive between Los Angeles the desert settlement of Mecca near the Salton Sea. Hauser Wirth says the installation is "part mosque, part temple: a place of religious seclusion covered in a carpet of towels adjoined by the artist's Spukaki technique, punctuated by crystals, incense, ceramic donkeys, and camel saddle footstools. Beneath a veritable cloud of 240 neon 'pussy words' - such slang terms for female genitalia as 'Fluttering Love Wallet,' 'Cock Pocket,' and 'Breakfast of Champions' ... viewers are invited to lie down and surrender to transmitting light. Formally conflating the visual language of contemporary urban America with the influence of his travels to ancient spiritual sites in the Middle East, Rhoades challenges post-9/11 anti-Islamism on his own terms."

A separate room features neon chandeliers with more 100 slang descriptors in
English and Spanish.

From the website:

While Rhoades' groundbreaking installations found early recognition in Europe and New York, the artist spent the entirety of his career in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked until his untimely death in 2006 at the age of 41. The exhibition at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is conceived to share and celebrate his unwavering vision of the world as an infinite, corpulent, and lustful universe of expressive opportunity. Assertively pushing against the safety of cultural conventions, Rhoades broke accepted rules of public nicety and expanded the frontiers of artistic opportunity through unbridled, brazenly 'Maximalist' works. In short, Rhoades brought the impolite and culturally unspeakable to the center of the conversation.

It's on exhibit in the Arts District until May 21.

February 16, 2017

Mozart opera closes the gap and Schnittke sounds an alarm

seraglio-robinson-park.jpgMorris Robinson as Osmin and So Young Park as Blonde in "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera.

Off-putting? Distant? Of another world? If that's what you think about so-called formal music -- especially if it's centuries old or even of recent vintage -- I say balderdash.

And if you were lucky enough to hear Schnittke's 1985 "Not a Summer Night's Dream," courtesy of the LA Philharmonic, led dazzlingly by Gustavo Dudamel, it had to grab you by the lapels -- no matter what style jacket you wear.

Just 10 miraculous minutes long, the Russian composer's show-off piece alerted both minds and ears with one high-craft diversion and surprise after another, the kind that makes you grin at its sheer brazen-ness, before decamping back briefly to guileless classical phrases, so simple, so endearing, so upright. It's then that we realize he's committing a little musical larceny here, exploding the whole thing into a massive, virtuosic splintering apart of the full orchestra -- all delivered with shiny clarity.
Talk about seduction. And heady potions...

Schnittke, a favorite of such connoisseurs as Gidon Kremer, even managed here to lift a theme fragment from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," which Dudamel cleverly programmed as a concert-closing suite. (More on that, and violinist Lisa Batiashvili, later.)

But across the street from Disney Hall at the Music Center Pavilion we witnessed an up-closer-and-personal event with LA Opera's current offering, Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio."

No more the 16th-century tale of Ottoman pirates, a pasha and his harem of kidnapees, this much-traveled James Robinson production, first seen in 2002, updates the little but long Singspiel (a sit-com with music) to a time we can still feel connected to -- the 1920s.

And, ah, that connection counts for much. Especially in so cozy an environment as the Orient Express (this one, without murder.) Yes, it features several elegant connecting cars with sliding doors, a hero in natty blazer, borsalino and white slacks, one who carries a tennis racket and sports a cigarette case; and a Pasha, not the mustachioed villain, but every inch an urbane aristocrat in double-breasted suit, hoping to woo the latest captive on his harem-loaded train.

But what makes the whole thing engaging is that it's no longer a comic fairy tale but a sophisticated negotiation between a beauty queen and her abductor.

To be sure, there are breakaways from situational tricks to heartfelt arias, with their outpourings of despair -- after all, Mozart 's stock in narrative trade lies in notions of fidelity versus worldly temptations, not to mention the struggle between those two poles: goodness, honor and sacrifice up against vengefulness and false-pride. (What, you say, we're in the midst of such oppressive forces today?)

Happily, the cast lived up to the given physical characterizations. All were young and extremely good-looking, dapper in their stylish duds.

But Mozart hardly ever seems concerned with how singable some of his music would be for human larynxes, what with the surfeit of required breath control, agility and range extensions. And so poor Sally Matthews, the Konstanze of everyone's desire, nearly came to grief in her raging arias, those high-wire coloratura rants imposed on her. Still, she reveled wherever long-lined sorrows streamed out in her highest vocal glory.

Sally Matthews as Konstanze and Joel Prieto as Belmonte in "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera.

Joel Prieto, though, had the whole thing in hand with his pure and sturdy Mozartean tenor, wonderfully placed in this music. As Konstanze's fiancé, Belmonte, he took a fast track -- cunning and, at turns, antic -- to rescue his helpless lover.

Another virtuosa was So Young Park, a Blonde who encountered not the slightest obstacle in her rapid-fire vocal assault on Osmin, the boss's burly gatekeeper, sung by Morris Robinson. Too bad he could barely sound out the role's notorious low notes.

Neither did the small, wiry tenor of Brenton Ryan embody the melodic line but he lent himself to some hilarious bouncings-around as a puny Pedrillo.

James Conlon enforced generally lithe, blithe Mozartean spirit in the pit and kept an energetic coordination with the stage.

What's more, we heard a positively whiz-bang performance with Dudamel et al and Batiashvili in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. When it comes to that special kind of heartbeat togetherness between a soloist and orchestra our resident podium meister knows how to get into a galloping synchrony, that exhilarating team rush to the final cadence.There's just nothing like it.

lisa-batshavili.jpgBatiashvili, a prodigious Georgian with a pile of honors, took the lead, commanding a fat, thewy tone in the lower register and silken slivers of sound high on the string. She put passion and her whole being into the performance, almost inviting us to hear the individual parts she's detailed. But after her sizzling first movement she found a more desirable integration throughout the rest.

Dudamel and Co. next turned to a concert suite of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps the best ballet score ever written. And if you thought the choreography went missing, then you've never seen this maestro dance before his players -- wonderfully enacting all the movements and gestures the music outlines.

Who needed to see Juliet run up the steps to her balcony when the music graphs that fleet-footed rapture, so airily pictured by the orchestra? Only the physical complement of a ballet performance would have bettered the takeaway.

February 15, 2017

'Antiques Roadshow' drives into the desert*

AR PS Convention Center - Copy.jpg

Nine years ago, when "Antiques Roadshow" last visited Palm Springs, several of the hopeful treasure hunters were gratified. A Clyfford Still oil painting was appraised at $500,000, a Joseph Stella painting at $250,000, a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot" for $250,000 and two Tiffany lamps for $130,000.

Until this season, "Roadshow's" 21st, no single tour stop had yielded as many items valued in the six figures.

Last summer, "Roadshow" returned to the desert for a long day's taping of what would become three broadcasts that will air on local PBS station KOCE starting Feb. 20. Shortly before the production trucks arrived, Marsha Bemko, the show's executive producer, was happy to bring the 70 crew members here, and not just because of the region's renowned trove of Hollywood memorabilia and midcentury modern furnishings.

"We look forward to being in Palm Springs," she said, "because it's the only convention center in the nation with carpet. I'm praying it's still there."

Although Bemko, who has been affiliated with "Antiques Roadshow" for nearly 20 years, travels in the rarefied world of art and antiques, in conversation she's more earth mother than culture snob. Any regular "Roadshow" viewer understands how a piece of crap can have as much value as a signed Picasso, and Bemko is a big reason why. She's all about the story, not the loot.

When I spoke to Bemko in July, midway through this season's tapings, her favorite treasure so far wasn't particularly valuable ($600), but the tale it told was priceless.

It was brought to Orlando, the first stop. "It's a peach can label," Bemko recalled, "with a letter on the back written by a U.S. soldier in World War I France in September 1918." The writer praised the Laura Brand Lemon Cling Peaches, which cost about $1.26, expensive for the time. The peaches, the GI wrote, "are worth fighting for."

AR peach label - Copy.jpg

"Finding a good object is like finding a [winning] lottery ticket," said Bemko, who lives in Boston and, it amuses me to report, is a self-described "season ticket holder" in that city's lottery. "I can't stop now," she admitted, then gracefully segued back to the topic at hand. "But I did hit the lottery today -- we just found out 'Antiques Roadshow' is nominated for our 14th prime-time Emmy."

In 2008, Sam was one of the 5,000-some ticket holders for the Palm Springs "Roadshow." The Pomona College history professor [show producers request that reporters not use surnames of people who appear on the broadcast] was tagging along with a friend who was keen to know if his posters and Native American rugs were worth anything. Sam figured he might as well bring a few pieces of baseball memorabilia he's owned since he was a kid in Hawaii, where his father was an umpire for big league games including the Dodgers.

AR baseball hi res - Copy.JPG

"My turn came," he recalled, "and the appraiser [Leila Dunbar] ... looked over the collection and disappeared behind a curtain for what seemed to be a long time -- 10 or 15 minutes." Three hours later, he was being taped as a featured part of the broadcast, with his stuff valued at $6,000 to $10,000, largely because he possessed one of the last photos of Jackie Robinson in a Dodgers uniform, posed with Roy Campanella and Sam's 10-year-old self, signed by both.

Later, Sam's complete collection was appraised for $30,000 to $35,000.

These days, Sam notes, "I'm more famous for [those few minutes on "Roadshow"] than for the three books I've written."

Karl, a 40-year resident of Palm Springs who must live in an enormous house, also attended the 2008 taping. He's a CPA who collects art, guitars, toy trains and soldiers, Civil War memorabilia, flags, guns ... Although he was contacted once by "American Pickers," that show declined to feature his stuff, he said, because it "was too well-organized."

"Roadshow" fans know the value of organization, of provenance. The documents Karl brought from the archive of John E. Wilkie, who was head of the U.S. Secret Service at the turn of the 19th century, appealed to the show's producers. Karl became custodian of the archive, he recounted on the broadcast, when a friend told him, " 'I know you collect things. I have a bunch of old papers. ... If you want them, you can have them. Otherwise, I'm throwing them away.'"

Karl, who can't not collect stuff, looked it over, and when he saw an engraving signed by Teddy Roosevelt, told his friend, "I'll take it."

The lot, including Wilkie's Secret Service badge when he protected President McKinley, was appraised at $10,000. Later, that figure was revised upward, when the badge alone was valued at that amount.

As always, tickets for this year's Palm Springs' "Roadshow" sold out (actually, they're free, but allotted randomly by application; 11,768 people applied for the 3,000 pairs of tickets available in Palm Springs). Approximately 10,000 items were appraised by about 70 experts on that Saturday in August.

I asked Bemko if there was anything about the desert climate people should know regarding their heirlooms. "You are lucky to have dry air in the desert," she replied. "You are unlucky to have dry desert air."

Your degree of luck depends on your heirloom; dry is good for preserving paper (books, documents, some art), but bad for wood, which cracks in arid conditions. Bemko's rule of thumb for preserving the things you love: "Consider whatever it is to be like you -- if you're comfortable [in your environment], it is too."

Items to be appraised are divided by category, and although geography sometimes drives longer lines for certain categories than others (Civil War memorabilia in the South, Native American artifacts in Arizona), generally all 24 are represented at each stop. "Good stuff has feet," Bemko said. "We see the stuff mom said to keep."

At the crowded Palm Springs Convention Center, tribal arts expert John Buxton explained that when an appraiser thinks an object is air-worthy, he or she pitches the story to a staff "picker" without indicating to the owner what the item might be worth. The dollar figure isn't revealed until the end, for maximum TV drama. "It's reality TV," he said. "You want guests to have an unpracticed story and reaction to the value announcement."

Anyone whose object is being considered for its TV close-up is sequestered in a green room while the research is completed and other experts consulted.

AR Loughery and Pearsall table - Copy.jpg

Appraiser Peter Loughery from Los Angeles was a popular fellow in Palm Springs, as his expertise is midcentury modern design. He was standing among some tulip pedestal chairs by Eero Saarinen and a classic glass-and-walnut boomerang coffee table by Adrian Pearsall when another appraiser, Arlie Sulka, walked over to ask his opinion about a filthy glass vase someone had brought. Appraising might be a fine art, but sometimes its tools are rudimentary: Loughery spit on the vase in search of a signature.

One ticket holder, Amy, had traveled here from San Francisco. She has entered the ticket lottery for all 21 years and never scored until now. Last year, however, she traveled to the taping in Little Rock, Ark., where her parents had secured tickets as local PBS boosters. At a pre-taping cocktail party there for donors and volunteers, she watched Bemko's demonstration, and listened to several of the show's appraisers talk about their categories, including Nicholas Lowry, the poster pro who, as any "Roadshow" watcher knows, speaks with authority and dresses like a carnival barker. Amy, an admitted appraiser groupie, loved them all.

In Palm Springs, her 19th-century Japanese kabutowari (sword) had been carried by a soldier who gave it to her husband's grandfather in an act of gratitude for saving a kid from drowning. Or something; it was a convoluted tale. The weapon was valued at $350, but she uses it "to keep my children in line."

I found Libbe from Tujunga in line waiting her turn to be filmed in the "Roadshow's" feedback booth. She has entered the ticket lottery "three or four times," but had gotten lucky only now.

Libbe brought a signed copy of "Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury, along with some of his correspondence. It was appraised at $1,000. Cool, but what I really liked was her earrings. "Seven bucks," she said. "Flea market."

If you watch the Palm Spring "Roadshow" segments later this month, expect Hollywood to appear in the form of Archie Bunker's plaid jacket, and in 2008 encores by Elvis and Marilyn. I'd tell you their stories, but they're still secret. Stay tuned.

AR Bunker's coat - Copy.jpg

Photos: convention center, peach label, Peter Loughery, Archie Bunker's coat by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2016; Dodger baseball by Jeff Dunn for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2008.

local PBS station that airs "Antiques Roadshow"

January 26, 2017

All the street's a stage and sack lunch 'fellowship'

January 21 was a great day for immersive theater in Los Angeles.

I'm referring to one event you probably know about, the Women's March. But I'm also writing about "fellowship" - which you probably don't know about. The former attracted the masses; the latter has a maximum capacity of 42 for any single performance.

Of course, the march wasn't intended primarily as a theatrical event, but it certainly became one. I'm not referring to the official speeches in front of City Hall; I didn't come close to actually hearing those remarks. I'm referring to the theater in the streets on the way to City Hall.

A cast of hundreds of thousands used signs, chants, music, puppets and occasionally costumes and dance to express themselves in a live, face-to-face, here-and-now event. It was in stark contrast to the mostly one-way and electronic communications - Twitter and TV - that President Trump uses. (I know, he also enjoys his live rallies, but hardly anyone in California has ever been to a Trump rally.)

A theatrical event needs an audience as well as a cast. On Saturday, I was part of the audience, in that I wasn't personally carrying a sign or speaking at city Hall -- or blowing on a tuba, like the man who was producing rhythmic oom-pahs from a big white sousaphone as he inched through the streets.

Part of my mind was still operating on the level of a theater critic, assessing the effectiveness of the signs, the tuba, the cityscape, the movement (or sometimes, the lack of movement - this was not the kind of "march" I remember from my days in marching bands), even as I basked in the overall impressions of sunny and smiling solidarity.

But although the surface of the event was peaceful, this was a protest, not a picnic. A sense of outrage over the election of Donald Trump had inspired the multitudes to show up.

Conflict, that important theatrical ingredient, permeated the event as much as the more superficial good vibes. Any election in which the "winner" receives nearly 3 million fewer votes than the "loser" creates a big pot of simmering, dramatic conflict.

Let's toss in a few of the other twists -- Vladimir Putin's supporting role and the fact that the potential first woman president lost to a self-confessed "pussy" grabber (this was probably the most popular subject of the signs on Saturday). Add the concealed tax returns, the $25 million Trump paid to settle a fraud case just before taking the oath of office, Trump's fabulist aversion to telling the truth...the list goes on and on. If concocted by a playwright, this character and this narrative would elicit comments from critics such as "overkill."

One of my favorite signs, which I noticed among the crowds who crammed into the North Hollywood Red Line station on our way to the march, summed it up: "I can't fit all of the things I'm upset about on one sign."

Yes, the Women's March was a vast theatrical event, brimming with good fellowship but also with disgust and dismay aimed at the offstage central character, as well as considerable suspense at what might happen next. If you missed it, don't worry - it might have quite a few sequels in the next four years.

Speaking of fellowship, there are still some opportunities to see Cornerstone Theater's "fellowship." You have a choice of four venues scattered around Los Angeles. I saw it on Saturday, after the Women's March, in Pacoima. In some ways "fellowship" was an apt sequel to the march.

We met in the lobby at the headquarters of MEND, a nonprofit organization. After washing our hands, we were guided into a cavernous room where, during the normal work week, real-life volunteers regularly assemble sack lunches for distribution to those in need. Each of us was given an apron and gloves and assigned to a table, along with three or four other audience members. Cast members showed us how to prepare the lunches.

fellowship-biery.jpg Bahni Turpin plays Regina and Marcenus "M.C." Earl plays Roscoe in rehearsal for "fellowship, a play for volunteers." Photo by Brian Biery.

As we started to work together, the actors took on their fictional roles as some of the volunteers at MEND and began to engage in conversations with each other, punctuated by occasional musical moments, as well as regular breaks to help us move forward in the sack-lunch preparations. Gradually their talk shifted from relatively light-hearted banter to personal revelations of the experiences that led them to this activity, including their own memories of hunger. The enthusiasm most of them expressed for their volunteering duties was occasionally undercut by the skeptical words of a newbie who was there only because he was getting community-service credit, after a string of traffic tickets
Then, abruptly, the realistic style of Julie Marie Myatt's script shifted gears. A theatrical manifestation of hunger entered the room and began spooking the characters, with the assistance of masks and puppets designed by Nephelie Andonyadis. Using no words, this specter brought the characters into a deeper confrontation with their own anxieties and fears, including a glancing reference to the current national mood. No one mentioned a particular election or president, but suddenly the play evoked that "I can't fit all of the things I'm upset about on one sign" feeling that I had witnessed earlier in the day, on my way to the march.

Still, the anxieties were at least temporarily banished by the play's conclusion, which was bolstered by the fact that we audience members had done something tangible in the face of common 2017 fears. We created actual three-dimensional sack lunches that, we were assured, would be distributed to someone who needed them on the following day. I can't remember a theatrical production that resulted not only in whatever private thoughts and feelings it inspired but also in the sense that we, the audience, quite literally did something to help our neighbors, as the performance was happening.

Director Peter Howard guided the proceedings smoothly, although there is a slight level of anxiety of a different kind, created by the multi-tasking within the production's structure. At certain moments, the audience is supposed to keep the lunch-making going even while listening to the dialogue among the actors. But usually each audience member is doing only one relatively straightforward lunch-making task at a time. I didn't get the impression that anyone was distracted from the spoken words for long.

"fellowship" (spelled with the small first letter) performs in Pacoima on Saturdays at 5 pm and at Watts Labor Community Action Committee on Sundays at 2 pm, but 7:30 pm performances are also available, at Pico Union Project on Thursdays and the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica on Fridays, through February 12.

Small casts, major theaters

2017 began with several excellent small-cast shows. None has a smaller cast than "The Lion" (not to be confused with the current movie "Lion"). This one-man musical at the Geffen Playhouse features Benjamin Scheuer, singing his own score about his own life, accompanying himself on six guitars. This might sound self-indulgent, but it has been shaped into a genuinely compelling story (Sean Daniels directed), involving Scheuer's relationship with his father, who died young, and the performer's own bout with cancer when he was in his 20s.

org_img_1480713698_L-Benjam.jpgBenjamin Scheuer. Photo by Christie Goodwin.

This might sound grim, but Scheuer exudes a magnetism that's missing from many solo performances -- and of course we know from the get-go that he survived the cancer. The score, which is mostly from the acoustic singer-songwriter tradition, is strong enough to be heard outside the theater - which may soon be the only way to hear it, as this engagement is billed as the last time the New York-based Scheuer will perform his own show. It closes February 19.

Broad Stage in Santa Monica brought us a not-quite-solo musical, "13 Things About Ed Carpolotti," about a small-town woman whose recently deceased husband left behind the unpleasant surprise of some serious debts. Barry Kleinbort directed, wrote the score and adapted the script from a monologue of the same title -- one of three fictional solos within Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings" (which South Coast Repertory produced in 1996).

Penny Fuller plays the widow, accompanied at a piano by Paul Greenwood, who occasionally adds his voice to the songs. The musical production isn't as authentic or as heartfelt as "The Lion," but it has some of the mingled satisfactions of a clever short story and a strong musical-theater veteran (Fuller) who knows how to use her voice as well as her face to establish character.

Finally, South Coast Repertory itself offered a briskly entertaining two-hander, Jen Silverman's "The Roommate." It's also about a small-town woman (the remarkable Linda Gehringer) of a certain age, but in this case she's divorced. After advertising for a roommate, she gets a refugee (Tessa Auberjonois) from New York. As the Iowan discovers a few things (maybe even 13 things?) she didn't know about her roommate in advance, and as she enthusiastically embraces some of these notions, she discovers a few things she didn't know about herself -- and the play transcends its "Odd Couple" set-up. Former SCR artistic director Martin Benson staged a production that was a case study in how to make design matter, even in a realistic comedy. But it closed too soon - last weekend.

Two other major theaters are currently offering two-handers on relatively big stages. La Mirada Theatre is reviving Jason Robert Brown's musical "The Last Five Years," and Laguna Playhouse is producing Christian O'Reilly's Irish comedy "Chapatti," which has yet to be introduced to Los Angeles.

January 9, 2017

Lois Boardman's jewelry collection finds a home

lois-boardman-dogs.jpgLois Boardman and her dogs by Iris Schneider.

A personal collection of objects can be thought of as a portrait. It can speak volumes about what an individual is drawn to, what their aesthetic might be, and how they view the world. A personal collection of jewelry is potentially even more telling because jewelry is one of the most intimate and powerful forms of self-expression. Beyond Bling: Jewelry from the Lois Boardman Collection at LACMA provides a window into the life and personality of the octogenarian South Pasadena resident.

lois-boardman-vert.jpgThe exhibit of contemporary studio jewelry includes over 50 pieces from the 300-piece collection gifted by Boardman to the county museum in 2013. Highlighting how jewelry can communicate personal or political messages, the pieces are whimsically grouped as "animal," "vegetable," "mineral," and "plastic." According to LACMA, "the jewelers in the collection have followed the lead of earlier makers who defied conventions by creating innovative designs and using non-precious materials to make works prized for their artistic rather than monetary value." Jewelers from the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are represented (including 5 from California.)

Curators Rosie Mills and Bobbye Tigerman spent three years bringing the exhibit to fruition. "I had not previously had the experience of working with a collector but Lois immediately put me at ease" says Mills. "With her it's like family now, and we had the warm company of her two very large and affectionate poodles who were just as curious about Lois's treasures as we were." She found the Boardman home a cabinet of curiosities. "Everywhere you looked there was something unusual and intriguing, and then she'd pull something out of a cabinet that would totally blow your mind."

The two curators were amused at Boardman's low-key approach to her obviously impressive collection. Many of the pieces were pulled out from under beds. "Isn't that neat, she'd say. I really enjoy her deadpan humor," says Mills.

Boardman, who is 85, has spent her life working in and around art. Born in Chicago, she studied anthropology in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she met her husband Bob, enrolled there as a medical student. Living in Southern California by 1959, she would go on to study ceramics with Ralph Bacerra at Chouinard, and work at the Pasadena Art Museum (now Norton Simon Museum) in programming. Later she joined the Pasadena Art Alliance, an independent volunteer group that supports contemporary art in Southern California. She also has a long standing relationship with LACMA's Decorative Arts Council (the funding arm of the department mounting Beyond Bling.)

Her interest in collecting contemporary jewelry was sparked by meeting her long-time friend, the gallerist and craft collector Helen Drutt English, in 1980. Before meeting English, Boardman's jewelry consisted of a wedding ring and little more. "It suddenly became fun," she says. Initially advised in her collecting by English, Boardman embraced the search for new pieces online and through dealers. A world traveler, she has made more than a few trips to Munich Jewelry Week, a yearly event that displays and supports contemporary jewelry.

lois-boardman-nose.jpgFor a woman who once famously wore a custom-made gold nose (crafted for her by German jeweler Gerd Rothman) to the supermarket, Boardman seemed to want to downplay the importance of her over three decades of collecting avant garde jewelry during a recent chat at her home. She says that, until the LACMA curators came into her life, she had thought of herself as an "accumulator, not a collector."

"It's not been the biggest part of my life, really," Boardman continues. "It's been fun but you balance your life...It wasn't all the time that I was looking at jewelry. People that I know here in Pasadena didn't even know that I had this. I would wear one thing at a time." When asked why she chose to collect contemporary jewelry (as opposed to, say, Victorian pieces), she says "well, this is my time and I could go out and look at it. I'm a product of my time."

Sitting in the lush, slightly overgrown garden with her poodles, Boardman reflected on the decision to give the collection a home at LACMA.

"It happened because I was getting older and when you get older you start thinking about things like that. Letting go hasn't been painful because I know It's all going to be preserved. The makers appreciate this more than anyone else. Very few museums take them in. And that makes me feel good."

"Beyond Bling:Jewelry from the Lois Boardman Collection" on view at LACMA until Feb.5, 2017.


Necklace by Nancy Worden. Gilded copper, Japanese and US currency (including 1964 and 1965 Kennedy half dollars with gilding), coral, turquoise, bone, brass.

December 23, 2016

Theatrical highlights of 2016

district-merchants-prod-ds.jpg​Kristy Johnson and Helen Sage Howard Simpson in "​​District Merchants." Photo by ​Ben Horak/SCR.

I'm skeptical of year-end highlights lists, because they encourage comparisons of theatrical apples and oranges.

Still, each year I look forward to writing my own highlights list. Besides covering some of the favorites that I've already publicly praised, these lists also give me a chance to admire other productions that I didn't mention earlier in the year, when they were up and running. Usually, these shows didn't fit into the theme of the column I happened to be writing at the time or else they had closed in between columns.

So, regular readers of this column might find a few surprises as they survey my favorites of 2016, listed here in (more or less) alphabetical order:

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. It's Time. Solo shows often lack the variety and conflict that arise more naturally in plays with many characters. But James Lecesne's multi-character solo about the search for a missing teenager in a New Jersey town obliterated such concerns in Center Theatre Group's staging at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Also, in the related but hardly identical genre of strictly autobiographical and local solos, master West Side raconteur Paul Linke's latest, "It's Time," will continue amusing and moving audiences for at least three weekends in 2017, Jan. 7-22, at Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.

Cloud 9. Caryl Churchill's brilliant comedy about the dissolution of colonial and sexual constraints, using the same characters in two very different eras, began the final year of Antaeus Company's residency in NoHo with a bang - which, let's hope, will continue to reverberate when the group moves to Glendale in 2017.

Destiny of Desire. District Merchants. Telenovela met Bertolt Brecht in Karen Zacarias' sizzling "Destiny of Desire" at South Coast Repertory, directed with brio by Jose Luis Valenzuela. But let's not overlook another West Coast premiere that was occurring at more or less the same time next door, in SCR's adjacent, smaller space - Aaron Posner's "District Merchants." It's a fascinating American take on "The Merchant of Venice" in the 1870s, staged by Michael Michetti, who had recently directed Posner's somewhat similarly-styled "Stupid Fucking Bird" for Theatre @ Boston Court.

disgraced-prod-ds.jpgDisgraced. A secular Pakistani-American attorney is the focal point of Ayad Akhtar's provocative play, leading to reflections on the intersection between mainstream American culture and Islam. KImberly Senior's staging for Center Theatre Group, at the Mark Taper Forum, excavated the play's fault lines with maximum impact. Right: Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Eccentricities of a Nightingale. In Tennessee Williams' improved rewrite of his own "Summer and Smoke," directed by Dana Jackson for Pacific Resident Theatre, Ginna Carter dared to be more eccentric than usual as the central character Alma, without sacrificing our ability to see Alma's yes, soul.

Fly. This musicalized, choreographed play about the World War II Tuskegee Airmen and the racism they faced was one of the best Black History Month productions ever, flying far above predictable inspirational tropes with dynamic tap and soaring projections. It was staged at Pasadena Playhouse by Ricardo Khan, who wrote it with Trey Ellis, in a co-production with Crossroads Theatre of New Jersey.

Going to a Place Where You Already Are. Office Hour. South Coast Repertory produced four world premieres by women in four months. These were my favorites. Bekah Brunstetter's "Going..." probes gently, with a wonderful sense of humor, into the notion of an afterlife among two related couples of different beliefs and generations; Marc Masterson's staging was irresistible. Julia Cho's "Office Hour" is very different - a not-so-gentle probe into an adjunct professor's confrontation with a troubled young student who sends signals of being a potential campus shooter; Neel Keeler's harrowing premiere depicted both the student and the teacher as Korean- Americans.

bekkah-brunstetter-scr.jpg"Going to a Place Where You Already Are" playwright ​Bekah Brunstetter. SCR

The Imaginary Invalid. Romeo and Juliet. Our rotating classical rep companies, Pasadena's A Noise Within and Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, each offered a "Romeo and Juliet" as well as Constance Congdon's adaptation of "Imaginary Invalid" this year. Theatricum went farther out on conceptual limbs in both plays. I preferred A Noise Within's "Romeo", staged by Dámaso Rodriguez. To a slightly lesser degree, I also preferred Theatricum's gender-swapped "Invalid," directed by Mary Jo DuPrey with Ellen Geer in the title role.

John is a father. Julie Marie Myatt's tale of an LA man who finally meets his grandson in Phoenix, after years of estrangement with his now-dead son's family, was an extraordinary experience in the hands of director Dan Bonnell and the brilliant Sam Anderson in the soft-spoken but intensely felt title role, at Road Theatre's venue on Magnolia Boulevard.

Kentucky. Leah Wanako Winkler's comedy is the best new script East West Players has staged in years. A rebellious daughter returns home from New York to Kentucky for her younger, more conventional sister's wedding, in the process facing down their abusive white father and their submissive Japanese mother. Amusing music and movement help lift it out of the dysfunctional-family-drama pit. Deena Selenow directed.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. How often do we see a classic Western tale on stage, treated seriously instead of as a parody? Rubicon Theatre in Ventura introduced British playwright Jethro Compton's dramatization of Dorothy Johnson's short story to the United States, with Jenny Sullivan directing Gregory Harrison in the role made famous by John Wayne. Would someone please bring this to LA County?

Merrily We Roll Along. See my last column for more on Michael Arden's masterful rendition of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical, which takes us backwards through the relationship of three friends, starting with their midlife strife in LA. It closed Sunday at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.

A Mexican Trilogy. A Mexican family moves to Jerome, Arizona, then to Phoenix, then to LA over the course of the last century. Playwright Evelina Fernandez's saga, previously seen in three separate chapters, finally came together in an improved marathon version that appeared in two installments, lasting about six hours, at Los Angeles Theatre Center. It was the best example yet of the music- and movement-infused style of director Jose Luis Valenzuela, who then took the style over to "Destiny of Desire" (see above) at South Coast Rep. Because the LA Times didn't even review the latest version, someone should bring this "Trilogy" back soon so it can reach a wider audience.

The Model Apartment. Donald Margulies' '80s-set drama, about Holocaust survivors who attempt to escape their aggrieved daughter as well as their past in a Florida condo, finally got its LA due (following a faltering premiere here in 1988), under the direction of Marya Mazor, at Geffen Playhouse.

My Maṅana Comes. Pocatello. Two plays set in restaurants. Elizabeth Irwin examines immigration dramas and economic inequality behind the swinging kitchen door of a busy New York bistro in "Maṅana". The action starts with a slow simmer, then Irwin gradually raises the heat. A gifted ensemble, guided by Armando Molina, made all the right moves, at the Fountain Theatre. Meanwhile, Samuel D. Hunter's "Pocatello," set in the dining room of an Italian chain franchise in Idaho, also looked at hard times but from outside the big cities. It found that sweet spot between laughter and tears in John Perrin Flynn's production at Rogue Machine's new home in southeast Hollywood.

urinetown-prod-ds.jpgUrinetown. Coeurage Theatre's revival of the Mark Hollman/Greg Kotis musical, in which brave citizens fight authoritarian overlords during an intense water shortage, remains blissfully tongue-in-cheek, but it's also surprisingly topical in the wake of Donald Trump's electoral-college triumph and his loose talk of privatization. Kari Hayter's nifty staging at the ultra-intimate Lankershim Arts Center maintains a sharp focus. It's scheduled to re-open after the holidays, on Fridays and Saturdays, Jan. 6-Feb. 25. Coeurage maintains a pay-what-you-want policy at all performances. Photo by Nardeep Khurmi.

A Walk in the Woods. Lee Blessing's 1987 two-hander about Soviet and American arms negotiators seemed much more timeless in John Henry Davis' version than it did when we were closer to the (1982) negotiations that inspired it, thanks to the performances of Tony Abatemarco and David Nevell. The language almost sounded Beckettian at times in this International City Theatre revival in Long Beach.

In case you're wondering about "Amélie"

"Amélie", the new stage musical adapted from the French movie, may look tempting to fans of the film. But think twice. It's at the Ahmanson Theatre, which is too big for such a featherweight contender. Even one of the show's fans, the LA Times' Charles McNulty (who original saw "Amélie" in smaller Berkeley quarters), wrote that its presence in the Ahmanson is sometimes "like an amuse-bouche is being served on a turkey platter." Good line, but the show's charms in the big hall are so elusive that the line could be edited down to "a turkey."

December 13, 2016

Baryshnikov, Trifonov, 'Wonderful Town' are gifts galore

baryshnikov-letter-to-a-man.jpgMikhail Baryshnikov performs in "Letter to a Man."

Call them a team. Some team. They are, arguably, the greatest living theater artist and the greatest living dancing actor, in magical cahoots with each other. Namely, Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Two years ago they brought us "The Old Woman," a revelatory piece that instead of being a fluke with rich resources was just the first combustion of a duo bound for the poetic cosmos.

But return they did to UCLA's Royce Hall (and it couldn't happen for more appreciative hosts) -- this time with "Letter to a Man," otherwise known as their Nijinsky piece, based on the legendary dancer's madman journal writings to his nemesis, Sergei Diaghilev, that haute impresario of the early Parisian 1900's, who sponsored and bedded him, then sent him into exile; this, after his misdeed of marriage to aristocrat Romola de Pulszky.

Did you miss it? Well, you missed a stunning event. What kind? The kind that makes you crave to see the 60-minute show again. To jump on a plane to Paris next week, where it plays for 8 days. And what makes it so?

The moment-to-moment montage, a kaleidoscope that frames the ever-magnetic Misha in a myriad of physical portrayals, his voice projections of the Russian lines set down by Vaslav Nijinsky in the Zurich sanatorium. It's where he lived in otherwise silence for the subsequent 30 years to his life's end.

What Wilson does is drop each vignette into a stage picture, developed through ingenious lighting and set pieces that form a captivating tableau. There's the stark shock value of Misha in white face, with tux shirt and black bow tie, strobe-lit in a freeze of madness, the stage fronted by a row of yellow bulbs. But that's just to start.

Soon the sardonic good times get going. A little song and dance, Bausch-style, with the nostalgia of '30s pop tunes, Misha still doing a fluidly integrated turn or step that advertises his authoritative wit and showmanship. But elsewhere this Nijinsky's expression goes dark and his downcast eyes gaze into the same abyss seen on an LP jacket picturing the dancer as a tragic Petrouchka.

If we're lucky UCLA's Royce Hall will stage an encore.

Meanwhile there's another Russian supernova commanding our attention: Daniil Trifonov, the 25-year-old pianist whose name often brings up talk of Vladimir Horowitz -- although this current virtuoso comes without personal peculiarities. He's simply an extraordinary artist.

trifonov-dp.jpgDaniil Trifonov.

So when the Disney Hall crowd, packed wall-to-wall, heard him with Gustavo Dudamel leading his LA Philharmonic, it was blown away. Naturally.

They ventured that beast of the literature, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. A knuckle-buster if there ever was one, it became the world Trifonov inhabits, wholly absorbing, intense in its intricacies and rapacious demands, its live-or-die heat, all of it stitched together in unrelenting concentration.

Unlike many others, he even took on the lush romantic theme with an elegant, classical approach -- no swoosh and swoon and swell, no quarter with easy, over-indulgence, but just a modicum of restraint for contrast with the surrounding finger fury.

To be sure, Dudamel kept his band stepping along in unflagging sympathy with the soloist. But there were moments when they swamped him -- so that Rachmaninoff's advanced harmonics (1st movement), as heard when Trifonov played under the Verbier Festival's Yuri Temirkanov, got swallowed up here.

No check on orchestral power came in the remaining program. Dudamel gave his forces their head and then some for Prokofiev's mystical Scythian Suite, followed by Scriabian's "Poem of Ecstasy." For those who have yet to hear the Philharmonic in all its sonic brilliance, this has to be a resolute goal.

But those seeking a massive visual component to music had only to catch LA Opera's production of Philip Glass's "Akhnaten" -- you know, that supposedly androgynous pharaoh, made more so in this re-telling of Egyptian history by the title character's gradual gender change before our very eyes.

Extraneous commotion abounded here, and not just for the staging and majestically static score, momentous music of mounting drama (a Glass specialty). First, there was the Music Center Pavilion's protest rally by "Black History Matters" questioning that the company did not cast an African-American as the lead counter-tenor, despite its color blind composition of numerous others, including Queen Nefertiti.

And then there was Akhnaten (himself/herself), sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo in a somewhat scratchy, appropriately high voice, who appeared nude at one lengthy ceremonial point, head and body shaven, only to be dressed in this glacially slow production by attendants. (One wag was heard saying "what a way to put your pants on!" referring to the choreographed lifting of the whole body and slow guiding of his legs into their coverings). Later, under sheer garments, he appeared with a semblance of breasts.
You could call the entire show a processional, with much sung declaiming, a contingent of jugglers and some stunning scenic triumphs -- all of it underpinned by a score with ongoing arpeggios, led perfunctorily here by Matthew Aucoin (a talked-about composer named to three years as the company's artist-in-residence). But coming after Glass's "Einstein on the Beach," staged three years ago, it doesn't nearly match the power of that celebrated piece.

As a breather LA Opera gave us Leonard Bernstein's charming, upbeat "Wonderful Town" -- and didn't even insist on an operatic conversion, except for baritone Marc Kudisch, the only self-consciously formal voice here, who sang off-pitch much of the time.
So, yes, the Broadway musical has a place here, especially if you believe that music drama can be inclusive. Quality counts, not genre. And although its orchestration fully acknowledges terrific tunes and musical comedy rhythms, Bernstein's interior scoring also lets us in on his compositional kernels for "On the Waterfront" and even "West Side Story."

Grant Gershon led the whole shebang lovingly and energetically (revealing his early roots) -- with the orchestra onstage behind the performing cast. Faith Prince made a comically jaded Ruth with Nikki James her deliciously starry-eyed sister Eileen. Roger Bart, that utterly versatile impersonator, changed voices, accents and characters in the flick of an eye.

Steven Sondheim joined the Broadway focus when Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater put on the composer's still problematic "Merrily We Roll Along."

Despite the staging's over-the-top, unintended caricature (an SNL skit?) and George Furth's now fatuously melodramatic book, Sondheim's marvelous songs and lyrics make the effort well worth our while. Can anyone ever resist the chance to hear "Not a Day Goes By"? Even when up against this show's politically correct diversity casting that makes not a whit of sense? Of course, if you close your eyes and just listen.

Among notable locals there was the best of them, LA Ballet, an enterprise that keeps on amazing us with its often sterling programs.The latest, in a string of successes, led off with signature Balanchine, the "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and let me say here that the piece is always startling; it is its choreographer's neo-classical genre emblem. Pull it out of the box, amid many diverse ballet formats, and it will outshine everything else.

Of course, that's assuming the dancers, their coach and the general staging can match the demands. No question this time. The soloists made the most eloquent complement to Stravinsky's quirky, convoluted and melancholy score. And the ensemble was not far behind.

The other grateful entry on the bill was Aszure Barton's "Untouched," a clever cowboy's lament set in a dance hall (brothel?) that uses Graham expressionism in an original, characterful way. Again, the dancers rose to the high level of national companies with big budgets. Establishment Los Angeles and its private benefactors must do more to secure this gem of a dance troupe.

December 11, 2016

Q&A: 'Instagrammer' paperboyo air tags LA

If there is an artist and photographer who can make a claim on air rights, it's Londoner Rich McCor. As paperboyo, his photography and paper-cutting skills taunt landmark architecture with the irreverent aesthetic criteria of street art. It began on his home turf when he showed Big Ben as a wristwatch. He caught my eye when he hit Las Vegas in July and converted the former La Concha Motel lobby, now used by the Neon Museum, into the swept-up skirt of Marilyn Monroe.

Paperboyo was in Dubai two weeks ago. Last week he was in town tagging Los Angeles with air stencils that gave his 222k followers images that include Homer Simpson taking a bite out of Randy's Donut, Banksy's "Maid in London" sweep debris into The Broad Museum, and a skate boarder do a trick off Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Armed with his camera, black paper, and sharp instruments, sometimes he plans out what he will air tag. Often he will "freestyle."

While Los Angeles Landmarks are well known, did you still plan and research before making this trip to the West Coast?

paperboyo-palms-crop.jpgDefinitely. I knew that LA boasted the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Santa Monica Pier and other familiar places but I came across so much more when I started researching landmarks. It was the same when I visited Vegas earlier this year; I started discovering loads of amazing architecture and sculptures that I didn't realize even existed. This hobby has really helped broaden my travel experiences everywhere I go because I'm always discovering new places as well as looking at familiar landmarks in a new way.

How much free-styling did you do in Los Angeles locations?

Not as much as I do when I'm closer to home. In London I can afford to take more time, wait for inspiration to come, but if I'm travelling to a destination for a week then I want to make sure I arrive armed with ideas so that I have a bit of a plan.

Do you carry paper-cutting supplies with you at all times?

Yes, there's always some black card and a scalpel knife in my luggage. I leave it at the hotel of course. I'd rather avoid the potential of being stopped by the police and trying to explain why I'm carrying a knife:

"Why do you have this sharp object on you sir?"
"Well, it's so I can turn that building into a sailing boat?"
"You what?"

You once said you set aside ideas that don't work into "a failed pile." What did not make the cut this trip?

There are always ideas and locations that just don't work, and there's a plethora of reasons why (vantage points, the wind, shadows, etc). I have a folder on my desktop called 'failed ideas,' which has something like fifty photos from around the world that just haven't worked. My rate is usually that about eighty percent of my ideas work, but I think LA was even more successful than that.

I did have some nice ideas with the Hollywood stars but none of those ideas worked at all, which was a shame. They'll be going into that folder on my desktop.

Some of your trips have been sponsored. Was this trip covered or was Los Angeles always a planned destination?

LA was always on my list because I knew it would provide plenty of great content, plus it's a great destination for a Brit in November because it's pretty chilly back home this time of year. The LA tourism board saw the photos I took in Las Vegas earlier this year and asked me if I'd like to come to LA. It was a pretty quick 'yes' from me.

Where's your next stop?

I've got a few projects back in the UK, which will keep me busy until the end of the year. Then I'm off to the French Alps and Brazil in January. I have a book coming out at the end of next year with my photos, so I'll be setting aside some time in February to work with the designer on that but I know I'll be aching to travel again once that's done.

You're a photographer, but it's the silhouette playing off architecture that pulls in your followers. And the image is not complete until it's distributed online. Have people begin calling referring to you just as an Instagram artist?

I've been described in a few ways; a photographer, an artist, a blogger, a non-destructive vandal and a street artist. I'm not sure I entirely align to any of those, but I guess being called an 'Instagrammer' is probably the most suitable -- especially as this is now a full time career for me now.

I like that it's hard to define exactly what I do, I hope in some way it's a confirmation of originality.

END NOTE: A recent post of paperboyo's is not an air tag, but a simple shot from behind the Hollywood Sign with the backstory on Danny Finegood, the Cal State Northridge art major who, in 1976, changed the sign to read HOLLYWEED.

Bonus: LA Observed contributor Ed Fuentes was profiled this fall by Nevada Public Radio.

'Merrily' is a masterpiece. Melted 'Icebergs'

merrily84a-ds.jpgSaycon Sengbloh and Aaron Lazar in "Merrily We Roll Along" at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Two major productions in LA right now more or less begin with scenes set in LA - which is so unusual on our larger stages that I'm happy to salute any effort to examine our own community, no matter how tentative.

But both productions also lose points on the Observing-LA meter because they focus on fictional movie makers. "Hollywood" (in the larger sense, not the geographical area) is the boilerplate subject for too many plays set in Los Angeles, further reinforcing the international cliche that LA is first and foremost about "the business." Let's have more plays about LA teachers and politicians and mechanics and Airbnb hosts.

Anyway, after those initial scenes, the two productions head in diametrically different directions. First let's discuss the masterpiece, "Merrily We Roll Along," at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
Masterpiece? Isn't this the famously "troubled" musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth? Well, it received that reputation in its premiere production, which consisted of only 12 performances following previews, way back in 1981 on Broadway. Like most Sondheim fans and other theatergoers, I didn't see that production, although I certainly enjoyed seeing the new documentary about it and some of its actors, "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened," playing at three Laemmle cinemas this weekend.

Instead, my "Merrily" experiences began in 1985, when I saw it at La Jolla Playhouse, in the rendition which Sondheim himself later described as "the turning point" in the show's evolution into the musical its creators intended. I've seen seven other productions since then.

merrily-neon.jpg"Merrily" has never seemed "troubled" to me -- "troubling," perhaps, but not "troubled." Despite the ups and downs of those eight productions, I can't recall ever exiting a performance of "Merrily" without at least a slight lump in the throat and a misty sensation in my eyes. Although it pops with Sondheim's usual lyrical wit and intelligence, it's also one of the most durably poignant productions in the entire canon of musicals.

Until now, however, "Merrily" had never received a Broadway-caliber production in Los Angeles County. Locally, I've seen an East West Players version, three 99-seat-plan revivals and one concert reading, but none of these came close to the depth and delicacy of the Wallis production, staged by Michael Arden.

Arden is the same magician who directed Deaf West Theatre's "Spring Awakening," taking it from a small space near LA's Skid Row to the Wallis to Broadway in little more than a year, in 2014-15. I don't know if this "Merrily" will also roll along to Broadway
But I'm more interested in the fact that this "Merrily" skipped an initial LA small-theater production, unlike its Arden-staged predecessor. It might be harder for big musical productions to start small, in the sub-100-seat tier, after Actors' Equity's new minimum-wage rules go into effect Thursday (if they do go into effect, but that's another story). In this context, it's reassuring to know that the Wallis was willing to hatch this "Merrily" without a small-theater tryout, using its greater resources as well as its more professional contracts than those that are found on the 99-seat level.

The upscale launch of this production is a little ironic. "Merrily" is the story of three friends. In their early 20s, they're struggling to pay the bills, but they're full of hope and ambition. The two men write songs and plays (ergo musicals), while the young woman is entering journalism at the ground floor.

The two young men, in other words, are late '50s/early '60s New York versions of the young artists who contribute so much of their time and talent to LA's small theaters. Sure, some gifted actors and writers continue to work in LA's 99-seat scene as they grow older, but many of their maturing colleagues either can't afford the meager compensation or, in some cases, burn out.

In the case of these two "Merrily" characters, the two men achieve high-profile success as they grow older, but they also become bitterly divided over their goals. Franklin Shepard becomes the Hollywood producer we see in that aforementioned scene, abandoning his music, while Charley Kringas stays in New York and wins a Pulitzer for one of his plays. (Their friend Mary Flynn crosses over to becoming a, wince, theater critic).

Some observers apparently have trouble with "Merrily" because the story is told backwards, beginning with the midlife stress when the characters are none too sympathetic and ending with their youthful harmony. This certainly isn't the conventional route -- most of the great showbiz musicals have gone in the opposite direction ("Gypsy," "Dreamgirls").

But as we recall our own personal pasts, we often start in the present and move backwards, wondering what brought us to the current moment. Using this device on a stage shouldn't seem radical or confusing. The growing contrast between the messy strife of early midlife and the uncharted path of young adulthood creates a bittersweet buzz, which stays with us as we leave the theater.

Arden's production achieves some of its special glow from three younger actors who play shadow versions of the older actors. For most of the show, they're primarily a choreographic effect, but at the end (which is to say, the beginning of the characters' mutual acquaintance), they assume center stage. These roles are cast not only with very limber younger actors but with shorter actors, almost as if they're literally still growing up.

The production is beautifully designed to emphasize the panorama of shifting memories and to diminish any sense of naturalism. The lighting by Travis Hagenbuch is especially evocative. The casting is 21st-century-diverse. African-Americans play Charley (Wayne Brady) and Gussie (Saycon Sengbloh), the Broadway diva who becomes the second wife of Franklin (Aaron Lazar). Whitney Bashor plays the first wife ("Not a Day Goes By"), and Donna Vivino plays Mary, who once also carried a torch for Franklin
From the depictions of Franklin and Gussie, some people might jump to the conclusion that Sondheim and Furth were saying that art in Hollywood or in Broadway musicals is likely - if not certain -- to be corrupted and corrupting, presumably compared to the purity of Charley's undetailed Pulitzer-winning play. Yet Sondheim's mentor was the Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein II. And consider what Sondheim wrote in his book "Finishing the Hat."

He recalled that as a young man, he wrote "a four-hour summation of my views on life, ambition, morality, theater and art" called "Climb High" which he hoped to take to Broadway but which "fortunately I had to abandon" because he got a chance to write for the "Topper" TV series - in Hollywood.

Before he was famous, he also wrote a musical for hire, "Saturday Night," mostly in LA at the home of its producer and designer Lemuel Ayers, whose unexpected death at age 40 derailed the project's expected journey to Broadway. However, two years later Sondheim was a lyricist for "West Side Story." Most of the subsequent shows by the greatest musical-theater innovator of "our time" (to borrow one of the song titles from "Merrily") were produced primarily in the commercial sphere.

Perhaps his own experience in the big leagues helped Sondheim endow Franklin with some lingering sympathy, despite the character's many flaws. The show is a much more dimensional creation than it would be if Sondheim's sympathies were entirely with Charley and Mary.

I was glad to see "Merrily" in its earlier LA productions, even when they seemed cramped and impecunious. But those who know it only from those smaller-scaled revivals, or not at all, should make sure they see it in all its glory.

The current play at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, Alena Smith's "Icebergs," also begins in LA, at the Silver Lake home of an up-and-coming movie director. And it shares a plot twist with "Merrily We Roll Along." In each story, the filmmaker feels conflicted about not having cast his wife in a movie -- either his latest project (in "Merrily") or his next project (in "Icebergs").

"Icebergs," however, hews to realism as much as "Merrily" rejects it. The entire play is set in this one home, over the course of less than one day, presumably in 2016.

Still, Smith has something on her mind in "Icebergs" that's bigger than the one-day, one-set play might indicate. Note the title. This script isn't only about thirtysomethings who are attempting to make art and money and possibly babies in contemporary LA. It's also about how they feel -- or don't feel -- the weight of climate change lingering over their decisions.

The director's next movie is an Arctic adventure story, set in an environment where the ice is melting. His wife, seemingly resigned to yield the movie role that she wanted to someone with a star name. is now an internet addict who can't stop reading and worrying about climate change, But as she and her husband have been trying to have a baby, she wonders whether she should give birth on such an imperiled planet. (By the way, she also rejects the idea of performing in LA theater because "nobody does plays in Los Angeles" - this, from a character in a play that's receiving its premiere in LA.)

icebergs-ds.jpgNate Corddry, Rebecca Henderson, Keith Powell, Jennifer Mudge and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs." Photo: Jeff Lorch Photography.

A trio of supporting characters adds rather self-conscious touches of diversity. The husband's visiting ex-roommate is a black paleontologist from Missouri -- a devoted dad who's nevertheless glad to take a break from paternal duties while he's in LA. The wife's friend is a tarot-reading attorney and a lesbian newlywed who's already considering divorce. The husband's agent adds a touch of crass. The latter two characters in particular feel as if they're comic devices designed to lighten and counteract all that talk about climate change.

In the end, "Icebergs" isn't especially challenging or memorable. The scope and urgency of confronting climate change, especially in the wake of the Trump victory, loom over this little play. Perhaps Stephen Sondheim should tackle climate change in his next musical.

P.S. Near the top of this column, I expressed a desire to see more plays about Airbnb hosts in LA. So I must report that in "Icebergs," we hear (but don't see) that the tarot-playing attorney met her new wife via Airbnb - the former hosted the latter as her first guest. Also, in Deb Hiett's amusing new comedy "The Super Variety Match Bonus Round," at Rogue Machine, a couple is hosting a guest via an unnamed organization that sounds a lot like Airbnb. But "Bonus Round" is set in Texas, not LA.

November 13, 2016

Mahler's spell plus Bell, Forsythe and Gheorghiu

Joshua Bell.

Hurray for downtown LA. Where such events as dreams are made of stole into Disney Hall and the Chandler Pavilion. To think this city was once called a cultural wasteland. (while some today dub it "the coolest place.")

Just look at Disney's occupants, Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, collaborating with the likes of pianist Yefim Bronfman and violin master Joshua Bell. On top of that our resident podium chief gave us the gargantuan Mahler 9th Symphony, exploding a sense of the composer's outsized, Technicolor emotional palette.

So, did you think you'd been there before? Well, no one has ever heard too much of Mahler, especially not the 9th, not those it speaks to -- us, its contemporaries.

And not considering that this 20th-century composer languished in oblivion many years before Leonard Bernstein finally championed him -- and inspired the world to turn on to music that most easily exemplifies what neurologist Oliver Sacks meant when he said:
"Of all the arts, only music touches directly the emotions that we never could identify before."

No surprise, then, that the SRO audiences received this latest performance without a cough, without a whimper, 2200 listeners sitting in pin-drop silence -- even as Dudamel, at the end of its 90-minute marathon, held back applause far beyond the point of the last overtone fading away.

But that didn't minimize the powerful effect he and the band (including its marvelous soloists) branded on their massed listeners. Which is, in no small part, because Mahler translates feeling states into music -- graphically. Never mind that the Ländler, here, missed its grazioso sweetness to contrast with menacing swagger or that the overall robust attacks blurred some opposing elements. By the time we got to the finale and its death knell of fine, ominous cries and whispers, there was the inevitably profound Mahler spell cloaking the sound scape.

And thoughts turned to Barry Socher, the orchestra's beloved, long-time first violinist -- he died the night before -- to whom Dudamel dedicated the performance...

A week earlier, another momentous event took place, one that could look on paper like business as usual -- but wasn't. Joshua Bell? Perhaps the most over-achieving performer around? The Brahms Violin Concerto? Never, ever far from our ears? Well, suffice it to say, this outing with Dudamel and his forces, Bell doing Brahms, made the headline in my mind.

Especially because the violinist's recording, way back to 1996 with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi, glitters like a multi-faceted diamond. So surely, after playing it hundreds of times since then, he would have lost something. But that was the magic at Disney Hall -- his way with this ever-gorgeous work only gained.

Bell played into the orchestra, as a member of it, emerging for his solos to find a myriad of colors with dazzlingly nuanced expressive turns on any single note -- supplicating, becalming, passionate -- as Dudamel et al found their pinpoint path with him.

So did they for Yefim Bronfman, returning to the Disney stage for another favorite, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. And if physical presence means anything then you must take note of this musician's manner.

A big man, he encompasses the instrument, he encompasses the music; from the moment his fingers touch the keyboard you see he has dominion over it. And he plays the way a king sits down to a feast set before him, with absolute power and relishing every fine tidbit.

That is to say delicacy did not elude Bronfman, reminding us of the axiom to play Beethoven with Chopin in the head and Chopin with Beethoven in mind. Delicacy and depth, suppleness and strength, all emerged under those virtuosic fingers.

Beyond Disney and across the street, the Music Center's Chandler Pavilion was the scene of its own major event: the city's newest resident dance force, William Forsythe, making a debut with three different companies. Remember him? Back in 1983 during that brief period when the Joffrey Ballet took up temporary tenancy at the Pavilion, this choreographer made the company a piece that caused tremors throughout the town.
It was "Love Songs,"a prescient dance illustrating irony in its title with lots of domestic thrashing about by its "lovers" -- laying bare a neurotic truth beneath its idealized surfaces.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in William Forsythe's "Pas/Parts 2016." Photo by Erik Tomasso.

Well, you can forget most of that. In the decades since, Forsythe has become an international figure, forging an abstract style that subtly suggests all kinds of modes, moods and original partnering relationships that never lose the complexity of choreographic design at its highest level.

Call him the dance-maker who re-enacts neoclassical ballet --everything on pointe, women with bun-sleek hair, all in leotards/tights. Others try and often fail by going through motions, just putting steps together or ugly distortions together. But he's the real thing.

How do you know? Because moment-to-moment you stay engaged with every movement compendium, every evolution from the beginning of a phrase, through to its end. There's an organicity at work, not a mere attachment of one pose to another.

Needless to say all the parts involved -- music, staging, lighting --find that same organic quality. That's what Forsythe is: an artist. When the curtain rose on "Pas/Parts 2016" the dancers were framed by soft white walls that gave off an illumination of purity, just like the dance itself, animated by its Thom Willems score. Within the movement context there were swirls of behavior inflections -- seductive, arrogant, wistful -- all suggested/reinforced by the music and performed to perfection by the superb San Francisco Ballet.

Tongue-in-cheekiness came with "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" to the Allegro from Schubert's 9th, as Pacific Northwest Ballet cavorted furiously with constantly grinning faces. And the big number, "Artifact Suite" -- a take-off on grand ballet spectacle with enough contrapuntal and canonic patterns for large corps to make Balanchine's head spin -- was a clever conundrum, danced brilliantly by the Houston Ballet.

But even if a casual audience can't penetrate the underside of all that Forsythe puts out there, it's still fascinating.

gheorghiu-dp.jpgSo was the concert by superstar Angela Gheorghiu (right), who returned to the Broad Stage, her Santa Monica oasis. If ever there was a magnet for soprano fanciers she is it. And at this visit she lit up the stage with a Romanian contingent: her countrymen tenor Calin Bratescu and conductor Tiberiu Soare leading a pickup orchestra.

No one yelled "Brava, mi diva" this time, but you can be sure that the wall-to-wall audience worshipped and rewarded its goddess with lusty "Bravas" all around.

And if you question what is a diva anyway, just know that it is one who delivers everything -- who basks in the knowledge that her every move, every gesture, is being gobbled up by fans fairly salivating at her presence and then sings, as she did again on this night, with a voice that is a liquid column of sound, smooth up and down the scale, with a lustrous top and that signature Gheorghiu legato.

It is truly the sound of velvet caressing the air, gripping listeners in its emotive power as well.

Best of all, among arias and orchestral pieces, was the church-yard scene between Tosca and Mario, this diva portraying an operatic diva who testily toys with her lover, the two of them bringing off their excerpt with tantalizing naturalism. But the whole evening was a gemütlich affair -- warmly eager and energized by Bucharestian spirit.

You can't do better for an opening fall season than this.

November 6, 2016

Telenovelas and Trumpery

destiny-of-desire-ds.jpgEduardo Enrikez and Esperanza America in "​​​Destiny of Desire." Photo by ​Debora Robinson/SCR.

The telenovela genre, that hotbed of steamy romance, becomes embroiled in a fervent embrace with the theater in "Destiny of Desire," Karen Zacarias' wildly funny play at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

The director of this rambunctious coupling is Jose Luis Valenzuela, better known as the man who runs Latino Theater Company and the venue that houses it, downtown's city-owned Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Just last month, I wrote about Valenzuela's company's signature production of Evelina Fernandez's complete "A Mexican Trilogy" at LATC. Now, with "Destiny of Desire" following in rapid succession, Valenzuela is indisputably the theatrical director of the moment in Greater LA.

In recent years Valenzuela has become known for a music- and movement-accented style, even though he doesn't do musicals per se. It was evident in "Dementia" and "Solitude" and "Premeditation," other works by Fernandez that Valenzuela staged. Their collaboration achieved its culmination (so far) in "A Mexican Trilogy."

"Destiny of Desire" adapts this style to the work of a different playwright, Zacarias, who is based in DC, where Valenzuela directed its premiere last year at Arena Stage. But Fernandez isn't missing from the current incarnation of the Valenzuela style. She's onstage, playing a pivotal character in "Destiny."

The heightened music and choreography, plus similarly imaginative visual designs, transport the telenovela-based material out of the flat-screen TV into the deeper perspectives of the stage. So does Zacarias' script, which is supposedly set in "an abandoned theatre in Orange County," not in the Mexican state where the narrative ostensibly takes place. So we see the actors moving scenery and operating spotlights from the sidelines. Brief spoken factoids and other observations break the fourth wall and offer Brechtian commentary on the events taking place.

The events themselves are compressed and paced in the terms of brisk parody, and the resulting laughter is welcomed. But the class distinctions and seductions and coincidences of the story also operate on their own terms quite well, faintly echoing similar plot twists in Roman and Shakespearean comedy.

The collaboration between Valenzuela and some of his usual actors with South Coast and with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (which is where this productions is headed next) is similar to the proposed collaboration on "A Mexican Trilogy" that I suggested Center Theatre Group should pursue with Valenzuela and company, in order to bring the trilogy to a larger LA audience. Now that I've seen "Destiny of Desire" in Costa Mesa, I'll add that CTG and others might want to consider presenting it, too, in LA, where it should find a large and receptive audience.

By the way, I mentioned last month that one probable reason why the audience for the LA run of the completed "Trilogy" was limited was because the Los Angeles Times didn't review it. However, the Times' Charles McNulty wrote a rave notice of "Destiny of Desire" at South Coast. It's bizarre for the Times theater critic to review Valenzuela's work in Costa Mesa but not at LATC, Valenzuela's home base, located just a few blocks from the Times. What's up with that, Times editors?

If "Destiny of Desire" is a masterful blend of styles and subject, CTG's premiere of "Vicuña," at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, isn't up to that standard. Jon Robin Baitz's play is apparently supposed to mock, explore and reflect on the Trump campaign just as "Destiny" mocks, explores and reflects on the telenovela. But it's bogged down by its setting in the luxurious atelier of a celebrity suit-maker.

vicuna-ctg.jpgVicuña. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

We're supposed to believe that the Trump character, here named Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), is willing to spend a lot of time and take important meetings in this atelier, just as he should be preparing for his final debate. Not only does this seem rather implausible (surely Trump would bring the tailor to his own digs in Trump Tower), but the decision fails to capture the "if it's Tuesday, this must be Tallahassee" quality of a presidential campaign, in which the candidates are continuously flying from one battleground to another, sometimes dealing with multiple crises simultaneously.

The play initially seems to be a realistic comedy, set in this one questionable location, but then the parody elements become broader in the second act, not always convincingly. Of course we've all witnessed some "unbelievable" (to use a favorite Trump word) moments in Trump's campaign, which is to say unbelievably brash or unbelievably bad, but not surprisingly, such moments feel more alarming and authentic coming from Trump himself than from the computer of a preaching-to-the-choir playwright.

"Vicuña" is ultimately competing against the Trump campaign itself, at least until after Election Day. Then, its run will continue through Nov 20. In those post-election weeks, the play could seem either compelling or irrelevant, depending too much on what happens in real life.

A Margulies festival

the-apartment-lorch-ds.jpg"The Model Apartment." Photo: Jeff Lorch.

LA has seen two recent revivals of Donald Margulies plays: "The Model Apartment" at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and "Shipwrecked!" at International City Theatre in Long Beach.

"The Model Apartment" is the heavyweight here - literally so, in that the play's central metaphor is the physical as well as psychological burden of Holocaust memories on a daughter of two survivors. In the 1980s, Neil and Lola are trying to escape their disturbed adult daughter by moving from New York to Florida, just as they once tried to escape their own memories by moving from Europe to America. Unfortunately, their daughter has inherited and intensified their angst, and she won't let her parents go. Soon after they enter the "model apartment" of the Florida development where they hope to move, she shows up in the middle of the night, with a boyfriend in tow.

"The Model Apartment" opened in 1988 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, but it didn't reach New York until 1995. I saw the LATC production, but my vague memory of it is that it wasn't nearly as powerful as Marya Mazor's revival at the Geffen. The intimacy of the Geffen's smaller space may be part of the reason for that, but Margulies discussed another possibility in a Jewish Journal interview last month -- he said the actress who played the daughter at LATC refused to recite her character's concluding monologue, and he regrets that he gave in to her demand.

Whatever the reasons, at the Geffen "The Model Apartment" is harrowing, creating considerable emotional impact in its relatively brief running time. I'll now think of it as one of Margulies' best plays.

"Shipwrecked!" is also relatively brief, and it's much lighter than "Model Apartment," but it also has a connection to Holocaust survivor stories. When Margulies was researching a movie about an impostor who pretended to have survived the Holocaust, he came upon the tale of Louis de Rougemont, a Victorian author and celebrity who greatly embellished his supposedly true-life South-Seas adventure tales but was ultimately exposed as a fraud.

Margulies' take on the tale has three actors - one playing de Rougemont and two playing everyone else, without elaborate sets. I enjoyed the original South Coast production in 2007 and its subsequent reprise (more or less) at the Geffen. The revival in Long Beach doesn't add or subtract much of anything from my earlier impressions, but it probably satisfied those who are in the mood for a gently ironic divertissement.

October 6, 2016

What would Gordon Davidson do in LA theater today?

10-0GD_Cast_20th_Anniv_Onst.jpgGordon Davidson on stage at the Taper's 20th Anniversary celebration. Craig Schwartz.

WWGD - What would Gordon do?

No, I'm not comparing Gordon Davidson to Jesus or God (despite those imposing initials "GD"). But many LA theater practitioners and observers should ask themselves WWGD, at least occasionally, especially in the wake of Davidson's death last Sunday.

Initially known as a '60s rebel, Davidson reached his most public pinnacle of success within the theatrical establishment in 1994, when his Center Theatre three of the four plays nominated for Broadway's best-play Tony Award.

"We're the most active and productive theater in the area of new and challenging work in the United States," bragged Davidson. "Somebody else can add 'the world'."

One of those three plays, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," was not only commissioned and first produced by CTG, but it focused on LA's most notorious crisis of that era - the 1992 Los Angeles unrest following the Rodney King verdict.

"Twilight" was hardly Davidson's first production of challenging material about the community his theater serves. In 1978, he introduced "Zoot Suit," about an earlier era's LA riots. It was probably the first time that most of the Taper audience had seen a play that examined the racism directed against Mexican Americans. CTG is scheduled to revive "Zoot Suit" in February.

"Zoot Suit" was only the first of the Latino-themed and LA-set productions of Davidson's CTG. He helped put Culture Clash on the wider LA cultural map, and he produced Lisa Loomer's "Living Out," about the conflicting familial loyalties of a Latina maid for a wealthy Westside family.

Also under Davidson, CTG's Latino Initiative helped develop Latino playwrights, administrators and audiences. One of the initiative's directors, Luis Alfaro, lost his job when Davidson left but has since found considerable success with his plays such as "Oedipus El Rey" and "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles." Alfaro's co-director, Diane Rodriguez, became an associate artistic director of CTG and a powerful force in the national nonprofit theater world.

One of the cast members of the 1978 "Zoot Suit" premiere, Evelina Fernandez, has now written "A Mexican Trilogy - An American Story," which covers nearly a century in the life of one Mexican-American family over two parts and more than five hours. Its structure and scope are somewhat reminiscent of the two epics, "Angels in America" and "The Kentucky Cycle," which were the other two CTG-affiliated productions (besides "Twilight") that were nominated for the best-play Tony in 1994. But this new trilogy, running through this weekend, is a production not of CTG, but of Latino Theater Company (LTC), at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), on Spring Street in downtown LA.

mexican-trilogy.jpgGeoffrey Rivas, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North and Esperanza America
in "Mexican Trilogy." Grettel Cortes Photography

LTC had previously produced the three individual components of "Mexican Trilogy," separately, at LATC, and LTC artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela not only staged all of the "Trilogy" productions but is also married to the playwright. So it isn't surprising that the completed version is receiving its premiere with Fernandez's home company. However, CTG did contribute some Mellon Foundation grant money to the development of "Hope," the best of the three plays within the "Mexican Trilogy," and CTG receives a conspicuous "thank you" section in the "Trilogy" program, with two CTG departments and six CTG employees singled out for their assistance.

"A Mexican Trilogy," especially with its new subtitle "An American Story," is terrific, funny as well as moving, with lively period music. The first play, "Faith," is briefly set in Mexico but quickly moves to Arizona in the '40s. The next installment, "Hope," is set in Phoenix but culminates in the family's move to LA - and the assassination of JFK, who is a character in amusing fantasy segments within it. The concluding "Charity," entirely set in LA in 2005, is much improved from its earlier incarnation, successfully bringing the trilogy's themes into an era close to our own.

So isn't the next logical step a production of the entire "Trilogy" at one of the three CTG stages?

The "Trilogy" won't receive the attention from a wider LA audience that it deserves if it's limited to the current LTC production (closing Sunday). The Los Angeles Times, which sent a freelancer to briefly review each of the earlier one-play-only productions in 2011 and 2012, hasn't reviewed the current, improved, complete production of the entire trilogy.

I like to imagine that in his prime, Gordon Davidson might have found a way to make sure that the entire city would get a longer opportunity to see Fernandez's trilogy. Let's hope that Davidson's successor, Michael Ritchie, might arrange a similar move.

Speaking of CTG, what's on its stages right now? Ivo Van Hove's revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" is in the Ahmanson. The venue is too big for the square set, which is apparently supposed to suggest a boxing ring. Even from a relatively good orchestra seat, I felt that the title should have been "A View From the Back." The lead performance didn't register strongly, and an added wordless scene at the beginning felt extraneous and somewhat too enigmatically atmospheric.

Phylicia Rashad's revival of August Wilson's first big success, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," is at the Taper. If the test of a revival is whether the play seems better than the last time you saw it, I'd have to say that I liked it more the first time around. The please-don't-spoil ending is none too convincing, although some of that impression might be attributable to the blocking.

Another 20th-century American master, the late Edward Albee, is currently represented in LA not by one of his well-known plays, as Miller and Wilson are, but by the seldom-seen "The Play About the Baby." Unfortunately, in the Road Theatre production at the company's Magnolia Boulevard venue, it quickly becomes apparent why it's seldom seen - it's like first-draft outtakes from Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

One month to go

On the theatrical presidential front, CTG is producing the premiere of a Jon Robin Baitz play, "Vicuṅa," that sounds as if it were inspired by the rise of Donald Trump. Too bad it won't open at Kirk Douglas Theatre until October 30, only nine days before the election. But previews begin on October 23.

In the meantime, I've witnessed two productions about a richly dramatic former president, LBJ. First South Coast Repertory presented "All the Way," by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote "The Kentucky Cycle," referenced above). Yes, the TV version is available on HBO, with Bryan Cranston as LBJ. But Hugo Armstrong's LBJ at South Coast sent a vibrantly live charge through the theater as he fought for the Civil Rights Act and his own election in 1964, just after his predecessor was gunned down in Dallas. Marc Masterson's staging closed last Sunday.

all-the-way-ds.jpg​Rosney Mauger, Jordan Bellow, Christian Henley, Tracey A. Leigh and Gregg Daniel in "​All the Way." Debora Robinson/SCR.

Surely "All the Way" will eventually receive an LA stage premiere, and Armstrong would be a formidable contender to revive his performance.

But he might have some competition here from Time Winters, whose LBJ is the best thing about Daniel Henning's "The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)", a Blank Theatre production at the Skylight Theatre.

Henning's play tries to adapt Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in order to re-tell the story of the JFK assassination. Using some of Shakespeare's words but forcing them into characters who are identified by the famous names from five decades ago, Henning thrusts the role formerly known as Brutus into the mouth of Winters' LBJ, complete with Texas accent. Caesar becomes JFK (Ford Austin), Cassius is transformed into J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco), and many lesser characters in Shakespeare's play are given the names, and appropriate costumes, of other historical figures from that 1963 period (Jackie, Lady Bird, Evelyn Lincoln, Lee Harvey Oswald, and so on).

This notion of connecting the JFK assassination to a Shakespearean story isn't unprecedented. Barbara Garson garnered notoriety for doing it in "MacBird!" in 1967, with LBJ corresponding to Macbeth and JFK to the murdered king Duncan. I've never seen "MacBird!," but Garson has been quoted saying that her satire was never intended to be taken literally, that she doesn't believe LBJ was literally complicit in the killing of JFK.

Henning's point of view isn't nearly as clear. In a program note, he suggests that "you take the play at face value: some of it is metaphor, some of it is not." However, he also claims this play is his answer to the question "Who do you think did it [the assassination]?" and he writes that his effort to be "historically accurate" was helped by the publication of "Robert Caro's amazing work on LBJ in 2012." This program note could be read to suggest that Caro somehow endorsed the idea that LBJ was guilty.

Actually, in the chapter on LBJ and the Warren Commission in his 2012 book "The Passage of Power," Caro wrote that "nothing that I have found in my research leads me to believe that whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it." Presumably, Henning wasn't thinking of that particular sentence when he credited Caro.

jfk-ds.jpgCasey McKinnon and Ford Austin in "The Tragedy of JFK." Rick Baumgartner

At any rate, Henning's play isn't as funny as you might expect it to be if it were a "MacBird"-style satire. And the differences between the "Julius Caesar" and the JFK assassination narratives are too gaping for the play to be taken "at face value," or seriously. The production isn't helped by the fact that in the actual assassination scene and its aftermath, the sight lines on the fallen JFK are blocked, at least from where I was sitting and seemingly from most of the other seats in the house.

WWGD? Well, he probably would have passed on "The Tragedy of JFK."

October 4, 2016

Gordon Davidson excerpt: 'Opening Night at the Taper'

Gordon_Davidson_Directing_C.jpgGordon Davidson in rehearsal for "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." Photo: CTG.

Editor's note: Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group and a major force behind the Music Center in Los Angeles for 38 years, died on Sunday during a holiday meal with family and friends. He was 83. There are obituaries in the LA Times and the New York Times, and a tribute on the CTG website. Los Angeles author Ron Rapoport worked with Davidson on an autobiography. Here is one chapter from that unpublished work, about the big night in 1967 when the Mark Taper Forum debuted.

Rapoport tells LA Observed: "The fact that Gordon Davidson died the same day Vin Scully retired proves that fate has a sense of humor. I have long believed that Gordon and Vin were really the same guy--New Yorkers who came to Los Angeles to show us how things were supposed to be. In Gordon's case, it was world-class productions that took the region out of regional theater and turned it into a national treasure. In Vin's, it was word poems that conducted us into baseball's promised land.

"Twenty years ago, I spent many hours working with Davidson on a memoir that, alas, we never finished. Here is his rollicking tale of the grand opening of the Mark Taper Forum. I miss him already. Vin, too."

By Gordon Davidson with Ron Rapoport

April 9, 1967, was Opening Night at the Mark Taper Forum. It was a black-tie celebration not only of the completion of the Los Angeles Music Center but also of the city's cultural coming of age. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had opened three years earlier at the south end of the Music Center plaza and the 2,100-seat Ahmanson Theatre was about to be inaugurated with "Man Of La Mancha" at the north end. But now it was the turn of our 750-seat theater in a striking circular building between the two larger structures on the Music Center plaza.

The guest list included Governor Ronald Reagan along with some of the wealthy Californians who made up his kitchen cabinet, Mayor Sam Yorty, dozens of city and state politicians, and hundreds of people from Los Angeles' business, social, political and movie elite. After a buffet and cocktail party attended by 300 people, we moved into the theater itself.

Gregory Peck, who had been a big supporter, gave a brief welcome as did several others, including Reagan, who called the Forum "a beautiful temple of our art and profession." As the ceremonies progressed, however, I had to wonder what this distinguished audience might be thinking about the body hanging from a noose on our curtainless stage. Everyone who had read the subscription brochures and news accounts knew the Taper was committed to presenting a different kind of drama--bold, experimental, challenging works--but I'm not sure anyone was prepared for "The Devils."

The speakers had barely sat down when the play began with a brief crowd scene and then Frank Langella walked out onto the stage as Father Grandier, wearing the full purple robes of a vicar of the Catholic church. He said a few lines and then the audience became aware of someone standing in a hole on the stage below him. It was Ed Flanders playing a wonderful character called the Sewer Man.

Ed came up out of his hole, threw a bucket of slop without watching where it was going and some of it hit Langella's robes. He tried to apologize and, when the vicar said it didn't matter, the Sewer Man, in some of the first words spoken on the Taper stage, said, "It's wrong, though. Shit on the holy purple."

For a lot of people, it was all downhill from there. Before the end of the evening, the Reagans were up the aisle never to return and many others were out of the theater with him. By the end of the play, there were a lot of people who wouldn't have minded seeing ME hanging from that noose on the stage.

All this heavy drama turned into farce about an hour later when Judi and I went home. I had been downtown working all day and she had come to the theater late in the afternoon so I drove our Volvo while she took the second-hand Dodge station wagon we had just bought.

With two infants at home, Judi hadn't been to the Music Center often and she wasn't quite sure how to get to the Santa Monica Freeway. I told her to follow me and drove out onto the Harbor Freeway. There was quite a bit of fog and a light rain, and as I turned into the long lane connecting the two freeways I couldn't see that an accident had stopped traffic up ahead. The next thing I knew I had rear-ended the car in front of me. I glanced up into the rear-view mirror and suddenly there was Judi about to run into me. All I could do was sit there helplessly as she rammed the rear end of the Volvo, sending me once again into the car ahead of me. Luckily, nobody was hurt and when the police arrived they thought it was hilarious.

"You mean YOU'RE married to HIM?!" one of them told Judi as we sat there in our evening clothes. "Hey, guys, come here. Look at this."

Soon, we were surrounded by policemen who couldn't stop laughing while I sat there thinking it was a classic California situation. Where else would you have a husband and wife driving from the same place TO the same place in different cars?

When we got home, I told Judi it reminded me of an old Library of Congress recording I once heard on which Jelly Roll Morton described a New Orleans funeral where everyone marches out to the cemetery to the solemn beat of a band, the body is buried, the musicians strike up a joyous song and they all dance home.

"And that," Jelly Roll said, "was the end of a perfect death."

I never made a conscious choice to be controversial in those days and in fact I had thought it might be appropriate to open the Taper with Shakespeare. But when I started to think about a specific play and what I could bring to it, I decided against it.

Despite the classical plays my early jobs had exposed me to, I had to admit I didn't feel totally equipped for them because I had come into the field somewhat late after studying electrical engineering at Cornell. I didn't feel schooled in the classics or that my training was rigorous enough from an interpretive point of view to handle the acting demands, especially when it came to speaking verse. What did intrigue me, though, was the fact that many new plays, those with some social or political content, seemed to be classical in form and structure and that they used the stage as a larger-than-life canvas.

What I did instinctively was try to combine those classical elements with my impulse to tell contemporary stories. "The Deputy" and "Candide," which I had done at while I was working at UCLA, and certainly "The Devils" are contemporary versions of classical themes and stories. They are concerned with man and the world he lives in, and man and his God. There was something about that particular moment in time, the opening of a new theater, that made me want to do a play that had all breadth and scope of a classical play but was contemporary in the writing, such as "A Man for All Seasons."

If I were going to have trouble with a play, I thought it would be "The Deputy" at UCLA. Its criticism of Pope Pius XII for not speaking out about the extermination of the Jews had raised a storm of protest when it was produced on Broadway. But we were on a college campus where academic freedom was taken seriously and where a remarkable man, Dr. Franklin Murphy, was the chancellor. It was a measure of Franklin's power, and the respect in which he was held, that he was able very quietly to forestall any controversy by letting it be known that we were doing the play and there would be nothing said about it. And there wasn't.

"You know, Gordon," he said to me later when I asked him about what he had done, "this is a university and if you allow it to happen once, where would it end?"

But then, two years later, I picked "The Devils" to open the Taper and the shit hit the fan before it hit the stage.

The play is based on Aldous Huxley's book, The Devils of Loudon, which relates a true story from the 18th century about a libertine priest and nun with sexual fantasies. John Whiting, an English playwright, adapted the book for the stage and it was originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. There had been a Broadway production with Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft and there had been no complaints from Cardinal Spellman in New York that I knew of or from Cardinal Cushing during the pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston.

When I think about it now, I realize how wonderfully innocent and naïve I was. People ascribed all kinds of motives to the choice, but I just thought it was a good play. I liked it because the writing and the passions are so large. I thought it was a good way to show off our new stage and that American actors could handle the material well. Compared to "The Deputy," I didn't think it was a controversial choice at all. The first indication of how wrong I was came just as we were going into rehearsals when I got a call from Lew Wasserman.

"What is this play you're opening with?" asked Lew, who was head of the MCA entertainment empire and president of the newly formed board of the Center Theatre Group.

"It's 'The Devils,' Mr. Wasserman," I said. "I've told you a little about it." Which was true because although I had been given complete artistic freedom, I had kept the CTG board informed about what we were doing in our inaugural season.

"Well, you'd better come see me," he said, "because we seem to have a problem."

As I drove over to Lew's house in Beverly Hills a few days later, the gravity of the situation had begun to sink in. Lew and I had only met at formal board meetings and had never had any real conversations. All I really knew was that he was the most powerful man in Hollywood and I was causing him trouble.

"Holy God," I thought as I made the turn at the bottom of the hill leading up to Lew's house, "what have I gotten myself into?"

There were security guards--I am fairly certain they were from Universal Studios--in a guardhouse down below and after I identified myself, I drove up a long driveway that curved around to a sheltered area under a sumptuous low-slung modern house decorated with marble.

I was taken over to an adjoining house that served as Lew's screening room and contained a lot of movie memorabilia, including an old-fashioned stereopticon and a nickelodeon. There were also dozens of pictures of Lew and his wife Edie in famous company: Lew and Edie with Lyndon Johnson, Lew and Edie with John F. Kennedy, Lew and Edie with Frank Sinatra, Lew and Edie with Cary Grant, and on and on.

Waiting with Lew was Paul Ziffren, one of the most powerful lawyers in town, a mover and shaker in the Democratic party and the man who later would be most responsible for bringing the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles. I was incredibly ignorant about the Los Angeles power structure, yet from that very first meeting with them I felt I had allies rather than adversaries.

After the usual, "Can I get you anything?" Lew said, "So tell me. What is this play, `The Devils?'"

"It's really about mass hysteria," I said as I described the plot to him, "about how a town can be incited to a form of hysteria especially when something is moving counter to the culture. The priest is finally tortured and burned at the stake by the community. Look, what's the problem?"

"Well, I got a call from the Cardinal's office," Lew said. "They're very upset. And then there's the Board of Supervisors. We're on county property, you know."

Los Angeles County is run by five Supervisors and at that time they were all men, all quite conservative both politically and socially, and two or three of them were Catholic. None of them had read the play, of course, but whoever described it to them had emphasized the sexual aspects and made it seem as if it were denigrating the church. We talked a little more and then Lew cut me off.

"You have to do this, don't you?"

"Yeah," I said. "I think we have to do it. We've said we're going to do it and there's no reason not to do it unless you tell me something persuasive."

"Do you have to do it FIRST?" he said.

"Well, no, I guess not," I said, "but I AM in rehearsal. We ARE doing it first. Listen, I'm sorry to be causing problems, but I don't see any way out of it. I think it would be a disaster, especially if you're suggesting we should cancel it."

"I agree with you," Lew said, and I could see that he had made up his mind. "OK, I'll take care of it."

What Lew didn't tell me until years later was that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that a Polish filmmaker had made a movie called "Sister Jean and the Angels," which was based on the same story as the play. That made James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, the very conservative head of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, think the film, which he had confused with the play, was some kind of Communist propaganda, and therefore anti-God and anti-church.

When Lew finally told me the whole story, I couldn't help thinking how it was an echo of the subject matter of the play, how hysteria could be produced in a community through ignorance. I also couldn't help thinking what might have happened if I had been accused of being a Communist. McIntyre wanted to see the film, which hadn't been released in this country, and when Lew was able to get him a print by just snapping his fingers he earned some brownie points. The fact that Lew was able to handle the controversy and that the play was performed as scheduled is something I have always been grateful for.

But many people in the Catholic community were still upset and the Supervisors were so frustrated they couldn't stop the play that they slapped a tax on the Music Center. This was very hurtful because it meant not only the Taper but the Ahmanson, the Philharmonic and every other event at the Music Center had to choose between raising ticket prices or seeing their revenue reduced if they held the line. There was no doubt the tax was meant to be punitive and luckily it ended after a few years.

The Supervisors also approved the appointment of a 16-member Citizen Standards Committee to screen future productions. This could have presented real problems if Franklin Murphy hadn't been named the chairman.

"Franklin, if there's a committee, there will be censorship," I told him, "either because the committee will act or I'll face the pressure of self-censorship."

"The committee will never meet," he said.

What Franklin meant was that as far as he was concerned the committee was set up as a buffer, something to take the heat off the Supervisors rather than to censor anything at the Music Center. If someone complained, they could say, "Well, there's nothing we can do about this. That's for the standards committee to decide."

So while the existence of the committee could have been worrisome, the fact that Franklin Murphy was in charge meant nobody from the outside ever screened plays at the Taper. And after a while, the committee quietly disappeared.

In the end, something lasting and positive came out of opening the Taper with "The Devils." I hadn't chosen the play to throw down any gauntlet. I had chosen it because I thought it was the best play for us to do at the time. But the choice DID throw down the gauntlet. It told the community that we were going to stand for something, that we were going to use an art form to talk about the world we live in, warts and all.

The attempts to stop "The Devils" ultimately were not important, but the support from the CTG board and the people in the community who cared about the theater was. They had something to rally around, a forum to express their support for artistic freedom. And I think the fact we had not set out to accomplish that made the fact that we DID accomplish it more significant.

Another effect of the storm over "The Devils" was that I became a marked man and that helped the theater develop in ways I hadn't considered. For the next few years, everybody was waiting to see what the Taper would do next and this made me feel almost obligated to follow through. It was important that our first play not be seen as a one-time event. Just as we hadn't caved in on "The Devils," we couldn't retreat afterwards. We had to feel free to do what we wanted and that, as much as anything else, gave the Taper its identity. The very name, the Forum, was appropriate. We wanted to be a place where people came together and discussed volatile issues.

In our second season, I directed "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," and in 1970 I followed up with "Murderous Angels," Conor Cruise O'Brien's play about Dag Hammerskjold and Patrice Lumumba. A year later, I directed "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and, as we went from one of these plays to another, I began to see how my own ideas about the theater had begun to change almost without my realizing it.

I remember sitting and watching "Oppenheimer," which is about how one of the inventors of the atom bomb lost his security clearance. As the physicist Hans Bethe and other witnesses wrestled with the moral dilemma of the necessity to end the war, the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery and the dangers inherent in the development of the bomb, I could literally feel the ideas moving across the stage. I could sense the audience becoming a part of the action. It was like an electric current somehow becoming visible and it was very exciting.

It was then that I realized how ideas can have a dramatic power of their own. One tends to think of drama as action, but in fact there is another kind of drama--one that is typified more by Shaw than by Shakespeare--in which ideas become action. What I was learning was that ideas moving in space create their own drama.

I discovered something else that stayed with me when I directed "Catonsville," which was one of the first plays to focus on the Vietnam war and the effects it was having on American society. The war had caused tremendous controversy all over the country, of course, but nobody had yet focused the debate in purely personal terms. Now, suddenly "Catonsville" came along and here were these nine radical Catholics who were still at large and laying it all on the line.

Producing "Catonsville" was like nothing else I had ever attempted. Just meeting with Daniel Berrigan, the fugitive radical priest who wrote it, was more than a little challenging.
"Take this train, change to this bus, walk past this address and come back through the alley," his directions to me said. If you pulled my fingernails out today, I could not tell you where I finally ended up. All I know is that I was somewhere in the suburbs of Boston, I was certain the FBI was following me and only when I reached my destination was I finally able to talk to him.

"I'm used to having the playwright with me when I start a new production," I told
Berrigan. "Could you at least tape a message I can play for the cast when we start rehearsals?"

"This is Father Daniel Berrigan speaking to you from the underground," the message began and when I decided to use it at the beginning of the play itself, several people in the opening-night audience at the Taper leaped out of their seats, thinking Berrigan was actually in the theater. Later, we found out they were FBI agents.

We did some post-performance discussions from the stage afterwards and I said, "By God, I feel that if I wanted to ask this audience to do something as a result of having been put in touch with people who risked their safety and were willing to go to jail in order to protest this war, that I could get these 750 people to get up out of their seats and walk down to the Federal Building and burn more draft cards--or something."

What I realized is you CAN move a crowd--and sometimes an audience becomes a crowd--and that led me to the conclusion that in a way my critics were right. I had taken the initial posture that it's only theater, it's only make-believe and we're all listeners together. But that isn't always true. The theater can be and should be dangerous, the way "Catonsville" was dangerous in 1971. The theater is not just entertainment, not just pap. It can be and should be life-changing.

As the controversy that began with "The Devils" grew into a larger one over the direction the Taper was moving, there was always one crucial question: What did Mrs. Chandler think?

Dorothy Buffum Chandler was the wife of one publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Chandler, and the mother of another, Otis Chandler. This made her not only a part of the history of the city but also of its ultra-conservative power structure. And no one ever entertained the slightest doubt that the Music Center was hers and hers alone. Everything about the complex bore Mrs. Chandler's imprint: its location, its size, its scope, its design--even its very existence. She raised the money. She brought in the city's political and business leaders as well as the highly influential pages of the Times. She chose the architects and hired the artistic directors.

I always thought she had the instincts of an artist herself the way she used her power to create and build. She studied a situation from every angle and then she let her intuition be her guide. And once she developed a passion for an idea, she was not afraid to make the leap of faith that would allow that idea to be fulfilled.

I occasionally joke that one of the reasons Mrs. Chandler chose me to run the Taper is that she is a Taurus and so am I. Carroll Righter, the well-known astrologer, was a good friend of hers and a number of the people in her social circle. Every year at Sylvia Kaye's birthday party, Righter would do the horoscope for the months of the coming year and Mrs. Chandler and her friends took it quite seriously. Zubin Mehta, whom she had chosen to be the first conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center, is also a Taurus and the fact the three of us had that in common made everything seem right to her somehow.

But I think there was a more serious reason that led Mrs. Chandler to choose me to run the Taper and then to support me so strongly whenever there was controversy. Just as I was the boy from Brooklyn crashing this high-society party far from home, she was an outsider in many ways, too. Mrs. Chandler came from the wealthy Buffum family that founded a string of department stores, but she was raised in Long Beach, away from the seat of social and political power in Southern California. And when she married Norman Chandler, she found the world she was expected to join--a world of bridge clubs and garden parties--stifling and depressing.

This could have been disastrous, but Mrs. Chandler's inner resources were extraordinary. So was the forthrightness she displayed many years later when she frankly told how she had become so emotionally distressed that at the age of 31 she checked herself into a psychiatric clinic in Pasadena run by Dr. Josephine Jackson.

"I just couldn't cope," she told an interviewer. "I began thinking I was the one who was wrong, that because I couldn't conform, there was something wrong with me. Dr. Jackson helped me to see that Norman's family was not going to change or destroy me, nor was I going to change or destroy them. They're the way they are and I'm the way I am. The answer is to just go your way and be yourself. Norman, the children and the community needed me if I could be myself. I wouldn't have done anything I've done if I hadn't had that experience."

What she did was turn a corner of downtown Los Angeles into one of America's great cultural centers. When the Music Center was dedicated in 1964, Time magazine put her on the cover and called it "perhaps the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising and civic citizenship in the history of U.S. womanhood." I don't know what womanhood had to do with it because in every important way Mrs. Chandler was a real mensch.

Since she was so inseparably tied to everything that went on at the Music Center--and since she had entrusted the Taper to me--every time I did something that was questioned she was questioned, too.

There were many times when people tried to bully her into getting rid of me, when someone asked her, "What are you going to do about that man?" It couldn't have been easy for her because these were her friends, the people with whom she ruled Los Angeles society. They were also the people who had been the earliest and most generous contributors to building the Music Center. Politically, they were extremely conservative and they simply couldn't figure out what this Jewish kid, this Commie pinko dupe, was doing. Some of them were so offended they told her they would not only stop making donations to the Taper, they would also refuse to support the Philharmonic. The symphony was her real favorite so this could have been a very effective kind of cultural blackmail.

But through it all, Mrs. Chandler was simply remarkable. There was something in her, some instinct, that made her feel that what she was doing was right. Even when she didn't totally approve of some of our productions, she knew she was creating something important. And somehow she even found a way to use the dispute to the Music Center's advantage.

What she saw intuitively was that for every person she lost because of what we were doing, there were others she could bring in for the first time. It was the old money from Pasadena and Orange County versus the Jews from the West Side who were attracted to what was new and exciting at the Taper. The theater gave Mrs. Chandler the opportunity to welcome these newcomers--making Lew Wasserman president of the CTG board had gone a long way toward opening that door--but rather than closing the other door she worked in a way that kept both sides in the arena.

She was almost like a kindergarten teacher the way she said to one faction, "Why don't you play over here in the Philharmonic?" while she was telling the other side, "And you play over here in the Taper." In time, the two sides mixed more and more and the Music Center became democratized. I'm sure we drove away some of the old guard, but there was never any public campaign to withdraw support and, as the complex became more established, donations continued to grow.

From time to time, I would meet with Mrs. Chandler at what she called The Pub, a pool house behind her mansion in Hancock Park that she had turned into an office when she first began work on building the Music Center. This was often late in the afternoon and we would talk about what was going on at the Taper, my plans for future productions and anything else that interested her. Sometime between 5 and 6 p.m., Norman Chandler, a very handsome man with a full head of white hair, would come home from the Times with the paper under his arm. The routine seldom varied.

"Martini, dear?" he would ask after fixing himself one at the bar in the pool house. "And you, young man?"

I would ask for a gin and tonic, Mr. Chandler would go off some place and Mrs. Chandler and I would sip our drinks and go back to work. Often, she wanted to hear from me whether she should go to a certain play. Early on, she realized that if she didn't see a play then she didn't have to have an opinion about it. If someone said, "Have you seen that terrible thing they're doing now?" she could honestly say, "No, I haven't seen it so I don't have an opinion."

There were times when I would tell her that if she didn't go to a particular play, it would be OK. Or I would say, "I think you should see this one," and she usually would. She didn't like everything we did, but not once did she say, "Why are you doing that?" And if anybody else criticized the Taper in her presence, she always defended us.

The greatest test of Mrs. Chandler's devotion came when we staged "Ice" by Michael Cristofer during the 1976-77 season. The previous year, we had done "The Shadow Box," Michael's beautifully lyrical play about how people respond to the impending death of those they love. It became our first play to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and Mrs. Chandler was so proud of it that she went to New York to see the production that carried the Taper's banner on Broadway. She also became very supportive of Michael and was determined to see his new play, too.

But "Ice" was a difficult, disturbing and disturbed play. It was triggered by the fact that Michael was turning 30, coping with a certain kind of success and feeling his life was in transition. This led him to explore a very dark side of himself and of human nature. The play is set in a cabin in Alaska that is inhabited by two men and a woman, it uses every dirty word in the language and is filled with the kind of explicit sex where everybody does everything to everybody.

"Ice" contains so much despair and self-contempt that at one point one of the characters says, "You only have two choices. Either you cut yourself off so you don't feel anything or you open up and let it all in till it hurts so bad you go crazy or it kills you or you kill somebody else. There's no in-between. It's one or the other. Everything else is a lie." This made for a very powerful play, but not a popular one. Many people in the audience streamed up the aisles in disgust as if they couldn't get away fast enough.

"This may not be your cup of tea, Mrs. Chandler," I told her a little apprehensively. "You might want to skip this one."

"No," she said in the special way she spoke when she was about to do something dangerous. "I want to see it. I've heard about it. I know what it is. But I want to go."

So she and her friend Olive Behrendt plunked themselves down in their usual seats, which were in the first row of the second section of the theater just behind the cross aisle and in full view of the entire house. And God bless her, she sat there through the whole play even while people were walking out right in front of her.

It was as if she were making an announcement or perhaps even putting on a performance of her own. She was saying she didn't want to be protected, she wanted to be counted in favor of what the Taper stood for. And afterwards, she asked to be taken backstage to talk to the cast: Ron Rifkin, Cliff DeYoung and Britt Swanson as well as Michael Cristofer. I just loved her for that; I thought it was so gutsy.

As one controversial play followed another in those early years, I think Mrs. Chandler and Lew Wasserman actually began to get a kick out of the Taper's notoriety. Lew in particular would occasionally say something like, "Are you going to do this to us again?" But it was always with a certain kind of smile that let me know there was really no problem. I think they both felt the Taper was doing something worthwhile and that I was doing what I believed in. And they realized that if you do what you believe in with a certain level of passion, you're bound to cause trouble.

Another thing I came to appreciate was the fact they never pulled rank on me. They never acted in an authoritative or arbitrary way. Lew in particular didn't treat me as an employee, although I always believed that if I HAD been working for him at Universal Studios I would not have enjoyed so much freedom.

As regional theaters sprung up around the country in the late 60s and 70s, it was not unusual to see artistic directors lose their jobs when they displeased important civic and social elements. But I never felt that was an issue for me. Lew was a powerful man and a lot of people were afraid of him, but when he was on your side you felt you could do anything. What Lew showed me was how power can be used in a way that benefits people individually and society as a whole.

As for Mrs. Chandler, I will always cherish something Mickie Ziffren, Paul Ziffren's widow, once told me. They were standing together on the second floor of the pavilion that bears Mrs. Chandler's name and one of them spotted me walking on the plaza below.

"I really feel as if he were my own son," Mrs. Chandler said.

As far as my professional life was concerned, so did I.

September 12, 2016

A visit inside Gemini G.E.L.

gemini-gel-jg.jpgPhoto: Judy Graeme

Printer Garrett Metz works on a new Richard Serra series of prints called "Equals." Serra's older work produced at Gemini is included the new LACMA show called The Serial Impulse at Gemini G. E. L.

This photo was taken during a visit to the Gemini G.E.L. studio in West Hollywood in conjunction with the LACMA exhibit that opened Sunday.

Since 1966, the renowned Los Angeles print workshop Gemini G.E.L. has been a vital and innovative force in fine-art printmaking, publishing the work of internationally celebrated artists.

For centuries, artists have produced series to develop thematic, narrative, literary, and formal imagery in a sequential manner. This practice was especially prevalent in the 1960s as conceptual, minimalist, and pop artists adopted the serial format to explore the potential of systems and structures related to such notions as rational order and mass production. Artists at Gemini G.E.L. have continued to engage a variety of approaches to serial production, resulting in some of the workshop's most significant publications. The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L. presents a selection of these notable projects, many of which have rarely been displayed in their entirety.

LACMA premiered Gemini's very first edition--a series of prints by Josef Albers--and has since collected and exhibited their editions. On the occasion of Gemini's 50th anniversary, The Serial Impulse showcases 15 print series, from seminal works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella to more recent series by Richard Serra and Julie Mehretu.

August 21, 2016

Hot town, summer in the theater

Imaginary-Invalid-2.jpgMelora Marshall and Willow Geer in "The Imaginary Invalid" at Theatricum Botanicum. Photo: Miriam Geer

The end of summer approaches. Have you seen any alfresco theater this year?

Fortunately, the 299-seat Theatricum Botanicum keeps its expansive stage busy from the first week of June through the first weekend of October, in Topanga Canyon. That's twice as long as the Old Globe's outdoor season in San Diego.

Theatricum, which (unlike the Old Globe) doesn't have an indoor stage, performs all five of its annual productions in repertory for most of the season, so it offers plenty of opportunities to see a relatively wide variety of attractions in the open air. The seats are permanent, with backs. The rows of seats are raked, so sight lines are excellent.

Then there is Independent Shakespeare Company, which attracts much bigger crowds, occasionally in the 2000-plus range -- thanks to a free-admission-but-please-donate policy and a more centralized location in Griffith Park. Its seating is primarily of the bring-your-own-blankets variety, and some of the locations are much better than others. ISC operates in the park from late June into early September, but it produces only two plays there, one at a time. So the opportunities to see each are more limited. In my last column I wrote about ISC's "Richard III," but it has now been replaced by "The Tempest."

2016-Season-Botanicum.jpgI've seen both of the ISC shows this summer and all of the Theatricum's 2016 repertory except its perennial "Midsummer Night's Dream," which is part of the Topanga season every year. Both of these companies use Actors' Equity contracts and maintain consistent professional standards.

Of the six outdoor productions I've seen this summer, my favorite is "The Imaginary Invalid," at Theatricum Botanicum. Moliere's comedy about a raging hypochondriac opened in 1673; shortly after it opened, Moliere collapsed while performing the title role of the "imaginary" invalid and died a few hours later.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey is using Constance Congdon's free-wheeling adaptation, which still sounds contemporary nearly a decade after its premiere in 2007. It's the same adaptation that A Noise Within plans to use in the fall in Pasadena. Alan Blumenfeld, who's playing a supporting role in Topanga, will play the title role for A Noise Within.

Congdon's adaptation has been altered at the Theatricum in order to accommodate several gender swaps. The titular codger, usually male, has been cast with Ellen Geer, the Theatricum's artistic director. The invalid's younger new wife has become a younger new husband (Jonathan Blandino), still as avaricious as ever.

Geer's own daughter, Willow Geer, is playing the hypochondriac's daughter, who is being pushed into a marriage to an outlandish young poseur (Cameron Rose) solely because he's about to become a doctor who would presumably be at his would-be mother-in-law's beck and call. Naturally the daughter has other wedding plans, co-starring her dashing true love (Max Lawrence). And of course the mastermind who plans to foil the invalid's strategies is the wise but impertinent maid (Melora Marshall).

The laughs were loud on the night I saw "Invalid." The Congdon adaptation receives stellar support from a glittering little score by Marshall McDaniel. In the spirit of the original, which was dubbed a "comedie-ballet," this one is more or less a rudimentary musical. DuPrey, who staged an admirable "August: Osage County" at the Theatricum last summer, is as skilled with light family farce as she was with dark family drama a year ago.

If you still have a taste for dark family drama, the Theatricum is prepared. Ellen Geer directed a muscular rendition of "Titus Andronicus," Shakespeare's goriest horror show.

She adapted the text so that it sounds closer to "the near future," which is when she has set the action. In the opening lines we hear such words and phrases as "oligarchy," "imperial presidency," "democracy" and "corporate state" - none of which you will find in the corresponding lines of Shakespeare's text. Marcus Andronicus, the title character's brother, has become Marcia Andronicus (Marshall). Titus' son Lucius has become his daughter Lucia (Willow Geer).

Such changes help us draw closer to a tale that's potentially too relentless to sustain interest without a few extra fillips. The wide scale of the panoramic Theatricum stage, which expands to include some of the surrounding landscape, helps, as do vigorous performances from Sheridan Crist in the title role, Marie Francoise Theodore as the captured queen Tamora and Michael McFall as the proud villain Aaron. McDaniel's incidental music and designer Ian Flanders provide an eerie soundscape.

However, Geer's enterprising adaptations of antique material fall short in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Tom," the other two productions at the Theatricum this season.

"Tom," her adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is too by-the-book. Of course the original is literally a book - a novel, with a narrative that splits into two different stories in different parts of the country. So it's inherently more unwieldy, for stage purposes, than "Imaginary Invalid" or even "Titus." Also, as many have noted through the decades, it comes with a big dose of sentiment that becomes a bit icky. Geer is too respectful of the original.

I couldn't help but recall "I Ain't Yo Uncle," the San Francisco Mime Troupe's and Robert Alexander's bracing update of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book. Like Geer's adaptation, Alexander's also featured Stowe as a character alongside characters from her novel, but Alexander had a much more irreverent attitude and directly connected the material to contemporary events (it played in San Diego in 1991 and in Hollywood in 1993, during the Rodney King era). Back then, "I Ain't Yo Uncle" seemed a satirical masterpiece. It would be great if an enterprising company could revive it with a free hand in this era of Barack Obama and Ezell Ford.

As for "Romeo and Juliet," the problem isn't in Geer's willingness to adapt the original but in the way it has been adapted. Geer re-set it in "present day" east Jerusalem. The Capulets are Jewish Israelis and the Montagues are Muslim Palestinians. The thorniest decisions were in how to create characters who would correspond to the play's two neutral, peacemaking figures - Friar Laurence and Prince Escalus.

In the original, both of the feuding families recognize the priest's authority - they're all Catholics - and that of the sovereign prince of Verona. But in east Jerusalem, a similarly mutual nod to secular and sacred authorities isn't likely. Geer places a mufti in the friar's role - but how many muftis would volunteer to preside over a secret wedding between a Jew and a Muslim? The princely role is assigned to "the Prime Minister" - as if Netanyahu would personally intervene in street riots between two families. The awkwardness of these sections of the script undermine its overall credibility.

Speaking of "Romeo and Juliet," one of the best recent versions I've seen was outdoors, two years ago, in the Shakespeare Center's last production at the VA's Japanese Garden in Brentwood. Directed by Kenn Sabberton, it was lightly set in '20s LA. After skipping a year last summer, Shakespeare Center returned this year with its next summer production, a "Twelfth Night" also directed by Sabberton and set in '40s LA. But this one wasn't outdoors. It was in a midsize venue on the campus of Santa Monica College, a handsome venue that nonetheless lacked that summery vibe that the company cultivated for years. It featured some strong performances, but the LA concept didn't seem nearly as well-developed as it was in "Romeo."

Regarding the ISC's current "Tempest," in Griffith Park, it's enjoyable now and then, with particularly lively work from the clowns who sometimes seem tiresome in other Tempests. But director Matthew Earnest should have cut the text more rigorously to fit the atmosphere of a large outdoor venue, with its potential for unwelcome distractions - which peaked on opening night when a helicopter hovered over most of the last 15 minutes. Actors responded with a few clever ad libs, but the ominous noise and lighting intrusions undermined the sense of healing and reconciliation that's supposed to prevail at the end of "The Tempest."

tempest-isc.jpgLorenzo González, Sean Pritchett and David Melville in "The Tempest" at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park. Photo: Grettel Cortes.

Election central

In my last column I reported on two productions that started me thinking about Donald Trump, including the ISC's "Richard III," which inserted a few lines that were intended to trigger such thoughts.

Since then I've seen Second City's "In Trump We Trust," a satirical sketch show that apparently will play in Hollywood on Saturday evenings during the rest of the election season. At least on the night I saw it, it initially attempted to stoke mild pity for Trump, as a poor little heir who lacks true friends, while heaping scorn on Hillary Clinton for being the secret chef behind Trump's rise.

Later, as part of the curtain call, the writer/director/Trump impersonator Dave Colan more or less contradicted his previous message, exhorting us to disregard those earlier moments, because Trump is a "monster" and we should please vote for Hillary. Perhaps Colan wanted to do something different from what we see on TV -- from comics as well as from the candidate himself - but the real Trump and the TV comics are funnier.

If you're more seriously interested in the election process, as opposed to Trump and Clinton in particular, I recommend Aurin Squire's "Obama-ology," at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. It's not about Obama. It's about a young, black Ivy League-educated campaign worker (Nicholas Anthony Reid) in 2008, campaigning for Obama in some of the poorer precincts of Cleveland. It's a fascinating glimpse of the pragmatism that's required in a campaign -- even a campaign that's built on a sense of idealism. Reid is terrific, as are the other three actors, particularly Brie Eley playing four contrasting characters, under the savvy direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera.

"Obama-ology" is playing at the Skylight in conjunction with Jason Odell Williams' "Church & State," about a US Senate campaign in North Carolina that has been interrupted by a mass shooting. Elina de Santos directs a wonderful cast, but one of several surprising turns in the narrative isn't especially plausible.

obama-ology.jpgBrie Eley and Nicholas Anthony Reid in "Obama-Ology." Photo: Ed Krieger.

August 10, 2016

A month at the Bowl and a Ballet Theatre fly-by

mirga.jpgMirga Grazinyte-Tyla.

Nowhere -- not at Boston's Tanglewood in the Berkshires, or New York's Lewisohn Stadium, or Chicago's Ravinia -- is there such a summer symphony spot as Hollywood Bowl.

As if to celebrate that fact, Gustavo Dudamel stationed himself there for his LA Philharmonic's first 2016 alfresco month, attracting throngs of locals and tourists. On the most crowded nights at the mammoth showplace-- and those are quite something, crawling up Highland Ave. at 4 blocks per half hour -- you'll find pre-concert revelers squatting rear-to-rear with their casual picnic fare on the smallest patches of ersatz grass scattered around the grounds. A bizarre sight.

But that's not mentioning the chi-chi dinners served to upscale box-occupants or the ever-expanding franchises (pop-up trucks, Suzanne Goin cuisine, burger stands, etc.) Naturally, with our resident maestro a big part of the lure, the Philharmonic's summer hangout (capacity 17,000) is a happy magnet -- though getting there is not half the fun.

Still, Dudamel and the band are not stingy with their rewards. Everything from Beethoven to Broadway from "Tosca" to tango is on tap -- proving that this Everyman of Music lives in the whole world; he does not retreat to an elitist realm.

That was clear in his latest bid to the masses: an evening of Argentine works that gave a nod to those notables, tango-meister Astor Piazzolla, film-score maven Lalo Schifrin and, for an energized, substantive measure, symphonic composer Alberto Ginastera.
What a draw to our huge Hispanic population. And some may even remember a few summers ago when Dudamel, (with his grander gestures and story-telling charm) had us dancing in the aisles to his surprise encore, "Tico Tico," a flashback to the Xavier Cugat-Carmen Miranda era. He so galvanized its infectious rhythms that everyone just tico-tico-ed out into the night.

If that's what this crowd expected, it didn't happen. Neither did anything but Ginastera's Dances from "Estanca" seem integrated -- the rest was merely episodic.

And never have we seen tango dancers -- in Piazzolla numbers, no less -- so dedicated to exhibition lifts and gymnastics. Where were all those rapid-stepping milongas, the staccato rhythms studded with long, teasing syncopations, the entwined couples locked in their gritty, mobile drama, the fast-flying spiffiness? Surely this was a new kind of corporate assimilation, hardly echt Argentine.

langlang.jpgSo what we can feel is gratitude for the Bowl's earlier war-horse programs -- especially opening night, with Lang Lang on hand for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. While the jumbo screens put his signature mannerisms on display, somehow they identified a highly personal interpretation, rather than detracting. A hand raised in the air, a semi-swoon, all of these showed us his reflective interruption of a phrase, a thoughtful slow-down -- even though you could argue with its musical merits. Most credit went to Dudamel and the band, miraculously managing to stay in sync with him.

Sorry to say, though, camera control must go through a re-thinking of how to serve audiences.

Do these score-mapping crews really want to break up sonic presence by having our eyes thrust to rows of wood winds or French horns every few measures instead of giving a sense of continuity and buildup of musical structure? What kind of impact can we get from that kind of jerking around? How about side shots and long shots of the full orchestra, with focus mostly on the conductor who, after all, is telegraphing what the music is about, not just blowing out his cheeks.

Frankly, by month's end I was training my sights off-screen except for frames of the ever-expressive Dudamel. And yes, he's much diminished in his physical manner these days, his hair is now short and kempt, but you can see via close-ups his intimacy with the players, his eyes looking up at them from under his lashes, a connection that is quietly intense and unremitting.

When he's not on the podium -- newly named associate conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla flew into town one week -- things do change. But the young maestra did a bang-up job with Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" Suite No. 2. The orchestra gleamed and glistened with a sensuousness that must account to her ministrations, even while her stick technique does not always lend emphatic finality. This score, though, which can fill a night's expansive poetry, is ideal for the big outdoors. It was a thrilling performance.

That can be said, too, for the original works choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre which touched down for a weekend at the Music Center Pavilion.
In fact, the company's much-heralded Russian dance-maker has opened new vistas that are fairly startling to long-time followers. The troupe's men, for instance, both principals and soloists in two of the ballets, have an unfamiliar strength and conviction in their bearing. They look almost Russian, as we think back to the Kirov and Bolshoi, certainly not boyish in the American male style.

That was most noticeable in the ballet set to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, for which Ratmansky used the same title. But what's even more telling is how he translates the music's mood to the tone of his choreography -- especially when you realize how seldom we see this instinct in current practitioners. The talent, at its depth, comes in understanding the music, something the gifted Russian can do with music so emblematically Russian, in all its 20th-century sense of displacement and foreboding. A pretty remarkable feat -- that the cast grabbed onto magnificently.

The same could be said, both of "Serenade After Plato's Symposium" to Bernstein's music and Ratmansky's setting of it. Discourse is the main order of business, albeit without words, and brotherhood the ties that bind, with the exceptional male dancers swathed in sarong-y costumes outlining their sleekly diverse personality types etched in the choreography.

But his "Firebird" was a big disappointment. The title character hardly had the illuminating focus of other productions -- even though Misty Copeland, big-boned and commanding in demeanor, seemed supremely well-cast for this glittery role. (The most publicized dancer today, she even appears in a Dannon yogurt ad running every 10 minutes on TV.)
Then there was Isabella Boylston, who it has been said, "dances the way a lark sings." By god, it's true. More petite, more nuanced, more musical, she too, as the Firebird, could make little headway in this strangely mismanaged staging. And why the maiden corps was outfitted in floppy gauze hats (Galina Solovyeva), with dresses to match, is beyond me. A total mish-mash.

Still, all of the Ballet Theatre performances enjoyed the immense benefit of a crack orchestra led by those champions David LaMarche and Ormsby Wilkins.

abt.jpgAmerican Ballet Theatre

July 21, 2016

It's Trump time in 'Scoundrels,' 'Richard'

Dirty-Rotten-Scoundrels-Pro.jpg"Great Big Stuff" number from Musical Theatre West's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Caught in the Moment Photography.

I was watching Musical Theatre West's revival of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" last Sunday in Long Beach, when suddenly Donald Trump invaded my thoughts, in a preview of the GOP convention that would open the following day.

Benjamin Schrader, who plays the scruffy swindler Freddy in this "Scoundrels," was expressing his lust for "Great Big Stuff" (that's the title of the show's most famous song). Among the lyrics were these:
I'm tired of bein' a chump!

I want to be like Trump.

Two hundred pounds of caviar in one gigantic lump.

At intermission, I Googled the lyrics of the original show, which first opened in San Diego in 2004, to make sure that the Trump reference hadn't been added solely for this current revival. Although online versions of the words differed somewhat, the Trump lines weren't hard to find, in more than one version. Later I watched YouTube videos in which the actor who played the original Freddy, Norbert Leo Butz, sang those words - even on the 2005 Tony Awards telecast.

So composer and lyricist David Yazbek must have noticed that Trump's reputation was well-enough known, by 2004-05, that the Donald could serve as a role model for a greedy and sleazy con man - confident that a Broadway audience would not only understand but would be entertained by the notion.

Now, of course, the torrent of Trump tidbits has been relentless for more than a year, with hardly a pause. Of course it has dominated TV coverage -- Trump is a remarkable reality-TV performer and a fountain of material for other entertainers.

Still, let's consider two crucial differences between Trump in 2016 and the con men who are depicted in "Scoundrels."

First, the "Scoundrels" in Yazbek's lyrics and Jeffrey Lane's script disguise their real identities, in order to better bilk the unsuspecting. By contrast, Trump worships his own name and makes sure it is as public as possible. OK, years ago he tried to hide his identity in his campaign against the Indian casinos that he felt threatened his gambling operations. But more often, his celebrity name was an essential inspiration for his dubious enterprises, such as Trump University or the fizzled Baja real estate plans that were recently the subject of an LA Times article. The Trump moniker is still displayed at the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, even though he lost the property in one of his four bankruptcy settlements.

Of course, a more important difference between the "Scoundrels" in the show and Trump is that the fictional characters have zero interest in the White House or any elections. They're not even in the United States; they look for their American rubes among the tourists on the Riviera. But Trump thinks of every American as a potential mark.

In their recent electoral spats, Marco Rubio tried to alert Americans to the idea of Trump as a "con artist". But apparently many Americans enjoy the spectacle of con artistry, if it's amusing enough or if the victims are far away and gullible, as they are in the fictional scenario in "Scoundrels." In fact, the use of "artist" after "con" often suggests that the user isn't personally losing any life savings in the grifter's creations and has the luxury of laughing alongside the "artist" as he demonstrates the tricks of his trade. If a real "con artist" invades the Oval Office, however, the laughing might stop.

At Griffith Park right now, Independent Shakespeare Company is demonstrating Shakespeare's vision of what happened when a con artist assumed Britain's top job, centuries ago - yes, we're talking "Richard III."

No one in Melissa Chalsma's staging mentions Donald Trump's name, as David Melville's Richard connives, lies and murders his way to the top. Melville has Richard's usual limp and isn't wearing a Trumpian wig. But there are a few notable parallels. Watch as Richard makes sure he's surrounded by clergy as he prepares to ascend to the throne, just as Trump makes sure we know how much he's supposedly loved by "the evangelicals."

Right after that moment, just before the intermission begins, the parallel becomes clearer. Richard has finally claimed his crown. As he exits, the Lord Mayor congratulates him and expresses confidence (in a newly coined line) that Richard will "make England great again." Then, the Lord Mayor and Buckingham, who has served more or less as Richard's campaign manager or even his running mate, engage in a brief conversation that includes assurances that Richard will re-build Hadrian's wall between England and Scotland - and Scotland will pay for it.

The audience laughs. Indeed, Melville's devilish Richard elicits a lot of laughs. It helps that Chalsma's "Richard III," more than most, takes other textual liberties, incorporating components of Colley Cibber's popular 1699 rewrite, slashing the number of characters from 41 to 27, eliminating some of the less exciting scenes but allowing ample time for the women in the story and in the cast to strongly rebut Richard.

Beyond the text, the production also employs a rock band to inject musical energy in between and occasionally during scenes. "Richard III" is far from being one of my favorite Shakespearean scripts, but this one might be the liveliest "Richard III" I've ever seen.

Likewise, in Long Beach, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," is at least a light-hearted way to pass a summer evening, as directed and choreographed by Billy Sprague Jr., even if it will never be listed as one of the great musicals. Davis Gaines, best known in LA as our longest-running "Phantom of the Opera," insouciantly mocks his own hyper-polished voice and image, in stark contrast to Schrader's affable lower-class lout. They're assisted by musical director John Glaudini and musical-theater luminaries Rebecca Ann Johnson, Kyle Nudo and Cynthia Ferrer, on an elegant Kevin Clowes set, lit by Jean Yves Tessier.

Both of these shows play only through this coming weekend. After they close, November awaits.


Speaking of Trump, I wonder if I'm the only LA theater reporter who ever spoke with him. While working for the LA Times in 2005, I was assigned to talk on the phone with the star of "The Apprentice" about nascent plans for a musical based on the reality TV series.

In our brief time together, Trump suggested that Cary Grant should be reincarnated to play Trump's role, and he assured me that "everybody wants" the musical. This news - let's borrow one of Trump's favorite adjectives and call it "unbelievable" news - resulted in a 75-word "Quick Takes" snippet in the Calendar section.

Of course, that musical has yet to see the light of day. If Trump fails to reach the White House, he could try again on the Great White Way. After 2016, any such musical should be more about his presidential race and less about "The Apprentice." Someone should start right now by writing a duet for Donald and Melania, set just after they heard the reports of the plagiarism in her opening-night convention speech on Monday.

Investing in this new Trump musical might even be a better bet than a degree from Trump U.

June 19, 2016

Gustavo and Plácido trade, Carrie Dennis astonishes

dudamel-conducting.jpgDudamel, above, and Carrie Dennis, below. Mathew Imaging.

It was only a matter of time. Inevitably, Gustavo Dudamel would cross the street from Disney Hall to the Music Center and oblige Plácido Domingo at his domain. The Numero Uno of maestros and the former Tenorissimo, genial leaders both, had everything to gain as celebrity confrères and Latinos to boot.

Unconfirmed word had it that the two invited each other to perform at their respective music establishments -- Plácido would sing with the LA Philharmonic if Gustavo would lead the LA Opera.

One half of the bargain had already happened in 2012 at Hollywood Bowl -- where the singer joined his buddy and the Phil. And last weekend saw Dudamel return the favor when he mounted the Pavilion podium for final performances of "La Bohème" -- with the crowd roaring in recognition of its special guest making his way to the pit.

And, as you can imagine, we heard Puccini's score in lustrous, layered details from the newly inspired opera orchestra. Not that the composer himself didn't etch his music in almost color-coded dramatic format to illustrate each step of the scenario. This early work, especially, is almost a do-it-by-numbers enterprise. But Dudamel polished all those motifs to shining gems and even enriched the built-in momentum.

The cast, too, mostly rose to the occasion. Mario Chang produced a honeyed and cultivated tenor as the lovelorn Rodolfo -- although director Peter Kazaras could have eased the chubby, less-than-agile singer's burden by reducing his physical hi-jinks. And Nino Machaidze had the dying heroine's blooming high notes, but Dudamel let her endlessly stretch out syllables in "Mi chiamano Mimi" without urging a more lyrical, Italianate style of phrasing. Janai Brugger, more awkwardly comic here than commandingly femme fatale, sang Musetta with a delicious, buttery soprano that was even, up and down the scale. Only Giorgio Caoduro, as Marcello, seemed weak in voice and character.

But maybe LA Opera could invest in a new production for Dudamel, instead of this 1993 "Bohème" rattletrap being trotted out for its seventh revival. Someday.

Meanwhile, there are those who argue there is a debt to pay. For several recent years the LA Phil had put on specialized operas at the non-proscenium Disney -- and that had to cause consternation for LA Opera, then in the midst of its own seasons. A bit of box office competition, you might say. But for now all seems forgiven.

carrie-dennis-640.jpgAnd Dudamel/Phil ended their Disney season in a beguiling program that featured Carrie Dennis, the orchestra's principal viola. But this was not the de facto annual spotlight given some first chair players. No, it was an astonishment.

From the time she arrived here in 2008 (wanting to return to her homeland after a two-year stint at the Berlin Philharmonic) this gifted, young artist instantly put her new orchestra on notice, not intentionally, but by her very presence. Dennis played in the ensemble the way few others dare.

In concert after concert she stood out and stands out against the other 90-plus musicians who sit back more sedately in their chairs. Then and now, as her section enters, she dives down on an accent, thrusts into a passage with startling vigor, her head jerked to her knees, her elbow jutting in the air, her foot jumping from the simultaneous impetus.

Even if you were deaf you would know what the music is like.

But at this solo event, playing the Bartok Viola Concerto, Dennis also gave us a vertical image, an enlarged image -- a tall wraith of a woman, almost painfully shy, standing there next to the podium and Dudamel.

Her feet bare, she padded out from the wings in a black, floor-length shift, and made it clear that with shoes on she would not have had a way to grip the floor -- so physically intense was her body involvement.

The moment she launched into this knotty, ultra-demanding work, any sense of herself and all shyness disappeared. She became the music. She teased out its fine, dusky strains of mournfulness, leaped into the fast passage work of its raging intervals and, high on the string, found a gorgeous complement of flute and piccolo chirping brilliantly with her.

In fact, Dudamel and the band came into full union with her and she with them. Dennis is a star and they know it.

La Boheme. LA opera/Ken Howard.

So was the rest of their Hungarian bill a keepsake. All those juicy orchestral sweeps and swerves that characterize Kodaly's Dances of Galanta abounded -- you could see the czardas boots clicking and the Cossacks galloping amid gentle folkways. Similarly, Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" Suite struck those chords and Dudamel led his charges to one racing-pulse cadence, after another. There's hardly anything as rousing as this kind of music in their hands.

Music that compels also comes in Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." And thank you, Los Angeles Ballet, for giving us one of your proudest offerings.

This time, though, it was not the well-known Kenneth MacMillan production but an earlier one by Sir Frederick Ashton (1955), staged to perfection by Peter Schaufuss, and delivering the moment-to-moment bond that is the best news for full-length ballets. Not just irresistible love scenes but the liveliest dueling feats, family and social conflicts, turns of fate and, of course innocent tragedy.

Always in this Prokofiev masterwork it's the score that nails you to Shakespeare's incandescent tale of star-cross'd lovers -- each turn in it a dynamic musical inspiration that guides a choreographer.

Here, Allyssa Bross was a sweet girl of a Juliet, disarmingly open-faced and joyous, with Kenta Shimizu, a passionate Romeo who could be more so if not so instilled with that certain classroom studied-ness he works to lose.

One thing MacMillan's staging offers, though, over this one, is a balcony for Juliet to reach from and steps for her to climb (programmed precisely in the score), and a more illustrative setting for the love scene -- rather than this, which is played out on a single level and without those delirious lifts.

Who could ever forget Alessandra Ferri in the balcony pas de deux, her arms twining over the railing like tendrils, her voluptuously supple spine, her dove-shaped arches all stretched to the max in rapturous explosion?

But others in the cast danced with full-out energy -- especially Magnus Christoffersen, a springy, boyish Benvolio with open, fly-away brashness. The directors' son, though, Erik Thordal-Christensen, looks like a better spot for him would be in the corps than dancing Paris, a leading role. (I even shudder to think how hard a fate it is to have your career choice ordained by birthright.)

And then there is the Barak Ballet, which had an evening at the Wallis, again showcasing works by its director Melissa Barak -- both of them unfailingly tasteful and pretty, if not especially memorable. What you see is a dedication to the idea that "everything is beautiful at the ballet." Indeed, it is: the form, the line, the extension of tapering, turned-out limbs in controlled balanced motion, evolving in ever-more lovely configurations.

But the lady is really a one-woman operation. A prodigious one. She knows how to network, to organize, to attract high-level dancers for her twice-a-year (but gradually expanding) performances. In addition to her own choreography she presents others, the last notable one by Pascal Rioult, whose marvelous "Wien" she intends to bring back.

One curiosity in the current roster is Allynne Noelle, formerly a principal with LAB, as was Barak herself a few years ago. But the most promising addition is Jessica Gadzinski, a dancer with a certain spunk and character that adds greatly.

June 12, 2016

Soul Train dancers reunion at LACMA

soul-train-iris2.jpgSoul Train dancers still have it. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Especially on a day like today, we need to be reminded of the joy in the world. So I feel doubly fortunate to have stumbled upon the 3rd annual Soul Train reunion in the park at LACMA yesterday. Having just heard some wonderful Brazilian jazz at LACMA's amphitheater off 6th Street, we were wandering and came upon a joyful noise as dancers from the original Soul Train TV show formed two lines and showed off their moves to the theme song from the show, which aired from the 70's through the 90's

Eighty of Soul Train's original and featured dancers were there for the party, organized by Juliette Hagerman, one of the show's featured dancers from 1984-93. For most who came to remember and reconnect with the old days, it looked like time had stood still. They still had the moves.

It's so important to connect with that joy and remember the healing power of music and dance. We need it now more than ever.



Previously on LA Observed:
Oct. 2, 1971: Soul Train debuts from LA (video)
How about some Soul Train dancers (video) *
Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' creator was 75

Who will CTG invite to its 'Block Party'?

kirk-douglas-theatre-ext.jpgPhoto: Craig Schwartz

Yes! Center Theatre Group will produce a Block Party, in which three recent productions from other LA companies will be revived at CTG's 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, next spring (April 14-May 21).

When artistic director Michael Ritchie took the reins of LA's theatrical flagship, more than a decade ago, he promoted this idea of using the Douglas for occasional re-staged productions by some of LA theater's many obscure tugboats and rowboats. Back then, the policy seemed like an opportunity to mollify those in the LA theater community who were unhappy when Ritchie axed many of CTG's previous new-play laboratories.

Three productions appeared under this Ritchie initiative in 2006 and 2007. But since then, no other LA company has fully re-staged anything under better-endowed CTG auspices at the Douglas, except one weekend of public performances of 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" in May 2015. The three productions in the Block Party next spring will each receive 11 performances over two weeks. They'll appear one at a time, consecutively, over the six-week length of the Block Party.

Productions that opened elsewhere in the area since January 1, 2015 will be eligible for consideration. An online application will request companies to submit video, script, reviews, budget and design elements, with applications due by August 12. It isn't necessary for someone on the CTG staff to have seen the first production. Two information sessions will be held at the Douglas for interested parties, on July 16 at 11 am and July 25 at 7 pm.

CTG staffers will weed the applications down to six to eight finalists, whose representatives will then be invited to meet with CTG staffers for another round of consideration. The final selection will be made by early December.

The productions will use the regular Actors' Equity contracts that are in effect at the Douglas. With CTG support, the companies should be able to offer much better compensation to the actors and other artists than was available for the original productions. This might be especially helpful at this moment in time, as LA's small companies (especially those that aren't run by their own members) face potential changes in Actors' Equity's 99-seat plan that could make compensation for actors and stage managers considerably more expensive.

The CTG process at the Douglas sounds somewhat similar to the description of a long-range plan proposed by the LA County Arts Commission's executive director, Laura Zucker. That county plan also would use a competitive review process to pick productions from LA companies for the programming at a midsize theater, but unfortunately the expenditure of funds necessary to build the county's theater - on the campus of John Anson Ford Amphitheatre - hasn't yet been approved.

So kudos to CTG for realizing that that it can lend a helpful hand to smaller theaters in a moment of need. It's a model that other larger-budgeted theater companies should consider. And of course it isn't an act of pure altruism; depending on the results of the competition, the three productions at CTG next year might add a jolt of electricity to the Douglas programming.

We can probably assume that CTG will aim for diversity in the selections. In addition to the usual considerations of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation of the writers and their subjects, I'd like to suggest two other standards of diversity.

First, CTG should provide enough resources to include at least one musical in the Block Party. What's a block party without music? More seriously, the higher cost of producing musicals means that far fewer of them are developed in LA's bare-bones small-theater stratum, compared to non-musical new plays. Yet in general, out in the wider world, successful musicals remain more popular than non-musicals.

CTG failed to produce a brilliant musical it had commissioned, Burglars of Hamm's "The Behavior of Broadus," at the Douglas, but it assisted in the show's premiere at the small Sacred Fools Theater. That production went on to receive some of LA's top theater awards, but it would have been a much bigger feather in the caps of both CTG and the "Broadus" creators if it had opened at the more prominent Douglas. Unfortunately, because it opened at Sacred Fools four months before the January 2015 cut-off point, "Broadus" apparently isn't eligible for this new opportunity at the Douglas.

My second standard for extra diversity shouldn't even have to be mentioned, but here goes: CTG, could you please include at least one production among these three that is not only set in Los Angeles but which couldn't be set anywhere else? Yes, I'm once again urging CTG to think more seriously about the community in which it's located. As I've often noted, LA-oriented productions by CTG, which calls itself "L.A.'s Theatre Company," are rare.

True, Culture Clash's very LA-specific "Chavez Ravine" was revived last year at the Douglas. But that wasn't much of a stretch for CTG - the show's original premiere in 2003 already was a CTG production, at the larger Mark Taper Forum in the pre-Ritchie era. (Also, the three-man Culture Clash isn't a smaller LA company in the same sense as Playwrights' Arena or the Robey and Deaf West theaters, which created the 2006-07 productions that were imported into the Douglas. Culture Clash doesn't consistently produce other artists' work, and it usually operates under the auspices of larger companies such as CTG.)

The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood is currently presenting two plays that are mostly set in LA. Both are by Julie Marie Myatt. One of these, "Birder," was commissioned and developed by CTG and is presented in NoHo "in association with" CTG. "We hope our collaboration" with CTG "is the first of many," wrote the company's artistic directors in their program note.

It's a play about a middle-class couple who bought a Los Feliz house beyond their means. The husband seeks distraction from his crumbling finances and threatened marriage by joining a small group of birders on outings in the LA area. But the birder metaphor isn't capable of doing all the heavy lifting that Myatt requires of it. It's eventually over-emphasized, yet we never get a close-up view of the man's professional pressures or a sufficient explanation of why he quit his job.

JOHN-IS-A-FATHER-ds.jpgSam Anderson, Carl J. Johnson and John Gowans star in "John is a Father." Cropped photo: Dan Bonnell

Myatt's other Road play, "John Is a Father," is very different and much more successful. It has an economy that's missing from "Birder," in part because its titular character is a man of relatively few words, providing the actor (and company co-artistic director) Sam Anderson with the necessity - and the opportunity - to create a remarkably physicalized performance in which most of the resonances are visual, not verbal.

John has been estranged from his family for decades. He regrets almost everything he did with them. Now that he's around 70, his son's widow gives John another chance to connect with his seven-year-old grandson, at their home in Phoenix. But first, in LA, we meet John's best (only?) friend, who is a homeless vet, and a fascinating LA couple John encounters at the airport.

Is "John Is a Father" fare for Father's Day? Perhaps, but it might be a better choice for someone who has recently reconciled with a father after years of open conflict, than it would be for a family in which the father might wonder if the adult child is trying to send messages of previously unspoken resentments by buying tickets to this play.

The coincidental chronicles

In the first weekend of June, I saw two plays that coincided with events in the real world in completely unpredictable ways.

One of these was a very LA-specific experience. On Friday, I saw Ruth McKee's "In Case of Emergency," in which two young-adult sisters encounter an emergency preparedness consultant in their garage, while hearing media reports of a wildfire in Griffith Park. The sisters work through some personal issues, while the consultant is spooked by his inability to reach his children at their school near the fire.

caseofemerg-haleiparker-ds.jpg​Amy Ellenberger, Emma Zakes Green and Daniel Rubiano in "In Case of Emergency." Photo: Halei Parker.

It's a somewhat effective distillation and airing of some very LA-specific anxieties. Chalk Repertory is producing it in three actual home garages. I saw it at a home in Montrose; the automatic garage door was the "curtain" separating us from the action. Now the production moves to a home in Atwater this weekend and then to a Pasadena garage for the following two weekends.

A day later, on my way to see the opening of "Romeo and Juliet" at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, I saw smoke seemingly spreading from the area toward which I was driving. Radio reports quickly confirmed that a fire was raging in Calabasas. After turning south on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, I soon had to reverse course. Only residents were allowed to proceed. I then learned that Theatricum Botanicum had canceled its opening because of the fire. In retrospect, "In Case of Emergency" seemed even more relevant as a result of my attempt to see "Romeo" the next night.

After these two events, on Sunday evening, I saw the final performance of South Coast Repertory's revival of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus." The play, you may recall, is set during what composer Antonio Salieri believes will be his final hours. He flashes back through his bitter memories of his relationship with the younger, vastly more gifted Wolfgang Mozart, before he attempts to kill himself.

The next morning I awakened to discover that Shaffer himself had died early Monday in Ireland, which of course is eight hours ahead of California. It's possible that Shaffer's demise (no, not a suicide) occurred just as I was watching his most famous play - about an artist who believes he's about to die.

Don't worry - on the eve of the election next November, I promise to avoid seeing any staged satires about what might happen if Donald Trump is elected.

May 15, 2016

'Elektra' goes global and Ezralow comes home to LA


It was the last show he would mount just months before his early death in 2013. It was hailed as a signature triumph in Europe, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. But the only way to see Patrice Chereau's production of "Elektra," short of jumping on a plane for its Met premiere at Lincoln Center, was to attend a movie theater transmission of it, a simulcast in Los Angeles, and world wide, from that New York stage.

Well, you can believe the buzz. A sold-out AMC Century City screening revealed close-up drama in every hemidemisemiquaver of turmoil afflicting the palace family -- with Strauss's music stretching from stratospheric anguish to sublime lyricism and unearthing a myriad of introspective nuggets along the way.

As with all of Chereau's stagings and films you could forget about the stock operatic manner, its whole conceit of poses and stances designed to ease the vocal path of those golden throats and yet suggest a little generalized emotion.

Instead, he probed the human depths to be found in a given work. He lent his characters light and shade, full psychological dimension and moment-to-moment insight. He did not permit them to be singing statues, with a few off-handed gestures.

Remember his filmed "Madama Butterfly" with the dashingly youthful Plácido Domingo and the exquisite Mirella Freni? Or his Bayreuth "Ring?" that got repeat viewings on PBS (and caused me to stop dead in my tracks every time I bumped into it while flipping around the dial)?

You could always count on his casting artists with the chops to act the roles, not just sing them. And here, in "Elektra," he did no less.

On its own the drama rises to a Shakespearian level, similar to "Hamlet" but this time with a murdered king's deranged daughter seeking revenge. It ends in matricide -- with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal supplying its gleaming, highly personalized poetry taken from his play based on Sophocles.

Now the Greek tragedy that Richard Strauss turned into a one-act opera is no "Rosenkavalier," with all those deliriously ecstatic waltzes. The musical line here is charged, full of compact detail and Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting took the augmented Met orchestra to extravagantly brilliant heights.

He and Chereau plotted Elektra's first outburst of "Agamemnon" to coincide with her flinging open the dungeon's door. It became a stark, momentous underlining of her singular outrage, absent from other productions.

In the title role Nina Stemme was fiercely compulsive, her rigid body movement seeming cut off from any physical ease, her vocal urgency relentless -- until that most intimate scene with Waltraud Meier, a Klytamnestra who, against type, was not portrayed as a grotesque witch but a troubled, searching mother who ached together with her momentarily vulnerable and needy daughter.

All of this on an opera stage, you say? Well, not just these two, but the marvelous others as well: Adrianne Pieczonka's emotionally wracked sister, Chrysothemis, and Eric Owens' heroic brother Orest, full of strength but compassion too.

Yes, this was a gripping epic. But it did not escape the electronic engineering that goes along with transmissions. Those volume-controlling fingers kept voices and orchestra artificially balanced, which is an altogether different experience from being engulfed in the natural acoustic you can thrill to sitting in-house.

None of those issues interfered with the Wallis show put on by Daniel Ezralow, though. Because the recorded music he chose already comes in neat little care-packages arranged to deliver a feel-good entertainment.

Remember Ezralow? He's the local dancer who made good on every conceivable path around -- choreographing Oscar shows, Broadway hits, opera productions, even directing/producing multi-media events for Lincoln Center and staging works around the world, at Olympics, on and on. Maybe the most eclectic fella around...

To boot, he lived as a child in Coldwater Canyon and recalls mailing letters at the Beverly Hills post office, the Italian Renaissance building now converted into a performing arts hotspot, the Wallis Annenberg Center.

Decades ago he popped up in Momix, an offshoot of Pilobolus, the antic collective that spawned a whole stage language of movement witticism and surprise. And then Ezralow went on to co-found ISO (I'm So Optimistic or Obscene, etc.), which occupied him for a while. But being remarkably porous and ever-enterprising he's picked up every style and mode of dance around. Whatever is out there he's seen it, ingested it and exudes it in an amazing array of combinations.

ezralow-dance.jpgTake the latest from his troupe, Ezralow Dance -- "Open," a touring piece he and his gifted graphic designer-wife Arabella made four years ago in Italy. It's a dazzler. And it wowed the Wallis crowd, understandably, because it's fail-proof. What else, when you earmark a hit-list of classical music excerpts -- everything from Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" ("La Gioconda") to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata to Albinoni's Adagio to Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" to a Bach "Brandenburg?"

Think back a few years ago, when record labels were hawking their albums of major themes from the classics as "music to relax by" via TV commercials. Well, there you have it: the spliced-together score of "Open," which, for all its commercialism, is exactly what you get: fun.

Why? Because most of its short kaleidoscopic numbers, crammed into a zip-along 70 minutes, are playfully engaging. The clever designs take equal importance. And one comic vignette -- a marriage followed by the couple's boxing-ring fight that doubles and triples in cast members -- is just terrific. So is Ezralow's find of Filippa Giordano's recording of the "Carmen" Habanera, with all her added interpolations. And, among the superb dancers, is one to note for her delectably high arches, Kelsey Landers.

Finally I could not overlook the joyful appreciation Ezralow takes in his dancers -- giving each a whiz-bang curtain call cross stage in an explosion of high spirits and virtuosity.

Explosive in wholly different way was Murray Perahia's recital program at Disney Hall. And that's not an adjective ordinarily attached to the 69-year-old pianist long admired for his reach into all that is poetic, contemplative and wistful.

Yes, there were those signal features, and more, in the program's first half -- Haydn, Mozart and Brahms. But the big news came with Beethoven's "Hammerklavier," a gargantuan sonata exhaustive in its technical demands. He undertook it for the first time on this tour.

No question that he met those demands in the 45-minute sonata -- even though its densely vehement passagework emerged at times somewhat blurred or muddy.

For whatever reason, though, once home I put on Alfred Brendel's recording of the "Hammerklavier." It came in at 50 minutes. The "Take Five" method of more time seemed to work because the playing had clarity throughout and allowed for interpretive rests with depth, along with Beethoven's above-the-note meanings.

May 13, 2016

Playing 'the woman's card' in the world of LA plays

12FW615.jpgPatrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown in "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I had just been watching Donald Trump whining about Hillary Clinton's "woman's card." Then I noticed this provocative headline in a Center Theatre Group program: "In 2016, Women Run the Mark Taper Forum."

Really? I was under the impression that Gordon Davidson and Michael Ritchie were the only two people who have ever run CTG's Taper.

Had I somehow missed an announcement that Ritchie had been replaced by a woman? Or maybe this article was about the fact that a woman, Kiki Ramos Gindler, is the current president of the CTG board of directors?

As I read more of the article, I soon realized that neither of those explanations was correct. Ritchie is still running CTG, and the article in the program didn't even mention the board president (she was, however, touted as the first Latina CTG board president, in a press release more than a year ago.)

Instead, the program article was drawing attention to the fact that all five plays in the 2016 Taper season "have a woman playwright and/or a woman director behind them." To be more precise, two of the five playwrights and four of the five directors are women.

That 80% proportion of directors who are women is indeed noteworthy. Only two women directed at the Taper in 2015 - and only one in 2014.

However, in theater the playwright's voice is generally considered more important than the director's. In a year in which the first woman president of the United States might well be elected, two women out of five playwrights hardly seems worth mentioning - unless we again compare this year's number to the 2014 and 2015 Taper mainstage seasons. Together they featured 11 plays by men and none by women. The article in the program doesn't make that comparison.

The Taper's stats haven't always been as lopsided in favor of male playwrights as they were in the last two seasons. The first Taper mainstage season to include two plays by women occurred in 1977-78. And in that particular season, there were only four instead of five mainstage productions, so half of the Taper playwrights that year were women, as opposed to the 40% level that women playwrights reached during the current season.

Among all of South Coast Repertory's nine mainstage adult shows this season in Costa Mesa, five are by women - 55% of the total. Almost as impressive are the 50% totals at Geffen Playhouse (four out of eight shows by women) and Pasadena Playhouse (three out of six.)

All of these are higher than CTG's Taper total of 40%. If you add the other CTG venues to the discussion, the Kirk Douglas Theatre season maintains the 40% line, but the overall CTG average falls because of the Ahmanson Theatre offerings. Only one woman (Marsha Norman, the librettist for "The Bridges of Madison County") was part of the creative team of any of the shows in the current Ahmanson season.

Of course producing a play doesn't necessarily mean that a company commissioned or developed it. Both of the plays by women in the current Taper season were previously produced in New York. By contrast, South Coast produced four world premieres by women playwrights in just the first four months of 2016.

It's also important to remember than in terms of "running" a theater, it's the artistic director who picks the plays and, often, the directors. In the LA area's most prominent theatrical tier - those companies that belong to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) -- the artistic directors are almost all male. Ritchie is the CTG decider, as Marc Masterson is at South Coast, as Randall Arney is at the Geffen, and as Sheldon Epps has been at Pasadena Playhouse.

The only woman among the local LORT theater bosses is Ann E. Wareham, artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse, the smallest LORT company in the area (that is, if you even consider Laguna Beach to be part of the same "area.") I doubt that it's sheer coincidence that Laguna's proportion of productions with women creators this season is the highest of the pack - four out of six.

Pasadena's Epps announced early this year that he's leaving the job. So the playhouse is shopping for a new executive artistic director, not only to replace Epps but also to run the theater's administrative side. Epps' successor won't be Seema Sueko, the woman he imported to be his associate artistic director. She too is leaving Pasadena, headed for Arena Stage in Washington as deputy artistic director. There, she'll report to one of the most prominent women in American theater, Arena's artistic director Molly Smith.

Let's hope that the Pasadena search for a new artistic director is seriously considering qualified women as well as qualified men - including some of those who already run LA-area theater companies. After the playhouse was resurrected in the mid-'80s, Jessica Myerson and Susan Dietz were among those who took relatively brief turns running it, but since 1990, it has been in the hands of men. However, the current official job description uses the mixed pronoun "She/He"," so at least the searchers seem to be up-to-date (albeit awkward) in their linguistic sensibilities.

If the Pasadena Playhouse were to hire a female leader to succeed Epps, who broke ground as the first non-white artistic director of any of the LA area's top theatrical tier, it would almost suggest Hillary Clinton replacing Barack Obama - on a miniature scale, of course, with a big asterisk to remind us of Myerson and Dietz from the '80s.

Meanwhile, at East West Players in Little Tokyo, soon-to-depart producing artistic director Tim Dang has announced a final season "celebrating the female perspective." Perhaps the announcement should say "perspectives," as it includes five varied productions, not all of them plays. Only one of them, the musical "Gypsy," was created by men, but of course "Gypsy" is primarily about clashing female perspectives. The announcement notes that Dang inherited a similar season from the late Nobu McCarthy, East West's only previous woman at the top, when he took the job in 1993. Could this announcement possibly anticipate a decision to hire another woman to run the company following Dang's exit?

Those who don't come home from the wars

One of the Taper season's two plays by a woman is currently in its final week: Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3." In this three-act production, which is intended to be merely the first of three such productions designed to make up one big epic, the leading character (literally, named Hero) is not a woman. Hero is a slave who decides to follow his Confederate master into the Civil War, ostensibly in exchange for his freedom after the war.

It's a great dramatic premise. But the results, so far, feel overcooked, in the length of some of the existing scenes -- and also undercooked, because some important scenes in the story aren't on the stage. This last problem becomes especially apparent in the third act. When Hero (is he the titular "Father"? It isn't clear) returns home from the war, he says he's married to an unseen wife he picked up along the way, much to the distress of the woman who has been eagerly awaiting his return. This would be much more powerful if we had met the wife and knew more about her. This situation (assuming that it isn't somehow amended or unveiled as a ruse later in the saga) appears to demonstrate that even a celebrated and gifted female playwright seems to be capable of ignoring one of the most important women in her narrative.

It reminded me of a peculiar fact about another CTG production by a woman, Sheila Callaghan, seen earlier this year in its premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Despite the title "Women Laughing Alone With Salad," the play turned out to be primarily about a male character. Are Parks and Callaghan still operating from an unstated compulsion to prove that they can write about men? It sounds unlikely - Parks already wrote the much-awarded "Topdog/Underdog," which was about two brothers. The wider theatergoing public primarily knows Parks from that play, and now this one.

7WLAS349.jpgDavid Clayton Rogers, Dinora Z. Walcott and Nora Kirkpatrick in "Women Laughing Alone With Salad," written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Neel Keller. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The four plays that South Coast introduced earlier this year weren't just written by women but also feature leading roles for women, especially Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Madwoman in the Volvo," Bekah Brunstetter's "Going to a Place Where You Already Are" and Julia Cho's "Office Hour." The definition of the leading roles in Eliza Clark's "Future Thinking" was more of a toss-up - between one man and one woman.

At the Geffen, the current "Stage Kiss" (closing Sunday), by Sarah Ruhl, also is about a woman and a man, but the woman (played by Glenne Headly) is considered the star around which the play-within-the-play as well as "Stage Kiss" itself are structured.

Advocates of increasing opportunities for women playwrights argue that most women writers are likelier to examine women's lives more closely and in greater depth than most male writers. The South Coast premieres confirmed the value of women writing about women in ways that weren't apparent in "Father Comes Home from the Wars" or "Women Laughing Alone With Salad."

Yes, there are many common human concerns. Women should also be able to write about men, and men about women. And no one is asking that women write only about female-specific issues, such as the self-induced abortion attempts that are the central focus of Ruby Rae Spiegel's "Dry Land," currently in an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village.

Yet it seems logical that, generally speaking, the variety of women's lives will be more accurately represented on stage if women writers receive more opportunities - especially if they use those opportunities to focus on women.

Jennie Webb, an avid proponent of women playwrights as co-founder of Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, is the writer of "Currency," currently in an Inkwell Theater production at the tiny VS. Theatre on Pico Boulevard; it's a play that's equally about men and women (and set in LA - yay!). On the other hand, in 2010, her "Yard Sale Signs" was primarily about women (and also produced on Pico, by what was then the nearby Rogue Machine.)

Speaking from my perch on the sidelines, I'd suggest that women playwrights who would like to break into the bigger leagues such as CTG or SCR but who aren't already as famous as Suzan Lori-Parks shouldn't hesitate to submit women-focused scripts. According to Broadway statistics from 2014-2015, women buy 68% of the tickets. I would guess that the proportion of female ticket buyers is at least that high in the local nonprofits.

Go ahead, women playwrights, play the woman's card. Or, as Hillary Clinton said, "deal me in."

By the way...

Two of the South Coast plays mentioned above were directed by men. SCR artistic director Masterson himself handled the funny and poignant "Going to a Place Where You Already Are." Neel Keller directed the riveting "Office Hour." Keller also staged "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" as well as Jennifer Haley's brilliant "The Nether" for CTG, where he's an associate artistic director.

I'm glad to see that South Coast is willing and able to use CTG-employed talent. But I would be even happier if CTG/Douglas audiences could also see Keller's work on "Office Hour," which is a far more finished and satisfying play than "Women Laughing Alone With Salad."

South Coast's prowess with new plays isn't new or surprising. It has specialized in developing new plays, longer and more intensely than any other major company in the area. This year, following its premiere last fall at South Coast, Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone" won the annual $25,000 Steinberg Award for the best new play with a professional premiere outside New York. It also received the most recent Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Schmitt Award for best new play with a professional premiere in the LA area. I wrote about it here, and I hope to see it eventually on an actual LA County stage.

web_Currency by Jennie Webb - Stephanie Fishbein Photography 041216-179.jpgJosh Stamell, Shirley Jordan and Warren Davis in "Currency" by Jennie Webb. Stephanie Fishbein Photography.

Pictured: -

April 17, 2016

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.

Menswear gets the spotlight at new LACMA exhibit

LACMA fashion curatorsLACMA curators Sharon Takeda, Kaye Spilker and Clarissa Esguerra. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Costume and textile curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker have been thinking about mounting an exhibit of menswear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a very long time. It all started in 2006, when LACMA acquired a large collection of European men's, women's and children's clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries. "We were astounded at how much incredible menswear there was," says Spilker. "We thought, everybody is always doing women's wear. It's time for us to think about doing men's." And so they did. Macaroni ensembleThe newly opened exhibit at LACMA is Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015. The curators (along with assistant costume and textiles curator Clarissa Esguerra) had to wait to formulate their idea — they had yet to produce Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail 1700-1915, which opened at the museum in 2010.

"Once we decided to do it though, it became an obsession!," she said the other day, walking through the current men's wear exhibit. "It was a learning experience because our focus has always been women's, but the same research questions apply."

Five years in the making, "Reigning Men" thematically surveys 300 years of men's fashion from the 18th to the early 21st century. Historical pieces are displayed next to contemporary pieces from notable designers. "People are surprised it takes so long," Spilker said about the process of creating the show. The three curators had to first determine what was in their own collection, then decide what would have to be supplemented by loans and designer contributions. In the end, 90 percent of the pieces on display came from in-house, 10 percent from outside sources.

"We always had the idea that we would juxtapose the historical with contemporary to show that there's nothing new under the sun," she said. The themes used to bring the 200 looks into focus are Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, and The Splendid Man.

Army Tank SuitZoot Suit
Left, Army Tank Suit from England 1940-45. Right, Zoot Suit 1940-42. Above right, Macaroni ensemble from Italy 1770.

Fashion has always reflected issues of identity as well as a multitude of influences — cultural, political and relational. This is as true for men as it is for women. There are examples of this throughout the exhibit. A "Macaroni" ensemble, worn by well-to-do young Englishmen in the late 18th century, jumps out at viewers as they first enter the galleries. The "Macaroni" look was known for its bright colors and slim cuts, and those who adapted it were keen to exert a "cosmopolitan" image. Across the room is the iconic "Zoot Suit," worn by urban (often Latino and African-American) youths in the 1930s and early 1940s. And smack between the two is a "punk" jacket from the late 1970s/early '80s. The origins of camouflage and its influence on fashion are highlighted by placing an "Army Tank Suit" from 1940's England next to a Jean Paul Gaultier silk and feather coat, dyed to look like camouflage, from 2011. The changing silhouette of work and business wear is represented by jeans and suits. Close by are several examples of the tuxedo, which Spilker calls the "consummate contemporary uniform." In an area dedicated to "at home wear," a colorfully graphic Rudi Gernreich caftan makes a bold statement about the influence of Eastern style on Western fashion.

The evolution of men's bathing suits is addressed, as is the role of fashion in sculpting the look of men's physiques. Just like women, men have long padded and cinched themselves to achieve a desired look. Use of embellishment, animal skin, floral patterns and color are on display and the future of men's fashion is considered with looks from cutting edge designers Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens and Ahmed Abdelrahman.

Etro ensembleWhen asked what she hoped museum-goers would take away from the exhibit, Spilker spoke from her curator's perspective. "The question is, where is menswear going? Will it become more adventurous? Men are beginning to break out of their shells. We want people to realize that menswear has always been interesting and will continue to be interesting."

She says that fashion is a new way for men to excel — another chance to be adventurous with their personal sense of style. "Ever since the beginning of the 19th century the mark of the successful businessman was a beautifully tailored dark blue coat and dark pants. It was the wife in silks and satins who showed off his wealth," Spilker explained. Now, "if men want to take time to put something interesting together, well, women have been doing that for years — they can do it! They're allowed!"

"Reigning Men:Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015 on view at LACMA until Aug.21 (it is a specially ticketed exhibit)

Lower photo: Detail of Etro ensemble, 2014. Clothing photos courtesy of LACMA.

Previously on LA Observed:
How LACMA located an authentic zoot suit
German view of 'Fashioning Fashion'
LACMA curators excited about new couture collection

March 20, 2016

Mapplethorpe was many things, but not a voyeur

Self-portrait, 1980. Photos by Robert Mapplethorpe except noted.

Artist. Perfectionist. Angel. Devil. Creator. Lightning Rod. Careerist. There are many words to describe photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is currently on view in an unprecedented dual exhibition presented at LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Voyeur, however, is not one of them. Mapplethorpe, who defiantly used himself in some of his most famous photographs depicting homosexual sex and sado-masochism, made it clear that he was not an outsider.

"Being an artist is to learn about yourself," Mapplethorpe said. And so, rather than observe at a distance, he used photography to document dark worlds that he himself was exploring. "To me, S and M means Sex and Magic," he says in a quote at LACMA's exhibit, which opened Sunday. Not everyone will agree with that definition, but Mapplethorpe's work is nothing if not brutally honest. But beyond the social impact of the most controversial images he made, his artistry, technical skill and quest for perfection in composition and lighting elevated his work to a level beyond the reach of many.

Joe, NYC, 1978.

The exhibits consist of work taken from the extensive Mapplethorpe archive, recently acquired jointly by LACMA and the Getty Research Institute, and private and museum collections. The shows include early pieces for which he is not well-known: assemblage, paintings, drawings, collage, album covers, and hand-strung jewelry are among the work created before he found photography. In fact, in his early years, when he started attending Pratt Institute at the age of 16, photography did not interest him at all. He did not think it could be considered art. It wasn't until he borrowed a Polaroid camera from a friend while living with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel that he began to experiment with photography and realized it was an art form that had potential.

For Mapplethorpe, his relationships were key to supporting and propelling his art forward. Starting with Patti Smith, who was his first muse, his lovers became his subjects and their portraits document his growth as an artist. When he met the art collector Sam Wagstaff, they fell in love, but Mapplethorpe admits in the upcoming HBO documentary, "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures," that he is not sure their relationship would have blossomed had Wagstaff not been wealthy. But the two helped each other with their struggles: Mapplethorpe encouraged Wagstaff to live as an openly gay man. Wagstaff was devoted to Mapplethorpe, and bought him a large-format Hasselblad camera and a loft on Bond Street and supported his artistic growth.

Those square Hasselblad portraits reveal an artist's eye for composition and the technical skills to light his subjects in an ethereal glow that became his trademark. His nudes are classical in pose, perfectly lit and composed. His choice of models was impeccable as he searched for perfection in the human form (including, as mentioned in the film, his search for "the perfect black penis").

But more than anything, he wanted to be famous and he had the business sense to figure out how to make it happen. Just as he was relentless in his urge to create, he pursued fame and success with the same determination. For many artists, that business acumen is a mystery but for Mapplethorpe it seems instinctual.

When Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, he seemed to redouble his creative efforts, not letting a day go by without photographing something. At the same time, he had one eye towards the future of his legacy, telling friends to talk about him after he was gone, to tell his story and stories. In 1988 he created the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to take care of his archived works, provide support for photography and help fund AIDS research. The foundation recently designated LACMA and the Getty Research Institute as the new homes of all of his work, which was the motivation for this ground-breaking exhibition partnership.

The documentary, which screened at LACMA last week and will show on HBO in early April, provides another riveting piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that was Robert Mapplethorpe. Using previously unseen historical footage and Mapplethorpe's own words, recorded by Patricia Morrisroe for her 1995 biography of the artist, along with interviews that are touching, funny and heart-wrenching with his younger brother Edward, who was his assistant during the 80's, and gallery owners, lovers, models and friends who knew him before he died in 1989 at the age of 42, it attempts to make sense of the complicated man behind the work. At once entertaining, sensational and profoundly sad--kind of like Mapplethorpe himself--it accomplishes a common goal of the filmmakers and the exhibits: to humanize an artist demonized by conservative politicians and forever linked in the public's eye to controversy.

edward-mapplethorpe.jpgEdward Mapplethorpe at last week's LACMA screening. Photo by Iris Schneider.

He is described in the film as "chasing something" and determined to show the struggle within between good and evil. But the chase was a struggle itself. "It's hard to be happy if you like things to be perfect," he said. (On a personal note, it turns out that Mapplethorpe and his 5 brothers and sisters grew up in Floral Park, N.Y. in a working class Catholic family that went to church every Sunday, only 10 blocks from my own childhood home. We went to the same high school, Martin Van Buren, where he graduated a year ahead of me.)

The Getty and LACMA shows complement each other but have different missions. The LACMA work is a retrospective that shows his evolution as an artist, starting before 1970 with his early collages and assemblages and jewelry he made with his hands, while trying to find his true voice. It is revealing and surprising, showing pieces made before he began his controversial exploration of sex and homosexuality on the fringes of society in New York in the 70's when the city's Village and meatpacking district bath houses were still unregulated and group sex, S and M, and casual unprotected liaisons spilled out onto the streets.

His classic nudes, as beautiful as Greek statues, still life studies of flowers and perfectly lit and composed portraits of the people in his life present some of the many facets of Robert Mapplethorpe. The enormity of his archive is impressive to say the least, especially given the short length of his life. "The sheer productivity did impress me," says Britt Salvesen, the LACMA curator for photography, who has been working on the show for 4 1/2 years. Looking through his work also "made me realize that he had the concepts fully formed in his mind. Some photographers discover as they go but he had the images composed in his mind...You can never mistake a Mapplethorpe work."

The show at the Getty, which opened March 15, attempts to add context to the controversy engendered by "The Perfect Moment," the Mapplethorpe exhibition that opened in 1988 in Philadelphia and caused a political firestorm when Jesse Helms led efforts to close it down, waving the X photographs in the air as he addressed the Senate, saying "some people call Robert Mapplethorpe an artist. I think he's a jerk." Those efforts caused the show's Corcoran Gallery opening to be canceled. Eventually the courts decreed that the work was not obscene and the show opened to record-breaking crowds. At the Getty, those somewhat disturbing works are included along with materials from that period addressing the controversy, along with portraits, nudes and floral studies. Although those explicit photographs may be Mapplethorpe's most well-known, and probably catapulted him into the fame he craved, these two current shows go a long way to fleshing out the work of an artist who never really wanted to be a photographer.

Larry and Bobby kissing, 1979

Patti Smith, 1978

Parrot Tulips, 1988

March 9, 2016

Local heroes: Salonen and Dudamel

dudamel-dp.jpgGustavo Dudamel.

So what did we get in quick succession at the mighty LA Philharmonic? Both Esa-Pekka Salonen, its penultimate maestro, and, of course, Gustavo Dudamel, its present podium chief — two who are linked to the orchestra's acclaim far and wide.

Huzzahs are in order. Each one just celebrated a specialty vein of music.

salonen-dp.jpgFor Salonen (right) it was Debussy's "Pelléas and Mélisande," utterly remarkable in its shift from 1995, when he led a Peter Sellars production at the Chandler Pavilion for what was then called Music Center Opera — remember it? — to this current venture at Disney Hall, unrelated to LA Opera.

That first Salonen encounter of the work, with its conversion from allusive poetry to sensational reality, was an attention-grabber — Sellars' staging personified the O.J. Simpson murder scenario with looming menace. But the visual theatrics overwhelmed the delicately charged music.

No such problem this time. For starters there was the svelte, glittering, eminently pliable Philharmonic, occupying its full-center Disney stage, not a submerged pit. For another, the cast members pretty much stood in mapped-out spots, employing some abstract gestural accents. All emphasis was on the music. And what music it was.

We didn't have to decipher this connoisseur's opera as either a pale, ephemeral nocturne or a violent household drama — which is an argument usually had over the Maeterlinck play on which it's based.

All the surreal mystery and darkly compelling undercurrents rose up to engulf us, in Salonen's and the orchestra's hands. Neither was there a scintilla of doubt about the passions driving this medieval tale of Cain-and-Abel brothers seeking to possess the same woman.

The powerful outpourings from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas make your heart race. The grim determination from Laurent Naouri as his brother Golaud could fill you with dread and the sad intonings from Willard White, as the grandfatherly Arkel — we remember this bass-baritone as a murderous O.J. Simpson-Golaud back in '95 — along with the lyrical innocence of Camilla Tilling as Mélisande complete the sound picture of symbolist sensuality veering into volcanic eruptions.

All of it bespeaks 20th century European music.

But then there is Dudamel, soon taking his band off to Paris, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and London with an American care package in their arms, a genre of music that incorporates both the U.S. and South America. Now you've got to call this tour repertory a rarity. Standard offerings on home-away visits would be the standard export literature.

Call it a shot in the musical arm.

Dudamel's clever program will give Europeans some of what they already know, music by Hollywood's John Williams. Lucky man, Williams. His "Soundings" is an actual Philharmonic commission — a prize not bestowed by the orchestra on his several important predecessors, say, Bernard Herrmann and Erich Korngold, who also wrote movie scores (but you can imagine that no young composer ever dreamed of one day becoming known as a movie composer).

How clear it is, though, that Williams' opening piece — a series of unrelated, episodic tweets — pales beside the heftier, more substantial fare that followed it. And how apt it was to choose Ginastera in that line-up, celebrating the centennial year of his birth.

The Argentine composer's 1st Piano Concerto is a stunning work — as played by the whiz-bang virtuoso, Sergio Tiempo. And although it's written in the 12-tone technique its parts link together organically to conjure an eerie, spectral aura with alternating currents of driven aggression. No wonder that at its conclusion he and Dudamel, the two young, dynamic amigos, strutted offstage together arms around each other.

Just as compelling is Andrew Norman's "Play: Level 1" and he means it. Here was artful, dizzying humor in a piece with cleverly bumptious lines that splintered apart. Call it musical geometry.

And now let me say that on this last of four performances the Philharmonic's playing boasted a clarity and finesse that was startling. Not only did it show off these two works marvelously but leaving it world-wide as a calling card for contemporary music is a very smart tack.

Still, just in case audiences across the pond (and in New York) might need to hear the ring of familiarity, Dudamel & Co. closed the concert with Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite — which cannot be more dear to the heart.

Should anyone be looking for an innocence unknown today, you know, that prairie purity and joyful optimism spoken in gentle Coplandese, this is where to find it. What's more, there were lone, lovely lyric pipings — courtesy of principal flutist Denis Bouriakov — that rose above the soft, plush strings and struck a chord of deep humanity. Did we awake in heaven?

magic-flute-dp.jpgMagic Flute.

For more whimsical searches downtowners could look to LA Opera's revival of Barrie Kosky's wildly imaginative "Magic Flute," a concoction straight out of 1920's silent film with old-timey screen titles replacing dialogue and animated black-and-white cartoon characters popping up. There's one caveat: you couldn't find the pathos Mozart intended in the Singspiel's most tender arias — even if creative entertainment was at an all-time high visually.

No visuals were needed, though, when Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra touched down at UCLA's Royce Hall, this time with guest conductor Matthias Pintscher who programmed Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite. It, like "Appalachian Spring," is ballet music, brilliant as characterization. And so it was here, as played by this ever-treasurable ensemble.

Like a few other visiting maestros who want to make their mark, Pintscher over-conducted in a muscular way — yes, all of the music's bold, structural outlines were there. And he did manage to coax affecting moments of Ravelian poetry from the orchestra. He even gave us some thoughtful preview words on Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2, although not a lot of expressive nuance or dynamic range emerged either in his account of the work or in the Beethoven Eighth.

So goes the parade of auditioners for next LACO music director.

March 6, 2016

Fowl play, a dark lady in Hollywood and Romeo & Juliet

As soon as I noticed that the main character in the new novel "Fowl Play" is the chief theater critic of "LA Observer," of course I had to read the book.

Fowl Play cover final 6x9 300ppi copy.jpgNo, the book's "LA Observer" is not a thinly veiled reference to LA Observed. It's a thinly veiled reference to the LA Weekly. The author of "Fowl Play" is Steven Leigh Morris (right), formerly the theater editor and chief critic at the Weekly, more recently the founder of the Stage Raw website, and currently the executive director of LA Stage Alliance.

So, even if the fictional "Seth Jacobson" (the name of the Morris doppelganger) had not worked at "LA Observer," I was looking forward to the possibility of reading a roman à clef set against the backdrop of LA theater. Books that mention Los Angeles theater are rare birds.

Speaking of birds, it turns out that "Fowl Play" is more about the "Fowl" in the title than it is about the "Play." Longtime Morris readers will recall that he wrote not only about theater in the Weekly, but also about his efforts to raise chickens in an urban LA setting. "Fowl Play" was inspired more by these experiences than it was by Morris' primary beat for the Weekly.

He refers to at least a handful of real theatrical productions that occurred in Los Angeles that "Seth" (presumably along with Morris himself) witnessed, but these references exist mainly for the purpose of providing metaphoric commentary on what's happening in the rest of Seth's life. His brief accounts of the gradual diminution of theater coverage (and therefore his job) at the Observer serve a similar purpose.

As someone who has never considered raising chickens but who sees plenty of plays, I might have been a bit disappointed to realize that "Fowl Play" is a roman à poulet instead of a roman à players-in-LA-theater.

Yet as I kept reading, I realized that Morris also emphasizes another arena — the politics and personalities of his hybrid co-op/condo community — as much as he focuses on the chickens and more than he focuses on LA theater.

As a former HOA board member in an LA condominium complex, I was regaled primarily by Morris' amusing tales drawn from the microcosmic self-government that occurs in a multi-unit community. Flaming passions arise over issues that, in retrospect, appear remarkably trivial. In the right hands, this is a recipe for deadpan comedy, and this is where the book hits its stride.

I had a few problems with the unfurling of a couple of narrative strands near the end of the book, but let us not discuss possible spoilers here.

I'm not a literary critic; I see and read so many plays that I haven't had the time to acquire a breadth of knowledge of other novels that might address the subjects that "Fowl Play" addresses. However, I must take this opportunity to offer an endorsement of another novel that also includes some references to LA theater, even though it was published two years ago.

DLH-Cover-wFrame copy.jpgDiane Haithman's "Dark Lady of Hollywood" hasn't received the attention it deserves. It's a wildly witty and intensely readable tale, told from the perspectives of two different characters — a male, 36-year-old TV comedy exec who has been diagnosed with cancer, and a younger, biracial woman who works for the preening diva who hosts "America's most popular daytime talk show" -- Really, Girlfriend? They usually take turns narrating, chapter by chapter.

Theater references arise from both of the major characters. Ophelia, the diva handler, is a would-be actress who takes lessons at a storefront theater. Ken Harrison, the TV exec, claims to have "left a permanent ass print in a seat in the back row of every theater with fewer than ninety-nine seats within a fifty-mile radius of Burbank." He's also an avid reader of Shakespeare, when he isn't overseeing decidedly non-Shakespearean efforts for network television.

After they meet on the lot, Ken begins envisioning Ophelia as his equivalent of Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which leads both of them into turbulent waters. Ken's chapters are usually preceded by resonant quotes from the Bard.

The biggest laugh related to LA theater occurs near the end, when the creation of a new Shakespearean repertory company is announced — although, again, I won't explain the circumstances for fear of playing spoiler.

Full disclosure advisory: I am on a first-name basis with both of these authors. Indeed, in my final LA Observed column of 2015, I described Morris' fiery riposte to something I wrote (about an issue that he doesn't discuss in his novel.) Haithman and I worked together on the arts staff of the Los Angeles Times. But I haven't discussed my reactions to their books with either of them.

Both "Fowl Play" and "Dark Lady of Hollywood" refer to "Romeo and Juliet," among other classics. "Fowl Play" begins with a scene in which critic Seth shows up just a little late to review a performance of an adaptation called "Romeo and Julio" at the Hudson Theatre. Complications ensue.

So, as I was reading these books recently, it was fun to see not only the most famous "R & J" adaptation, "West Side Story" (in Long Beach; see my last column), but also the original "Romeo and Juliet," now in rep at A Noise Within in Pasadena.

Actually, Dámaso Rodriguez's staging for ANW is like the original in the way it sounds, but its look is closer to that of "West Side Story." The design (sets and costumes by Angela Balogh Calin, lighting by Jared Sayeg, sound by Martin Carrillo) is contemporary US-urban, with a graffiti-covered wall "memorializing lost youth," notes Rodriguez inside the program. It uses dumpsters, shipping pallets and steel ladders as set pieces and includes a mystically haunting scene in which dresses become muted chandeliers.

Romeo is played by the slender and seductive Will Bradley ("Stupid Fucking Bird," "Miravel"). Donnla Hughes' Juliet seems less pre-pubescent than Shakespeare might have imagined, becoming more of an equal partner in the couple's defiance and ultimate doom. Rafael Goldstein, who was once best known for his work at Zombie Joe's but is now in his eleventh role at A Noise Within, plays Mercutio with a driving clarity.


romeo-and-juliet-noise-within.jpgDonnla Hughes and Will Bradley in "Romeo and Juliet." Photos: Daniel Reichert

February 23, 2016

Pasta in 'Pocatello,' anyone?

pocatello-rogue.jpg"Pocatello." Photo by John Perrin Flynn.

Two plays named after cities: "Barcelona" at the Geffen Playhouse and Rogue Machine's production of "Pocatello" (in case that doesn't ring a bell, its namesake is the fifth largest city in Idaho.)

Which theatrical destination sounds more inviting?

Well, "Barcelona" isn't bad. But "Pocatello" pops.

Produced by Rogue Machine, "Pocatello" is by Samuel D. Hunter. His "A Bright New Boise" and "A Permanent Image," two of Rogue Machine's greatest hits, were also set in Idaho -- Hunter's original home state.

"Pocatello" is the first mainstage production in Rogue Machine's supposedly temporary home at the Met Theatre, a block southeast of the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. The new neighborhood is not likely to conjure thoughts of Idaho.

Yet "Pocatello" looks as if it could be set just about anywhere in the United States. It takes place entirely within the doomed Pocatello outpost of a downscale Italian restaurant chain - the sort of eating establishment that looks more or less the same in Pocatello, Pittsburgh or Pomona.

Until I saw "Pocatello," I'm not sure I had ever thought about how a play set in a branch of a national or international commercial chain has a natural advantage in the quest to quickly establish at least a superficial sense of universality.

At the same time, the struggling characters in "Pocatello" appear to have fewer options than they might have in Pittsburgh or Pomona. In Pocatello, with only 55,000 people, good jobs are scarce, judging from what we hear. Much of the play is about the conflicts people feel when their home-town roots are under duress. This isn't a play that the Pocatello Chamber of Commerce is likely to endorse.

Hunter's ability to find that bittersweet spot between laughter and tears has never felt sharper than in John Perrin Flynn's staging. All 10 characters are dimensional, and a magnificent cast is led by Matthew Elkins as the restaurant manager (he was also golden in the leading role of Rogue's "Bright New Boise.") I try to avoid saying that plays are "Chekhovian," a standard to which many plays aspire - and "Pocatello" is more streamlined than most of the good doctor's seminal works. But with just the one set (by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) and only 90 intermission-free minutes, Hunter manages to excavate private and public wells of surprising depth.

Hunter is a writer on "Baskets", the new FX TV series with similarities in tone (and Zach Galifianakis) but with commercial interruptions (and concessions?) "Baskets" is set mostly in Bakersfield, much closer to LA, and the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce is probably glad that it's not titled "Bakersfield."

Bess Wohl's "Barcelona" has a more limited scope than "Pocatello." It's about an older Spanish man (from Madrid, not Barcelona) and a younger American woman who turn a one-night stand into a long session of soul-searching. The setting in Barcelona appears to be decorative more than thematic. The city is such a picturesque tourist destination that the title might draw in some theatergoers who might otherwise find the subject matter somewhat depressing. It's as if Hunter's play were called "Yellowstone" instead of "Pocatello."

barcelona-geffen-lamont.jpg"Barcelona." Photo: Michael Lamont.

However, Wohl provides an interesting twist to the last third of "Barcelona," which creates a greater degree of gravitas (but which can't be spelled out, because of spoiler concerns.) Trip Cullman's staging ends up as a much more satisfying experience than it appears to be at the halfway mark.

By the way, another male-female duo, Laura Eason's "Sex With Strangers," is about to appear at the Geffen's other theater. The two productions will briefly be side by side. On the website of a recent Arizona production of "Sex With Strangers," the play is described as involving "strangers in a secluded cabin. Opposites instantly attract, undeniable chemistry ignites, and sex is imminent. As dawn rises, however, what could have been just a one-night stand transforms into something much more complicated." Except for a couple of words, that description would also serve well for "Barcelona."

Welcome to the Geffen's One-Night-Stand, Two-Character Theater Festival.

Are there any plays out there called "Los Angeles"? I hope not. LA is too big and complex for its name to be borrowed for the title of any one play. But why aren't there plays called, say, "Valley Village" or "Hermosa Beach" or "Leimert Park" or "Pico Rivera"?

Still, titles aside, a few current LA productions feature plays set in Southern California. It's time for a brief survey.

Little Tokyo's East West Players is producing Giovanni Ortega's "Criers for Hire," set in Monterey Park. It's primarily the story of the reunification of a Filipina immigrant and her teenage daughter, who has finally arrived in LA after years without her mom by her side. The play's title stems from the fact that the mom makes a few extra dollars as a professional mourner at a Chinese-oriented funeral home in Monterey Park. The girl is also invited into the ranks of professional mourners, but she has a hard time keeping a straight face as she tries to wail on cue.

Although we've heard and seen similar stories about immigrants, the mother-daughter material is poignant, and it's blended into the professional-mourners subplot in a well-timed climax. Until then, the mourning scenes generate a few chuckles, but they take place in a vacuum. The bereaved clients are completely absent. When the girl goofs up, as a mourner, does it matter to the clients or affect the mourners' jobs? We have no idea. There is some promising material here that's left unexplored.

Tony Abatemarco's "Forever House," at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz, is set in an unidentified suburb northeast of LA. It's about a gay couple's purchase of the former childhood domicile of one of the two men. For a while it works as a bright, brisk comedy. But gradually the shtick begins to look like, well, shtick, and then Abatemarco yields to the temptation of a long and indulgent monologue that seems completely out of character with the rest of the play. It's rewrite time.

Tom Cavanaugh's "Inland Empress," in a Mutant Collective production at the Lounge in Hollywood, is set at a specific address in Apple Valley - an area that most people would think of as the far northern end of the, yes, Inland Empire. A crime-clan melodrama with an almost all-female cast, "Inland Empress" gets some points for originality. Lily Knight plays a middle-aged godmother, so to speak, who's being released from prison and returning to find her business usurped by a younger generation. Perhaps the most novel touch is that in prison she has converted to Islam. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," will the old life of crime "just pull her back in"? The cast brings considerable vigor to these lip-smacking roles.

Stephen Sachs' "Dream Catcher," at the Fountain Theatre, is set farther out in the desert - where a plan for a giant solar power plant is threatened by the discovery of Native American artifacts. This is a thorny real-life dispute with far-reaching implications, yet here it's presented within the context of a brief, realistic two-character relationship drama (see "Barcelona" and "Sex With Strangers," above), which sometimes takes precedence over the weightier issues. Small-theater audiences (as opposed to mass-media audiences?) should not have to rely on the distracting possibility of sex in the sand in order to get them to consider these subjects inside a theater.

Speaking of small-theater romances, Sheila Callaghan's "Bed," in an Echo Theater production in Atwater Village, is partially set in LA, plus four other cities, as it charts the tempestuous decade-long relationship of a literary academic (he) and a rocker (she). Only one other character appears. The production is impressive, but I never believed that these two would remain together for 10 weeks, let alone 10 years.

Finally, although it has nothing to do with LA, Musical Theatre West's revival of "West Side Story," in Long Beach, is a rare opportunity. How often do you see and hear a "local" production of a musical classic with a 30-piece orchestra (David Lamoureux is the musical director) and a 32-actor cast (Joe Langworth is the director)? They make a convincing case that no finer musical exists in the American repertoire.

Long Beach also recently experienced a revival of "West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," by Long Beach Opera. I hadn't seen "Candide" since a revival by Gordon Davidson for Center Theatre Group, two decades ago. But Long Beach's "Candide" seemed a complicated curiosity piece, while "West Side Story" is a whirlwind.

wsstory-lb-ds.jpg"West Side Story." Photo: Caught in the Moment Photography

February 11, 2016

Chambers Brothers reunion


Take My Picture Gary Leonard runs on Thursdays at LA Observed. Click on the image to see it bigger.

February 7, 2016

'Candide' in Long Beach, LA Dance Project at the Wallis

candide-lbo.jpgA scene from the recent 'Candide' at Long Beach Opera.

Old loves stay locked in the heart. Take "Candide," for instance, Leonard Bernstein's incandescent pastiche based on Voltaire's scalding social satire from the 18th century.

Why that one?

Well, just think of what Lenny wrote for it -- the most delicious compendium of Straussian-Mahlerized waltzes, mock-lugubrious tangos, soaringly sincere ballads, patter songs that bounce along on wildly witty lyrics.

And who do you think helped him with the book back in 1955? No less than Lillian Hellman, with hilariously knife-edge lyrics by Richard Wilbur, assisted by John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim and even -- get this -- the wise-cracking poet Dorothy Parker.

So I ask you: Why do we languish in the absence of "Candide" on all our stages all the time?

Because some have called it not quite stageworthy -- based on its Broadway premiere, which did bomb compared to the usual tired-businessman fare so popular back then.

But since that time when Bernstein worked with creators of highest caliber, others have had at "Candide," largely for tweaking purposes.

Finally, we just saw the version put on by Long Beach Opera -- that company known as indefatigable, irreverent, unsinkable, irrepressible, (often a bit rag-tag, too). And if you couldn't get to one of its only three performances, that's a pity.

But let's petition for a replay in L.A. proper. And let's advertise "Candide" as a tragi-comic opera, a rare, satiric piece of musical theater with a ribald underbelly and a philosophic bent.

Not because this Royal National Theatre edition by John Caird was allowed to be perfect. Far from it, owing to the zealous pursuit of stagecraft juvenilia inflicted by LBO designer Sean T. Cawelti. Without that, though, director David Schweizer had some excellent ideas -- among them, making the opening scene a rehearsal led by Pangloss (the Voltaire stand-in).

Still, there was far too much stage shtick, too much busyness every which way. After all, the Center Theater's intimacy invites less of it -- singers can resort to dramatic nuances and subtle interactions. Nor are body mics, amply in use here, anything but superfluous and distorting.

And that's a pity because other L.A. "Candide" performances -- Hollywood Bowl's (2010) concert version, long on padded narration and New York City Opera's decades-old floundering production at the Music Center -- missed the mark.

This one hits it. So forgive LBO any errors, because mostly it's on target.

The whole cast excels. Robin Buck makes a pseudo-haughty Pangloss, instructing the others about their improbably "best of all possible worlds;" Jamie Chamberlin hurls out Cunegonde's coloratura gem "Glitter And Be Gay" with thrilling bravura amid all her gold-digger goals; and Todd Strange, as the title character who only ever wanted to "Make Our Garden Grow," sings with tenorial sweetness. Conductor Kristof van Grysperre animated the score's pulse, despite his chamber orchestra's somewhat scrappy playing.

But closer to home there was much else going on. Notably at Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater. Should I say again just how hospitable this intimate venue is? Have all concert-goers who are engaged with music and dance been alerted to the Wallis?

If not, consider the latest attractions there. First, there was the Shanghai Quartet playing Beethoven Quartets. And it proved again -- after the Calders and Brentanos did last season -- that there's no finer place to be for hearing chamber music played live. It's something about the air in that acoustic space where a notated rest can land and hang in suspension -- which happened in Beethoven's F-minor Quartet, Op. 95: The 1st movement ended in a riveting question, and it was left unanswered in a miracle of quietude. You can't get that on a recording. But you heard it from these marvelous musicians in this hall.

So, of course, did the mostly sedate audience. But it was an ever-so-sleek populace that crowded into the Wallis when L.A. Dance Project took to the boards. Result: this nine-member company looks best here, especially after its disaster at the Ace Hotel Theater downtown two seasons ago, although an earlier gig at Disney Hall -- using the full, forward stage -- was sensational.

But remember, this chamber group gets to travel the world, what with its director, French-born Benjamin Millepied, a bonafide celeb and head of the Paris Opera -- until last week.
(Naturally, he'd been able to parlay dates for LADP at various Parisian theaters, too.)

New to the repertory here was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Harbor Me," such a far cry from his "Myth" (2008), that sitcom circus with multi-lingual wackadoodles, tumbling acts and sight gags. But now, with this entry, any trace of disorder is gone and we could see real choreographic invention at work.

ladanceprojectwallis.jpgWhat the Moroccan/Belgian dance-maker showed us was mesmerizingly organic, fully developed movement that links its arcing plastique to moody, middle eastern strains of music. Huzzahs to LADP's dancers for their versatility in embracing this undulating sinewy style as easily as the typically jaunty works with their balletic accents.

Those would be the two previously seen numbers, by Millepied and Justin Peck -- cookie-cutter pieces influenced by the Balanchine method at New York City Ballet where the two trained and performed. Meaning that the works are eminently watchable and well-crafted, but also quickly evaporate from the mind. (And I can't figure out why costumes that foreshorten leg lengths, as these do, would ever come into stage vogue, just to follow street fashion.)

By the way, does anyone recall when Millepied plied his trade at Geneva Ballet and came up with that unforgettable take-off on "Spectre de la Rose"?

Maybe some do in his posh Wallis audience -- and I'm talking about those other watchables, the offbeat, artsy chi-chi, well-to-do, hip, but older crowd beating a path here.

If, in fact, someone wants to take a sociological survey of audiences there was a perfect case at UCLA's Royce Hall when Denis Matsuev took to the Steinway onstage.

No, we were not in Moscow. But scarcely an English word did I hear among the throng of Russian speakers -- colorfully cosmopolitan and chic -- cramming the house for the International Tchaikovsky Competition winner's recital.

Did the burly Russian play like a winner, a pianist of obvious no-nonsense mastery? Without doubt. There was Tchaikovsky, of course, those 12 lovely miniatures titled "The Seasons, which he delivered with classical restraint. And a more poetic reflection came in Schumann's "Kreisleriana." But with the piano transcription of "Petrouchka" he set off a blaze that ripped through the hall. This was playing that electrified. It's what technical virtuosity was made for. It earned the native son a roaring ovation from his compatriots.

January 24, 2016

Sheldon Epps era ending in Pasadena theater

playon-ppa.jpgA scene from "Play On!" Photo by the Pasadena Playhouse Archives.

In 1997, when he began running the Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps broke the racial barrier that had hitherto prevailed in Southern California's large, mainstream theatrical institutions.

In the biggest LA theatrical news of 2016 so far, Epps is leaving that job — at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

Sheldon-Epps-headshot .jpgUnlike a more famous first-in-his-field African-American leader who's also departing his current job in 2017, Epps won't deliver a nationally televised address about the state of his domain — in his case, Pasadena Playhouse. But he might write a book, he told the LA Times.

For nearly two decades, Epps' choices have dominated the playhouse's programming almost as much as its founder Gilmor Brown's did in the first incarnation of the playhouse (which opened in its current venue in 1925).

That earlier era ended in 1969, after which the building was largely dormant until it was revived in 1986. Four artistic directors came and went between 1986 and 1992. Then, for the next few years, Lars Hansen, who held the titles of managing and executive director, made most of the programming decisions, but he was never named the "artistic director."

So Epps, whose tenure will span nearly two decades by the time he leaves, created the image of Pasadena Playhouse programming that exists among most contemporary LA theater followers.

And what type of programming comes to mind when someone mentions the Epps-era Pasadena Playhouse? African-American plays — with and without music. And musicals — with and without an African-American emphasis.

Pasadena, with its rich African-American history, was perhaps in the mood for more black-specific theater than most parts of Southern California when Epps arrived. In his first two years, he staged two productions that were set in '40s Harlem — John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" and "Play On!," an Epps-conceived and Duke Ellington-infused adaptation (with book by Cheryl L. West) of "Twelfth Night." He also began that second year with another drama from black history, Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West," directed by Shirley Jo Finney.

But after that, two years passed without a conspicuously black-oriented production, until Epps' staging of Charles Randolph-Wright's "Blue" (with Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad) arrived in 2002. Since then, the highlights of the playhouse's African-American offerings were Epps-directed productions of August Wilson's "Fences" (with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett) and Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky," plus a revival of Wilson's "Jitney" (which originated at South Coast Repertory before it went to Pasadena).

Epps seemingly didn't feel compelled to fill an automatic "black" slot in each season. But he also took care to include productions that, while hardly all-black, featured African-American artists in prominent positions, such as Debbie Allen's staging of "Twist" in 2011 and a pre-"Empire" Taraji P. Henson's starring role in "Above the Fold" in 2014. Epps spotted the potential within the Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical version of "Sister Act" (previously a movie hit, with a sizzling leading role for a black actress) and staged its premiere in Pasadena before it went on to Broadway glory under a different director. Later he engineered a mostly black version of "Kiss Me Kate."

Epps' tastes also encompassed some traditionally non-black musicals — "Forever Plaid" and its sequel "Plaid Tidings" (you can't get much whiter than that) and David Lee's memorable revivals of "Do I Hear a Waltz?," "110 in the Shade," "Can-Can" and "Camelot." As with most musical producers, Epps has scored much better with revivals than with original musicals.

So is Epps' theatrical vision limited to these two specialties — African-American material and musicals? No.

He began his tenure in January 1998 with his own staging of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" — a non-musical in which the characters are white Brits. That first year also included Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and "Only a Kingdom," a wan musical about King Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson. Together, these three plays with white British subjects made up half of Epps' debut year in Pasadena.

There was a slot for 20th-century English plays in each of his next three years as well ("The Importance of Being Earnest," ""Blithe Spirit," "How the Other Half Loves," although the setting of "Other Half" in 2001 was re-located to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica in Larry Arrick's staging). Plays about Brits or set in Britain also appeared in nine of the last 14 seasons.

Is Epps a not-so-secret Anglophile? Perhaps, but he also knew that he had to offer something to the playhouse's old-guard audience while simultaneously opening it up to other constituencies. And so, in that first-year demonstration of his tastes, back in 1998, "Present Laughter" and "Only a Kingdom" immediately preceded and followed (respectively) a much more adventurous choice — the premiere of Jonathan Tolins' American comedy "If Memory Serves."

UMS_4.jpgMatt Walton and Erin Cardillo in a scene from "Under My Skin" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo: Jim Cox.

If memory serves, "If Memory Serves" had a keen sense of topicality, which was even keener in the 2012 premiere of "Under My Skin" by Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser. I was in a minority among my fellow critics on this one, but I thought its use of populist comedy tropes to examine the health care crisis — which was at stake in the upcoming election — was a case of perfect timing.

"If Memory Serves" also indicated that Epps might be interested in producing work set in Los Angeles, about Angelenos, but there haven't been many such locally-themed productions since then. The best and most local was Alison Carey's precisely Pasadena-oriented and also very au-courant adaptation of Shakespeare — "As You Like It: A California Concoction," co-produced with Cornerstone Theater and staged by its departing artistic director Bill Rauch, in 2006.

As you may have noticed, Epps is open to co-productions with other local companies, perhaps more so than the leaders of any of the area's other largest theaters. Besides the Cornerstone collaboration and South Coast's on "Jitney," he recently reinforced the South Coast connection with a production of "The Whipping Man." The playhouse and Deaf West Theatre joined forces for Stephen Sachs' "Open Window" in 2005. The playhouse's last three holiday shows have been Americanized pantos in partnership with Lythgoe Family Productions.

Epps enlarged a show that originated at LA's tiny Sacred Fools Theater, "Stoneface," for the playhouse mainstage. For several years the playhouse hosted a younger, more cutting-edge company, Furious Theatre, in the playhouse's smaller, upstairs Carrie Hamilton Theatre.

The playhouse under Epps joined alliances with black-specific companies, producing "Crowns" with LA's Ebony Repertory Theatre and the upcoming "Fly" with New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company. But in recent years Epps also made efforts to expand the playhouse's idea of diversity to include Asian Americans (the casting of "Stop Kiss", the Thai-American musical "Waterfall") and Latinos ("Real Women Have Curves"), in conjunction with assistant artistic director Seema Sueko. The playhouse has worked on behind-the-scenes diversity efforts with East West Players, the Asian-American-specific company that is also losing its own longtime artistic director, Tim Dang.

Of course, as with any artistic director's tenure, the Epps years have not brought uninterrupted delight. The most recent mainstage show at the playhouse, the forgettable new musical "Breaking Through," was one of the worst. But I expect Epps will rebound — look at how smoothly he and his team publicly handled the playhouse's financial crisis of 2010. Despite reports that suggested the playhouse would never revive, it was running again before the end of the year.

Epps now has another 18 months before someone else takes over. Let's hope that his successor can add something to the Pasadena mix without subtracting the features that Epps brought to LA County's oldest and second most important theater company.

Solos, sort of

South Coast Repertory is currently hosting Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Madwoman in the Volvo," and first I must offer my usual commendation to the weirdly rare occurrence of a major theater in the LA area presenting a production that's set in the LA area.

sandra-tsing-loh-scr.jpgWell-known for solo shows — as well as essays in magazines, books and radio — Loh has now unleashed an autobiographical almost-play, with roles for two actresses (Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt) who perform all of the characters other than Loh herself. But the play is still all about Loh, combining elements of her oft-told stories about the breakup of her marriage with her oft-told musings on menopause (as in "The Bitch Is Back," a solo last year at Broad Stage).

The results are certainly amusing and occasionally poignant, but they don't always co-exist well. The main narrative event seems to be the marital breakup, but are we supposed to attribute that event in part to the menopause (and Loh's legacy of menopause-related depression from her mother)? If so, the connection isn't clear — sometimes it seems as if the divorce and the menopause material are competing for stage time instead of complementing each other.

Part of the problem is that the marital breakup is never adequately explained. Perhaps privacy concerns dictated that we don't hear much about Loh's ex (he's referred to only as Mr. X). But neither do we learn much about the attractions of her manager, who became the new man in her life. It doesn't help that this second guy is played by a woman (Aaron), which turns him into little more than a caricature, making it virtually impossible to thoroughly understand the forces that led Loh to overthrow her previous life.

Writing multi-actor plays is harder than writing solo performances, but the rewards of the former are likelier to surpass the rewards of the latter, assuming that the quality of the writing is more or less equal. Different actors playing different characters with different perspectives usually gives an advantage to a multi-character play simply in terms of creating conflict and variety and scope.

However, "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey," a "guest" production at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an exception to that generalization. Writer/solo performer James Lecesne embodies a variety of characters with such precision, balance and vigor that it's almost as if we're watching a multi-actor play.

His characters are inhabitants of a town on the New Jersey shore. The narrative engine is the disappearance of the title character, a gay teenager. But Lecesne's main interest is portraying other people within the community. The play resembles a one-actor "Laramie Project," although (in contrast to that celebrated production's docu-theater style) Lecesne's program note assures us that he made it all up.

Another West Side solo show, Will Eno's "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," at the Geffen Playhouse's smaller stage, is about only one character. A man (played by Rainn Wilson) appears to be trapped in his existentialist musings, but he delivers those musings with a degree of unpredictability and an appreciation of how to get some laughs. In fact, "Thom Pain" is closer to high-tone standup comedy than to a play. I enjoyed it, but I was glad I didn't have to pay the current ticket price of $97 to see a 65-minute standup act.

Sandra Tsing Loh photo: Ben Horak/SCR

January 11, 2016

Documentary on LA's cardboard street artist

cardboard-giraffes.jpgGiraffes peering onto 5th Street in downtown LA.

"The Cardboard Artist" is a short documentary on Calder Greenwood, the artist who used Downtown Los Angeles as a set piece, often with co-conspirator Wild Life, for sculptures that were soft satire of the urban core. Angel's Knoll had life-size sitters and critters, and a giraffe once held court in an empty Arts District lot. The scale of the Los Angeles River made it a popular installation site, as seen with the Paper Mache Snake Plissken surfing the middle of the channel, or the 1950s Sci-Fi spider dangling from the Sixth Street Bridge.

sun_dt calder.jpgDespite being very temporary, Greenwood's signature piece may be "Sunbathers" in a vast downtown pit (at 1st Street and Broadway) in May 2012. Officials abducted the life-size figures while photos of the papier-mâché squatters were still gaining social media traction.

The popularity of the works did not come from just social media savvy or daring placement. The pieces are a purer form of street art by reinterpreting space. "I didn't think at the time what we were doing was street art, it was really more about having this vision, and wanting to see it in real life, enough to put in the effort to actually make it," said Greenwood in a previous interview. "Because it's such a reward to see an idea realized. But yeah it is street art. It's very deliberately placed where it is."

In the ten-minute film, directed by Matthew Kaundart, Greenwood is philosophical about the meaning of his cardboard art's short life span.

January 10, 2016

Talking hats with 'Trumbo' costume designer

orlandi-with-hat-iris.jpgDaniel Orlandi with hats from "Trumbo" at Western Costume. Top and bottom photos by Iris Schneider.

Outside Western Costume Company it's a rainy January day, but inside it still feels like Christmas. That's because Trumbo costume designer Daniel Orlandi is doing a show and tell with Hedda Hopper's hats from the film. Just arrived back from various exhibits, the hats, kept in carefully labeled white boxes, are sumptuous and spectacular, even off the head of Helen Mirren, the actress who plays the late Los Angeles Times gossip columnist in the 2015 biopic about black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Orlandi used pieces from his own collection to embellish the hats, including hand-painted and celluloid flowers that will melt if wet.

hedda-hopper-flowers.jpg"Hats were her gimmick..they got her attention," Orlandi says of Hopper. "People would make her outrageous hats and she would wear them. It got her more publicity. And she was also this kind of malovent, ambitious woman. It was her way of saying, 'aren't I funny and cute? And now I'm going to go in for the kill.' "

Orlandi created all of the hats with the help of Western Costume's chief milliner Kerry Deco. In the millinery shop at the essential Hollywood institution's cavernous home on Vanowen Street in the Valley, they would come up with a design and add the trimmings to make the hats scream Hedda. "Kerry and I really had so much fun!," Orlandi said. "The thing about Hedda Hopper is that her hats didn't match her outfits. She wore hundreds. We didn't copy any of them but we certainly got the essence."

Orlandi was a natural choice to design the wide range of costumes for the large ensemble film that spans the 1940's to the 1970's. The veteran costume designer had to create glamorous evening looks as well as at-home wear (robes and pajamas), prison garb, children's clothing, and day suits. Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Dalton Trumbo, had multiple changes as did Mirren. Nothing the actors wore came about by accident.

"I love doing research," Orlandi said. He specializes in movies about real people and wants the costumes to be as authentic as allowed by the demands of the script. "I like to know as much as I can when I'm talking to the actors or the production designer. Bryan knew all about Trumbo so we had some really interesting discussions about how we wanted to contrast his flamboyance and eccentricity with Hedda Hopper's." They wanted Trumbo's costumes to reflect the quirkiness of a screenwriter often depicted editing scripts in the bathtub. "His suits were nicely patterned and I found some beautiful vintage woolens to make them in."

helen-and-bryan.jpgProduction stills by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Bleecker Street

Orlandi learned the ropes of television and film costume design as a young assistant working for Bob Mackie in the 80's. "I learned how to work with performers, how to act in a fitting -- not to get too close. It's business, not personal." he recalls. "Everybody came in there. Tina Turner, Cher, Carol Burnett, Elton John." An especially fond memory is seeing Fred Astaire on the set of "Pennies From Heaven". He realized how much he enjoyed working with performers. "I really love working with actors and feel very protective of them. I love fittings...I don't like to dictate to them, it's more of a collaboration, like when an actor like Robert de Niro finds the right shoes and says 'yes, this is it!' It's THEIR performance."

Next up for Orlandi are two more biopics to be released this year. "The Founder," about McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, stars Michael Keaton and is directed by John Lee Hancock, with whom Orlandi worked on "The Blind Side" and "Saving Mr. Banks." "All the Way" reunites Orlandi with Bryan Cranston (as LBJ) and Jay Roach, "Trumbo's" director.

There's also an awards season coming up. "Trumbo" has already brought him a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for excellence in period film. And this week are the Oscar nominations. If I had a vote, he'd get one just for those fabulous hats.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo and Diane Lane, who plays his wife.

orlandi-hats-iris.jpgHats from "Trumbo" at Western Costume.

December 30, 2015

Closing out the year: Performing arts with cheer

guys-dolls-kevin-parry.jpg"Guys and Dolls" photo: Kevin Parry.

Last, but not least, as they say. The big-time events that closed out the year in the performing arts realm landed downtown and on the Westside, hitting every category and then some.

Opera? There was Bellini's "Norma." Classic American musical? Try "Guys and Dolls." Symphonic music mingled with ballet? Do not forget the LA Philharmonic and its Stravinsky-inspired Balanchine.

But if a Martian descended to Earth and inquired about these doings he/she would be perplexed by two competing Music Center scenes: one at Disney Hall, another at the Chandler Pavilion.

At the first venue there was our resident Philharmonic, led by its redoubtable maestro-in-chief Gustavo Dudamel, backing guest dancers that starred Roberto Bolle. Their main opus was Stravinsky's "Apollo," created in Paris for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by George Balanchine back in 1928.

But hold on, this 2015 performance was not staged as originally envisioned. It hewed to a makeshift arrangement, one with a minimized theatrical perspective. Why? Because it had to encompass a double task: physically/visually showcasing the dancers and orchestra at once.

In the outcome neither had its due. Dudamel could not follow his unique, musical instincts since the dancers' needs interfered; it must have been like kneading dough with one hand. And for the audience it was like watching a movie with the house lights on, but somewhat dimmed.

At the Pavilion across the street, the scene -- quite different from the above -- was necessarily pretty staid (those on stage were not exactly movable objects since they added up to a collective avoirdupois many pounds beyond lithe). Here we had the LA Opera mounting of Bellini's "Norma," that singer's opera requiring bel canto expertise that only the most rigorous vocal technique can fulfill.

"Norma" photo by Ken Howard.

But what a relief it was to cast my eyes on that proscenium arch framing the production, with its tastefully designed linear set, lit to maximize the drama and its characters. Here was an honest-to-god venue, not a theater-in-the-round with no separation between pit and stage.

Then I knew, once and for all, that makeshift doesn't work. Let Dudamel be Dudamel. Let Balanchine be Balanchine. No even-steven for them.

Both events, though, had high merit. Where Dudamel and his band got terrifically into it came on either side of the Stravinsky -- first, with the Britten piece, "Young Apollo," given a jaunty, hyper-animated reading, underwritten by throbbing ostinatos and exulting in violist Carrie Dennis's performance. You've got to love her, especially knowing that even a deaf person would see how the music goes, just watching her every body-jolting accent and thrust. Besides the other principal string players featured here there was Joanne Pearce Martin with her rip-snorting piano riffs.

And by the time they got to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, that hallmark of sardonic militarism, the ranks were fully charged. I don't know when I've heard such a great, heaving cry as in its largo, or the like of those perky little solos rampaging through their sudden spotlights or the nasal brazen-ness of the brass, not to mention a finale to blow your head off.

Nor did wonders cease with the gorgeous music that rolled out, courtesy of LA Opera's "Norma." For the first time in memory a highly-lauded cast from the Met reversed route and traveled to L.A. (Usually singers get noticed here and springboard to the Met, as in Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.)

But here Angelea Meade gave us the the reason she wants to go on singing the title role, a be-all-end-all of coloratura challenges that demands an extraordinary dramatic range, not to mention vocal power that extends way beyond the high, agile soprano.

Sure every singer wants to attempt Norma, the druid priestess who lives among Roman legions occupying Gaul in 50 B.C. -- because Bellini wrote sumptuous melodies that entwine the voice with intricate filigree up to and including outpourings of scorn that take Wagnerian strength (and that hell has not fathomed). But only a few have mastered the role, notably Callas.

Meade has the instrument, enough to magnetize at least, if not to stun. And her terrific cohorts -- Jamie Barton, the devoted confidante Adalgisa who unknowingly shares the same man, and Russell Thomas as that man, Pollione, the stalwart Roman proconsul -- exploded in some knock-'em-dead duets.

Key to the performances was James Conlon, who led the cast and orchestra on a course of divine bel canto line, judicious but with enough leeway to be maximally expressive and musical.

But even more inspiring, in these days of having to prove that black lives matter, was the mixed race composition of those onstage. And aside from the egregious discrimination of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson in bad old days the opera world has long shown its humanity by giving an equal pathway to non-white singers way before the movies dared to.

So did we see a black and white cast for Frank Loesser's delectable "Guys and Dolls" at the Wallis -- a positively joyous production that reminds us of the time Broadway musicals had chops (clever lyrics, sing-worthy songs, characters good-naturedly plucked from a back-end demographic). All of its cheek, its hilarity, sweetness and self-parody bounced across the footlights here in finest form.

The only casting debit came with Jeremy Peter Johnson who, as Sky Masterson, was far too straight and square and awkward to be the canny, louche gambler who could persuade a Salvation Army goody-goody girl, Sarah Brown, to fly with him to Cuba. Others inhabited their Damon Runyon roles with brio, energy and pizzazz. Luck will be a lady if the Wallis brings these Oregonians back.

But no one had to look far for Simone Porter, the local 19 year-old who pinch-hit for the scheduled violinist at LA Chamber Orchestra's most recent Royce Hall concert. She dazzled not only by sausaging herself into a slinky gold-lamé gown but in playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with big, luscious tone and energy to burn.

Even more dazzling, though, was the superbly played Bartók's Divertimento for Strings led by Peter Oundjian -- its jagged Magyar rhythms surging through the hall, lifting airily in its live and lovely acoustic, even filtering its lyricism here and there. Encore, please.

December 18, 2015

20 highlights of LA theater in 2015

the-christians-ctg.jpgLinda Powell and Andrew Garman in "The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Let's begin my discussion of the theatrical highlights of 2015 with...Center Theatre Group?

Yes, that's the same CTG, aka "L.A.'s Theatre Company," that I frequently chide for its dearth of productions set in LA, or plays by LA writers. No, as far as I know, CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie hasn't suddenly decided to commit to producing at least one LA-set and LA-written play in each of his three theaters each season - but that would be an ideal New Year's resolution for him to consider.

What I'm commending here is CTG's current, final-inning programming at the Music Center: "The Christians" at the Mark Taper Forum and "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Ahmanson.

We might as well start with them, because not only are they among my favorite productions of 2015 but they're two out of only three productions on the list that readers can still see. The others have already closed.

If you assume that a play titled "The Christians" that's presented in December must be Christmas-oriented, you are mistaken. But if you assume that such a play on a CTG stage must be a snide attack on the title characters, you are also mistaken.

The title might be too ambitious. Christians are much more diverse than the play indicates. But playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters (whose Actors Theatre of Louisville produced the play's premiere, with many of the same actors) are here not to sneer, but to provoke thought.

The production is designed as a service at a Protestant mega-church, complete with choir. The popular pastor (Andrew Garman) has a shocking message to deliver - he no longer believes in hell. But could that disbelief dissolve the believers' incentive to do the right thing? Could it dissolve the congregation itself?

The play is not restricted to one particular church service, as it investigates the aftermath of the minister's change of heart. But it retains the basic design, in which the characters stay inside that sanctuary with no set or costume changes.

In a venue where microphones are a must-have for public discussions, the characters continue to use them even in their private conversations with each other. The microphones make the pauses even more pregnant, and the minister's manipulation of the microphone cord becomes a visual metaphor of his attempts to artfully avoid the entanglements that his announcement precipitates. "The Christians" is one of the least predictable plays offered by CTG in years.

Looking at the title and the provenance of its next-door neighbor, "The Bridges of Madison County," you might assume that it's one of the most predictable of CTG offerings. Again, you would be mistaken.

bridges-ctg.jpgOf course, it's based on the slender but massively popular romance novel that also inspired a Hollywood movie. But it adds Jason Robert Brown's versatile and vivid Tony-winning score, his personal conducting of the orchestra in LA, Marsha Norman's artful enlargement of the narrative dimensions, and lustrous stars (Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky) under the masterful direction of Bartlett Sher. "Bridges of Madison County" becomes as essential for musical theater aficionados as the Golden Gate is for travelers to San Francisco.

That's more than I can say about the other current Broadway musical import, "If/Then" at the Pantages. However, if you're drawn to cluttered, confusing narratives with mostly generic music until the second act, then you might prefer "If/Then."

Besides "Christians" and "Madison County," the only other show on my list of 2015 highlights that's still playing is the Troubadour Theater's revival of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Motown" at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. Director Matt Walker plays the title role instead of the narrator, which he played in 2004 (the narrator is now played by the irrepressible Rick Batalla). Walker and company make sure to add 2015 jokes to this irresistible comic confection. Troubies shows are usually hot tickets, so if this one is on your Christmas wish list, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout. Instead, take action.

And now, in alphabetical order, my complete list of 2015 highlights, representing the most talented tenth of the 200-plus shows I saw:

August: Osage County at Theatricum Botanicum. Tracy Letts' script came alive in Mary Jo DuPrey's staging in a way that it didn't in its earlier LA premiere at the Ahmanson, perhaps because four members of the Geer clan (plus the fiery Susan Angelo) were playing the roles of the related women.

Bad Jews at Geffen Playhouse. Joshua Harmon set an observant millennial against one of her non-observant cousins, with a family heirloom at stake, in the fiercest and funniest family fracas of the year.

The Bridges of Madison County. See above.

Carrie, the musical, first at La Mirada Theatre, then at Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA. Director Brady Schwind turned this Gore/Pitchford musicalization of Stephen King's teen thriller into the year's best amusement park ride.

Chinglish from East West Players. Jeff Liu staged this sly, intricate comedy about cross-cultural misunderstandings in commerce and romance in the venue named after its writer, David Henry Hwang, who responded by introducing a slightly revised ending for the production's recent extension. See also "Enron" (below).

The Christians. See above.

Cineastas, at REDCAT. The inventive Argentine director Mariano Pensotti explored the lives of four filmmakers on one level of the stage and re-created scenes from their films on an upper level, noting the ways in which the characters and their artistic creations influence each other.

End of the Rainbow at International City Theatre. Gigi Bermingham depicted end-stage Judy Garland as an especially desperate cyclone in John Henry Davis' revival of Peter Quilter's musical drama.

Enron, from the Production Company at the Lex. Lucy Prebble's satirical and magically realistic dramatization of the corporate scandal finally reached LA in August Viverito's dynamic staging. Too bad it wasn't running at the same time as "Chinglish" (above), in which Chinese bureaucrats are duly impressed by an American's previous employment by the world-famous Enron.

Fences at International City Theatre. Michael Shepperd mastered every facet of the complex Troy Maxson in Gregg T. Daniel's vigorous revival of August Wilson's play (later, Shepperd went on to shine in the comedy vignettes within "Bootycandy" at his home company, the Celebration).

Hopscotch, from The Industry at many sites around LA. I didn't see even half of this massive three-track, site-specific "opera," much of which took place in cars driven down public streets. But I experienced one of the three tracks and separately witnessed a few of the other scenes in public places. I saw two scenes that involved no singing at all (one of these was a conversation between Cornerstone Theater actor Peter Howard in a moving limo and a motorcyclist in the next lane). So the theater world should not let visionary director Yuval Sharon's "opera" roots serve as a distraction from welcoming him into the related but hardly synonymous "theater" arena ASAP.

Julius Caesar, at A Noise Within. Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott shot Shakespeare's political epic forward with uncommon speed and power. It was part of a repertory in which "The Threepenny Opera" depicted conditions that were ripe for revolution while "Julius Caesar" displayed the results.

Luka's Room, at Rogue Machine. Rob Mersola's provocative San Fernando Valley-set comedy focused on a slacker who ventures down unexpected online roads. Narrative twists elevated the show's concerns. Joshua Bitton directed.

Man Covets Bird, at 24th Street Theatre. Finegan Kruckemeyer's parable about a young man, a bird and modern alienation was transformed by director Debbie Devine and Leeav Sofer into a simple but haunting musical, which could be appreciated by older children as well as adults.

Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles, a Boston Court production at the Getty Villa. Medea became a seamstress who retreated to her East LA yard after a brutal cross-border passage. Luis Alfaro's script, staged by Jessica Kubzansky, was the most impressive adaptation and the best new LA-set play of 2015.

MBDtopleft.jpgMy Barking Dog, from Theatre @ Boston Court. Eric Coble's play about two loners and a coyote hooked me on its characters in realistic opening monologues and then ventured into truly dark and dangerous straits. The performances and every design component of Michael Michetti's staging were impeccable.

A Permanent Image, at Rogue Machine. Not just another alcohol-fueled family-reunion play, Samuel D. Hunter's entry in this genre touched on such larger arenas as assisted suicide and the Big Bang theory. John Perrin Flynn's staging, starring a golden cast and Nicholas Santiago's astonishing video, deserves a larger audience in a midsize theater.

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Motown. See above.

Spring Awakening, at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills. Deaf West's and Michael Arden's entrancing rendition of the musical, with its ASL-infused style, stopped at the Wallis on its way from Inner-City Arts to Broadway. The Wallis was an ideal home for it, offering big-time benefits while retaining a sense of intimacy and superb sight lines.

Vietgone, at South Coast Repertory. Qui Nguyen's interpretation of his parents' saga of their 1975 meeting in an Arkansas camp for Vietnamese refugees uses the lens of his own generation's perspective, with contemporary language and comic-book design. Director May Adrales expertly handled the best world premiere in greater LA in 2015. South Coast's overlapping revival of Beth Henley's "Abundance," staged by Martin Benson, made a fascinating companion piece.

Bombast threat

Am I some kind of terrorist? Should I ask the FBI to investigate me?

In my last column, I complimented the tone of unity that prevailed at the annual Ovation Awards ceremony, after a year in which the LA theater had been involved in internecine struggle over Actors' Equity's decision to end the current 99-seat plan.

And what was the reaction of Steven Leigh Morris, the pro-99 partisan who now runs LA Stage Alliance, which sponsors the Ovation Awards?

He compared me to the terrorists in Paris. And Mali. He probably would have included those in San Bernardino, but he was writing before they struck.

In his response on the Stage Raw website, which he founded, Steven (yes, we're on a first-name basis) didn't actually mention me in the same sentence as Paris and Mali. But after calling for unity in the face of such dire threats and invoking "the battle of Agincourt. The Battle of Britain," he introduced his fourth paragraph with these words:

"And this is as true culturally as it is politically. Don Shirley..."

If I may wade through the overkill to his main points, here they are:

He said I described the calls for unity that he and others made at the Ovations ceremony as "a step back from prior convictions." Actually, I said no such thing - unless he, using his wartime analogies, equates an "inclusive, unifying tone," as I characterized his Ovation-night remarks, with Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement (come to think of it, he did use that "Battle of Britain" analogy, in which case who exactly is the Hitler analogue?).

More important, he charges that "Don just wants those smaller theaters gone because they annoy him. He seems to think they're a waste of his time, and ergo, everybody else's."

I thought I made it clear in my column that I don't want the small companies to disappear. I'd prefer that they marshal their time and energy in order to grow into larger companies, with higher profiles, so that their best work is not so easy for the larger public to ignore. Apparently Steven didn't notice that later in the same column, I praised a production at a small theater (see "Man Covets Bird," above), adding that I hoped it would find a second home and a longer life at a larger theater (see "Spring Awakening," above).

Steven also failed to acknowledge that Equity itself, by changing its initial plan, made sure that the 99-seat membership companies - run by the actors themselves - can more or less keep doing what they're doing now, without any interference from or supervision by Equity.

In fairness to Stage Raw, I should note that it ran another column, by Paul Birchall, that also disagreed with my position and even also mentioned the Paris attacks in its introduction, but which scrupulously avoided suggesting that I might have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on speed dial.

Steven, however, argued in his conclusion that I'm "on the side of outside factions who enter a community wielding bricks and pipes and firebombs." Yikes! I hope he doesn't tell the Sierra Club, with whom I frequently hike - they'll call the police if I show up with my backpack.

Middle photo: Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

November 30, 2015

Reich's revenge, Giselle's tears, Ahab's obsession and an ocean's murmur

de-keersmaeker.jpgScene from "Verklärte Nacht." Photo: Anne Van Aerschot.

Startled. That's what you would be if venturing into UCLA's Royce Hall these past few weeks for two dance events staggeringly different from each other.

One was the avant-garde company, Rosas, founded by that now-venerable Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker -- she appeared on the European scene in the 1980s and is still going. In fact, UCLA hosted a week-long residency of her perspectives, which are mostly linked to contemporary music.

The other was the hard-working local company, Los Angeles Ballet, digging into a collector's classic, "Giselle," and unearthing nuggets of profound poetry. More on that later.

De Keersmaeker represents the purity of abstraction taken to its limit. Especially in "Fase," where hardly a smidgeon of human feeling mars her concentration throughout the 70-minute repetitive endurance contest by composer Steve Reich, that peer of formulaic minimalism in all its minutely altered states. You could even say she goes to undue lengths to obliterate all references to a shared life experience.

Ah, there was the mechanical heroism of "Fase"-- those swinging arms (the right one only) acting as a propeller in this unison duet that featured swinging skirts and a single repeated routine, the two figures shadowed on a screen that crowds the number to four. You had to marvel at the stamina of dancers De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven. You also had to hang onto your heartbeat, throbbing in sympathy with relentless sight and sound. Was this a trance inducement or a medical warning?

On another night (just hours after the Paris massacre with artistic/executive director Kristy Edmunds addressing the Royce audience with moving words ) the company offered its version of "Verklärte Nacht," to the same Schoenberg music that Antony Tudor famously set his "Pillar of Fire" on, back in 1942.

Not surprisingly, De Keersmaeker's piece had none of the outsider narrative of Tudor's ballet (which she denies ever knowing about) but hers does honor the music's tone of harrowing neo-Expressionism -- with Pierre Boulez's recording amplifying its shards of split harmonies. If only the two dancers had not seemed as though their continuous, undifferentiated angst -- thrashing about, flinging onto each other, collapsing to the floor -- was just 30 minutes of improvised agitation.

As to De Keersmaeker's opposite -- in dance, that is -- let me start with a confession: I cried during the second act of LA Ballet's "Giselle," overwhelmed with its aching beauty. And that's hard to do, especially for a "Giselle"-collector who has logged at least 50 different performances of this Romantic antique over the years.

Why? Because it tapped deeply into the universality of human feelings, the core of this 19th-century art -- which must reflect life, as they say, in some manner.

And it did, at Royce Hall, on this last stop of our resident company's 10th season tour of local theater venues. It was something about the confluence of Adolphe Adam's wondrous score (a recording, spliced masterfully by Michael Andreas) that captures the low-candle heat of sorrow, the libretto's motif of struggle from real life's unfair social divisions, its pained ascent to mythical redemption through love, and its absolute purity of white gossamer in a night-darkened glen.

Transcendence was in the air.

The same transcendence, if you recall, that Lermontov felt on a rainy Sunday afternoon in London's Mercury Theater when he slipped in to see Victoria Page ("The Red Shoes") dance "Swan Lake."


You see, these classics can nail you at some point if all the elements jibe. If a pitch of the story's desperate, multi-layered passion infects everyone onstage at the same time, if the atmospherics are cloaked in a singular tone of moonlit unworldliness, if the music saturates the scene, and the dancing and gestures all speak together with it. Yes, it takes all of that.

The entire white-act cast caught the poetic spirit. Alyssa Bross and Ulrik Birkkjaer illuminated their better immortal selves as Giselle and Albrecht -- she with a seraphic presence, he with Byronic urgency.

It didn't matter at this point that earlier Bross was a tad smiley-faced and hardly fragile enough physically to convey the fey, peasant girl Giselle in her real life. Or that some tell-tale signs of regionalism showed through the presentation (up to and including the directors' open begging for donations.) The company handily deserves its place as LA's resident ballet enterprise.

What is harder to explain was a joint event at the Ahmanson: Hubbard Street Dance and Second City, both of them stellar Chicagoans. Separately, they are inspired groups well known around the country. But together, in "The Art of Falling, " they managed to show less of what each does so well.

The Hubbard dancers, who are masters of Twyla Tharp choreography, for instance, functioned here largely as comic props, their bodies bent and angled into set furniture that supported the "slapshtick" of Second City vignettes -- which were funny, but not funny enough for these celebrated improv artists. The whole thing amounted to not much more than nothing with nothing.

But across the plaza at the Chandler Pavilion was the adventurous "Moby Dick," having its Los Angeles Opera premiere, and thrusting its composer Jake Heggie into an ever-growing spotlight. The stunner of the occasion in this work, based, of course, on Melville's humungous novel, had to be the production's visuals -- in one scene, with sailors cast adrift, a computer graphic design located them so realistically on the vast dark sea that was about to swallow them up that the music got a huge boost in its sense of existential aloneness.

In fact, the whole opera occupies a genre -- it includes Britten's "Peter Grimes" and especially "Billy Budd" -- works that explore a shipboard universe, its male hierarchy commanded by a captain whose whims and obsessions and prejudices infect the various subsets of underlings, all of them cut off from landed civilization.

And just as the staging's design is extraordinary so is the music, orchestrally, a thing of graphic excitement that follows each plot turn.

It's remindful of a sumptuous big screen epic, but far better endowed. The vocal line throughout was comfortable for all voices -- easy, natural and flattering, if not pointedly dramatic.

The other local premiere, also concerned with bodies of water, took place across the street at Disney Hall where the LA Philharmonic under Ludovic Morlot played the much-vaunted "Become Ocean" by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams (not to be confused with that better known composer John Adams, also of Pulitzer fame.)

According to this minority report, there was not much to hear beyond a lot of amorphous murmuring which continued on for 40 minutes. A fine sleep-aid? Possibly. A vehicle for a virtuoso orchestra when all the sections looked to be playing just accompanimental figures? Definitely not, since a computer engineer could probably create the same effects.

Perhaps the guest conductor Ludovic Morlot could have given it greater advantage. But when he and the band turned to Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the gifted young Armenian Sergey Khachatryan as its champion, it didn't matter anymore -- because here was playing to ravish the ear.

Rarely do we come across a violinist who speaks Beethoven in long phrases as understandable as a Lawrence Olivier reading of Shakespeare. And that's without mentioning his technique -- it allows the softest slivers of intimacy, a racing-heart urgency, eloquent warmth without gushing. During his gorgeously compelling cadenzas it seemed that no one in the hall drew a breath.

TV INTEL: If you stay tuned to MSNBC (maybe elsewhere too) you are no doubt rejoicing in the Infinity commercial -- it plays the overture to Mozart's "Magic Flute" as accompaniment to the most musical frame changes while the advertised car slaloms down snowy slopes. The bonus? Those changes are remindful of Ingmar Bergman's in his movie of the same opera.

November 18, 2015

Art of Ishiuchi Miyako may be what you yearn for

isiuchi-miyako-iris.jpgPhoto of Ishiuchi Miyako by Iris Schneider.

For those who miss the depth and grit of a beautifully printed black and white image, the photography of Ishiuchi Miyako, whose work is on view at the Getty through February 2016, may be just what you are yearning for. Ishiuchi, who has been exploring her life through photography for 40 years, is a fearless photographer but she says she only took photographs so she could get into the darkroom and print them. I understand the pleasure of the hours of isolation that darkroom printing provides. She taught herself to print, using rolls of photo paper that could make large prints. "The reason I love roll prints is that it is the same as dying fabric," she said, likening it to printing rolls of silk that harken back to her early training in textiles. She is also a pioneer as a female photographer in a country where men have traditionally taken the lead in the photography world, and as such she has inspired the five younger Japanese women whose work is also on exhibit concurrently at the Getty. What unites them is their exploration of family and self, the personal that becomes political, and the thought that has gone into their photographic journeys. Otsuka Chino, one of the younger generation photographers, said her personal exploration was like "being a tourist of your own life."

For Ishiuchi, she began her life as a visual artist when she returned in the 70's to her hometown of Yokosuka, the home of her family's tiny apartment and a US airbase. She would return twice to continue her work there, eventually using the money her father had put aside for her wedding to finance the printing of her work. She began to document her life in her cramped family apartment and her feelings about America and the American military presence in her town. "There are many things I would rather forget," she said in addressing the press before the show, "Postwar Shadows," opened at the Getty. "I only explore negative memories so in the process of forming them into photographs, they turn into something positive." Her prints of Yokosuka are brooding, textured images that grab your attention. She turned an unflinching eye to her surroundings and her images reflect the love/hate relationship she had with the American military presence. While it introduced her to many cultural touchstones, like American music and fashion, she is understandably ambivalent about the US military's effect on her hometown and its intrusion into Japanese culture. She continued documenting Yokosuka and her feelings toward it until 1990.

The show continues for several rooms, each exploring a different facet of Ishiuchi's very personal work. As she turned 40, she became interested in the ravages of time. She explains that she never expected to live until she turned 40 and once she did she became interested in what happens to a body after 40 years of exposure to time. "I became interested in the body as a repository of the invisible: time, air, space. The body is passive, it can't speak back. I decided to photograph how 40 years of time etched into women's bodies. It caused a stir in Japan...if you are a woman, you are not supposed to be old, scarred, withered, to show the passage of time. But that is life...I was interested and compelled by the body embraced by time. I began to realize that with photography you can capture the invisible."

Her images are large and indeed show the ravages of time in scars, wrinkles, spots. This exploration led her to photograph her mother's scarred body as she reached old age. She was invited to use polaroids and began a different visual exploration with color photography. Her mother passed away before she could fully explore the project. They had never gotten along in her mother's lifetime. But after she passed away Ishiuchi began looking at and talking to the clothing she had left behind. "I opened her drawers and found her undergarments and treated them as a kind of skin. This was the beginning of capturing images of things left behind."

In the last phase of the exhibit, Ishiuchi exhibits work done in Hiroshima from 2007, when she was invited by the government of Japan to do a photography project there. At first she felt that so many photographers had gone to Hiroshima "there would be nothing left for me." But she began to look at objects of clothing that remained and found them to be "imbued with life" rather than the death we usually think of when we think of Hiroshima. For me, her photographs of these garments, and those of her mother, are the most moving work in the show. "The garments were still colorful and fashionable. Seeing the clothes made me think if I had been 17, these were the kinds of things I would have worn myself...I had to approach it as a social issue and have been accused of beautifying and glorifying tragedy but I say these things were much more beautiful before the bombing." People are still donating cherished objects and the project continues as she returns every two years. She has captured the spirit left in these garments by their owners in a way that haunts you long after you've left the gallery.

hiroshima-piece-miyako.jpgFrom the Hiroshima series. Courtesy of and © Ishiuchi Miyako.

girl-in-=street-miyako.jpgLittle girl in street: Yokosuka Story #998. Collection of Yokohama Museum of Art © Ishiuchi Miyako

November 13, 2015

Ovations and upward mobility for LA theater

Michael-Arden-ovations.jpgMichael Arden, director of "Spring Awakening," at the Ovation Awards. Photo: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

LA theater has been embroiled in behind-the-scenes controversy for the past year. Many actors angrily challenged their own union over its decision to end the 99-Seat Theater Plan, which allows Equity members to work for only token fees in small LA theaters, at much less than the minimum wage.

Because of this brouhaha, I approached the Ovation Awards ceremony last Monday with extra curiosity. The event is designed to honor the year's best theatrical achievements, as judged by peers. Would the speakers turn up the flame on the Equity controversy? Would it become a pep rally for the pro-99 cause?

Steven Leigh Morris, an ardent defender of the pro-99 campaign in his previous role as a critic, had just been named the next executive director of LA Stage Alliance - the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Ovation Awards. Would he use his remarks at the ceremony to advocate for the pro-99 campaign? Would those of us who have declined to join the crusade feel like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters at a GOP fund-raiser? (That analogy is only somewhat exaggerated - the Wall Street Journal's famously right-wing editorial board recently joined the pro-99 choir).

I need not have worried. The evening was almost devoid of any direct references to the ongoing dispute. Morris, in his spoken remarks as well as in several published statements before the event, adopted an inclusive, unifying tone. The co-hosts, Vanessa Claire Stewart and French Stewart, closed the evening on this grace note:

Vanessa: "Sometimes it takes a hard year to bring a community together."

French, referring to the party that followed the ceremony: "So find a friend you disagree with and tip a glass."

ovation-awards.jpgLater, however, as I thought about the winners of the major awards, I wondered if the Ovation voters were somehow signaling their desire to move beyond the 99-seat fracas. They bestowed two of their four major production trophies on Deaf West Theatre's revival of "Spring Awakening." Its initial run at downtown's Inner-City Arts was named best musical in an intimate theater, while its subsequent run at the Wallis in Beverly Hills was named best musical in a larger theater. Voters also awarded the Wallis - LA County's newest midsize theater -- with the coveted "best season" prize.

Some eyebrows might rise over the double win for "Spring Awakening." Shouldn't the Ovations honor two entirely separate musical productions, thereby sharing the (mostly figurative) wealth? Yet the two "Spring Awakening"s were hardly identical. The Wallis production was better endowed, and the Wallis itself provided better sight lines. If I had to vote for only one, I would have voted for the Wallis rendition.

More to my point, by awarding such high marks to each of the two LA productions in which this particular "Spring" awakened, the Ovation voters (subconsciously, I suppose) endorsed the upward mobility of the production. The show moved from something that was one step away from being a workshop to something that was ready for Broadway - and then, after the Wallis run, it actually moved to Broadway.

No, I'm not suggesting that most 99-seat productions should have Broadway ambitions. It's easier for Deaf West to move to Broadway than it would be for any other small company in LA. After all, Deaf West had previously introduced its distinctive musical style to Broadway in the form of its "Big River" revival, which made a similar journey from a tiny LA space (the current Antaeus venue in NoHo) to a larger LA space (the Mark Taper Forum), before it hit Broadway.

But I am suggesting - and hoping - that more producers, writers and actors start thinking about larger venues within LA as their eventual destinations.

That might appear obvious, considering the scheduled demise of the 99-Seat Plan. But the plan might not disappear as thoroughly as some observers expect. Many of the potential effects of the end of the plan were seemingly mitigated when Equity agreed to allow "membership" companies to continue to use Equity members in their own Equity member-controlled productions - without Equity supervision. Audiences might not be able to discern much of a difference in these companies' productions after the plan itself vanishes (however, Equity has yet to announce a list of these "membership" companies).

No, the expiration of the plan isn't the most important reason why more of LA theater's best work should aim to take place on larger stages. The stronger case for expanded horizons is because LA theater needs a higher profile.

It's very difficult for particular 99-seat productions to get noticed beyond their immediate supporters. Small seating capacities and lack of advertising budgets often mean that fewer people see these shows, even in longer runs. The hordes of 99-seat companies make it difficult to stand out from the crowd - forget the idea of attracting many tourists. Established playwrights also usually shy away from 99-seat premieres of their plays. Like the actors, writers are paid more for premieres that take place in bigger theaters, which also have more promotional resources.

During the past year, plan proponents have cited some of the occasional cases of 99-seat productions moving on to greater glory. But these are rare, whether we're comparing them to the vast number of 99-seat productions that have taken place or to the proportion of shows that move on to greater fame after passing through early productions at, for example, Center Theatre Group or South Coast Repertory.

With only one exception, no play developed within the Waiver/99-Seat Plan system has eventually won a Pulitzer or a Tony - the awards that matter most when determining which plays receive further productions throughout America. (The one exception is "The Gin Game," which won the Pulitzer in 1978. It originated at the now-long-defunct American Theatre Arts in Hollywood, but its eventual prominence relied on a subsequent production at Louisville's Humana Festival).

Original musicals are even less likely than non-musical fare to launch from the 99-seat plan to more rewarding venues. Musical theater is more expensive to produce. Last Monday, when "The Behavior of Broadus" won this year's Ovations for best score and book of a new musical, its creators from the Burglars of Hamm used the opportunity to plead for a larger LA production of their prize-winning show.

Forget Broadway, they said - "some artists dream of bringing a show to a large theater right here in LA...To those who find these remarks tacky, clearly you don't know our work." (The context here is that Center Theatre Group commissioned "Broadus" but decided to present it only in partnership with the small Sacred Fools Theater, not at one of the three larger CTG venues).

Increasing the national profile of LA theater happens to be one of the primary concerns of Steven Leigh Morris himself, as he begins to run LA Stage Alliance. In an interview in the alliance's online publication, @ This Stage, Morris said he wants "to help get the LA stage scene on the map. In a way that, for some inexplicable reason, it hasn't been." He added that the talent, organizational skills and "the passion" are in place for this to happen, but that "there's just a missing link, and I'd like to find that link."

"Inexplicable"? "Missing link"? Here's one contributing factor to LA's absence from "the map" -- LA theater invests too much time and energy in maintaining a system of many easy-to-ignore theatrical boutiques, and not enough time and energy in creating institutions that can engage larger numbers of Angelenos, including more diverse audiences, as well as a bigger share of the national theatrical spotlight.

The pro-99 camp isn't solely responsible for this state of affairs. The 99-seat companies have seldom been given much of an incentive to move up the Equity scale. I've written about this elsewhere, over many years; in the Ovations spirit of amity, I'll avoid rehashing those details here.

Now Equity is trying to prod -- clumsily, at times -- some of LA's smaller companies to become more professional and more prominent, while still leaving open the self-producing option for membership companies. And now the pro-99 movement is suing Equity. Regardless of the merits or the results of this lawsuit, it's not going to invigorate LA theater.

Building theater companies and productions will accomplish more than lawsuits. We need more initiatives along the lines of LA County Arts Commission's hoped-for (but still not paid-for) 299-seat theater on the grounds of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, which would offer smaller theater and dance companies a chance to perform with a much higher profile.

El gran error de la Colonia

I've often suggested that large and midsize companies should open up their resources - including their venues - more frequently to co-productions with smaller companies, especially now that the 99-Seat Plan is so wobbly. I still think it's a great idea. Unfortunately a current example of this phenomenon -- Colony Theatre's import of the Skylight Theatre's previously 99-seat production of "El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola" -- is miscast as this idea's poster child.

Let's find a few glimmers of good news here. How's this? I enjoy local references and settings, and "El Grande" at the Colony offers several inside-Burbank lines. Also, the announced lowest post-preview ticket price ($29) at the Colony is actually lower than the announced ticket price ($34) was at the Skylight.

Unfortunately "El Grande," which supposedly runs only 85 minutes (no intermission), feels as if it will never end. It would be funnier if it were ruthlessly condensed into about five minutes. Relentlessly superficial, it continues Low Moan Spectacular's Anglo's-eye parody of Latino showbiz stereotypes, which has been around since the early '70s. Low moans and dead silence are more common than laughs.

This version supposedly brings the players into the US, apparently without papers, but it's hardly a forum for a satirical reflection on the currently hot topic of immigration. It's merely an assortment of showbiz tropes that seem hopelessly dated - especially since the departure of "Sabado Gigante" from the airwaves in September. Also, considering that the Colony has never programmed anything else in its Burbank home that's remotely "Latino," "El Grande" is perhaps the worst conceivable way to tread into that territory. On the other hand...

'Bird' deserves to fly

If anyone at large or midsize theaters is currently searching for shows in small venues that might be candidates for upward mobility, look at the US premiere of "Man Covets Bird," at 24th Street Theatre.

24th Street is no stranger to the practicalities of transferring a production to larger quarters. Its last show "Walking the Tightrope" received a brief run at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre earlier this year. I was surprised when I was more moved by it at the Douglas than I was at 24th Street. But I was even more moved by "Man Covets Bird" than I was by either version of "Walking the Tightrope."

On the children-to-adults scale where 24th Street does most of its programming nowadays, "Man Covets Bird" is ever so slightly tilted more toward an adult perspective, especially when compared with "Walking the Tightrope." In Finegan Kruckemeyer's tale of a boy who grows into adulthood with a pet bird at his side, the magical realism of the storytelling is easily accessible to (somewhat mature) children as well as adults, but the narrative devotes more time to the character as a young, somewhat alienated adult than as a boy.

Debbie Devine's staging, which expanded a solo play into a duet, is perfectly polished despite its lyrical simplicity. It includes winsomely line-drawn video by Matthew G. Hill and exquisite original music and musical direction by Leeav Sofer, who plays the bird alongside Andrew Huber as the young man. In fact, I'm not sure if "Man Covets Bird" should be eligible as an original musical or as a play at next year's Ovation Awards. But it should certainly be a contender, particularly if it receives another staging in a larger space during the remaining nine months of eligibility for the next Ovations.

Laughs galore

Because so many of the gags misfire in "El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola," let me suggest two current shows with abundant and genuine belly laughs. Try Orson Bean's solo memoir/stand-up comedy and magic act "Safe at Home," at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. Or the current Groundlings mainstage show on Melrose, "Stakeout." Or both.

October 31, 2015

Dressed for los muertos


Members of the Ballet Folklorico de Herencia Mexicana in West Covina prepped offstage Saturday at the Old Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. Since it's the day of Halloween, the dancers got made up for Dia de los Muertos. No smiling when you are honoring the day of the dead. Photographs by Judy Graeme.

folklorico-prayer-jg.jpgPraying together before taking the stage.

folklorico-spread-jg.jpgShowing the colors.

Amigas de los Muertos.

folklorico-eyes-jg.jpgLove the eyes.

October 30, 2015

'Hopscotch' is a mobile opera of LA culture

hopscotch-yuval-sharon.jpgYuval Sharon in black shirt. Below are performers in the opera. Photos by Iris Schneider.

When you or I think about the wonderful diversity of Los Angeles, the alienation of our car culture, the things we think about in solitude, the healing power of love, the muses that inspire us, the musical threads that run through our lives and the serendipity of happenstance, it might be difficult to figure out how all those random concepts might come together. But you and I are not Yuval Sharon.

Sharon thinks that all those things can indeed fall into one category: opera. And for those of us who've never quite understood opera, don't worry. Turns out you can enjoy "Hopscotch," Sharon's latest mobile opera, which takes place in cars driving across Los Angeles, without really ever fully understanding it.


"Our aim is to shift the operatic paradigm," says Sharon. "We hope that in our isolated cars, maybe, hopefully, there is some place where we can all connect. 'Hopscotch' changes the nature of opera and the nature of the spectator and the artist to create a transformed view of our everyday life. The logistics and the art-making meet in something that we hope is very harmonious."

The third opera completed through Sharon's young company called The Industry, "Hopscotch" was pulled together by an impressive array of artists, city bureaucrats, technical support, limousine drivers and community members to create a performance that is part meditation and part mystery. The only certainty is that the piece defies description. I went along for the ride, literally, and was left perplexed and transported -- no pun intended -- in equal measure.

With an ambitious and sweeping production that brings Christo to mind in its scope and bureaucratic challenges, Sharon and his merry band of artists and technocrats take each audience member on one of three totally different rides through Los Angeles via a series of limousines that transport not only the viewer but the performers. At various times on my 90-minute and 5-limousine journey I was serenaded by a troubled woman, a cellist and a handsome reader, a male and then female duo of mariachi musicians, a beat-boxing harpist, a soulful cancionera and a beautiful young woman dressed for her quinceanera who sang to us then stopped at Mariachi Plaza to borrow a book from Libros Schmibros. Needless to say, the real mariachis waiting for work in the plaza were left to wonder just what was going on as our group of four followed in her footsteps, and another set of listeners wandered the plaza wearing Sennheiser headphones that were piping in their particular piece of the story. To be honest, I was wondering too.


But once I let go of the need to know, I was struck by the uniqueness of the experience and the pleasure it brought me. The piece is a celebration of Los Angeles, as the cars thread their way through the three different routes, all within a 5-mile radius of the SciArc parking lot where the piece ends at the "Central Hub." Part of the fun is seeing the LA backdrop roll by out the car window as the scenes unfold. This aspect is central to Sharon's idea that the three main characters in the piece are Lucha, LA and the audience member. And each viewer's experience will be theirs alone.

Our journey, the Red Route, took in 8 of the 24 chapters, and began at the Breed St. Shul, stopped at the the Toy Factory lofts for a rooftop musical interlude, Hollenbeck Park, Mariachi Plaza, Evergreen Cemetery and finally the SciArc parking lot. The ending culminated within that wooden structure of the Central Hub, resembling a bullring, but it became the place where all facets of the main character Lucha's life finally came together as the whole ensemble circled and repeated snippets of their operatic arias. Eventually, the action came to an end, and perhaps not knowing what else to do, the audience erupted in applause. Sharon hopes that if you are curious enough about the linear storyline, you will visit the website or read through your program to learn about it. If not, Sharon encouraged the audience to think of the piece as 24 10-minute operas loosely based on "Orpheus and Eurydice."

In describing their goals, music director Mark Lowenstein said "It is unusual to think of this as an opera because the composer is not in the driver's seat. It is a communal production with different voices swirling together...a kaleidoscopic mosaic, telling the story of one person's life."

Sharon paraphrased a helpful quote from Kierkegaard to help understand the project: "Life can be understood looking backwards. Unfortunately, it must be lived looking forward."

The production runs weekends from October 31-November 13. In addition to the live performances, the animated versions of the show can be accessed thorough, and video of all the chapters is available and open to the public for free as space permits at the SciArc site of the Central Hub.


Rain Room at LACMA

rain-room-iris.jpgPhotos by Iris Schneider.

Rain Room has arrived. The interactive, large-scale installation that simulates the experience of continuous rainfall will open at LACMA this Sunday. Conceived by artists Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch, founders of Random International (a multi-media artists collective based in London), Rain Room was first exhibited in 2012 at London's Barbican Centre, then at New York's MOMA in 2013.

Housed within a large gallery space in the BCAM building, the artwork uses sensors to allow visitors to slowly walk through pouring rain without getting wet. "Random International uses science and technology to create artworks that aim to question and challenge human experience within a machine-led world, engaging viewers through explorations of behavior and natural phenomena," according to LACMA.

rain-room-artists.jpgAs visitors will discover, the exhibit is not without restrictions. Only 18-22 people can enter the rain at one time and a gallery visit is limited to 15 minutes. Security guards will strictly monitor the time limit (translate, help move people along when their time is up). Clothes made of dark, shiny, reflective fabric and high heels are discouraged. Advance reservations are required, and all tickets are timed and dated. No doubt LACMA will have better luck than MOMA did in managing the hordes of curious museum-goers who have heard about Rain Room's wonders. In New York, weekend visitors had to wait up to 5 hours in line for their spot in the rainfall. LACMA's ticketing system won't allow that here.

One thing the museum does encourage when visiting the exhibit is using social media, which has played a huge part in spreading Rain Room's buzz. From the visitor guidelines, "Personal photography is allowed and encouraged. Please use #rainroom or tag us @LACMA to share your photos."

Rain Room is on view at LACMA Nov 1, 2015-March 6, 2016.

Above: Artists Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch.

October 26, 2015

What becomes a legend most: Dudamel's Beethoven, 'Rite of Spring' or Twyla's dances?


Marathons, hallmarks, icons -- we've heard and seen loads of them lately. Are they the trick to boost ticket sales?

There's the one titled "Immortal Beethoven," the whole nine symphonies as showcased by Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, after which they sprang forward to that stand-alone 20th century masterpiece, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

There's Twyla Tharp venturing a tour that celebrates her 50th anniversary as a choreographer -- would you believe it's nearly half a century since her breakout "Deuce Coupe" and "Push Comes to Shove," which had the ballet world gasping in awe at the Russian defector Mikhail Baryshnikov (who barely spoke English then) physically impersonating song-and-dance man Jimmy Cagney to a tee?

And, by god, there was the mighty Mariinsky Ballet -- ah, how things change: we used to know it so memorably as the Kirov, where that heartthrob called Misha hailed from as he made headlines leaping to the West.

Celebrity then, celebrity now. It magnetizes the masses. So when a Dudamel puts on a festival of Mahler, for instance, or in this case, Beethoven, you can bet that attention will be paid, that ticket-buyers will gladly storm the boxoffice. To make the season's first flourish grand our resident maestro also brought his "other family" to the party, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and put the two brilliant bands together onstage for an opening night gala.

Maybe you can guess what they played, after some of Beethoven's rarely heard incidental music from "Egmont" and "Creatures of Prometheus." Yes, the last movement from the Ninth and last symphony that the Bonn master wrote, the one we hear in TV ads, on movie sound tracks and at every triumphant moment in recent history: at the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall with Leonard Bernstein presiding; at the free Hollywood Bowl "people's concert" seven years ago when Dudamel conducted his inaugural event as the Philharmonic's new music director.

It was thrilling this time, the "Ode to Joy" movement inside Disney Hall -- with his two orchestras galvanized by music that perhaps no other composer could breathe so much spirited, life-affirming heroism into. In fact, it's reliably irresistible -- if for no other reason than we cannot help but be swept up in its overpowering fervor for humanity. And what else puts on the finishing touch? Here, it was the LA Master Chorale, those roaring voices prepared by Grant Gershon, in a simply knockout performance.

But Beethoven had his other sensibilities, as we heard at Disney the night when the "Pastoral" Symphony showed up. It limned the gently glistening side of nature. And Dudamel coaxed so much plush pliancy from his players that he almost made us forget Giulini's hushed mist of bucolic spirituality in the slow movement. This one, some 20 years later, luxuriated in its billowy dimension -- another piece of heaven on earth.

After Beethoven's mega-ton mark on music consciousness, though, we could look to Stravinsky, a century later, for explosive effect. So in this new season Dudamel and Co. gave us none other than the "Rite of Spring" or -- as it was referred to in the good old less-xenophobic and less dumbed-down days -- "Sacre du Printemps." (The one-word headline title used to be "Sacre," then it became "Rite.")

Especially since its 100th anniversary two years ago, celebrating its Paris premiere in 1913 and the famously ensuing riot Stravinsky's blazing entry inspired, the work has had a myriad of performances -- yes, call it an icon of modern music. Every competitive orchestra has stepped up to the sweepstakes plate (not to mention many dance companies, because it was written for the Diaghilev Ballet).

Our resident band, with its starry leader, is no exception, of course. And this most recent account predictably hit the mark. In fact, this piece depicting a climactic pagan sacrifice of a young girl, seemed to have been written for its champions.

To be sure, there were the single-instrument, deep-voiced ruminations, the sharp, ear-cleaning winds, the giant full-orchestra slurs, the brazen cacophony, the nerve-shattering electricity, the unstoppably chugging propulsions, the massed harmonic stretches, even the lyric wisps rising above the left-over ravages.

Is there any wonder why Stravinsky caused riots? Or brought celebrity to modern music?

For that matter, we can also look to dance for new pathfinders. Twyla Tharp, for one. Her populist jolt to choreography astonished us with its flinty intelligence and contrapuntal complexity. So much so that it bears the same scrutiny as a neo-classic Balanchine ballet does.

Once again, this time at the Wallis Theater, she left her indelible mark in "Preludes and Fugues." It salutes Balanchine in its proprieties: the rhinestone studs, the neatly tied-up hair, the short jersey skirts and, of course, all the intimate design counterpoint.


Leave it to Tharp to connect the music, Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," Volumes I/II, to the World Trade Center, towers I and II, just after the 9/11 disaster. WTC times two. Mostly inward and reflective, these short pieces are full of feeling, expressed, in a naturally chaste manner but also nodding to human interaction. She says it represents the world as it ought to be.

Even here, though, you'll see Tharp's unique vernacularisms. Nowhere does a dance of hers escape those sly, little insertions of everyday gestures and moves we all recognize, not to mention the physical ways that people relate to each other.

But "Yowzie" is a wowzie. You can call it a rowdy circus number, with a narrative on humorously blowzy barroom types. And just as she made "Nine Sinatra Songs," with sophisticated dancers illustrating the singer's ballads and upbeat tunes, she bases this one on Jelly Roll Morton blues. Santo Loquasto's kaleidoscopic clown costumes decorate the playful doings in high color.

Then the Mariinsky put on its own wing-to-wing, extravagant show with "Cinderella," choreography by that man of the hour Alexei Ratmansky. The whole gorgeous thing rolled out on the Chandler Pavilion stage with such sweeping bravura and rigorously stylish costumes that it's hard to imagine that Russia's economy is minus four percent.

marlinsky-cinderella.jpgMarlinsky's Cinderella.

But what kept jumping up at us was Prokofiev's music -- because the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gavriel Heine was brilliantly resonant and edgily stratified, undergirding the whole performance. I didn't even mind that the composer lifted several big themes from his gold standard ballet, "Romeo and Juliet" for this one.

If, however, you were looking for libretto magic in this Ratmansky version, it was nowhere to be found. Cinderella sweeping ashes at the fireplace? A fairy godmother transforming the motherless girl's rags to a glittery gown?A glass carriage driving her to the ball? None of it.

Still, he compensated us by contemporizing the fairy tale throughout: on his search for Cinderella, for instance, the prince met up with male and female prostitutes, and the ballroom dancers were gowned in sophisticated cocktail garb; their waltz was grand but with comic social commentary.

The choreography itself was neither terribly inventive nor heart-stirring in the time-honored tradition, but full of deliberately awkward apostrophes. The mime got turned into a kind of angular sign language.

Diana Vishneva, the company star and one who globe-trots as well on her own, was singularly gorgeous to watch as this deconstructed Cinderella, partnered nobly by Konstantin Zverev.

Turning on the avant-garde heat UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance showcased Peter Sellars' staging of the "Othello" story. But he names it "Desdemona" and tells it, based on Toni Morrison writings, as a minority/underdog epic -- with the woman shown as a slave of paternalism, and the black man, even as the Shakespearean Moor of Venice, forever devalued, is primed for paranoia due to his life experience as the outsider. (Do we advance -- without tragedy -- via our salutary Obama status?)

Enacting both lead characters' voices and finding pin-drop intimacy with her mouth-to-mic technique, Tina Benko was compelling as the blonde, milky-skinned Desdemona, along with Africa's aristocratic singer/song-writer/guitarist Rokia Traoré.

October 19, 2015

Luring millennials to 'Carrie' and 'Vietgone'

carrie-1-jason-niedle.jpgGarrett Marshall and Valerie Rose Curiel in "Carrie" at the Los Angeles Theatre. Photo: Jason Niedle.

How to attract young-adult audiences to LA's professional theaters? Plenty of pondering about this subject occurs at theater conferences and in theater journals. I won't address the logistics of marketing to millennials here. But I'm welcoming two new productions that seemingly target them yet also offer lively experiences to those of us who are definitely not active members of that demographic group.

The producers of the musical "Carrie" have opened in a neighborhood where relatively well-employed millennials often congregate, downtown LA. For "Carrie," a new 499-seat theatrical space has been created in the heart of the 2,000-seat Los Angeles Theatre -- the lavish former movie palace that opened in 1931 on Broadway, just south of 6th Street.

Preservationists, don't call the cops. "Carrie" does not appear to have altered the underlying integrity of the original space. But "underlying" is the operative adjective here, because the "Carrie" production uses the original auditorium as the foundation for a temporary thrust stage, which has been designed to suggest the high school gym where the climactic scenes of "Carrie" take place.

So the audience now sits on bleachers instead of the more comfortable seats in the movie palace - but more important, most of the audience is much closer to the action than it would be if the production had tried to use the building's original proscenium stage and its 2,000 seats.

Indeed, the audience members who pay to be "seniors" - as in high school seniors, not Medicare recipients - are almost part of the action. They're seated in the front banks of bleachers, which are in sections that are pushed around the stage by cast members in order to reconfigure the playing spaces, providing additional perspectives and focus on key moments. It's probably no coincidence that this activity also offers the "seniors" with a mild sensation of what they might conceivably feel if they were suddenly affected by someone else's telekinesis, just as the characters of "Carrie" are.

Yes, telekinesis. In case you're unaware of Stephen King's first published novel and its previous screen and stage versions. Carrie is an utterly hapless high school student. Her abusive mother, a religious zealot, dominates at home, and Carrie's classmates mercilessly mock her at school. But her discovery that she possesses telekinetic powers provides her with a weapon of revenge.

Skeptics of telekinesis should temporarily suspend disbelief - which of course is an activity with which anyone who enjoys fiction in any format should be familiar. Concentrate on the empathy or at least the sympathy that most adults feel for bullied teenagers, and try to ignore the fact that telekinesis is not a reliable option for most of these human targets.

As a theatrical exclamation point, the staged telekinesis in this new version of "Carrie" creates jaw-dropping effects. And for those of us who also saw the warm-up version of Brady Schwind's staging at La Mirada Theatre earlier this year, the effects are not exactly identical. The fate of Carrie's chief tormentor is much more spectacular in the downtown version, which features flight choreography by Paul Rubin. (On the other hand, the opening-up of the space for the prom in the second act gave me more goosebumps in La Mirada, although perhaps my own reaction was colored by the fact that I saw the La Mirada version first, when I had fewer expectations.)

The showmanship of this "Carrie" isn't found only in the special effects, but also in the fiery performances of the Michael Gore/Dean Pitchford score (primarily from Emily Lopez as Carrie, Misty Cotton as her mom and Kayla Parker as her one sympathetic peer) and in Lee Martino's dynamic teen-spirit choreography.

Carrie-LosAngelesTheater.jpgWhy should this all of this appeal to millennials in particular? Because, let's face it, the closer most people are to their high school angst, the more they think about it - especially when they can reassure themselves that it's a part of their past. And if some millennials have money to spend on live concerts and clubs, as they attempt to broaden their experiences beyond cyberspace, then why wouldn't they extend that impulse to "Carrie" or similarly aimed theatrical events, especially during the Halloween season? The "Carrie" characters have been updated to the extent that they too carry their electronic devices, so what millennial wouldn't feel right at home in their company?

Of course, non-millennials also might get a kick out of "Carrie", and everyone who cares about LA theater or the vigor of the downtown after-hours scene should fervently hope for its success.

The downtown movie palaces have been preserved but largely dormant for years, but "Carrie" is using the Los Angeles Theatre for a relatively extended run of a musical - the first in the venue's history, according to the show's website. With 499 seats, the show's size is more Off-Broadway than Broadway, to use a New York comparison (although of course it is literally located on LA's Broadway). But its size is even farther from the 99-seat level, to use an LA comparison. With the end of Actors' Equity's traditional 99-seat Plan scheduled for next June, it's essential for LA producers to try to create more opportunities such as the one that "Carrie" has undertaken.

"Carrie" is seen as so significant for the health of downtown LA that the Downtown News ran an encouraging editorial about it last week, citing it as a "a theatrical canary in the coalmine. If Carrie succeeds, it will demonstrate to producers of plays, musicals and other events that large, consistent crowds will come to Broadway for the right evening entertainment. If Carrie tanks, then it may be years before someone again sinks big money into a theatrical endeavor on the street."

LA observers, your prom tickets await.

Bringing the war back home

I'm not suggesting that millennials would be interested only in "Carrie"-like amusement-park theater that reflects on their own recent rites of passage. At South Coast Repertory, Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone" uses up-to-the-minute millennial culture to tell a fictionalized version of his own parents' meeting as newly arrived refugees from the Vietnam War in an Arkansas relocation camp in 1975.

That might sound like an aesthetic stretch, but it's an extremely invigorating stretch.

vietgone-pro2.jpg<Raymond Lee, Jon Hoche and Maureen Sebastian "Vietgone" at South Coast Repertory. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR.

Nguyen wants to obliterate the "otherness" of his parents' tale in the minds of his own contemporaries. So these non-English-speaking characters don't speak broken English or even 1975-style American English. They speak in the cadences and with the vocabulary of 2015-style American millennials. And when they hear non-Vietnamese Americans speaking to them, they hear only nonsensical strings of American words and phrases.

The innovation of "Vietgone" goes far beyond the language into the narrative elements and the design of May Adrales' staging. Nguyen's plays have usually employed comic-book, video-game and hiphop techniques. East West Players presented one of those earlier plays, "Krunk Fu Battle Battle," in 2011. Its theme was much closer to "Carrie" - learning to overcome teenage bullying - than it was to that of "Vietgone." Its combination of topic and style struck me as formulaic four years ago.

In "Vietgone," however, Nguyen connects some of these same contemporary forms to a story that I never would have thought would be amenable to such a match. And he succeeds masterfully, defiantly crafting a touching immigrant story, even if it's hardly your great-grandfather's "huddled masses" saga.

Flying in the face of decades of stereotyping of Asian American characters in American media, Nguyen turns his central lovers (Raymond Lee, Maureen Sebastian) into vital, sexy, sly individuals. Their occasional moments of rap impart meaning and poignancy far more successfully than many of the rapped moments in recent American plays about native English speakers.

Nguyen also breaks up the play's chronological structure, so that we are introduced to a framing character called "the playwright" (Paco Tolson). And we concurrently track what happens at Fort Chaffey, Arkansas and what happens on a road trip that Lee's character takes in a futile attempt to return to his family in Vietnam. While this narrative structure might sound complicated, I found it relatively easy to follow inside the theater.

In terms of substance, Nguyen also allows the fullest expression that I've heard in a theater of a sentiment among some Vietnamese refugees that the American involvement in the war was, for them, not a wasted effort.

The design lifts the production into a colorful land of enchantment, which reflects what's going through the characters' minds more than it reflects their actual physical surroundings. Jared Mezocchi's projections would please any Comic Con devotee as much as they pleased me.

With much of "Vietgone" set in Arkansas, I was struck by how much more it accomplishes than the current Mark Taper Forum production that's set entirely in Arkansas, "Appropriate," by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Arriving as only the second Taper production since "Immediate Family," "Appropriate" is yet another family-reunion play that uses a stubbornly realistic and (in this case, more than in "Immediate Family") long-winded style. It looks painfully dated when compared to what Nguyen is doing in "Vietgone."

Unlike "Vietgone," "Appropriate" is not a premiere - it was produced earlier in Louisville, Chicago and New York. So it's probably too late to request an extensive rewrite, but that's exactly what would be appropriate for "Appropriate."

October 17, 2015

Cuban art coming to Los Angeles


The most diverse and widest ranging exhibit of Cuban art ever presented in Los Angeles opens Saturday night in the form of a pop-up show entitled Made in Cuba: Recycling Memory and Culture. Running through November 21, the exhibit is being held at the Arena 1 Gallery at the Santa Monica Art Studios at 3026 Airport Avenue and open every Wednesday through Saturday from noon until 6 and by appointment.
Made in Cuba is curated by Sandra Levinson, director of the Cuban Art Space in New York, the first gallery to exhibit and sell post-revolutionary Cuban art in the United States. At Levinson's initiative, a successful suit was brought against the U.S. Treasury Department in 1991 which made it legal to import and sell original Cuban art despite the U.S. trade embargo. She has traveled to Cuba more than 300 times, building strong relationships with talented artists in all fields and that is the key reason this exhibit is able to present such a comprehensive collection of contemporary Cuban artists.
Levinson has been working tirelessly to change U.S.-Cuban relations since she first went to the island in 1969. At the urging of intellectuals and activists, including photojournalist Lee Lockwood, Saul Landau and Jason Epstein of the New York Review of Books, a Center for Cuban Studies was founded in 1972 with Sandra as the executive director. At the time, she thought she would leave her teaching job for perhaps a year to establish the center in a small office in New York's Greenwich Village, just big enough to hold a library and provide a space for presenting lectures and films. However, after being open less than a year, the Center was bombed while Sandra was there, destroying much of the library and other materials. When she was asked the next day at a press conference, "Are you going to close the center now?" Levinson responded, "Absolutely not, and what's more I am not going to leave here until we have normal relations with Cuba!"

That was in 1973 and at the time, it seemed that just meant until the end of Richard Nixon's presidency, but it is a promise Levinson has kept as the director of the Center for Cuban Studies and now the Cuban Art Space. (While the U.S. and Cuba have recently reopened embassies in their respective countries, travel restrictions still apply and the economic embargo remains in effect.)

choco-piece.jpgOver the past forty years, Sandra and the center have followed the ups and downs of both U.S. and Cuban government policy, sometimes able to travel, sometimes not; sometimes able to invite artists and musicians and writers, sometimes not. But all the while, Levinson has been building a collection of Cuban art, posters and photographs that tell the story of the Cuban revolution in a way that books and speakers cannot. As Levinson explains it, "From my very first visit to Cuba, I met writers, musicians and artists and my first passion was Cuban poster art. With each visit, I would bring in film and political posters, usually 100 or more on each visit. Because of that passion, the Center now has between 4000 and 5000 posters in its collection."
Made in Cuba features a mix of internationally acclaimed artists such as
Kadir Lopez, Manuel Mendive and Choco (Eduardo Roca Salazar), as well as emerging artists such as Marlys Fuego, Carlos Cesar Roman and Mabel Poblet. Many of the pieces of art that will be shown use recycled and found materials because, as the internationally renowned Afro-Cuban artist Roberto Diago, whose art will be exhibited, explains, "During the economic crisis, we didn't have the materials you need to paint as we were taught in school, so we adapted our art to what we could find." Diago and other artists discovered that this experience in the '90s changed their art for the better and broadened their artistic vision. They began using not only new "found" materials, but also new concepts.
During its 5-week run, Made in Cuba will also feature special guests, screenings of Cuban films and book signings. More information is available from Santa Monica Art Studios 310-397-7449 or

October 5, 2015

Two mixed weeks of Shakespeare in Los Angeles

these-paper-bullets-cast-lamontot.jpgThe Quartos and friends in "These Paper Bullets." Photo: Michael Lamont.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...

I spent the last two weeks immersed in Shakespeare in Los Angeles, and authorship aside, he is nevertheless well-represented. There are currently at least three productions of Shakespearean plays and variations, each different, but united by creativity and inventiveness. Some touched my heart, others my mind. Some were more successful than others.

The three productions: "These Paper Bullets" at the Geffen, "Four Clowns Presents Hamlet" at ShakespeareLA headquarters near downtown and "Shakespeare's Last Night Out," a one-man show by Michael Shaw Fisher at Three Clubs Lounge, a charming old bar and theater in the gritty part of Hollywood, across the street from the Army/Navy store on Santa Monica and Vine hawking "Earthquake Supplies" with a sidewalk display.

Comparisons are inevitable and the productions could not be more different. At the Geffen, billed as a "modish ripoff of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing," "These Paper Bullets" is a full-on big money production with nineteen actors, music by Billy Joe Armstrong of "American Idiot" and Green Day fame and a set that nearly busts the boundaries of the Geffen's stage. The story, written by Rolin Jones, and directed by Jackson Gay, is set in mod-60's London. It centers around a boy band, The Quartos, punctuated by Armstrong's music which was deftly composed to be spot-on evocations of the Beatles' tunes. There are willing groupies, some star-crossed lovers, great costumes, for some odd reason a pair of bumbling police officers and plenty of sex and randy humor. While a lively romp played by a talented cast, I cared a lot more for John, Paul, George and Ringo in my youth than I did for the boy band onstage the other night. All the feather boas and miniskirts, nehru jackets and Beatles bobs did entertain, but beyond the great production, it left me cold and I felt the humor didn't really work. The production runs through October 18 at the Geffen.

shakesperes-last-night-out.jpgMuch more compelling despite its barebones production--a table and chair, one actor, one costume, a feather and a few lanterns--was Michael Shaw Fisher, who wrote and performed "Shakespeare's Last Night Out." The piece, played in a tiny theater (to under ten audience members on the night I was there) tells not only the story of what may have been William Shakespeare's last night, but his entire history, from his humble childhood as the son of a glover, through his play-writing years, with nods to his questionable authorship and details on the hows and whys of many of the plays he wrote. There is historical and personal background, with songs composed and artfully sung by Fisher. Indeed, it was an impressive performance, one that kept the audience totally engaged for the full 75-minute piece. I felt like even if I were the only person in the theater, Shaw would have played it no differently, giving it all he had, playing Shakespeare with humor, heart and honor. The play, which won several awards at the Hollywood Fringe Festival of 2015, including Best Solo Performance, will be playing Fridays and Sundays through November 1.

"Four Clowns Presents Hamlet" was also impressive in its way, making up for a tiny budget with creativity, ingenuity and talent. The company, trained in the movement of clowning, used their adept physicality in the production to find the humor in the usually tragic tale, and the set and costumes (by Alexandra Giron and Elena Flores) imaginatively embellished the talents of the actors.

4-clowns-present-hamlet.jpgCast of "Four Clowns Presents Hamlet."

Hamlet, played with relentless lunacy by Andrew Eiden, was ably aided by Joe DeSoto as Laertes, Tyler Bremer and Dave Honigman as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Charlotte Chanler as a dotty Gertrude and Corey Johnson as the devious Claudius. Productions like these astound with their ability to create a world out of a few yards of fabric, a crown and a sword. Turner Munch adapted and directed the play, shortening the dialogue and using movement, humor and skill to speak where words did not. It was a delightful production, and a reminder that while much goes into making a great evening of theater, big budgets don't always mark the heights a production can attain. The production runs Friday and Saturday nights through October 10.

September 28, 2015

Real women of east LA are in the Palisades and Pasadena

Center Theatre Group, which continues to call itself "L.A.'s Theatre Company," also continues to demonstrate virtually no interest in LA stories.

When CTG recently announced the next Mark Taper Forum season, after previously revealing new seasons for the coming year at CTG's Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters, I began counting. So, how many of the 14 CTG productions at these three venues are set in or near LA?


That's one less than the number of LA-set shows that were on the CTG radar a year ago, when I last conducted my annual search of CTG seasons for LA content. Back then I could at least report that CTG was scheduled to revive Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine," which indeed opened at the Douglas in February.

Two years ago, my survey reported that LA was about to offer three solo shows that were at least partially set in LA and environs. Although solo shows aren't as ambitious as larger productions, at least these three solos and "Chavez Ravine" presented slivers of evidence that occasionally CTG was trying to distinguish itself from dozens of other nonprofit theaters throughout the United States by taking advantage of its location in one of the world's most diverse and dramatic cities.

No such slivers of local interest await CTG audiences during the next year.

Fortunately, two of the area's other larger theaters are currently compensating, in part, for CTG's apathy toward its home town with productions that, coincidentally, both focus on garment workers in east LA.

mojadaimage11hi_6326_3603_low.jpgThe newer and more exciting of these two plays is "Mojada, A Medea in Los Angeles," by Luis Alfaro, who actually began his group of plays that transform Greek tragedies into LA settings at CTG's Mark Taper Forum. There, his "Electricidad," based on the story of Electra, was introduced in 2005 as part of the final Taper season that was assembled by the theater company's founder Gordon Davidson.

Davidson's successor as CTG's artistic director, Michael Ritchie, apparently doesn't share his predecessor's interest in Los Angeles. Furthermore, he eliminated Alfaro's play-development job at CTG shortly after he arrived. So it wasn't surprising when the second of Alfaro's LA-set Greek plays, "Oedipus El Rey," was introduced to LA in 2010 not by CTG but at the much smaller Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.

Boston Court is also producing Alfaro's "Mojada," but this time it's at the 13,000-square-feet, 450-seat Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, not at the Boston Court's 99-seat home in Pasadena. It's the first LA home for Alfaro's Greek plays that looks Greek.

However, the play itself is closer to contemporary LA than to ancient Greece. Alfaro's program note discusses the special attraction of Greek tragedies but then rhapsodizes even more fervently about his love of LA and its possibilities.

As the title "Mojada" indicates, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) is a veteran of an illegal border crossing. She was accompanied by her lover Hason (Justin Huen) and their young son, but the unforeseen twists and turns of their entrance into the US were more traumatic for Medea than for Hason or their son. So she has retreated into the front yard of their new apartment, where she does her sewing for hire, while Hason has ventured more deeply into the culture of the new country, obtaining a job with an ambitious real estate developer (Marlene Forte).

Alfaro manages to humanize the ancient tale and to infuse a few doses of humor (Vivis, playing a one-woman Greek chorus, helps with the humor). But he also preserves most of its fundamentals -- including its nightmarish ending, which is much more comprehensible on a psychological level than it seems in most of the traditional productions of "Medea" that I've seen.

Boston Court's Jessica Kubzansky marshals a formidable cast. Some of these actors could constitute the core of a rep company because of their previous appearances in Alfaro's Greek plays; Huen played Orestes and then Oedipus in Alfaro's earlier plays before tackling Hason.

I hope CTG is keeping tabs on what happened to the phenomenon it started with the first LA production of "Electricidad". CTG could create a great gift to the city if it could find the resources and the will to produce all three of these plays in concurrent rep, before these actors outgrow their parts.

Pasadena Playhouse also ventures into east LA sewing circles with a revival (and the first LA production above the small-theater level) of Josefina Lopez's play "Real Women Have Curves," which is better known in its 2002 award-winning film version.


The play preceded the movie. It was produced by a San Francisco company in 1990, by San Diego Repertory Theatre in 1994 and at the tiny and now-defunct Glaxa Studios on Sunset Boulevard in 1998. Lopez's own Casa 0101 produced it in 2011.

"Real Women" is audience-friendly, in the style of a lively workplace sitcom - but one in which the boss herself is undocumented and in which the sweltering women start taking off their clothes in a feel-good act of defiance against the tyranny of thin-is-beautiful stereotypes. There is never much doubt that the women's camaraderie will overcome any differences among them or that the ending will be happy. The dramatic power of "Mojada" is missing. But "Real Women" certainly has currency, as immigration once again dominates much of the political debate in the current election cycle.

Pasadena Playhouse, which had largely defined diversity in stark black and white terms (literally so in "Twelve Angry Men" just two years ago), has been broadening that definition recently -- to Asian and Asian-Americans in "Waterfall" and "Stop Kiss" and now to Latinas in "Real Women Have Curves." Seema Sueko, the relatively new associate artistic director who seems to be spearheading this effort, is the director of "Real Women".

And at The Wallis

Last week brought the announcement of the first "artistic director" of the Wallis - the LA area's most promising new midsize theater/dance/music venue, located in a posh corner of Beverly Hills. The new head honcho is Paul Crewes, who currently runs Kneehigh, the British theater company that brought "Brief Encounter" to the Wallis and "Tristan & Yseult" to South Coast Rep. I was glad to hear that the top job would go to a theater specialist.

But I also wondered whether the search had included an exhaustive examination of potential candidates who already live in LA and know the local players. Or did the searchers instead operate on the dubious assumption that the job should ideally go to someone from England or New York?

Then I read this quote from Crewes within the official announcement: "We will create and program innovative work made for and created by people within this community. We will also inspire artists both nationally and internationally to make and present their work at The Wallis."

That first sentence is promising, and we should hold Crewes to his promise.

It's tempting for companies such as the Wallis and Santa Monica College's Broad Stage simply to import art from distant cities (Broad Stage's new artistic and executive director Wiley Hausam comes from Stanford Live, which is primarily a presenting organization. Of course, for whatever it's worth, both Stanford Live and Broad Stage are associated with colleges, unlike the more independent Wallis).

Still, any theater with ambitions of greatness -- especially one in a city with as many theatrical artists as LA -- should also work with local pros to create homemade art, some of which eventually might be exported to other cities. The Wallis succeeded in this endeavor this year with Deaf West's "Spring Awakening," which is currently opening on Broadway. With CTG appearing increasingly uninterested in LA-developed or LA-set programming, let's hope the Wallis can join the efforts by other theaters to fill the gap.

September 27, 2015

Move over, Fellini. Woody is here again


Yes, believe it. Seven years ago Woody Allen came to LA Opera, drawn to the offer of directing Puccini's comedy, "Gianni Schicchi" --which is just the kind of Italian family squabble-fest Fellini might have gotten his hands on.

You know the story: an old patriarch dies and everyone is squeezing in the door conniving for an inheritance.

But back then we were still reveling in the company's 2002 incarnation of this endearing little household farce, courtesy of William Friedkin, and many of us saw no reason for a change-up production.

Here's a confession, though: the Woody treatment is eminently lovable. While it may not dance and tumble and bounce in lyric glee as Friedkin's did, we can see the "Amarcord" fist-waving and ranting, all of it animated with a core of internecine affection. By god, there's even a thin, little boy (Woody?) practicing gun-play.

And now that we've been indoctrinated by the silent film look with Barrie Kosky's ingenious "Magic Flute," another glimpse of this "Gianni Schicchi" (Johnny Skee-kee) is terrifically rewarding.

In fact, you can run downtown through Oct. 3 to see for yourself. And if you come away with a musical brainworm, blame Puccini -- because the composer threaded a delectable leitmotif throughout his one-act opera.

Hyper-seductive, it's a lilting six-note figure that scoops you up with a sweetness the world hardly knows anymore. It begins as the curtain opens and resounds in episode after episode, orchestrated as through-composed opera.

placido-domingo-Schicchi.jpgAs to that brainworm: It was Oliver Sacks' definition of "an exquisitely sensitive auditory system," one that operates on its own and comes up, unbidden, to transmit melodies to the turntable in the mind. And for those so-endowed (as he was) -- it cannot be denied here. Just try losing the tune fragment in your head after an encounter with this "Schicchi." And for that benefit we can thank conductor Grant Gershon, who emboldened it at every turn. He also drew a rollicking excitement from the orchestra and a sense of forward momentum from the cast.

Heading that cast, in the company's 30th anniversary season, was Plácido Domingo, always on hand to add celebrity glamour to these gala occasions. His Gianni Schicchi, outfitted in Santo Loquasto's Mafioso pinstripe zoot suit and white spats, had the look of a suave Don, exuding off-handed authority.

After all, this guy is expected to fix the problem: namely get the dead man's will changed so his family, and not the monastery, can lay claim to all assets. Domingo is a particularly good fit because the staging here is not buffa, (ital.) not antic, as in old Rossini operas, but contemporary, as in Italian movie comedies. Besides, the 74-year-old singing actor is no Zero Mostel -- dramatic roles have always been, through the decades, his forte.

But ah, he can still belt out those ringing high notes and insure a solid vocal presence, even if his newly inhabited baritone range lacks a consistently rounded tone.

Other cast notables include Arturo Chacón-Cruz, that handsome young tenor whose voice gets more tenderly appealing and ear-caressing in it freshness each time we hear him (any day now he, too, will be wooed away by the Met). As Rinuccio, he's one half of the romantic duo, longing to marry Lauretta, whose Big Tune, "O mio babbino caro" carries Andriana Chuchman to her predictably big applause. But no one outdoes Meredith Arwady, a superb Zita whose booming (nearly) baritone voice, defines the battle-axe Italian mother, clamoring for her inheritance, mainly the house, but is ambushed by Schicchi who "wills" it to himself and thus provides a dowry for his daughter so that she can marry Rinuccio, Zita's son -- and all can end happily!

Allen himself, who was not here to oversee this revival of his 2008 staging, commented back then "I have no idea what I am doing, but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm." Modest words that belie the result.

Meanwhile Kathleen Smith Belcher followed through on most of the production notes, albeit with a slight softening. Yes, Allen's unique sight gags are there: the over-cooked spaghetti strands that the will-reader flings off of pages and yes, Allen's hilarious screen credits, in old-timey motif -- "Vittorio Fellatio," "Vitello Salmonella," etc. Everywhere are marks of his lively comic imagination and, of course, character nuances abound.

The opposite is true of the other one-act opera on the bill's second half, "Pagliacci." Here, in Zeffirelli's 1996 production that screams grand spectacle, we have a kind of jack-in-the-box opera staging that brings audiences to their feet on cue. They applaud the scenery, they spring up when the tenor cries in tragic heartbreak at the end. And it all seems so programmed.

Clearly Zeffirelli doesn't help, what with his outdated one-big-size-fits-all, strategy. (Remember he's the one who aggrandized that most intimate of operas, "Traviata.") And here, with Domingo now in the orchestra pit, presiding valiantly over stage and band, the curtain opens on a glittery, Technicolor, town square, where the vaudevillians -- acrobats, unicyclists, clowns of course -- roll out before what looks like 500 villagers with confetti raining down on the whole shebang. (It's really only 135 bodies cavorting at once.)

What he gives us is circus maximus. Occupants from dwelling units that rise three stories high look down on the motley crew milling about -- hookers in leather shorts and thigh-high boots, toughs with mohawks, roller-bladers and a menagerie of sideshow sensationalists, including a 6'2" skinny transy in a blonde wig and bare midriff strutting on platform heels.

Well, you can imagine that much else of what happens in Leoncavallo's little tear-jerker is incidental in Zeffirelli's hands. Let other directors draw us into the "La Strada"-like verismo opera, its titled sad clown enraged by his pretty wife's infidelity to the point of homicide. He will have none of it. And come to think of it while we're still seeing this old thing trotted out onstage the Met has dumped it in favor of a lean modern treatment. The pendulum swings.

But the cast carried out its assignments with passionate resolve. Marco Berti as Canio powered his famously tragic laugh-clown-laugh aria ("Vesti la giubba") with all the right heft, capped off by heavy sobs; Ana Maria Martinez, as Nedda, sang with a silvery loveliness that matched the lyric tones of Liam Bonner as a Silvio of her dreams and George Gagnidze delivered a villainous-sounding Tonio.

A reminder of a "Pagliacci" past: Angela Gheorghiu, who sang Nedda here a few years ago, just slipped into town for a recital at the Broad Stage. Still boasting a glorious voice, she got into it brilliantly after the first 20 minutes (prior to that the Romanian soprano seemed discomfited and had difficulty warming up and kept her eyes fastened on her music stand much of the time).

Finally she did deliver her ravishingly lush vocalism and even showed us why the recital format is unique: it affords songs meant to be intimately scaled down -- the way a powerful camera lens can reveal tiny beads of perspiration on an upper lip, for example. Gorgeous to hear, both as sound and meaning. Let recital artists live forever.

If only the singer had not stretched all shape and contour from show-off arias to a nearly unrecognizable state -- as she did in "Depuis le jour" -- which piano accompanist Jeff Cohen obediently abetted.

September 21, 2015

Neutra, Schindler and a fluke of fate

neutra-schindler-ucsb.jpgSchindler and Neutra at Kings Road house in 1925. Courtesy of the Architecture and Design Collection, Art Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara.

Master modernist architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler had been estranged for more than 20 years when they found themselves sharing a hospital room in Hollywood in 1953. Playwright Tom Lazarus imagines what happened next in "The Princes of Kings Road," an Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA world premiere running through Oct. 4 at the Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake. Lazarus talked with LA Observed about Schindler and Neutra's complex relationship and the fluke of fate that reunited them. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

'So brilliant and yet so different'

princes-production.jpgLazarus says the two men met while in college in pre-World War I Vienna and then ended up together again in Southern California, where each would gain fame for his innovative designs. For five years, they worked and lived, along with their families, in Schindler's landmark Kings Road house in West Hollywood. By the time the Neutras left in 1930, the once-close friends had become bitter rivals.

"Schindler and Neutra were geniuses, so brilliant and yet so different. Schindler was an inspirational architect, an artist's architect. Neutra was an engineer's architect."

"They were absolutely different personally as well. Schindler was a rogue. His wife, Pauline, was a radical feminist." The couple's home, which had been built as an experiment in communal living, was the scene of "an avant-garde had John Cage, Anna Freud, Balinese dancers dancing to gamelan gongs. Also, Pauline believed in free love and Schindler took advantage of that."

"Neutra and his wife, Dione, on the other hand, were very conservative, not adventuresome. So it was like oil and water. And yet these guys created great things together. And all the passion of their friendship and their break-up plays out in that hospital room."

The Kings Road house designed by Rudolph Schindler / Courtesy of EST/LA

What drove them apart?

"People believe there are three big reasons for their estrangement. I'm not going to tell you what they are because that's what the body of the play is about. But what interested me was that after all this time they have a chance to let it out, to accuse, to defend, to voice the things they never got to voice because they broke up and were gone. Here, they are stuck in their beds and they have to deal with all the emotion and the baggage. It's dramatic, but it's also funny. Life is, you know, it's tragedy and it's comedy. Lines blur."

'No one really knows what happened'

Schindler, dying of cancer, was already at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital when Neutra was wheeled in, recovering from a heart attack. "No one really knows what happened in that room. We do know that the door was closed, there was German spoken and there was laughter. The rest is what I have imagined based on their history. This is an educated, researched guess."

Venue 'a wonderful gift'

Neutra's son Dion attended a public reading of "Princes" earlier this year. "Afterward," says Lazarus, "he told me, 'It's amazing how right you got it.'" He also offered the institute building as a performance venue. "It's a wonderful gift, to be in a Neutra-designed space. We have been able to tap into the institute's files, too, and are using period black-and-white photos of all the great architecture in the play and of Pauline and Dione. A tape of Dione playing the cello is the soundtrack."

As for the Schindlers, says Lazarus, "We have been in touch with the MAK Center, the Schindler headquarters now at the Kings Road house. They have an ad in our program. They are aware of our show and we are aware of their show [the current exhibition 'R.M. Schindler, the Prequel']."

How it all began

Tom Lazarus.jpgLazarus, a veteran film and television writer and director and an architecture fan, was inspired by a documentary about photographer Julius Shulman that mentioned Schindler and Neutra's friendship, falling-out and improbable reunion. Lazarus is directing "Princes," which he has worked on for two years. He developed the play with Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA as a member of its Playwrights Unit.

Photo at right: Tom Lazarus / Courtesy of EST/LA

'This is not a memory piece'

A story about two old guys in the hospital?

"The danger here was to do 'Hey, remember when?' But this is not a memory piece. The drama is in the room. It comes with all the heat of the accusations, 23 years of pent-up anger, Schindler feeling totally screwed over and Neutra not taking it sitting down. They finally get to deal with it and, hopefully, move passed it. They also have to deal with their mortality." (In 1953, both men were in their 60s. Schindler died that year, Neutra in 1970.) "They have to deal with their past and with what they thought their future would be."

"The Princes of Kings Road" is presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA with Dion Neutra and the Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake.

Top color photo: Ray Xifo, left, as Neutra and John Nielsen as Schindler in "The Princes of Kings Road" / Courtesy of EST/LA

September 13, 2015

But is it art? Does it matter?

A Dependent Lois Lambert Gallery17 9-15 - Copy.JPG

If you can tolerate the clustersuck that describes the traffic whenever there's an art opening at the at Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica, your sense of whimsy -- and horror -- will be gratified if the showing is at the Lois Lambert Gallery.

At last night's event, visitors were treated to goofy mechanized sculptures in the exhibit space, as well as the usual creative constructs in the gallery's functional art room.

Untitled Lois Lambert Gallery19 9-15 - Copy.JPG Jim Jenkins considered naming his wall-mounted sculpture "It's All About Me," but finally settled on "A Dependent" for the title of this rotating set of demands (feed me, love me, pet me, keep me, hold me), inspired by -- what else? -- a cat.

The unnamed wall lamp thingie by Dan Quick has moved these ladies from their more recognizable home on the mudflaps of good 'ol boy trucks into a neon ring within which they circle endlessly. The room also features metallic brains depicted as spinning gears, and standalone couples literally having mechanical sex (it must be noted that she was doing all the work).

But for my money (if I had any), the real action unfolds in the functional art room, where $14,000 buys you a Jar Chair by Johnny Swing that's more comfortable than it looks, and the matching, sorta, Jardelier for a mere $4,500. A more affordable lighting option catering to the frat-boy market is the Mr. P lamp ($120).

Jar Chair Lois Lambert Gallery25 9-15 - Copy.JPGMr. P Lamp Lois Lambert Gallery7 9-15 - Copy.JPG

If sorority girls offer crudités on the festive, mass-produced trays bearing the image of two fashionably gloved women and the message "We go together like drunk and disorderly" ($15.50), pledge rejects can serve their revenge, hot or cold, on vintage plates ($35 to $150) repurposed by Angela Rossi, who must be the spawn of Wes Craven and Salvador Dali.

Lois Lambert Gallery9 9-15 - Copy.JPG

If you like Cyclops guarding your toast points, you probably would like the "Canary Suicides" constructions around the corner by Catherine Coan, little dioramas in which a tidy Victorian bedroom is disrupted only by the dead bird lying feet up between the satin-pillowed bed and the armoire.

Canary Suicides Lois Lambert Gallery5 9-15 - Copy.JPG

I don't know how this passion play is considered functional, and I don't want to. Some truly beautiful sculptures accessorize this space, like the "Baule Colonial Figures" from the Ivory Coast ($450), and the trompe l'oeil shoes that look like suede but are made of cement. For only $120, think of the conversational potential in owning a pair of cement shoes made by an Italian.

Baule Colonial Figures Ivory Coast LLGallery6 9-15 - Copy.JPGShoes LL Gallery11 9-15 - Copy.JPG

I wish my house (and budget) were big enough for furnishings like the woven-rubber baskets, paper-thin bowls made of paper and wine cork coasters you find in abundance here. I like art that puts the fun in functional, and if a dead canary is more disturbing than delightful, well, at least you never have to change the paper in the bottom of the cage.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

September 5, 2015

The 'Fences' that led to "Riot/Rebellion' in Watts

riot-rebellion-1.jpgTop two photos: Riot/Rebellion at the Mafundi Institute.

Watts Village Theater Company is observing the 50th anniversary of its community's most famous historical moment with "Riot/Rebellion," an ensemble-driven documentary-style production.

So far this summer, the production could be seen only in Watts. In August it played the Mafundi Institute on 103rd Street. And on Sept. 11-13, it will migrate a few blocks to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) headquarters on South Central.

Then, for one week in September, it will move to Los Angeles Theatre Center's 320-seat Theatre 3 in the heart of downtown LA, in association with Latino Theater Company (September 24, 25, 26, plus excerpts from it in a Sept. 22 event).

I saw it last weekend at the Mafundi, where it was presented in a makeshift configuration in the middle of a gym, with limited audience seating in folding chairs. Still, the venue provided intimacy, as well as room for a fluid, immersive staging by Deena Selenow. The six-member cast displays propulsive energy and sharp precision, with each actor playing many roles.

The Mafundi location also allowed those of us who seldom go to Watts to contrast the turbulence that's depicted in the production with the calm that appeared to prevail in the leafy streets of Watts, at least on this particular Sunday afternoon. But obviously the primary rationale for the Mafundi and WCCAC performances are that they're more immediately accessible to the residents of Watts than those at LATC or any other venue.


However, the transfer to LATC will have its own advantages. Besides whatever aesthetic edge might emerge from the use of a professional stage with sharply raked seating (and therefore unobstructed sight lines), a run at LATC clearly acknowledges the fact that the events recalled from 1965 weren't important only in one small corner of LA. They became a landmark in the histories of Los Angeles and the United States. Also, considering that the majority of the current Watts population is Latino, it makes sense for the production to be presented under the auspices of the city's primary Latino-oriented theater company.

Donald Jolly's script, assembled from many real-life sources as a nod toward the "docu" in the blended word "docudrama", succeeds in steering us through a panoramic look at what happened and why. It respects the ambiguity of the events, offering three different interpretations of the confrontation that sparked the riots/rebellion.

Although none of the actors are from Watts and most of them look as if they weren't even born in 1965, their contemporaneity helps connect what happened back then to what has happened in many other confrontations between police and drivers and other citizens during the past year.

The production also honors the "drama" part of "docudrama." Look at Lena Sands' occasionally whimsical costumes - especially those for the three men who keep appearing in the different interpretations of the initial incident - and all the quick-stepping movement to sound tracks of the era.

Ending after little more than an hour, with no intermission, "Riot/Rebellion" uses a wide-angle lens more often than a zoom. Some of the specific personalities in the production are vivid enough that they could warrant a bit more time than they get.

However, if you crave a little more depth after seeing "Riot/Rebellion," a satisfying remedy isn't too far away - the revival of August Wilson's "Fences" at International City Theatre in Long Beach, through Sept. 13.

Actually, for chronological coherence, it would be better to see "Fences" first. It's set in Pittsburgh in the late '50s (with a final scene in 1965), not LA in the '60s. By focusing on one family and allowing a longer running time, it more deeply explores the restrictions on the era's African Americans and their subsequent resentments. This tension then found release in the '60s - not only in the violence of Watts but also in the civil rights legislation that was happening concurrently. "Fences" helps clarify why the events of "Riot/Rebellion" happened.


In Gregg T. Daniel's staging of "Fences," Michael Shepperd is a powerhouse as Troy Maxson, the former Negro Leagues baseball player whose primary professional ambition now is to rise up the garbage collection ranks - from collector to driver. Shepperd, who is perhaps better known as one of the artistic directors of Celebration Theatre, is almost exactly the same age as Troy is at the beginning of the play, and he brings remarkable vitality to every facet of Troy's towering but troubled personality. As Troy's wife, Karole Foreman is a formidable match.


I appreciate the fact that "Riot/Rebellion" was produced in the same neighborhood where it's set, so I probably should note that "Café Society," a rental production at the Odyssey Theatre, is also explicitly set in its own neighborhood. It takes place in a Starbucks that's described as being located on Pico near Sawtelle, which wouldn't be far from the Odyssey in West LA. But this is no docudrama - there is no Starbucks on Pico near Sawtelle. However, the coffee empire does have an outpost even closer to the Odyssey, near Olympic and Sawtelle.

cafe-society-ed-krieger.jpgOf course the setting of "Café Society" in a Starbucks somewhat contradicts any sense that this is a neighborhood-specific production. Starbucks branches don't display a lot of variety. Part of the chain's success is surely due to the ability of a Starbucks fan to spot the familiar green and black mermaid logo at a new location and automatically assume that it signals the familiar comforts of any other Starbucks.

In the play, one customer laments that Starbucks took over this location from a tropical fish store - a more distinctive business than any particular Starbucks. But then another customer blithely Googles nearby tropical fish stores and finds another one, not too far away.

Playwright Peter Lefcourt is actually more interested in depicting a collection of rather stereotyped West Siders than he is in making a point about Starbucks. And so we get an amusingly aspiring actress, a hot-to-trot screenwriter, a real estate broker, a libertarian-minded money manager, the minimum-wage-paid barista, a cross-dressing man who imagines that he's a Russian countess and a mysterious young man with a chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, whoever owned the tropical fish store never shows up - that person might have added a more original perspective to the mix.

In a program note, Lefcourt emphasizes that these people in a café hardly form much of a society, because they're wrapped up in responding to their personal electronic equipment. Sometimes we see their incoming and outgoing texts on a screen. But in fact, they talk to each other more than those in a normal Starbucks, even before they're all forcefully drawn together by a common emergency. I won't reveal the nature of that emergency here, but I will say that Lefcourt has nothing that's truly surprising or revealing up his sleeve.


Recently I've seen two plays in which men who lead institutions bring in younger men as potential replacements in the first act, only to see the chosen ones begin to question whether they want to play the game in the second act.

One of these plays, "Patterns," is James Reach's stage adaptation of a 1955 Rod Serling teleplay (which Serling himself also adapted into a feature film). It's a behind-the-scenes look at a New York firm that recruits a promising exec from a smaller company, without informing him that the goal is for him to replace the second-in-command old-timer.

I saw Jules Aaron's staging for Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills too late in its run; it has now closed. But it was richly involving. Although many aspects of big-business culture have certainly changed since 1955, office politics has hardly disappeared - it might even be more brutal now than it was in the days of generous fringe benefits. "Patterns" should be revived in a higher-profile production.

gods-man-in-texas.jpgDavid Rambo, who already experienced high-profile productions of his breakthrough play "God's Man in Texas," has now rented the tiny Blank Theatre in Hollywood in order to direct his own revival of it. The scenario is similar to that of "Patterns." The search committee in a Baptist mega-church/media center/college/school has begun to look for the eventual replacement for the 81-year-old founding pastor. A younger pastor gets the nod only to have serious second thoughts, as he soon finds that the old lion is unwilling to share his lair.

First produced in 1999, "God's Man in Texas" remains a potent examination of power plays behind the altar. It's still refreshing in its concentration on such universal phenomena as aging, ambition, and personality clashes, instead of suggesting the more titillating but too-easy targets of financial and sexual misbehavior.

From what we hear, the church where the play occurs is enormous - in fact, you might find yourself wondering why there aren't one or two associate pastors already waiting in the wings. But by writing parts for only three characters, Rambo made it easier for his play to be produced in venues as small as the Blank, in addition to stages as large as those at the Old Globe and the Geffen, where I saw earlier productions. The audience at the Blank is virtually face to face with these well-intentioned but very human beings.

I love Friday night jazz at LACMA

Photos by Iris Schneider.

I love Friday night jazz at LACMA, almost as much for the spectacle as for the music. The free event, which runs through November, has grown in popularity over its 20 years in existence. It is a cultural happening, a party, a picnic and a celebration of what is great about LA. It's one of those events that just puts everyone in a great mood and we need that more than ever right now.

This Friday hundreds turned out to listen to jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell and his big band. Every inch of grass and concrete was taken up by picnickers who brought blankets, beach chairs and an array of dining options, many getting there way ahead of the 6 p.m. start time to snag a space to sit. The crowd represents LA in all its diverse glory, and the dress code varies from beachwear to bistro. Some of these folks just ooze style, making the event a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.


There are areas designated for dancing, and LACMA provides two sections of seating which fill up fast. Situated in the courtyard in front of Chris Burden's Urban Light, you get the added pleasure of watching what happens as the sun goes down and day turns to night. Burrell received the L.A. Jazz Treasure Award from LACMA and the LA Jazz Society for his lengthy career and contributions to the jazz scene. He has played with many of the greats including Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson and Lena Horne, and made his debut in 1951 with Dizzy Gillespie.

Leading the band with an ease that comes from years of experience, Burrell was a joy to watch. There is something magical witnessing the pleasure these musicians take in playing together. Beyond that, the sound was thrilling, the weather was welcoming and the crowd so appreciative. A perfect Los Angeles night.




September 2, 2015

Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'

olive-frances.jpgFrances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge. HBO. Photo of Eagan below courtesy of FIDM.

It's one of those blistering hot August days in the Valley but Jenny Eagan is the picture of cool, calm and collected. The Emmy-nominated costume designer is, for the moment, headquartered at Western Costume in North Hollywood, where she is prepping for a new project in a large air conditioned trailer on the grounds of the Los Angeles institution. There is nothing glamorous about the utilitarian space — just a few desks for Eagan and her assistants on one side of the room and multiple racks of clothes on the other. She has allowed me to interrupt a very busy day of fittings to chat about working on "Olive Kitteridge," the 2014 HBO mini-series that has brought Eagan her first nod from the television academy.

Coincidentally, Eagan had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout (on which the mini-series is based) a year before getting the job. "Olive" is set in a small town in Maine and spans several decades, starting in 1980. The lead character, played by Frances McDormand, is a math teacher, wife and mother. She is frumpish, irascible and possibly one of the most complex characters McDormand has ever portrayed.The cast includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and John Gallagher Jr.

Jenny portrait.jpgMcDormand acquired the rights to the book shortly after publication and spent about six years developing it for television. In addition to starring, she served as a producer. "Frances and I met very early on," said Eagan (right). "I knew her from previous projects so we had a comfortable relationship. She already had a pretty strong sense of who Olive was." She acknowledged that arriving at a specific look was a process. She researched the silhouette of the period and clothing typical of the region, even looking at yearbooks from the area where Olive would have lived and taught. "I started sending Fran things I thought would represent the character. It's important to get the look and color palette of the lead character done, and then everything on the outside sort of grows."

Eagan and McDormand eventually decided that Olive would only wear skirts (because maybe that's what HER mother did) and would most likely make a lot of her own clothes. That bit of character development plays out when Olive makes a dress to wear to her son's wedding. "That was the first costume we really hit on," says Eagan. "We wanted to give it a dated look and purposely made it a little ill fitting — maybe her bra strap shows a little — that's so Olive."

Another issue was weight. "In the book, Olive is much larger," says Eagan. After a lot of discussion, the decision was made for McDormand to gain about 20 pounds over the course of the series by gradually adding padding. For Eagan, the toughest challenge was "getting Frances to a place where she could look at herself and say, 'this is her,' because she'd been envisioning this character for so long. This was a pressure I put on myself-just wanting her to look and say 'this is what I always hoped for'. I hope I accomplished that."

Growing up in Independence, Mo. Eagan developed an early interest in clothes and fashion and she recalls sewing lessons with her grandmother. After studying merchandising and textiles in college, she made her way to California in the mid-90's. By 1997 she was in Los Angeles. A job in film production connected her to highly respected costume designer Mary Zophres, for whom she worked as an assistant for 13 years. She considers Zophres to be "100% my mentor." The films they worked on include "Catch Me If You Can," "True Grit," "The Soloist," and "Iron Man 2." She went on her own in 2010 with a Mark Wahlberg film, "Contraband." "It was a great first film where I got my sea legs handling a crew and delegating the work," Eagan said. "In the beginning there's the anxiety of whether I could even pull this off. I still get nervous, especially working with a new director or show runner and you're not sure if all the personalities will click. Years of experience help you become more relaxed — you think, OK, it's gonna be fine — we're just shooting a movie here!"

While Eagan has no qualms about dressing the entire cast of a movie, dressing herself for the red carpet is another matter. On the day we talked she still hadn't decided what to wear to the Emmy ceremony. "I'm a procrastinator when it comes to things for myself," she said. She has to be her own stylist and tries to wear vintage whenever possible. She also doesn't usually have the time to properly hunt for the perfect outfit saying, "I hate it, it really stresses me out! My mother's like, 'what are you doing? Get yourself a dress!"

The Creative Arts Emmys ceremony will take place on Sept.12 at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live.

Jenny's "Olive Kitteridge" costumes can be viewed at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles through Sept 26.

olive-couple.jpgMcDormand and Richard Jenkins. HBO.

August 30, 2015

These summer nights at Hollywood Bowl

If you're thinking that nearly all city roads lead to Hollywood Bowl for summertime symphonic music, you're right. And especially in these long, hot, dog days.

Every July to September the LA Philharmonic decamps from Disney Hall to the mammoth showplace up Cahuenga Pass where alfresco pleasures abound, where picnickers delight amid the newly landscaped random spots for spreading their feasts and where trendy food services are at their elbow granting every culinary wish.

mirga-square.jpgCall it a summertime monopoly, this amphitheater (capacity 18,000), this lure to a mass demographic for almost any music an orchestra might play. No it's not an oasis for elites -- many attendees have never set foot in a concert hall.

So call it the people's place. And these days, it's highlighted by ever-present screens catching the music-making onstage. Yes, jumbotrons or giant videos are stationed at all levels from boxes to benches -- not to mention cell-phone pictures being peered at by your audience neighbors.

Take one recent concert, for instance. It featured the Philharmonic's newly-named assistant conductor, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, the young Lithuanian who looks like a female version of Esa-Pekka Salonen when he first arrived here. She's making international hay these days. (Yes, it helps to be a glamorous beauty, for both soloists and baton-wielders.) With her -- adding up to an all-female event -- was Russian-born violinist Alexandra Soumm, also a twenty-something.

Together, they delivered the evening's gem, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade. And what we got was an irresistible account of this undeservedly neglected work. If I could grant Lenny what many believe was his fondest wish -- a composer name as revered as Mahler's -- this piece would qualify him.

Does it brim with delectable waltz passages? Is it warmly lilting in the modern Mitteleuropa way? Are there definitions of soulful characters, the kind that suggest theatrical value? And sentiments of quiet sorrow? Yes, to all, and it's wonderfully constructed, including its jazzy coda, à la "West Side Story"-- with a total impact that wipes out any need for a namesake, such as Plato's dialogue.

Soumm seemed to be reading Bernstein's mind, so infinitely expressive and nuanced was her playing. Happily, the cameras stayed on her. And Mirga (let's call her that, although if you want to learn to pronounce her full name try it this way: Mear-Ga-Gra-chin-tee-eh Tee-La), got the orchestra to sound as if it had more than one rehearsal.

After intermission we saw camera work at its worst. Like painting by the numbers, the big screen zeroed in on a lone timpanist while what was being heard in Rodion Shchedrin's "Carmen Suite" was a tutti, full string complement and timpani.

This is the point when eyes must look away from the screen, in order to not be distracted from the unified sound by the sight of a single instrument. What a travesty these rote camera designations are.

Not to mention the loss of conductor focus -- long shots of Grazinyte-Tyla, rarely close-ups, were the picturesque kind, with her bare arms, unsinewy and fluttery, giving a less-than-forceful shoulder heft to her ministrations. It's a pity that cameras linger on rows of violinists sitting back in their chairs, eyes on scores, sawing away, etc., instead of longer stays on the conductor who actually telegraphs what the music is saying.

But the program was an oddity. Besides the unfamiliar Bernstein, it boasted a treatment of Bizet's opera that seemed popsy here compared to its dimension as tragedy when danced by the late Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, a famously Jewish Russian star, for whom her husband Shchedrin, composed this ballet version.

In fact, some in the Bowl audience thought it was a sing-along -- for the "Toreador Song" especially.

Its origins as a two-item bill, though, an esoteric design built around scoring for strings and percussion, came from violinist Gidon Kremer, who, not surprisingly, chose Grazinyte-Tyla last year to lead his touring Kremerata Baltica in the program. (Normally he both conducts and plays, but is there a beauteous young thing Kremer has not recruited to his ever-engaging musical adventures?)

Weeks earlier at the Bowl we had Gustavo Dudamel back in town for a bit of mid-summer Mendelssohn. There was the Violin Concerto which Gil Shaham delivered with fine delicacy, all the attenuated lines made to shimmer. Even in the perky, up-tempo passages he held to scale, eschewing a more robust tone.

The same sense of awe came to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Dudamel coaxing the orchestra to a state of Mendelssohnian wonder, along with visuals above the shell conjuring Shakespeare's enchanted forest. The terrific singers, Jennifer Holloway and Deanna Breiwick, and theatrical narrator Bryce Dallas Howard were a boon to the camera department.

yuja2.jpgSo was Yuja Wang ready again for her close-up, returning to open the 2015 summer season. Remember her? The Chinese pianist -- that petite, fashion-hip, whiz-bang dynamo whose Bowl debut photo went viral several years ago? You know, the one with the hair flying, the teeny orange bandage dress stretching from way below the shoulders to high up the thigh, the spike heels pumping the pedals -- commanding the keyboard in impossibly difficult music that can defeat big men.

Well, here she was once more -- along with Lionel Bringuier, the Philharmonic's previous assistant conductor. An enormous turnout greeted them, filling seats up to and including the last benches.

They did not disappoint. This time Wang plunged into Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, tossing off the knuckle-buster with wonted aplomb, as fleet and agile as ever, powerful in the dense octaves, the heavy percussion.

Bringuier brought the band into perfect sync with her and went on to illuminate Debussy's "La Mer" with vivid colors, high drama and excitement but not with the degree of subterranean mystery often found in those waters.

Top photo of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla by Vern Evans/LA Phil.

August 19, 2015

Station to Station: Doug Aitken's different conversation

aitken-iris.jpgDoug Aitken at his studio. Below, Union Station in September 2013. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Doug Aitken likes to open things up. Among the objects in his Venice studio is a huge wooden dining table that he designed. Upon closer inspection, you notice symmetrical cuts and realize the piece is really a drum meant to be played at its 4 ends with mallets, like an African drum. He had been thinking about all the dinner parties he's gone to, and what to do when it gets boring. "This way," he said, "you could start up a whole different kind of conversation."

So it's not that all that surprising that Aitken would have come up with his latest big idea, a way to have a different conversation about art, music, time and place. Called "Station to Station," the multi-media sound and light project crossed the country housed in a train that was a mobile laboratory for artistic, musical and visual exploration. It became a collaboration between more than 42 artists and musicians and an intermittent audience connecting with the train as it moved west to Los Angeles' Union Station and finally Oakland.

aitken-station-iris.jpgI remember when the train pulled in to Union Station. A happening is the perfect description. There was music: Beck performed in the old ticket area, along with the band No Age and electronic DJ Dan Deacon. There were yurts lit from within by Urs Fisher and Liz Glynn and art by Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner. Along the route there had been performances by Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. Ed Ruscha made cactus omelets in the desert. Giorgio Moroder was aboard using the sounds of the train in a musical composition. Music and art were on display in and around Union Station, as they had been on the trek across the country.

"I saw it as a necessity to make an alternative platform to culture," Aitken said recently during an interview in his Venice studio. "It wasn't restricted to being inside a museum or a gallery. It was about trying to work with the voice of the individual, to empower people to create things they wouldn't have made or encountered normally." In formulating the idea, he talked about and thought about how to create an artistic dialogue. He decided to use a train that would become a moving series of environments and studios, send it across the country and create happenings whenever and wherever it paused in its journey. "For every train, there is a station and many of these architectural spaces built in the 20's and 30's are completely dormant. We could create contemporary kunsthalls and this negative space can become stimuli for language and the creative act. It would become a sequence of events rather than one language."

Working with such a wide range of artists and musicians, each with their own individual vision, Aitken's train became a moving month-long art project about space and time, changing as it traveled and giving people an opportunity to interact with art at its stops along the route.

Arranging for the train to start and stop along the way was a logistical endeavor that took three years to plan. Indeed, the stops made it possible to allow commuter trains to speed by. Along with the help of a "prodigy train kid," Adam Auxler, Aitken was able to create a unique series of train cars and craft a schedule to cross the country in under 30 days. "It was almost a time code," Aitken explained. The train would be able to be on the tracks for a certain period, then have to pull off and wait several hours before it could continue. He wanted to make something purely artist-driven and off the grid -- using abandoned train stations allowed for that. The car interiors themselves became spaces to be designed and lived in by the artists. He loved the idea of many different individuals creating art that would be packaged as a continuum and presenting it to people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. At various stops, local townspeople came out to see the art and hear the music. Local artists whose work is otherwise unknown were invited to participate.

Aitken had spent the month filming the ride. When he thought about how to present what he had captured on film he decided that knitting together a series of one minute films could best represent the totality of the parts. "It becomes a composition, rather than a narrative," he said. (Random fact: I became part of the narrative. About two minutes in, I appear onscreen, a member of the audience at Union Station. That was a totally weird surprise.)

The film opens at the Nuart on Friday. A musical performance by No Age begins ten minutes prior to the 7:30 p.m. show, and by White Mystery ten minutes prior to the 9:50 p.m. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with Aitken. He also will sign the film's companion book on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Cinefile Video (next door to the Nuart.)

August 15, 2015

For your consideration: Two Emmy not-nominated costume designers

bessie-still.jpgTop photos via HBO. Bottom: Starz.

When the 2015 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced I made a point of scanning the list for my favorites. Unlike most people, I wasn't looking for names of programs or actors, but of costume designers, the people whose job it is to help build character and aid in story-telling through the look of the clothing they create for a television show or movie.

I'm a hard core fan of what they do and felt sure I would see the name Michael T. Boyd, the industry veteran who designed the costumes for the HBO film "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. It was while channel surfing one night that I was drawn into the film's story by the evocative clothing and look of the film, which follows Smith's journey from the days of vaudeville through to the Great Depression. Boyd won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on "Son of the Morning Star." Essence Magazine gushed, saying "try watching 'Bessie' without hopping online to buy every flapper dress and glittery headpiece you can find. Costumer Michael T. Boyd wisely utilizes every opportunity to drape Latifah's voluptuous frame in lush and flattering fabrics, cuts and styles true to that era. The clothes used to personify Bessie's lower stations in life are equally authentic."

Turns out Boyd's name was not on the list, although "Bessie" did garner nominations for acting, writing, casting, cinematography, music, and sound mixing. During a recent phone chat (Boyd is on location in Atlanta working on a film about Dolly Parton) he expressed mild disappointment at not being nominated but made it clear that he thoroughly enjoyed working on "Bessie". For the self-proclaimed show biz outsider — Boyd has lived in Texas since college — the project has a special place for him and he considers the movie "nearly flawless."

"Bessie" was shot entirely in Atlanta and Boyd did the requisite research through books and photographic images. "The walls of the costume department were covered in the look," he said. "Everybody (on the costume team of 20) needed to know what I know. You could see the entire movie on the walls. I love that time period. We went from 1905 to 1933. There were so many changes, so much ground to cover and we had very little prep time."

Although Boyd brought a knowledge of the vaudeville era to the table, this was his first film portraying singing on stage. He took on the task of dressing the various bands himself. "That was my special little project. I wanted them to look a certain way as we moved through the movie...ragtime to the jazz era of the 30's — you want those guys to look right."


Also impressed by Boyd's work on "Bessie" was Mary Rose, curator of FIDM's current exhibit, Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design. The show features designs from the past year, some Emmy-nominated, some not. Rose knew she wanted to include Boyd when she first viewed the film earlier this year. Considering the Emmy snub, she offered Boyd a bit of a consolation prize. He told me that he was surprised to be invited. The show at FIDM's downtown campus marks the first time his designs have been part of any costume exhibit.

For admirers of television costume design who want to follow the process in real time, there is a blog by "Outlander" designer Terry Dresbach (another Emmy winner omitted from this years list of nominees.) Production for the Starz series about a 1940's combat nurse who time-travels back to 18th century Scotland is based in Glasgow, where Dresbach lives for a good part of the year (along with her husband Ron Moore, Outlander's show runner).


Her blog, An 18th Century Life, provides an inside look at just what goes into researching and creating costumes for the show, which premiered last summer. Dresbach is also active on Twitter, where she frequently interacts with Outlander's legions of fans.

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.

July 15, 2015

Wine and jazz at Hollywood and Highland

jazz-trio-iris.jpgRicky Washington, Kamasi Washington and Ryan Porter. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down performed at Hollywood and Highland's Wine and Jazz Summer Concerts series. Photos by Iris Schneider.


jazz-sax-iris.jpgKamasi Washington.

jazz-crowd-iris.jpgArlene Hayes enjoys the show.

jazz-dad-kid-iris.jpgMichael Datcher and his 2-year-old daughter Harlem Coleman-Datcher enjoy the show.

July 6, 2015

4th of July with Cinefamily and 'Jazz on a Summer's Day'

cinefamily-bbq2.jpgCinefamily executive director Hadrian Belove hands out blueberry shortcakes at 4th of July party. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Since its formation in 2007, Cinefamily has created programming that is unusual to say the least and sometimes downright wacky. At the Fairfax Avenue Silent Movie Theatre, its headquarters, comedians often do their progamming and the goal of finding "exceptional, distinctive, weird and wonderful films" gives them plenty of leeway to entertain.

At Cinefamily they believe that "movies are funnier, scarier and more meaningful when shared with others." Their screenings often include gatherings to meet and greet the programmers, directors, or stars in a very informal setting. On the 4th of July, I attended a free event that perfectly represented their mission: "to reinvigorate the movie-going experience by fostering a spirit of community and a sense of discovery."

In what may become a yearly ritual akin to the showing of "It's a Wonderful Life" every Christmas, Cinefamily held a free barbecue with live jazz in their courtyard, then screened "Jazz on a Summer's Day," a magical and little-known film shot principally by still photographer Bert Stern (of "Marilyn Monroe's last sitting" fame.) With beautiful footage of the performers and audience at the 1958 July 4th Newport Jazz Festival, the film was a visual and auditory feast.

check-berry-stern-iris.jpgChuck Berry in 'Jazz on a Summer Day.'

Performers Thelonius Monk, George Shearing, Chuck Berry, Anita O'Day, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Louis Armstrong and many others played over the three-day festival. The film documented not only the performers, but the audience at the laid-back show, dressed casually and swaying, dancing, snapping their fingers, smooching and enjoying the music and the day. The images are visually stunning in their intimacy, and veer far from the stage and audience into nearby apartments for intimate kisses and rooftop dancing. It was shot in 35mm Kodachrome which gives the film a muted palette. Whether catching a smile, a gaze, a hug between lovers, the silhouetted merry-go-round, cavorting children, and all that goes along with a picnic and jazz on a lazy summer's day, watching the film gave me new respect for fashion photographer Stern's eye and journalist's sensibility. Each frame had something special, and nothing recorded seemed unintentional.

After the screening, Hadrian Belove, a Cinefamily co-founder and the current executive director, was moonlighting as server, holding platters piled high with fresh blueberry shortcakes for the crowd to enjoy.

cinefamily-bbq3.jpgThe event was funded by IFC, and as a way of introducing its new "epic masterpiece" airing July 8, Cinefamily screened "The Spoils Before Dying," a mashup of film noir, Orson Welles and Masterpiece Theater. The first episode opened with a barely recognizable bearded Will Ferrell as Welles, swilling wine as he mumbles an introduction to the noir-ish film series starring Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and many other Funny or Die regulars. The segment is the first of what is billed as a three-night television event. It was a very funny start to a very charming afternoon.

July 3, 2015

Noah Purifoy and Larry Sultan at LACMA

joshua-tree-lacma-iris.jpgJoshua Tree installation at LACMA's Noah Purifoy exhibition. Photo by Iris Schneider.

What is the role of the artist in an imperfect world? Noah Purifoy, the son of sharecroppers in the South, seemed to have it right. Born in 1917 and becoming an artist only in his 40s, he used his art to heal, to cajole, to document, to repurpose. And for a time he abandoned his artistic pursuits to work in the black community as a social worker, eventually bringing the worlds of social work and art together, creating art programs in prisons and schools and downtrodden communities because he knew art had power and that power could teach and reach into the soul of the disenfranchised and powerless.

The current show at LACMA, Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, is a testament to the creative spirit of a simple man dedicated to his unique artistic pursuits and his social consciousness. Purifoy trained as an artist, getting an MFA degree from Chouinard (now CalArts), in 1956. He was smitten by Duchamp's fascination with the beauty of the ordinary. His assemblages are full of household objects: shoes, baskets, sardine cans, brushes, bicycles, books and scraps. They are crafted into things both fine and simple, a testimony to the power and beauty of the human spirit. But they are more than that. The first group show he spearheaded, "66 Signs of Neon," was literally created from the ashes of the 1965 Watts Rebellion when he and a group of artists rummaged through the wreckage on the streets and used what they found to create art that commented poignantly and powerfully on society and its shortcomings.

Last-Supper-lacma-iris.jpgLace Curtain detail and The Last Supper by Noah Purifoy, photos by Iris Schneider.

This is what he said about those "tragic times in Watts:" "We watched aghast the rioting, looting and burning during the August happening. While the debris was still smoldering we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching...obsessed without quite knowing why...We gave much thought to the oddity of our found things...which had begun to haunt our dreams."

This first show set Purifoy, by that time the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, on his path as an artist and activist and influenced other emerging artists of the time like John Outerbridge, David Hammons and Debby Brewer.

In 1972, after the debut of a controversial show at Brockman Gallery, Purifoy dropped out of the art world to become director of community services at Central City Mental Health, a facility created to help address social issues facing the African American community, like teen pregnancy, unemployment, gang culture. He managed the center, which began attracting artists and others who were concerned with these issues. In 1976, Purifoy was appointed by then-governor Jerry Brown to the California Arts Council. "I was looking for a vehicle by which I could find ways to use art as a tool to change people," Purifoy said, and thus began programs bringing art into prisons, schools and community centers. He stayed on the Arts Commission for twelve years.

In the late 80's, Purifoy decided he needed more space and time to do his art and moved to Joshua Tree, where he worked for the last 15 years of his life, until his death in 2004. That is where he had the space to create large environmental sculptures from found objects and could allow the environment to weather and change them. These pieces are now displayed over a ten-acre space (acquired through donations from artists Debby Brewer and Ed Ruscha), and in 1999, at the urging of friends, he created the Noah Purifoy Foundation for the preservation and presentation of his work. It is currently open to the public as an outdoor museum. Two large pieces from the Joshua Tree installation have been installed in the outdoor space at LACMA for the duration of the show, which closes September 27.

While at LACMA, there is still time (until July 19) to see the Larry Sultan photography show, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, a retrospective spanning several rooms and six periods of the late photographer's work including "Pictures from Home" and "The Valley." Over the course of his lifetime he explored his family and his hometown in a way that makes it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Are his parents posing for him? Are the porn stars depicted in some of his images from the Valley aware of his presence? Using his parents as subjects along with his family home and the neighborhood he grew up in, Sultan delved into his childhood memories as well as the Valley's porn industry which he documented for Maxim Magazine in 2001. Using lighting techniques that make it hard to distinguish artifice from reality, the large prints on display have an otherworldly quality that is starkly beautiful. The show is well worth a visit to see this photographer's unique vision of the California landscape and its people.


Larry Sultan photos: "Sharon," 2001, from The Valley series, and "My Mother Posing For Me," 1984, from the series "Pictures From Home."

June 29, 2015

Eifman and the LA Ballet, plus LA Phil closes the Disney season

elfman-ballet.jpgScene from Eifman's ballet.

Who can bring you story-book ballets that are not about fairytale creatures or kingdoms and their royalty, but real people drowning in human tragedies?

Boris Eifman.

And this time was no different when the Russian choreographer brought his St. Petersburg company's two-act "Rodin" to the Music Center Pavilion.

But if you can't remember much about the eponymous sculptor -- he created those iconic statues, "The Kiss" and "The Thinker" -- Eifman's ballet lays out the tempestuous Frenchman's whole biography.

Not unlike Picasso, Auguste Rodin was big with the ladies. And on his way to high acclaim, he became notoriously involved with an aspiring student/sculptor, Camille Claudel, while his long-suffering, common-law wife Rose, endured it all.

Seizing once again on visuals, as he did with "Anna Karenina" and "Eugene Onegin," the dance-maker goes for imagery -- this time with body pile-ups, dramatically lit and evoking Rodin's massive carvings themselves.

But besides the Expressionist dancing that is an Eifman signature, his leitmotif here came in the many asylum scenes that showed poor Camille's various states of madness -- insanity, by the way, seems to be a current obsession with choreographers (remember the Australian Ballet's "Swan Lake" and its vignette of a demented Odette getting hydrotherapy in a bathtub, shades of "Snakepit?")

True, the task of depicting Rodin's story was harder than with Tolstoy's great "Karenina" -- the novel's evocative words inspired Eifman to cinematic heights I've seldom seen on a ballet stage.

There, his unique gift revealed itself in the feeling states he could depict and in his instinct for letting the movement grow out of those states. What we see is non-stop drama-in-motion.

And arguably no one knows how to capitalize on his dancers' physical look -- slender, willowy, agile -- the way Eifman does. Their leg extensions soar sky-high and their bodies are so supple as to seem jointless. But I wouldn't really call them anything but dancing actors because their performances are suffused with dramatic intent. Not so much in "Rodin" as in "Karenina," where we saw those limbs thrust upwards only to plunge into a grounded Grahamesque plié in deep second position -- thus giving us lyric passion versus menace so fluid that the eye could barely grasp it.

Not surprisingly, audiences gobble up his stagings for their overall spectacle. There's nothing staid or classroom-like in what he conjures. But you can easily see how he deliberately feeds (panders to?) those crowds with rousing divertissements here and there.

I liked the can-can scene (nicely using music other than the identifiable Offenbach) and the accordion-accompanied café vignette, although the mish-mash of excerpted French pieces by Massenet, Ravel, Satie kept the artistic standard lower, as did the out-of-character peasant number he used as filler.

But Eifman has indisputable European flair. He'll never lack an audience. American regional ballet companies, trying to expand or just stay alive, could use some of that backstage bravura. And now I'm referring to Los Angeles Ballet, which, for all its excellence, seems to be in that particular financial struggle commonly experienced by our privately funded arts enterprises.

Needless to say, it was sad to see co-founder Colleen Neary make a plea from the stage for donations. Not only that, she announced that, following the performance, LAB dancers would stand at the exits handing out self-addressed envelopes for such purpose. It's come to this -- nine years after gifting the city with its ambitious, Balanchine-authorized, high-powered presence.

la-ballet.jpgLos Angeles Ballet

But the program at UCLA's Royce Hall told a story of triumph. Wide-ranging and choice, it showed off a whole new vein of versatility among the dancers. Just imagine -- if you missed it -- José Limón's "The Moor's Pavane," that singularly possessed modern classic in long regal robes and gowns, a quartet of impending menace, anchored by Purcell's stately darkness.

Would this troupe of dancers, dedicated to the tutu-and-tiara style of New York City Ballet, have any idea what the weighty ominousness of the "Othello" tragedy intends? The black Moor, a heroic figure, brought down by succumbing to a treacherous aide's lies and thus killing his beloved wife?

I, for one, could not imagine it. But, mirabile dictu, the four principals pulled it off (thanks to Limón master Alice Condodina's rehearsing) -- with greater credibility than even Ballet Theatre's recent New York performance.

It was time for directors Neary and Thordal Christensen to reach beyond ballet per se. But they did more, also showing a side of sophisticated wit via Jiri Kylián's "Sech Tänze," its European scampishness underpinned by Beethoven's jaunty dances. For once, with this bill of fare, we saw choreography the world prizes, not some scattershot local entries that hardly deserve stage space.

An earlier program featured that classical extravaganza "The Sleeping Beauty" -- its every detail polished to a shine, with ensembles perfectly together and coached to a fingertip. But the dancing was characterless, without personality, almost dead, glazed and inhibited. The very least a museum piece should be is alive. Why else would it sparkle in the memory?

On to music downtown: Closing out their last two Disney Hall standard-fare concerts of the season, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic turned first to a French program and then a Spanish one.

Gustavo-Dudamel-007.jpgBut tucked between the almost all-Ravel night was a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the countrywoman of Esa-Pekka Salonen and thus an enormously welcome and well-commissioned personage at the Phil. Indeed, she's lauded in lots of places, since having her intro here.

Still, her "True Fire," an essay for orchestra and baritone, was overly long at 30 minutes, considering its unrelieved, dirge-like stretches of doom and gloom. Singer Gerald Finley has had more grateful opportunities and the merely respectful audience buzzed with conspicuous naysayers afterward in the lobby.

Leave it to Ravel, though, to redeem the evening. Dudamel and his band danced over "Le Tombeau de Couperin"'s lucid textures with light, airy steps throughout and gave the crowd something to stomp and whistle for after "Bolero."

So did they roar for a knockout performance of Manuel de Falla's "El Amor Brujo," although this music played by this orchestra doesn't need the distraction of a flamenco dance company enacting the story line up on a mid-level platform. Just hearing its urgent thrum and darkly Spanish expression brought out so splendidly was powerful enough.

June 26, 2015

The once and future centers of LA theater

spring-awakening-wallis.jpgSpring Awakening scene. Photo by Kevin Parry.

LA's critics often say it has no center. The city's advocates often reply that Los Angeles has many centers. Some of us believe that downtown is once again becoming the primary center.

Similar issues arise in considerations of LA theater. If people outside LA ever think about Los Angeles theater, they probably think first of downtown's flagship Center Theatre Group - which brands itself as "LA's Theatre Company," as if there were only one such company. On the other hand, they probably don't think of CTG as often today as they did two decades ago, when CTG more consistently contributed to the stream of productions that competed for Tonys and Pulitzers - which is the usual (if simplistic) gauge for measuring a theater company's national profile.

Soon after they think about CTG, well-informed outsiders might also remember hearing about LA's vast and far-flung collection of theaters with fewer than 100 seats. While some of these companies operate in close proximity to each other, forming subsidiary "centers" in NoHo or on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, those clusters of tiny companies aren't necessarily permanent. Witness the recent news of small theaters closing in Hollywood and the planned migration of the Antaeus Company from NoHo to Glendale.

Many casual observers (Angelenos as well as outsiders) associate these small companies with the concept of "showcasing," assuming that they maintain one eye on the Hollywood industry. This impression lingers despite decades of efforts to establish that many of these companies venture far beyond the connotations of that word. Unfortunately, in recent years those we're-not-showcasing efforts have been undercut by a genuine showcase fiesta, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which often dominates much of the attention paid to LA theater in June.

Meanwhile, LA County has a lot of theatrical activity that occurs in venues between the CTG level and the 99-seat level. But as a group, these widely dispersed midsize theaters remain one of the city's best-kept secrets.

The end of Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan is now scheduled for next June. Small membership companies, as I noted in my last column, will continue to operate in their current venues without major changes. But 99-seat companies that are not structured around a membership model will have to pay Equity actors and stage managers the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. I hope that some of the better such companies will find the resources to advance into midsize theater status.

Surely if more companies migrate up the Equity scale, more attention should be paid to them. If all other factors seem just about equal, why shouldn't a show that performs for a potential 300 people per night get more attention than one that can't ever perform for more than 100?

Over the last few years, I've offered a few suggestions that conceivably could help facilitate this transition period. Here are a few more:

1. Grand Park

Last Friday I saw my first professional theater event in Grand Park, the relatively new expanse of public space that extends from City Hall to the Music Center. Cornerstone Theater presented three performances of its "California: The Tempest" there as the culmination of a statewide tour, using a temporary stage with central seating on the lawn but folding chairs for audience members on the sides. It was free of charge to anyone.

california-grand-park.jpg"California: The Tempest" scene. Photo by Megan Wanlass.

I had seen a slightly longer version of the production previously in an indoor space in Pacoima, but the play felt much more at home on a pleasant summer evening while surrounded by the lights of downtown LA, with City Hall itself looming in the background. After all, Alison Carey's adaptation of "The Tempest" combines California doomsday fantasy with a boosterish appeal for Californians to unite in order to revive their state. At Grand Park, the view and the cross-section of audience members reinforced this theme.

Cornerstone, which has a lot of experience using non-traditional sites, should plan to make a warm-weather appearance in Grand Park a new tradition. But why haven't other theaters been better represented among Grand Park's offerings? True, Independent Shakespeare is about to open another no-doubt-thriving season in the Old Zoo area of LA's biggest city park, Griffith. But Grand Park is much more centrally located - and adjacent to a Red Line stop.

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles once did its summertime productions downtown, at Pershing Square or the Cathedral plaza, but this summer it isn't producing its usual mainstage show because of complications at its most recent site, the VA Japanese Garden in Brentwood. The Shakespeare Center and some of LA's 99-seat companies should immediately look into the possibility of performing in Grand Park next year.

2. The Wallis - and Broad Stage?

The recent transfer of Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" to the Wallis in Beverly Hills was a magnificent achievement. From my vantage point, it was easier to see everything that was happening on the stage at the Wallis than it had been at the much smaller Inner-City Arts venue last year. And there was so much to see, and think about, that this production could easily serve as the template for a commercial revival of the musical -- because it's so different from the original. Are other companies, including some of the 99-seaters that might have to expand, exploring the possibility of collaborations with the Wallis? Or with the similarly sized Broad Stage in Santa Monica?

3. The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center

This handsome 399-seat city-owned facility on the south side of Washington Boulevard, just east of La Brea, is egregiously under-used by the LA theater community. Right now it's the home of the resident company Ebony Rep's often thrilling revival of "The Gospel at Colonus," which transfers the middle play in Sophocles' Theban Oedipus trilogy to the framework of an African-American church service. Seeing "Colonus" last weekend was doubly poignant in the wake of the massacre that had just taken place at an African-American church in Charleston.

gospel-ds.jpgThe company of "The Gospel at Colonus." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

But Ebony does just one full production a year. Wouldn't it be in the city's interest to help accommodate more productions at the Holden throughout the rest of the calendar? (By the way, did it occur to anyone that the Odyssey Theatre in West LA is currently doing Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of the first part of the same Theban trilogy, under the title "Oedipus Machina," and that the two productions might have cross-marketed along the lines of "now see the sequel" or "now see the prequel"?)

4. Los Angeles Theatre Center

This year two of the three midsize spaces at the city-owned LATC, operated by Latino Theater Company, weren't used in the company's spring festival. The company's Jose Luis Valenzuela told me that this was at least partially a result of a decision to use the smaller spaces within the building while they could still be occupied by productions on the 99-seat Theater Plan, anticipating that they will be much harder to fill with productions after the plan dies -- and in the meantime saving money that can be used for larger productions later. City officials, in the interests of sustaining downtown's theatrical ecology and attracting even more people to LATC's ever-more-exciting neighborhood, should do whatever they can to make producing at LATC less expensive, less difficult.

5. Falcon Theatre

Could Garry Marshall's Burbank space possibly be an option for 99-seat companies that hope to move up -- but not too far up the scale too quickly? It has only 130 seats. Its location is near both NoHo and Hollywood. It already sells out for Troubadour Theater's rowdy musicals, but -- sound the alarm -- this year there is no summer Troubie show. The rest of the Falcon's fare is often rather tepid, including the current "The Trouble We Come From," a Scott Caan rom-com focusing on a man who appears to make a living from writing plays that are produced at "a mid-sized theatre" (or so it says in the program). I don't know if Marshall and company would be open to collaborations with, say, the Fountain on at least one or two plays a year, but the Fountain has developed a fan club that appears to be almost as loyal as that of the Troubies.

6. Houses of worship

Chalk Repertory, a group that specializes in site-specific theater, has opened a three-year residency at the LA Episcopal Diocese's St. John's Cathedral, on Adams near the Harbor Freeway, with Tom Jacobson's "Diet of Worms." The site's majestic Romanesque sanctuary, dating from 1929, plays the role of a 16th-century convent where a group of nuns are gradually being lured into the Reformation. The audience moves to four locations within the space. Especially in the second act, the play erupts with an exhilarating sense of liberation amid revolution. Of course not every church would want to host such a production -- or a theater company at all -- but Actors Co-op and Crown City also use sites on the grounds of churches. Perhaps other companies should look for the closest somewhat-liberal congregation that might provide them with an open-minded room at the inn.

INHERITANCE COMEDY: Have LA theater companies considered inheritance as a get-rich-quick scheme? Probably not, but two current productions focus on inheritance fever.

"Bad Jews," at Geffen Playhouse, depicts a bitter and often funny dispute between two young cousins over who has dibs on their recently deceased grandfather's chai medallion, which he preserved through the Holocaust by slipping it under his tongue. In one corner is Daphna, a high-strung religious feminist. In the other is the equally neurotic but secular scholar Liam, accompanied by his very non-Jewish girlfriend. He plans to use the chai in place of an engagement ring. The more-or-less non-committal referee is Jonah, Liam's brother, but we eventually learn that he has his own way of remembering their mutual Zayde.

bad-jews-lamont.jpgScene from "Bad Jews." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Playwright Joshua Harmon uses the two hair-trigger combatants to articulate the evergreen dilemma of a small group's cultural pride vs. assimilation -- an issue that is hardly confined to Jews. In the process he creates two manic and sometimes infuriating characters who nevertheless make their cases with remarkable acumen. "Bad Jews," directed by Matt Shakman, is an invigorating experience that provokes some serious thought.

On the other hand, "The Heir Apparent," at Long Beach's International City Theatre, is strictly for laughs - and harvests quite a few of them. In this tale, an old man refuses to die, despite all expectations to the contrary. His possible heirs go to some far-fetched extremes to get their hands on his fortune despite his stubborn unwillingness to cooperate. This is wordsmith David Ives' rhyming-couplet-strewn adaptation of an 18th-century comedy by Jean-Francois Regnard, loaded with contemporary American references although ostensibly set in 1708. That happens to follow a familiar formula for director Matt Walker of the aforementioned Troubadour Theater Company. He brings his cheeky insouciance to the Ives script, even though it lacks the Troubies' expansive riffs on more up-to-date musical sources.

June 20, 2015

Bryce Ryness plays the villain in 'Matilda the Musical'

bryce-ryness-iris-hz.jpgTop two photos of Bryce Ryness by Iris Schneider.

Roald Dahl, author of the much loved 1988 childrens novel Matilda, once described the book's character Miss Trunchbull as "a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike." The story's current incarnation, "Matilda the Musical," now in residence at the Ahmanson Theater, features Broadway veteran Bryce Ryness as the evil, sadistic Trunchbull, headmistress of the school Matilda's ridiculously boorish parents force her to attend. He nearly steals the show.

Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Tony-winning musical about a precocious 5-year-old who loves to read, possesses magical powers and manages to triumph over family adversity is at the beginning of a national tour. The cast includes Jennifer Blood as Miss Honey, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness, and Mabel Tyler alternating in the role of Matilda.

bryce-ryness-iris-v.jpgThis was my second viewing (I saw it on Broadway two years ago) and while the story and music are engaging as ever, this time it was Ryness's subtle, droll take on the almost cartoon-like Trunchbull that held my focus. In the film version the role is played by a woman, but in the musical Trunchbull is played by a male actor in drag. While it would be hard for the tall and gangly Ryness not to attract attention while wearing womens' clothes, he completely makes the role his own. No small achievement considering the show has been running in London and New York since 2011.

During a recent backstage chat at the Ahmanson, Ryness (as charming and self-deprecating as Miss Trunchbull is horrible) admitted that the path to being cast was less than smooth. "I had a really hard time getting seen for this," he said. "My agents were pushing, pushing, pushing — and the casting powers that be were saying, 'uh, we don't really see it with him.'"

The prospect of taking on such a high-profile role that another actor had been identified with (British actor Bertie Carvel played the role in London and on Broadway) didn't intimidate or influence Ryness. He had never actually seen the show, and when he finally did audition he approached it as "a challenge, like an acting class scene that gets handed out to you. In that position of being the underdog, I was in a situation where I kind of had nothing to lose, no grand expectations as to what I was going to deliver when I walked into the room.

"I really like being in that position of surprising people, of exceeding their expectations. I did what I thought would be the most fun with it and it just so happens it was exactly what they were looking for."

Ryness, 34, grew up in Northern California and discovered his love of singing as many do, in his high school choir. Seriously involved in sports, he was forced to put his game of choice, baseball, aside when his thumb was injured. "I couldn't play and thought, 'what else is going on in my life? So much of my identity was wrapped up in baseball. Who am I?' Singing helped me establish an identity." While a business major at USC he joined an a capella group and met his wife Meredith, also a singer. After graduation he sang with a group at Disney's California Adventure and performed in local theater productions. A big break was being cast in the national tour of "Rent" in 2006.

Ryness realized that he needed to be in New York to further his theater career and moved there with Meredith when his time with "Rent" was completed. The cost of living was a rude awakening for the young couple. "We rolled into New York with $10,000. Cut to three months later and we were sweating. In New York you walk out your door and $20 falls out of your pocket," he recalls. Things got scary but they hung in and Ryness got his first Broadway show ("Legally Blonde") in 2007 and has worked steadily since, including appearing in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hair," and the original production of "First Date" in 2013.

Before committing to the Matilda tour, Ryness made certain conditions clear to the producers. Now a very proud father of three young children, he requested that his family be able to join him for as much of his six-month run as possible. "It was a deal-breaker for me," he says. "They're all here and that's why it worked, because we could all go together." While in Los Angeles they are staying in Atwater Village, near his brother. The daily routine is as close to family friendly as it gets for a working actor. He has most of the day free to spend with his kids, and at 6:30 "dad gets into the car and goes to the theater." Recently the family, along with a big group from the Matilda production, went to Dodger Stadium when Ryness was invited to sing the national anthem.

In mid-July the show will move on to San Francisco (and after that to a slew of cities too numerous to mention.). It sounds grueling, but at least Ryness will have his family with him most of the time. It doesn't hurt that he holds the material in high regard. "This piece is just so well written, so well constructed. The songs are so intelligent -- very intelligent songs about a simple subject which creates almost a universal accessibility."

Matilda the Musical is at the Ahmanson Theatre until July 12.

Production photos from Center Theatre Group:



Related nugget: Ryness' brother is Gar Ryness, better known on YouTube as Batting Stance Guy.

June 14, 2015

Protect 'City' and Basin and Range

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Artist Michael Heizer brought a huge piece of raw, elemental nature into the middle of the city, suspended it over our heads in the courtyard of LACMA, and called it "Levitated Mass." For the last couple of decades he has also been carving raw, elemental forms of the urban into a remote Nevada desert valley, and calling it "City."

This exchange and connection between the country and the city, the city and the country runs through LACMA, where Michael Govan has provided crucial support for Heizer to finish his monumental sculpture. Govan has also been a key player in an effort underway to protect "City" and 900,000 acres of the surrounding land as a new national monument--Basin and Range National Monument.

city300.jpgGovan recently wrote an op-ed about these efforts with Brian O'Donnell of the Conservation Lands Foundation in the LA Times. And on Friday, I contributed an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle. The proposal is on President Obama's desk. Supporters are calling on people to write to the president and encourage him to create the national monument to protect "City" and the surrounding landscape of vast valleys and soaring mountains. The effort has its own hashtags, natch, #protectcity and #basinandrange, and a web site at

basinrange300.jpgA year and a half ago, as this effort was quietly gaining traction, I traveled several hours north of Las Vegas to visit "City" with Govan and a small group of conservation advocates. I had met Heizer more than a decade earlier when I lived in northern Nevada. And I put tens of thousands of miles on my Toyoto 4-Runner traveling the backcountry roads of the Great Basin, including all around "City." But I'd never been on the inside.

I also wrote about efforts to protect the Nevada desert and the fierce resistance to those efforts from hardcore sagebrush rebels and others. From my perspective as a journalist, these battles were always interesting because of the politics and what they revealed about how people thought about each other as they fought over the land.

Coming back after more than a decade, as we drove north through a vast valley toward "City," I remembered those debates, which could sometimes get pretty western, as they say in Nevada. And I knew that a proposal to designate a national monument would generate some heat locally.

But here in the heart of the Basin and Range province, the politics faded away in the face of the enormous power of the landscape that truly does seem to have its own implacable way, independent of humanity--even if intellectually, as a journalist and historian, I know that it has been touched by human history again and again. Nature has its own abiding integrity and force, even in the face of the enormous power of human ingenuity and engineering.

"City" makes that paradoxical connection in a way that is as mysteriously powerful as the landscape itself. You might feel that, as I do, standing under "Levitated Mass" in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. And that power resides in "City" and the surrounding Basin and Range landscape, but at a whole different scale. And if it's protected as a national monument, you could experience that too.

Photo of "City" by Tom Vinetz, Triple Aught Foundation. Photo of surrounding land in the proposed Basin and Range National Monument by Tyler Roemer.

May 27, 2015

The 99-Seat plan's long goodbye

You may have heard that LA's 99-seat theaters are about to enter a year of living on the edge - because on June 1, 2016, all hell will break loose.

Or perhaps you've heard the actual gnashing of teeth in some quarters over the apparently shocking and newfangled notion that Actors' Equity, a labor union, will require its members to receive at least the legal minimum wage from producers, beginning a year from now. Some suggest that LA theater is doomed.

So it might come as an equal shock, but from the opposite direction, to hear the news that many small companies won't be seriously affected by the changes. Those companies that are run by their own members will be able to employ those members without union-approved contracts — and, in a change from Equity's original proposal, they can admit new members who are Equity actors.

A recent LA Times article initially gave the impression that it would examine the effects of the Equity changes on a typical 99-seat company, the Road. But then the thirteenth paragraph suddenly revealed that the Road "is exempt, along with about 60 other membership companies," from Equity's changes. The rest of the article provided some fascinating information about the Road's finances, along with interviews of Equity members who approved the changes and others who disapproved. But I wondered why the article wasn't focused on one of the companies that will be more directly affected by the changes.

Until that article, however, I hadn't realized that as many as 60 companies — the official list hasn't yet been published — will be allowed to continue with business as usual, more or less. By the way, let's hope that Equity soon allows Evidence Room to join that list. Someone at Equity reportedly told Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo that because its recent shows were co-productions with other companies, it didn't qualify. But Equity should be encouraging, not penalizing, co-productions. Cooperation among two or more companies is one way to increase the chances that the actors on a production will be better paid.

As for the non-membership companies, I hope most of them take the next year to develop their resources to the point that they can afford to pay Equity members the minimum wage, as opposed to deciding to use only non-Equity actors or — even worse — squandering money on dubious lawsuits.

Once again, I also ask that LA's midsize and larger companies do whatever they can to assist the better 99-seat non-membership companies to survive. In recent weeks I've seen Theatre Movement Bazaar at South Coast Repertory in "Big Shot" and the 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. These were very brief runs, but they provided a taste of what might happen if more LA companies — large and small — cooperated with each other. Thanks in advance to the Wallis in Beverly Hills for importing and upgrading Deaf West Theatre's ASL-inflected rendition of "Spring Awakening."

By the way, regarding that looming option to switch to only non-Equity actors, I'm aware of only one local non-Equity company that regularly produces fresh and important and accomplished work — Chance Theater in Orange County. Then again, I admit that I don't normally attend non-Equity productions in LA — or in OC (except for the Chance.) When LA County offers 390 Equity-99-seat-plan productions and 221 Equity-contract productions in one year (June 2013-May 2014), who has the time to take a chance on non-Chance, non-Equity theater?

In Los Angeles County, where there are so many more Equity actors than in OC, a 99-seat company that decided to go backwards into non-Equity status — in order to avoid paying the minimum wage — could easily vanish from the media map. Let's pretend that I'm an editor, considering two opening productions that could be assigned coverage on a particular weekend, but I have the budget for only one review. Let's say the two shows look about equally interesting from their publicists' descriptions, but I know that one of them uses Equity actors and the other one doesn't. I'd probably choose the one that uses Equity actors. Of course there is no guarantee that it would be better, but at least an Equity affiliation is a gauge of professional experience, and it's probably the only handy gauge that I have, without doing a lot of time-consuming research to help me decide.

I imagine that LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty feels the same way about which shows he personally covers, judging from his endorsement of Equity's recent efforts in an April 23 commentary. I agreed with most of what he wrote. But his argument might have been more convincing if he attended and wrote about more of the shows in LA's current midsize theaters. If he wants the 99-seat companies to grow to that level, he should become better acquainted with what works and what doesn't work at that level — in LA, not in New York or London.

I usually discuss productions of all sizes in my columns, but in today's — as the 99-Seat Plan enters its final year — I'm going to examine only productions that are housed in theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

enron-ds.jpgFirst and foremost, "Enron." it's wonderful to see the Production Company return to full-production mode, after more than a year, with the LA premiere of Lucy Prebble's let-us-entertain-you account of the rise and fall of the Enron corporation, at the Lex in Hollywood. Just as Enron itself employed a kind of magical realism in its corporate communications and investments, so does Prebble employ a flashy and funny magical realism in her saga about Enron.

The major characters are portrayed in very human terms by lively actors, but they're accompanied by an array of puppets, raptors and other unexpected apparitions. Although the tone of the play usually stays on the light and satirical side, near the end an explosion of anger by some of Enron's less well-heeled victims creates a surprisingly cathartic moment.

August Viverito's direction and set and sound design take us along on the wild ride, with pertinent animations and projections by Tiger Reel, luxe lighting by Matt Richter and choreography by Nancy Dobbs Owen. This is a show that should have produced on a bigger budget in a larger space — it would be interesting to ask the leaders of LA's large and midsize companies why they passed up that opportunity. But Viverito and company make us forget all that.

The story is lucid enough for all theatrical purposes. Although it's set in Texas, don't forget that our own state played a pivotal role in the Enron run-in — an Enron-engineered electricity crisis led to blackouts in California. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was even quoted saying "it doesn't matter what you crazy people in California do, because I got smart guys who can always figure out how to make money." Unfortunately, he died before he could see the "crazy people in California" performing "Enron."

By contrast, John Bunzel's depiction of financial shenanigans among a group of money managers during a financial meltdown, in his "63 Trillion" at the Odyssey, is constricted by its realistic style — and although full of punchlines, it's relatively mirthless. Bunzel's script also fails to make us feel the sting of the victims. By the way, this play takes place in LA, but the only meaningful indication of its local setting is in the view from the office windows, not in the script. New American Theatre is the producing company.

ENTROPY-ds.jpg"Entropy," like "Enron," belongs in a larger space than its current home, but unlike "Enron," "Entropy" doesn't quite make us forget all that. Bill Robens' script is an enjoyable cartoon about the US/Soviet space race, set in 1973. But Krystyna Loboda's set and the other ingenious but cheekily low-budget design elements are the production's domineering stars. Director Christopher William Johnson gives the designers' effort so much space in Theatre of NOTE's Hollywood black box that that there is hardly any room left for the audience, which is sentenced to sit in three rows of uncomfortable bleachers, crammed against one wall.

One of the astronauts in "Entropy" is a woman — supposedly launched into space a decade before the first actual female American astronaut (Sally Ride). Not surprisingly, the "Entropy" woman runs up against some rampant sexism from one of the two men in the same space capsule. She would find a very sympathetic ear from the only female character in Jessica Dickey's "Row After Row," an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre.

In Dickey's play, two men who are avid Civil War re-enactors retreat to a bar for their usual post-performance drink and encounter a woman, of all people, who has also just participated in the faux battle of Gettysburg. As in "Entropy," one of the men is resentful of the female intrusion into a male world, while the other man is more sympathetic.

Dickey has a knack for making transitions between contemporary speech and more lyrical reflections — and between scenes among the 21st-century re-enactors and scenes in 1863 among the characters the re-enactors are playing. Unfortunately, the same kind of time travel between the Civil War and the present was also used in Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox," seen just three months ago at the Colony Theatre, so its use here didn't strike me as particularly original. Generally, however, Dickey's play coheres better than Bush's.

"Violet," at El Portal's Monroe Theatre in NoHo, is set a century after Gettysburg — in 1964. It features another young (white) woman dealing with the continuing aftermath of the Civil War, as she crosses the South on a bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma. But it's very different from "Row After Row" — it's a musical, with a score by Jeanine Tesori, who later wrote the music for "Caroline, or Change" (why has no one in LA staged that wonderful musical since the Ahmanson's LA premiere?) and whose "Fun Home" is currently nominated for 12 Tonys, including nods for Tesori and for LA's Beth Malone in the best-actress category.

Kelrik Productions is offering a beautifully sung if scenically rudimentary LA premiere of "Violet" (although Laguna Playhouse presented the larger local premiere in 1999). Brian Crawley's book has built-in problems in telling the story about a naïve young woman who hopes a TV preacher can heal her scarred face, and the young GIs — one white, the other black — who fall for her. But Kelrik and director Joshua Finkel deserve kudos for excavating this important example of Tesori's early work — almost immediately after Kelrik produced an equally well-sung "Sweeney Todd" in the same space.

o-my-god-lamont-ds.jpgThe protagonist in "Violet" is no feminist role model. But two strong, vital women are featured in two Jewish-themed plays currently running. In the US premiere of Israeli playwright Anat Gov's "O My God," a Tel Aviv therapist — a single mother of an autistic boy — is visited by a depressed and possibly violent client who soon identifies himself as, gulp, God. After she recovers her composure, the therapist is actually able to help.

Some might label the play's humanized depiction of God as sacrilege, but Judaism includes a healthy tradition of arguing with God — remember Job? If not, this play will refresh your memory. Howard Teichman's production for West Coast Jewish Theatre, at Pico Playhouse with Mike Burstyn as "G" and Maria Spassoff as the therapist, is exceptional. Teichman's company is the scrappy outfit that introduced "The Whipping Man" to LA last year, before we saw it at South Coast Repertory and then the Pasadena Playhouse.

A few miles to the west, at Santa Monica's Braid Theatre (actually a white-box gallery space), Jewish Women's Theatre is presenting its first long-run solo show, "Not That Jewish," in which veteran comic Monica Piper recounts experiences from her lifelong sense of being culturally Jewish — but not religious. She doesn't exactly argue with God, as the therapist does in "O My God," but like that therapist, Piper is a single mother of a young man (although her adopted son isn't autistic). At one point, I distinctly heard Piper say "O my God." Most of the time, however, her words are much funnier. I'm not sure if "Not That Jewish" is a wonderful stand-up act or an autobiographical play — I only know that it's hilarious and, ultimately, heartwarming.

Heartwarming is also the word for "An L.A. Journey, The Story of Lorenzo Alfredo," at Casa 0101. This is a non-Equity production, and its current form isn't particularly polished, but it's quite a story — a K'iche Mayan orphan's odyssey from Guatemala to, yes, LA. The now-adult Alfredo co-wrote the script with director Emmanuel Deleage and performs a somewhat extraneous musical number, but it's hard to remain unaffected by his younger incarnations - as represented by several child actors. Perhaps a later sequel will cover Alfredo's actual LA years and how he got from being homeless in Long Beach to finding an artistic casa in Boyle Heights.

Enron: Joanna Strapp
Entropy: Darrett Sanders
O My God: Michael Lamont

May 25, 2015

James Cameron's outlook: sunny with a chance of doom

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: It was a beautiful, sunny late afternoon in the Santa Monica Mountains, and James Cameron was sending mixed signals. The director of "Avatar" had just unveiled his latest invention: open-source solar sunflowers. This was a celebration, but there was a dark cloud on the director's mind.

Cameron was showing off one of the five whimsical solar sunflowers he had built on the campus of the Muse School in Las Virgenes Canyon in the hills above Malibu. The solar arrays feature 14 petals composing a 30-foot diameter photovoltaic blossom that "functions like a flower," Cameron said. "The tracking base moves the flower head the way a real flower will grow toward the sun."

Cameron300.jpgThe sunflowers were a gift to Cameron's wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, who co-founded the nonprofit, sustainability-oriented, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school with her sister Rebecca Amis. Cameron sketched the sunflowers, had a specialist in computer-generated imagery who worked on "Avatar" do the design, and supervised the engineering.

The solar arrays are "functional art," "fun," and "engaging to the eye," said Cameron. "The form is a celebration of life," he added. "You understand the symbolism immediately."

Cameron imagines the solar sunflowers sprouting in malls, civic centers, parks, and schools. To that end, he is making the design and engineering specifications open source, so that anyone can build them.

But when I cornered Cameron for a moment to ask him about the importance of fun and beauty for achieving sustainability, he had something more serious on his mind. "This isn't about how we win," he said. "It's about how badly we lose."

Cameron said all the current talk of a "2-degree world"--a world in which global warming is kept to no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase on average-- is "optimistic" but "doesn't have enough political reality."

"We're not going to make 2 degrees," Cameron told me. "If we wake up, maybe 3 degrees." And a "3-degree world" will be a much different planet. Even if we went to 100 percent renewable energy, which could take 20 years, Cameron said, that would take care of the energy sector, but only 30 to 40 percent of our carbon emissions.

"But we could cut 14.5 percent overnight by not eating meat and dairy," he added, with his wife standing by his side. "We could change now."

The Camerons have already gone vegan for environmental reasons. The Muse School will be completely "plant based" beginning this fall, said Suzy Cameron. "You can do it yourself," she said. "It's simple and elegant and easy on the pocketbook."

As the late afternoon sun beat down on the dry hills, she added that converting to a plant-based diet "would also cut our water consumption to one-half or a third."

"I wish we were talking about that," she said, as the solar celebration closed in around her and her husband.

I confess, I had come up the mountain hoping for some hope. I came back down chastened.

James Cameron had acknowledged: "If we don't make it fun, we won't make it."

That's what I like to think, too.

But he also seemed to be saying he doesn't think we are going to make it. We could change. But we probably won't.

And when I force myself to think critically sometimes I think that too.

Photo by Stefanie Keenan, courtesy of Muse School.

May 18, 2015

New breed pianist, perfect dancers and a string quartet

Igor_Levit.jpgRemember yesterday's Russian/Polish icons of the piano? Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, among the best known? Well, the new young keyboard wizards storming the concert halls can arguably equal their predecessors' artistry and technique. But they certainly don't look the same -- the latest one being Igor Levit.

What a different sight.

He walks hesitantly onto the Wallis stage, a desultory glance at the audience before his head turns to the real focus, a Steinway just feet beyond. His attention wavers back and forth.

And from there on you're struck by the contrast between him and his illustrious models. Whereas they sat upright -- especially Rubinstein, with his patrician spine extended and his head tilted up, seeming to summon the angels -- Levit (right) hunches over the keyboard like a miner digging out some unknown ore, his nose to the ivories, his back in a posturally dangerous half-round.

But, ah, yes, the playing. It's reason enough for those "breaking news" reviews from high places everywhere he goes. It's a technique that astounds and an expressive depth and intensity that are transcendent.

You like your Bach contemplative? Not in the pure, detached-note, manner of Glenn Gould, who mesmerized us through a partita's contrapuntal complexity, but instead full of romanticism a là Andras Schiff? Then here's your man. And, again with Beethoven, Levit becomes an Aladdin polishing his magic lamp and summoning a mystical being. So much so that in the "Tempest" he severely breaks the rhythmic frame -- in order to burrow here and there, bringing the piece to near-stasis. But you will surely hang in with him...

Also compelling -- though on a less profound level, of course -- was the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Music Center. Today the world-traveled troupe features a smartly sleek, streamlined sophistication, still wrapped in colorful theatricality. Its dancers are body-perfect and high-tech-trained, as the current standard universally demands. To be sure, there will always be the gospel vernacular of their calling card, "Revelations," but it's straight ahead to a newly-minted mix of modern attitudes that come with street savvy and assorted balletic innuendoes -- witnessed both in Aszure Barton's "Lift" and Hans van Manen's "Polish Pieces."

alvin-ailey-dt.jpgAlvin Ailey Dance Company

There was one shocker, though, more to do with the audience than the performance. With Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," a duet set to Arvo Pärt's well-known "Spiegel Im Spiegel" (Mirror in Mirror), a piece of infinite quietude, continuity and introspection, there was uproarious applause and whistling throughout with each lift or leg extension -- utterly ruining the effect and converting the work to a circus act, say, that of a seal balancing a ball on the tip of its nose.

But a word about the typical Ailey audience, long-time returnees who always spill over in joyous outbursts for "Revelations" and, really, for the whole show: These are people who have long-mourned, and identified with, the tragedies of the Freddie Grays. That they can rise up here in unalloyed jubilation is deeply moving any way you cut it.

In contrast, there's Beverly Hills and its subscribers tip-toeing to the Wallis Theater-- they seem new to culture, specifically the performing arts, a few of them even showing rudeness to pianist Levit. Often, they don't register whether a performance is ordinary or spectacular, remaining somewhat blasé regardless.

A case in point was Ballet Jazz Montréal's electrifying performances of Foniadakis's "Kosmos, with its propulsively driven movement to throbbing Middle-Eastern rhythms that animated a dramatic scenario (who could ever forget those silken dancers ripping around like crazy?); and Robitaille's "Rouge," a big pastiche of sly dance numbers set off by a sound score's guttural intonations and evolving into witty slink-and-thrust maneuvers.

Why, the Ailey crowd would have brought down the chandeliers witnessing this. But an air of quiet sophistication dampened the response of these spectators -- even though it takes almost no background to be stunned by what transpired onstage.

Rouge-montreal-jazz.jpgRouge/Ballet Jazz Montréal. Photo by Rapha'lle Bob Garcia.

A few weeks later, though, saw no reservations for the Brentano String Quartet. Everyone (true, an older Wallis audience) clamored with approbation by evening's end and deservedly so. What escaped no one was how perfectly the hall's environment -- its acoustic and size -- embraced the keen virtuosity and presence of these musicians. Just to sit there and take in the marvelous playing, every intimate detail of it, was a gift.

The Brentanos gave us a sharply articulate Haydn, full of playful wit and echoing a Beethoven-like dialogue; Bartok's Quartet No. 3, a bracing adventure in contemporary anxiety with its Hungarian accents churning in agitation; and Debussy's Quartet, which swept us onto lush trails and dark imaginings, a never-land of sensuality -- my god, a miracle.

And just in case you're thinking about other chamber music, remember L.A.'s own Calder Quartet -- which comes as a resident to that other westside culture emporium, the Broad Stage. At its last visit there we heard Schubert's Cello Quintet, the monumental work that reaches nearly symphonic proportions. The Calders, with L.A. Phil guest artist Robert Demaine, illuminated its soul-wrenching beauty and delicately poised key modulations that wafting up to the sublime heavens.

When it came to Mozart's G-major Quartet who could not delight in their sweet-toned, finely animated way with the work or not hear their unanimity of thrust so full of exuberance, or their shapely phrases punctuated by heart-beat rests?

The late Mehli Mehta (Zubin's father) said it best: "Chamber music contains the very core of all that is dear in music."

May 17, 2015

Chris Burden's Ode to Santos Dumont

burden-dumont-iris.jpgPhoto by Iris Schneider

On Friday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a poignant preview of artist Chris Burden's final finished work, "Ode to Santos Dumont." The kinetic airship sculpture will be on display at LACMA from Monday to June 21 in the Resnick Pavillion. It performs in 15 minute intervals several times a day — entry to the exhibit is included in the price of a regular museum ticket.

Burden died last Sunday at home in Topanga Canyon at age 69.

May 10, 2015

I heard it through the musical grapevine

motown-gaye-ds.jpg"Motown" photos by Joan Marcus.

Two musicals currently playing in LA are at least partially set in bygone days of LA's pop music business. Both of them focus on music-industry pioneers who -- 50 or 60 years ago -- were determined to expand the audience for African-American sounds into the younger ranks of mainstream America.

Eventually it might be fascinating to see these musicals programmed together, in a double bill as part of a single company's repertory. But the current productions are diametrical opposites in terms of scale and polish.

"Motown the Musical," exploring the life of Motown founder and boss Berry Gordy, is at the 2700-seat Pantages Theatre in Hollywood -- not far from where Motown was headquartered after it moved from Detroit in 1972. Less than a mile to the south is the 99-seat Lillian Theatre, where "Recorded in Hollywood" explores a decade in the life of John Dolphin, a music producer who operated the influential 24-hour record store Dolphin's of Hollywood from 1948 to 1958 near the intersection of Central Avenue and Vernon in South LA. Despite its name, Dolphin's was far from Hollywood, because - so the musical relates -- racist covenants prevented Dolphin from setting up his shop in Hollywood.

motown-gordy-ds.jpgThe creative sources behind these productions are hardly impartial observers. Gordy himself is one of the three producers of "Motown" and its librettist (for the record, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan are listed in small type as "script consultants"). Gordy also co-wrote, with Michael Lovesmith, three new songs for the show - in addition to the 57 (!) golden oldies that are at least briefly performed in "Motown." "The Legendary Motown Catalog" receives the primary score credit.

The production's chronology of Gordy's life begins in 1938, when he was eight, refers to the next 15 or so years only fleetingly and indirectly, then continues with Gordy's attempts to hawk his own songs, before using family money to launch his own label in 1959.

Approximately the first two-thirds of "Motown" is set in Detroit, followed by his defection to the bright lights of LA. We hear quickly about Gordy's first early marriage and the three children from that union, but not about his subsequent marriages and children. Instead, he boils down his romantic affairs almost entirely to his long personal as well as professional coupling with Diana Ross. To Gordy's credit, he shoulders some of the responsibility for the relationship's low points as well as its highs - these two didn't always "hear a symphony."

Meanwhile, three sons of John Dolphin receive credit as the "supporters" of "Recorded in Hollywood." Jamelle Dolphin, grandson of John, wrote the biography on which the musical is based and co-wrote the show's book, with Matt Donnelly. Although "Recorded" re-creates a couple of the era's familiar classics, most of its score is a new homage to the sounds of the era, by Andy Cooper.

Most of "Recorded in Hollywood" is set in the store itself. The staging even suggests that Dolphin died in the store, which he didn't. His manner of death and its prelude (which I shouldn't reveal here) is the show's most disturbing undercurrent. Otherwise, the tone is generally celebratory, although the show acknowledges that Dolphin, too, had affairs with other women outside his marriage.

Both musicals make a convincing case that their protagonists, although motivated by profits, also contributed to breaking down some of America's racial barriers - largely by producing exhilarating music that intoxicated people of all races, and only secondarily via more organized civil rights efforts.

I wish I could say that "Recorded in Hollywood" is the better of these two shows, because I'm always drawn to LA-developed musicals, and certainly John Dolphin's story is less familiar than Berry Gordy's. At this point, however, "Recorded in Hollywood" still seems to be on the level of a workshop.

RinH_386-ds.jpgThe book needs a rewrite. Among its problems are a couple of moments that sent my eyebrows upward over what felt like over-the-top embellishments. Let's just say that these incidents aren't mentioned in the "History" section of the Dolphins of Hollywood website - leading me to distracting doubts about whether they really happened as depicted.

The production needs a sound designer, especially considering its title and subject matter. The original lyrics were sometimes difficult to decipher and therefore difficult to assess.

On the other hand, "Motown" is probably as good as it's ever going to get. It covers more decades than "Recorded," but it's much more sharply focused. The design team is first-rate, and director Charles Randolph-Wright signs, seals and delivers it with professional aplomb.

While I like to encourage the use of original scores for most musicals, for "Motown" a jukebox approach was inevitable, and all those familiar riffs trigger instant and irresistible sense memories. Also, the show's sheer pageant-like size (a cast of 34, most of them convincingly playing multiple characters) reinforces the sense that this show has a vital American story to tell.

Recorded in Hollywood photo above by Ed Krieger


sideshow-ds.jpgScene from 'Side Show'. Photo by Isaac James Creative.

The best musical production in Greater LA right now is in Fullerton - T.J. Dawson's revival of the seldom-seen "Side Show" for 3-D Theatricals, at the Plummer. Bill Russell's book and lyrics and Henry Krieger's music tell the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became freak-show attractions in the '20s, before moving up into vaudeville.

This isn't the latest version of the show, which recently played in La Jolla, Washington and on Broadway with 12 new songs and with apparently major changes in the book, supervised by director Bill Condon (who, by the way, credited not only the Broadway original but also Colony Theatre's 2002 production in Burbank with attracting him to "Side Show"). Let's hope that some LA company is about to announce a local production of the new "Side Show."

Still, Dawson's rendition of the original is quite powerful. Unlike many 3-D productions, it's playing only in Fullerton, through this weekend, without an extension in Redondo Beach.

Watching the actors in "Side Show" occupying mobile bleachers as part of the set, I was reminded of how much fun I had as an audience member at La Mirada Theatre's recent production of "Carrie the Musical." At "Carrie" (based on the Stephen King novel), those of us in the front part of the audience were also perched on mobile bleachers, which were moved at intervals, reconfiguring the very fluid playing area, often bringing us closer to the action.

This revised version of the Lawrence D. Cohen/Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore musical was the latest of La Mirada's now-annual productions in which the entire audience is seated on the stage, reducing a Broadway-size proscenium venue to the dimensions of a much more intimate midsize theater. In director Brady Schwind's version of "Carrie," however, the reduced stage was suddenly, unexpectedly expanded again in a brilliant second-act moment.

Producers reportedly want to export this concept of "Carrie" from La Mirada to the rest of America. How about starting it in LA with the same cast that did it in La Mirada? It's the kind of show that could quickly develop a rapidly growing cult following, and it deserves a longer LA life at a midsize venue closer to the many young adults in the big city. You were bored by your own prom? Just wait till you see Carrie's.

Meanwhile, the Colony is presenting "Words by Ira Gershwin," in which Jake Broder (of "Louis and Keely" fame) plays the lyricist, serving primarily as an emcee for a stroll through some of the standards and novelty numbers on which he shared credit -- not only with his composer brother George but also with Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke.

Two other singers, Elijah Rock and Angela Teek, enliven the evening considerably, along with pianist and musical director Kevin Toney. But Broder occasionally appears a bit stranded as the titular star and hub; as the character points out, it was his brother who had the charisma.

With a script and musical arrangements by Joseph Vass and direction by David Ellenstein, "Words by Ira Gershwin" is pleasant, but it isn't nearly as gripping as the Colony's other recent examination of an American Songbook founding father, Lorenz Hart, in "Falling for Make Believe."

May 3, 2015

'Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography' at the Getty

getty-greycircles.jpgTop: Poly-optic #22, 2013, Chris McCaw. Next: Spin (C-824), 2008, Marco Breuer.

As a  photographer, I am grounded in the real world. My heroes are those who often put themselves in harm's way to expose social injustice, documenting the lives of the less fortunate and doing it artfully and powerfully. So it was kind of exhilarating to visit the Getty for their latest photography exhibit, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, and meet photographers who are exploring other frontiers, sometimes breaking new ground and sometimes riffing and expanding on the work of earlier pioneers like Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pierre Cordier and Edmund Teske. There is something freeing in looking at work made with a different set of objectives in mind, work that asks questions posed by artists who are following a path of their own design, not knowing fully where it will take them. 

The show at the Getty is unusual in several respects. First, photography is the only art form which the Getty collects internationally and up to the present day. So the possibility of talking with the artists represented in a show is rare. For this show, most of the artists were in the Gallery the day of the opening and some were participating in panels and demonstrations opening week. In addition, this photography show includes several photographers whose work was not made with a camera. While photography is defined as "writing with light," why must a camera be the writing instrument?  Why can't the light source itself, be it the sun or the moon, be the instrument? On the morning of the show's opening, photographers James Welling, Chris McCaw, Alison Rossiter, Lisa Oppenheim, Marco Breuer, John Chiara and Matthew Brandt were present, and spoke about their process and their path. Some were seeing their work on the Getty walls for the first time.


Alison Rossiter's prints start with batches of old photo paper and are made by developing the unexposed, expired paper, or by using darkroom chemistry to fix the papers without exposing them to the enlarger's light. Often, after years of sitting in their boxes, some light has leaked inside the box, or a fingerprint has smudged the surface and these conditions will show themselves once the paper hits the developer. Like other artists in this show, EBay has provided an opportunity to search far and wide for papers that many would deem useless. "It all should have been thrown away," she said and talked about working in 2011 with a box of paper made in 1911. "I had an entire century in my hands. The images are made by time. The paper still reacts." A glass showcase houses some of the boxes and envelopes that Rossiter has found, with intricate labels and elegant design, packaging of a bygone era. For some of these artists, a visit to EBay over their morning coffee has become a daily ritual, and what they've found has made their art possible. "I buy something fantastic every day," Rossiter said.

Chris McCaw uses the light of the sun to burn its arc onto paper negatives he has also found on EBay, although he admits it is getting harder to find what he wants. He uses old military reconnaissance lenses, huge columns of glass that he has adapted for his artistic design, to harness the light of the sun or moon, or boards with broken 50mm lenses mounted geometically. Classically trained in Northern California, his journey as an artist changed when he set out to photograph the stars overnight at Yosemite and overslept. The sun had burned the emulsion on the paper. "I thought it was garbage," he said, and he put the paper at the bottom of the box. He didn't develop it for a long time. When he did, it resonated and led him down a whole new path.

mccaw-iris.jpgChris McCaw at the Getty, by Iris Schneider

The day after the Getty opening he had set up his lenses out on the plaza for a demonstration and was explaining his process, chatting with photography enthusiasts and eager students. Surrounded by huge lenses with bellows atttached to suitcases he has designed to make transporting them easier, his enthusiasm was infectious. He encouraged people to peek through a slit in the bellows and see how the sun was burning an arc onto the paper. He explained how his exposures vary with the time of the year, his location and the time of day and height of the sun, how he has adapted to spending hours near his camera while he makes his exposures. "I've gotten into birding," he says, along with reading and people-watching. He enjoys how the personality of a place evolves through the day. "That would be a great subject for a photo project." But obviously, not one he's going to take on anytime soon.

Marco Breuer, whose images include one in which the paper is etched with the needle from a phonograph, was trained in Germany. "I did do the proper camera thing, but in Germany there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, so you need to find a space where those rules don't apply." This idea of exploration and breaking boundaries defines the creative process.

While the idea of what a photograph is may be open to discussion, it's hard to deny that the work in this exhibit gives us beautiful and thought-provoking images to ponder while we answer the questions they pose.

"Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography" is at the Getty Center until Sept. 6.

chiara-sierra-getty.jpgSierra at Edison, 2012, from "Los Angeles Project," John Chiara.

April 28, 2015

24th Street embraces role as neighborhood's theater

LAO-24th-TIGHTROPE-CTG.jpgMark Bramhall, left, Micaela Martinez and Tony Duran in 24th Street's 'Walking the Tightrope' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre / Photo by Craig Schwartz

"Before," says Yolanda Baza, "I felt I had to be Señora Yolanda." Her voice lowers, her expression turns stern. "I was very serious."

Then, the Pico-Union grandmother joined an acting program at 24th Street Theatre. "Everything changed. Now, I play and enjoy life." Gleefully, she squeezes an imaginary orange. "Now, I take the juice."

LAO-24th-yolanda-foto.jpg"She was dead," her husband, Cipriano, agrees. "But now she is alive."

The Bazas are sitting side by side in a back office at 24th Street, a little stage company with big aspirations. "We want to do great work," says its executive director, Jay McAdams. "We also want to change lives."

Since it opened in 1997, the theater has found ways--offstage and on--to serve the largely Latino, working-class community north of USC. "We started out intending to just do plays," says Debbie Devine, the artistic director and McAdams' wife. "But the needs of the neighborhood made us realize we should do much more."

So, 24th Street gives audiences an affordable mix of local and international artists and its own productions, such as the highly lauded family tale "Walking the Tightrope," which ended a national tour at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in early May.

It offers education programs for all ages and outreach that is definitely grass-roots: a Day of the Dead celebration that draws 1,500-plus, homemade tamales dished up before and after shows, an open-door policy that keeps its building's big green doors wide open during the day.

"Everybody is welcome," declares Devine, walking across a lobby that doubles as a community hub. On this cloudy afternoon, kids snack on fruit before class while women browse through stacks of donated clothing. Visitors drop in for coffee or to use the computer printer. Through those green doors have appeared old friends, curious passers-by and, on occasion, people in distress. Theater staffers have come to the aid of homeless strangers and a domestic violence victim seeking refuge.

Photos: Yolanda Baza, above, and last year's Day of the Dead celebration / Photos by Cindy Marie Jenkins.

"We do things theaters don't usually do," McAdams says. "Things you can't measure in awards or reviews."

Even so, 24th Street has managed to earn more than its share of acclaim. The company has won year's-best honors for Spanish-language and children's plays -- genres that don't usually get such attention. Its 2010 version of Aristides Vargas' "La Razón Blindada," co-produced with two Mexican partners, was named L.A. Weekly Production of the Year. The drama about Argentine political prisoners travels to Mexico City this summer.

The West Coast premiere of Mike Kenny's "Tightrope," the story of an English family's love and loss, wowed critics in 2013--the L.A. Times called it "delicately poised between children's fable and adult reverie at once, only to become another transcendent thing altogether."

Helping kids 'After 'Cool'

Devine is a devoted arts educator. McAdams is a conservatory-trained actor. The couple, who live in the Valley, say they and fellow theater artists Stephanie Shroyer and Jon White-Spunner founded 24th Street at the urging of USC's then-drama school dean, who hoped to see a professional stage close to campus. (Shroyer and White-Spunner have since left the group.)

The company moved into a converted '20s-era carriage house near Hoover Street. "We expanded our mission once we saw this was a true neighborhood," says Devine. They also saw the neighborhood had lots of social/economic problems and not a lot of resources, especially when it came to helping kids.

Kids are a priority at 24th Street, which runs a teen leadership academy and After 'Cool after-school theater classes that also develop self-esteem and personal skills.

LAO-enterstageright-new.jpgReaching beyond the community is Enter Stage Right, an interactive introduction to the theater that has become a field-trip favorite, serving 10,000 students this school year. Each visit begins with the basics. "What do we buy at the box office?" Devine asks eager first-graders gathered in the lobby one morning. "A box?" someone guesses. A welcoming video features actor Jack Black, who credits Devine, his former teacher, with transforming his life. Onstage, children learn how to transform an empty space into a magical place.

In 2012, Theatre Communications Group, the national non-profit theater organization, honored 24th Street for its innovation and risk-taking. That year, Devine and McAdams took a risk by announcing they were going all-TYA (Theater for Young Audiences). "We did it not because we like children's theater, but because we hate it," says McAdams. "So much of it is junk. We want to create sophisticated plays parents can share with kids."

One such creation is Devine's staging of "Walking the Tightrope," in which a grandfather can't bear to tell his granddaughter that her grandmother died, so he says she joined the circus. Devine points out that Kenny confronts two taboos of children's theater--death and sadness. "Kids can handle more than people think," she insists, noting that the grandmother's spirit is represented by a bald male clown. "Parents were puzzled, but children got it right away."

Photo above: Debbie Devine and Enter Stage Right students / Photo courtesy of 24th Street Theatre

'Heart-anguishing' stories

While its youth programs filled up fast, 24th Street had trouble getting area adults to attend plays, even with neighbors paying just 24 cents' admission. "We were told, 'If you want people to come, do Hispanic art,'" McAdams says. Hence, the birth of a Latino theater initiative in 2003. "After a few bumps, things took off. But we had this apartheid-- English shows and Spanish shows. Now, we make things bilingual, using super-titles."

lao-debjay-new.jpgYolanda Baza and other residents were given the chance to act in holiday plays they helped to create through a project called Teatro del Pueblo. "The first year, 2013, we had two dozen folks, from homeless to financially OK," McAdams recalls. They shared intensely personal stories--many "heart-anguishing"--that were crafted into a script.

"Year One was life-changing," says McAdams. People who were going to get divorced didn't. An After 'Cool mother was inspired to earn her GED and is aiming for college. "There was deep sharing, the building of trust. Year Two, we still had sharing but focused on skills. Along the way, it wasn't always smooth sailing. Some people fought with each other or quit and came back. But on opening night, everyone was sobbing and hugging."

Teatro del Pueblo's foundation funding has run out, however 24th Street plans to keep the project going. The company, which has a $500,000 annual operating budget, relies on donations, grants and tour income. McAdams says it spends much of its money on education and outreach. "We produce relatively few shows because of finances." He and Devine are figuring out the effects of Actors' Equity's new minimum-wage rules on their 80-seat theater. (Both opposed the changes.)

One certainty, says McAdams, is that "we will keep helping people like Yolanda."

Baza, who is retired from the bakery business, came to L.A. from Mexico City more than 40 years ago. "Once, I was nervous about the audience," she admits, recounting her experiences in Spanish and English. "Now, I have fun onstage."

Delightedly, she describes her role in last year's show: "I was a coquette." She clasps her face in mock horror. "My grandchildren were like this. They said, 'Oh, Grandma!'"

Baza laughs. "I am 72, but now I forget my age. If you ask, I say I am 10 or 20."

Photo above: Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams / Photo by Jon Deshler

The most civilized and generous film festival

HAZAVANICIUSsm.jpgDirector Michel Hazanavicius. Photo by Iris Schneider.

If Los Angeles is the city of film festivals, and I think it is, then the COLCOA festival has to be the most civilized and generous one of all. The "City of Lights, City of Angels" festival will run through Tuesday screening French features, documentaries and now French television to an enthusiastic audience of movie lovers. During the 9-day festival, 68 movies will be shown. Each day starts with coffee and croissants and a free 11 am screening of a favorite film from the festival. There is also an open 2 pm classic screening and then evening films which must be ticketed. But anyone who checks the COLCOA facebook page can request tickets to the next day's screenings and often win them. And most days include an open "Happy Hour Talk" at 4 pm, and a wine reception afterwards for all attendees.

This is a festival that simply celebrates French film and film lovers.

After many of the screenings, there are panels with the directors or actors and any ticketholder gets a chance to vote on each movie. On Tuesday, the last day of the festival, the audience winners will be re-screened along with other favorites from the festival in a movie marathon of free screenings. All movies are shown in the beautiful Director's Guild theaters on Sunset Blvd. Parking is available onsite.

A recent night's screenings included "The Search," a new film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, whose silent film "The Actor" won five Oscars in 2012, including best picture. The new film, set in Chechnya, is a gripping and emotional exploration of four characters whose lives are intertwined by the war with Russia. Hazanavicius wanted to draw attention to the situation in Chechnya because he felt that the human toll of this and many vicious wars is too often ignored after a brief mention on the evening news. His film is beautifully written and acted by newcomers including 9 year old Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev and Maksim Emelyanov, who play a displaced child and a young Russian soldier, and veteran actors Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo. Like many of the films screened during the festival, distribution in the United States is still an open question.

In addition of many comedies, some of the outstanding films screened this year were "Atlit," set in Israel, and "Memories," about the complications that come with retirement and aging. In the documentary category are "Cartoonists," "Of Men and War," "Silenced Walls," and "Steak (R)Evolution."

This festival is a great opportunity to see films that really celebrate the small but powerful movies that simply explore what it means to be human and struggle with all that life throws our way.

Previously at Native Intelligence:
City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday