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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 In my last column I wrote about ISC's "Richard III," but it has now been replaced by "The Tempest."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.


DON AND THE DONALD'S GREAT BIG CHAT

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.

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Boheme2016-BOH_3717.jpg
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.

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soul-train-iris3.jpg

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

elektra-on-screen.jpgElektra.

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

robtmapp-lacma-self.jpg
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.

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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.

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Larry and Bobby kissing, 1979


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Patti Smith, 1978


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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.

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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

LAO_ChambersBrothers.jpg

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-and-diane.jpg
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-ken-howard.jpg
"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."

giselle-laballet.jpg

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

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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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 HopscotchOpera.com, 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.

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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?

Dudamel.jpgDudamel.


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.

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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

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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 sherry@santamonicaartstudios.com.
 

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?

None.

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.

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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

placido-domingo-Schicchi.jpg

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 salon...you 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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fences.


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.

A WEST SIDE STORY

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.

GAMES OF THRONES

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

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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).

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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.


o-o-o


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.

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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.

lace-curtain-lacma-iris.jpg
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.

sharon-wild-sultan-lacma.jpglarry-sultan-mother-lacma.jpg

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:

bryce-ryness-sits.jpg

bryce-costume.jpg


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 protectbasinandrange.org.

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.

Photos:
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


MORE MUSICALS

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.

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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.

lao-dayofdead-new.jpg
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

April 26, 2015

Silver Lake's 'Bates Motel' gets a whitewash

bates-motel-portrait.jpgPhotos by Iris Schneider.

Vincent Lamouroux says he was always attracted to the building, known in Silver Lake as the Bates Motel, at the corner of Bates and Sunset. Over the past 15 years, he has driven by on trips to Los Angeles from his native France, always wanting to do an art project here, but not really sure what it would be. On Sunday, the fruits of his thoughts and labor will finally be open to the public: the entire Sunset Pacific Motel building covered in a gleaming whitewash, that has taken the decrepit eyesore from awful to awesome.

Over the past few weeks, painters have been covering every inch of the rundown motel — including the palm trees — with a water-soluble lime wash that has given the corner a clean bill of health. The motel has been bought and sold several times over the past years, with plans for an upscale hotel and condominiums being discussed and shelved. Now, for the time being at least, it has been transformed with Lamouroux's project "Projection." Lamouroux explained that the name refers both to the process of spraying the lime wash onto the building, but also that the viewer is able to project ideas and imagination onto the surfaces of this building.

bates-motel-painting.jpg

Lamouroux says transformation is a theme of his work, and by doing a large scale installation it not only involves the eye of the viewer, but all the senses. "I like to produce some sort of experience," he said on Thursday as he supervised the touch up of lime wash being sprayed onto the palm trunks and fronds. The neighboring communities, including Thomas Starr King Middle School, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community
Center and the Lycée International de Los Angeles, along with community organizations, all heartily supported the project.

"It was a long process, but not that hard," Lamouroux said. "I like the idea that we were able to have around us people who were believers about it. It's a great thing to be able to share a dream, starting from an idea and transforming it into a reality. For me, this project is an awakened dream that has turned into reality."

bates-motel-wide.jpg

April 20, 2015

The match of play and venue can be so wrong -- and so right

julius-caesar-anw.jpgEnsemble of "Julius Caesar" at A Noise Within. Photo: Craig Schwartz

LA's larger stages frequently house small-scale productions that might be more accessible in venues where more of the audience is closer to the actors. And LA's smaller stages frequently host large-cast productions that might look less cramped and cluttered in more spacious homes.

This phenomenon is in large part a product of the Actors' Equity pay scales behind the scenes of LA theater, which have aroused such strong passions recently. I've written more directly about that debate in my last two columns. Let me repeat that I'm a theatergoer, not a producer or an Equity member. My primary concern in this dispute is how to make LA theater not only better but more noticeable to the larger public.

Too bad there is no magic wand that would instantly provide enough money for the companies with larger stages and bigger budgets to produce larger-cast, wider-angle, higher-profile theater most of the time, leaving more intimate plays in the hands of the companies that operate the more intimate venues (including the smaller midsize venues as well as the spaces with fewer than 100 seats.) This result would benefit LA audiences as much as it would benefit LA actors. And producers in small theaters might be more capable of raising enough money to pay the legal minimum wage if they were using fewer actors.

In the meantime, let's examine two companies that currently serve as models for knowing how to use the strengths of their own spaces and (apparently) how to manage their finances - while each of them is staging at least three almost-simultaneous productions.

First, A Noise Within. For years, this midsize (281 seats) classics company has announced themes for its three-show rep seasons. This spring, however, the Pasadena troupe has more purposefully emphasized the ties that bind two of its productions, "Julius Caesar" and "The Threepenny Opera," billed together as "RevolutionRep."

The two scripts have very different perspectives. "Threepenny" primarily addresses why revolutions arise and "Julius Caesar" spends more time depicting a revolution itself and its disillusioning aftermath. However, if you see both in one day, as I did last Sunday and as A Noise Within is inviting audiences to do on April 25 and May 2, you'll probably notice that a song in "Threepenny" includes a verse reflecting on the story of Julius Caesar.

I would suggest seeing "Threepenny" in the afternoon and "Julius Caesar" in the evening, as I did, because this order better illustrates the natural sequence of the revolutionary arc. You can do that on May 2. (Also, on both April 25 and May 2, you can spend the time in between the two performances by adding dinner with cast members and a roundtable discussion in the upstairs rehearsal room, for an extra $50.)

A Noise Within has united these two productions in ways that go beyond their themes. The company's producing artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott co-directed both shows and used the same designers. Frederica Nascimento's nimble set serves both plays, primarily consisting of mobile components that are shifted into many configurations. Because there isn't much scenic realism, Ken Booth's lighting assumes a vital role and becomes one of the productions' most shining (yes, pun intended) elements.

Both performances begin with the buzz of pertinent lines lifted from elsewhere in the script - a Brechtian touch not seen as often in "Julius Caesar" as in "Threepenny," and both productions effectively use the aisles as well as the company's sharply thrust stage. Five actors appear in both productions, with the remarkable Deborah Strang doing the most notable double duty as Mrs. Peachum in "Threepenny" and as a female Casca in "Julius Caesar."

The first act of "Julius Caesar" achieves the undeniable thrust of a cannonball. The second half of Shakespeare's text, after Mark Antony (Rafael Goldstein here) rouses the Roman rabble against Brutus (Robertson Dean) and Cassius (Freddy Douglas), always runs the risk of seeming somewhat anti-climactic. But this production condenses it into a relatively swift and streamlined accounting of how the revolution stumbled under the weight of its protagonists' very human flaws.

"Threepenny" isn't quite as successful, for two reasons. Andrew Ableson is miscast as Macheath, never convincingly projecting the raw danger of "Mack the Knife." And occasionally the lyrics (in the stinging Michael Feingold translation) are hard to decipher over the masterful seven-person band's interpretations of Kurt Weill's evocative score. Still, other performances are memorable, especially Marisa Duchowny's Polly Peachum and Stasha Surdyke's Jenny Diver.

By the way, A Noise Within is also currently presenting Michael Michetti's sprightly West Coast premiere of Charley Morey's adaptation of Beaumarchais' "Figaro." While it lacks the revolutionary gravitas of "Threepenny" and "Julius Caesar" and isn't part of the officially designated RevolutionRep, it "also skewers the foibles of the ruling classes with fierce, fearless farce," as the producing artistic directors write in their program note. Jeremy Guskin in the title role is a live wire.

For the record, A Noise Within - originally a 99-seat-plan company - is currently employing 25 Actors' Equity members as actors and stage managers, not as "volunteers."

On to the Road Theatre Company. It's already running three plays in NoHo and it's about to open a fourth. All four will be playing at least through next weekend. "The Other Place" and "The English Bride" are humming along in the 78-seat Road on Magnolia. "Mud Blue Sky" opened last week at the 44-seat Road on Lankershim, and it will be joined next week by "Things Being What They Are." Things begin what they are, the Road understandably still uses Equity's 99-seat plan.

All of the Road plays are small-scale and newish, although none of them is brand-new. Road's "The English Bride" is billed as a West Coast premiere, while "The Other Place" and "Mud Blue Sky" are LA premieres. "Things Being What They Are" - Wendy MacLeod's male-bonding comedy -- had a brief run in a different production at last year's Hollywood Fringe Festival. Road's production features one of the actors, Chet Grissom, who also performed in the Fringe version.

MUD-BLUE-SKY-ds.jpgAdam Farabee, Carlyle King and Whitney Dylan in "Mud Blue Sky" at the Road Theatre. Photo: John Lorenz

Most of the Road plays are realistic in style - although Sharr White's "The Other Place," about a woman who is gradually losing her mind - conveys some of the same sense of disorientation that the character is experiencing.

"Mud Blue Sky" and "The English Bride" explore fresher subject matter than the other two. In the former, three middle-aged flight attendants try to make it through a night at a chain motel near a Chicago airport with the help of a teenage pot dealer on his prom night. Marisa Wegrzyn's play is a more honest and rueful update of the old-fashioned stewardess farces from the '60s. Although the ending is a bit of a muddle and the characters may feel grounded, Mary Lou Belli's cast is, well, flying high.

In Lucile Lichtblau's "The English Bride," an inexperienced lass is swept up in a romance with a man who is secretly plotting to plant a bomb in her suitcase as she travels to Israel on El Al. Loosely based on a real-life incident in the '80s, it's structured in the form of after-the-fact interrogations by an Israeli agent of both the bomber and his bride. So we know the ending early on, and the play becomes more of a psychological probe than a suspense thriller. But director Marya Mazor and her three-person cast make the psychology fascinating.

The vigor of the multiple productions at A Noise Within and the Road is impressive. Of course A Noise Within is working on a much larger and more expensive scale than is the Road. No, neither company is currently doing brand-new plays, which take more time and intensive labor to develop. And they're not doing LA-set plays, although the Road last year produced the premiere of a Pasadena-set play, "Sovereign Body," which was somewhat like "The Other Place" in its theme and casting of the mighty Taylor Gilbert -- only better.

In Chris Jones' review of the premiere of "Mud Blue Sky" for the Chicago Tribune last year, he wrote of how the Chicago venue is directly across the street from an apartment complex that used to be "teeming with flight attendants" back in the day. Road, that's your cue - find a new play that's set across the street from one of your theaters in NoHo.

Meanwhile, a few brief words about Theatre West's revival of Jim Beaver's "Verdigris" - which opened there three decades ago but didn't receive a second production until now. "Verdigris," set in Oklahoma in 1972, focuses on a domineering widow who runs several hardscrabble businesses from her wheelchair, while her son demands that she sell the house and enter a nursing home. For the current production, Beaver -- who's also in the cast as the woman's alcoholic brother -- has filled in some of the backstory of the narrator (Adam Conger) whose memory play this is. Mark W. Travis is once again the director. Sheila Shaw, who played a younger character in the previous production, now appears as the pivotal widow.

Verdigris-ds.jpgJim Beaver, Sheila Shaw, Adam Conger in "Verdigris" at Theatre West. Photo: Charlie Mount

Theatre West recently raised $56,079 on Kickstarter to revive "Verdigris" in the same 160-seat house where it began. The venerable company uses Equity contracts for its children's productions in this space, but for years it has been allowed to use the 99-seat plan for many of its adult-oriented productions, including this revival of "Verdigris." The "Verdigris" cast includes six Equity actors, all of whom are excellent.

In between the two productions of "Verdigris," another small-town Oklahoma play that revolves around a strong-willed older woman character - Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" -- became much more famous. It went from Steppenwolf in Chicago to Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize and was transformed into a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Angelenos will get another chance to experience the play this summer at Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, but my memory of it (from its tour stop at the Ahmanson in 2009) is that it's much louder and soapier than "Verdigris" but not necessarily as moving or as authentic.

I applaud Theatre West for developing "Verdigris" and sticking with it after three decades, But I imagine that the play might have garnered a lot more attention if its first or at least its second stop had been Steppenwolf (which has 515- and 299-seat venues) or one of its local equivalents instead of a theater using the 99-seat plan. This, of course, is an admonition to the local equivalents of Steppenwolf to examine their own back yards more closely, as well as an admonition to the LA theater community to build more local equivalents of Steppenwolf. For every promising play that has gone from the 99-seat plan to greater glory, there are probably a hundred that have not.

April 19, 2015

City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday

In an attempt to reverse the trend of writing about great events after they over, here is a reminder about an annual opportunity to see dozens of French films beginning Tuesday: The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival. From April 21 through the 28th, a mix of the best dramas, comedies, thrillers, and shorts are available for a reasonable price or for free and being screened at the Directors Guild in Hollywood. Unlike many festivals, you don't need to purchase passes as tickets are available for individual films.

Their web site at COLCOA is easy to navigate and packed with information, but let me cut to my particular favorite series at the festival: the classic films.
 
oss-117-cairo-nest-of-spies.jpgYears before Jean Dujardin won his Academy Award for Best Actor for "The Artist," COLCOA devotees had "discovered" him (as well as its director Michel Hazanavicius) playing the inept, very politically and culturally incorrect spy in "OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies." It is a hilarious send up of James Bond (but based on novels that predated Ian Fleming's creation) and even though it is only ten years old, "OSS 117" is being screened as a classic on Thursday at 2 in the afternoon. Other classics shown this year include newly restored versions of Truffaut's "The Last Metro," Renoir's "La Chienne" and Wim Wender's "Paris, Texas." The classics are all free and there are no rsvps, but getting there a little early is a small price to pay for the rare chance to see these films on the big screen.
 
Check out the other films as well, several are American premieres, and there are also discussions with filmmakers that are open to the public. With fewer screens at the multiplexes showing foreign films, take advantage of this fabulous week to immerse yourself in the finest French films.

April 2, 2015

'White God' is both allegorical and mind-boggling

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I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where graffiti proclaiming "Refugees Welcome" was scrawled across walls in Dresden as a response to anti-immigrant demonstrations in Germany. Indeed, a growing wave of immigrant resentment is sweeping many European countries. So I was curious about "White God," a film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. His allegorical film is an attempt to warn about the dangers of racism and prejudice, and he makes his point in a visceral way. Using dogs to represent the "masses," Mundruczo's film takes us with him as the world descends into chaos--a chaos for the ruling class that is, the people who have been abusing and dominating dogs systematically, and sending to the pound the mixed breeds that would otherwise be left to roam the streets fending for themselves unless their owners pay a "mixed breed" tax. The authorities roam as well, in groups, pulling up in their vans, armed with sticks and lassoes, rounding up the mixed breed dogs and sending them to certain death at the city "shelter." Only through the love of the movie's heroine Lili, and the music she plays, are the rampaging and angry dogs ultimately subdued and soothed, but not before they take their revenge on those who heartlessly abused them, leaving a bloody trail in their wake.

dresden-iris.jpgWe are hooked from the film's effective and affecting opening sequence, where his charming young heroine Lili, played beautifully by newcomer Zsofia Psotta, rides alone on her bike through the eerily deserted streets of Budapest searching for her lost dog Hagen, only to be joined by Hagen and hundreds of dogs running through the streets like a well-choreographed army. A sense of dread overcomes you and it never really goes away until the film's final scene. Lili is a girl on the verge of adolescence whose long visit with her estranged father precipitates her growing up, as she loses her innocence along with her dog, and learns the hard lessons and compromises of life, love and loss.

The technical aspect of working with 250 dogs and no CGI, was no small feat for the director who willingly took on the challenge. In this day of computer generated mayhem, it's mind-boggling to imagine how this film was made. Credit must be given to all the actors, the director and the dog trainer Teresa Miller. Her work with the lead dogs, who play Hagen, Luke and Bodie, was extraordinary. Many of the dogs used in the film, like the two leads, were rescue dogs and many found homes among the cast and crew when filming was through. Although the director reassures us that the violence portrayed on the screen was safely simulated, it was at times very hard to watch. But for Mundruczo, there was a purpose: "art must hold a mirror up to the face of society."

Although at times I wasn't sure whether Mundruczo was simply urging us all to become vegetarian, with harrowing close-up images from slaughter houses and butcher shops, his broader story certainly resonates when seen in the context of current events in Europe and beyond. With the entrenchment of an immigrant underclass in many European cities, and issues of harmony between races ever-present worldwide, the film, while sometimes over the top, is hard to dismiss and gives us much to think about.

March 26, 2015

On famous actors and 99-seat theater*

blythe-danner-country-house-lamont.jpgBlythe Danner last year in "The Country House" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont.

I've been a Blythe Danner fan for decades. But I don't understand why her words were chosen to receive the famous-actor spotlight in a full-page LA Times ad - which attacked Actors' Equity's controversial proposal to require at least minimum-wage payments to the union's members who work in LA County theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

Her quote begins with this testimonial: "99 seat theaters provided the lifeblood for many of us when we began in this business and are still not only relevant but crucial to the artistic life of our city and country."

Like many actors, Danner probably performed in a few small theaters as a young woman, probably in the East in the '60s. But those experiences don't necessarily have any relevance to the particular issues surrounding Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan in LA County in 2015. Does anyone remember Danner performing under Equity's 99-seat plan?

I doubt it. I've been paying attention since before the plan went into effect in the late '80s, by which time she was a long-established star. And I can't recall any such performance by Danner. If Danner had worked in a play at a 99-seat theater in LA during this period, the LA Times surely would have reviewed it, so I ran her name through the online LA Times database since 1985, searching for any sign that Danner had dabbled in a 99-seat show. None of the 271 Times references to Danner since 1985 indicated that she had performed under the plan.

Her only LA theater credits listed in her Wikipedia bio are the title role in "Major Barbara" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971 and a staged reading at the Ahmanson. Also, as I wrote in a 2014 LA Observed column, she was superb in the premiere of "The Country House" at the Geffen last year. Yet the Taper, Ahmanson and Geffen are not on the 99-seat plan.

So why is she being cited as an authority on the current brouhaha?

Danner shouldn't be chided for declining to participate in LA's 99-seat theater. Although she has previously lived in Santa Monica, more recent interviews indicate that nowadays she considers herself primarily a New Yorker. Why would she bother with plays in LA's 99-seat theaters when she can work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Williamstown, or even at the Taper and the Geffen? Like many actors, she also works frequently in movies and TV, which probably provide her with more income than she receives from any stage job.

I wouldn't pretend to speculate on how she might compare her artistic rewards in all of these various arenas, but I also wouldn't suggest that she would necessarily feel that the artistic rewards might be even greater in a 99-seat production in LA. Yet now, with no experience in that world, she has been thrust into the role of being a spokeswoman for LA small theater.

Actually, even considering the many famous actors who unambiguously reside in LA, only a tiny percentage of them ever perform under the 99-seat plan. If more of them worked under the plan, their names might attract a lot more customers - and revenue -- to these theaters.

Not that these companies should cater to the stars if they aren't right for the roles, but some of these stars are clearly capable of doing the job and adding a few extra audience members on the side because of their celebrity. For example, I'll guess that the presence of the great Laurie Metcalf (who was one of the signers of the LA Times ad) in Circle X's intriguing "Trevor" surely provides at least a few benefits at the box office.

But part of the reason why Metcalf's appearance is so noteworthy is because so few actors on her level of fame and experience participate in 99-seat theater. They might sign petitions for it, but they don't want to be subjected to its barely-compensated regimen. Only a minuscule proportion of the wealthiest actors can afford to completely ignore the size of the paycheck when deciding whether to take job offers.

metcalfe-TREVOR.jpgJimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf in "Trevor." Photo: Ryan Miller

Of course this overall dearth of accomplished celebs in the 99-seaters is good, on one level, for it makes more room for the gifted not-yet-famous actors. However, many of these talented but struggling performers truly can't afford to spend much time doing 99-seat theater. They would benefit, more than anyone, from a well-coordinated raise -- to at least the minimum-wage level.

Sometimes, the more affluent actors might better serve the 99-seat companies by donating money. It could be more helpful to be a benefactor than a box-office attraction. For example, from the "Trevor" program I learned that Courteney Cox of "Friends" and "Cougar Town" fame is a contributor to Circle X (her "Cougar Town" colleague Bob Clendenin was a co-founder of Circle X and is not only in the cast of "Trevor" but also is listed as a donor to the company at the highest level.)

I'm not asking this next question rhetorically -- I don't know the answer. But maybe someone out there might know: Does Blythe Danner regularly donate to any of LA's 99-seat companies?

[* Update: Since my column posted, former Antaeus Company artistic director Jeanie Hackett answered this question about whether Blythe Danner has contributed to 99-seat theater behind the scenes. Danner donated to Antaeus "when I ran it," she says, and Danner "hosted a benefit for us at her house as well. I don't think Antaeus is the only company she donated to. She also went to see small theater regularly -- and was a fan of many of the small companies around town. I know she sometimes makes 'anonymous' donations -- as many celebs do, since they are pursued relentlessly by the theater-needy. But she would often say to me that she thought that that small theater in L.A. rivaled that in NYC."]

Rather than expecting any labor union - in an era of minimum-wage activism on many fronts -- to endorse a plan that pays less than minimum wage (especially now that it has been pointed out that this has been happening for decades), 99-seat companies should begin raising the money that will be necessary for the day when paying the minimum wage is required - whether it's by Equity or by a court. And these developmental efforts should be aimed not only at the relatively few wealthy actors, of course, but also at foundations, corporations, government agencies and audience members in general.

As I mentioned in my last column, Equity should have been much more specific about the terms of the proposed transition to minimum-wage payment and the union's access to any financial resources that might facilitate that transition. Equity leaders maintain that the national council will decide all of this when it meets in late April. They also have indicated recently that the transition won't be as sudden as some have feared. More public attention to these matters would have been useful before the LA membership's current "advisory" referendum began.

Speaking of my last column, when I cited 323 productions in Greater LA (Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties) that operated on Equity contracts from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014 (the last year for which records were available), several readers asked how many of these contracted shows occurred in Los Angeles County -- where the 99-Seat Plan (not a contract) was used in 390 productions during the same period. I asked Equity, which reported that 221 of the 323 contracted productions were in Los Angeles County - and that these numbers do not include touring productions that played LA after being cast and contracted in New York or other cities.

I'm a theatergoer, not an actor, so I was primarily interested in finding out the number of opportunities to see professional theater within my normal driving distance - which includes Orange and Ventura counties as well as LA County - regardless of whether the shows were on the 99-seat plan or on contracts. But I'm glad to hear that 221 contract productions occurred in LA County during that one year, and, again, if the minimum wage requirement is enforced, I hope that the producers who already use contracts are open to doing whatever they can to welcome the 99-seat producers into their world. Co-productions, anyone?

Meanwhile, as we non-actors await Equity's decision, I notice that among the 99-seat theater supporters who signed the LA Times ad are Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Does this mean that we'll soon be able to see them doing "The Odd Couple" together on Hollywood's Theater Row or in deepest NoHo (Baldwin as Felix, Pacino as Oscar)? Or maybe they would prefer just to make a few big donations?

March 10, 2015

Josef Koudelka exhibit at the Getty

koudelka-tank.jpgJosef Koudelka, Prague 1968. c Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka brought us into the Soviet invasion on the streets of Prague, Czechoslavakia in 1968 by smuggling out his film and getting it to the Magnum office in Paris. An engineer by profession, like Sebastaio Salgado, Koudelka was seduced by the camera and the events unfolding before him. Having returned to Prague only one day before the invasion, he sensed the weight of history, loaded up his camera and took to the streets. But it was not until the one-year anniversary that the images he made were published, and then only credited P.P. for "Prague photographer" to protect Koudelka's identity.

In a gripping show of his black and white images now on display at the Getty until March 22, we are thrown back into those days of tumult and caught up in the passion, chaos and repression that he recorded. In the days before Facebook and Instagram revolutions, we have to be thankful for the tenacity and commitment of someone like Koudelka who not only chose to be there, but used his eye and artistry to make these powerful images so the world could see the strong arm of the Soviet Union as it brought its full force against the Czechoslovakian people.

Koudelka eventually felt forced to leave his homeland and began years of photographic wandering, exploring the issues of alienation and statelessness, adding to his earlier Eastern Europe work in the '70s documenting the Gypy community by continuing it in England, where he repatriated. The title of the current Getty show, Nationality Doubtful, comes from the determination made by British border control whenever Koudelka applied to re-enter his adopted homeland as he returned from his photographic excursions. Over those early years he connected with Magnum photo agency and the Magnum photographers including Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who always gave him assistance, advice and a floor on which to spread his sleeping bag.

The Getty show is sweeping in scope, spanning the various segments of Koudelka's long career: his early experimental work on the avant-garde theater in Czechoslovakia, his work documenting Gypsies, the Czech invasion, exiles and more recent panoramas--devoid of people but not the effect that people have wrought on their environment. His most recent work, images of the walls that divide us are stark and dramatic, gritty and powerful.

koudelka-getty-pan.jpgAl 'Eizariya (Bethany) 2010. Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos

koudelka-flag.jpg
Josef Koudelka, Prague 1968 .c Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos.

koudelka-gypsies.jpgJosef Koudelka, Czechoslovakia, Straznice, 1966. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

March 8, 2015

Looking beyond the minimum-wage mess in LA theater*

Alarm bells are going off in the LA theater community about Actors' Equity's proposal to require most productions to pay Equity actors the minimum wage - soon.

Reading some of the dire predictions, it would be easy to surmise that this step would doom most of LA theater - or at least eliminate the use of Equity actors in most LA productions except those at a handful of larger theaters.

Could this be true?

EquityLogo_RGBcolor.jpgI asked Equity to give me the latest numbers - how many productions in Greater LA use the non-contractual 99-seat plan, which hardly ever comes close to paying minimum wage? And how many use Equity contracts, which usually pay something that's at least minimum wage (if not a living wage)?

Drumroll, please. Equity reports that from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014, 390 productions used the 99-seat Plan, which is available only in Los Angeles County. And 323 productions operated on Equity contracts in Greater LA - Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

So if an avid (albeit crazed) theatergoer had decided to see all 323 of the local stage productions that paid Equity actors at least the minimum wage during that year - but not any 99-seat plan shows - theoretically he or she could still have seen six productions a week for a year (not factoring in the usual problems of conflicting curtain times, traffic jams, etc.), plus one additional show during each of 11 weeks.

In other words, LA's theatrical landscape would still offer plenty of options for dedicated theatergoers, even without the 99-seat plan.

Back in 2011, according to Equity, there were 371 productions on the 99-seat plan but only 216 on contracts. So the number of Equity contracts in LA is growing much faster than the number of 99-seat shows. It's possible that if the new Equity rules go into effect, they will simply add fuel to a process that has already started. Perhaps it has something to do with the economic recovery?

Both sides in the current dispute could try to use these figures to their own advantage.

The Pro-99 camp will say that this proves that the 99-seat plan isn't inhibiting the simultaneous use of more and more Equity contracts - so why not let the plan continue? Or, at the very least, why not allow the smaller companies a slower entry into the world of minimum-wage theater, so those companies that want to move up have more time to consolidate their resources?

The pro-change camp will argue that the original purpose of paying mere peanuts to Equity actors was because there were so many actors who wanted to be on stage in LA and so few opportunities to work on Equity contracts. But now that the opportunities have expanded, why should any Equity actors have to keep munching on peanuts - while the non-acting personnel on the same 99-seat-plan productions have at least moved up to cashews?

Of course the quantity of productions and how much their creators are paid don't tell the whole story. Fierce proponents of small theater like to imagine themselves as the defenders of innovation, not poverty. They often suggest that 99-seat productions are inherently more adventurous, more artistically pure than those productions that must try to appeal to larger audiences. And it's certainly true that it's often easier to fix the problems within new scripts when the financial stakes are at their lowest point, in tiny theaters - and that higher pay scales sometimes result in smaller casts.

But I've seen plenty of exceptions to these rules of thumb. I go to theater at all levels in Greater LA -- more than 200 productions a year - and I can't say that any one level is consistently more accomplished or even more adventurous. I've seen exciting new plays and musicals with professional production standards at LA theaters of all sizes. I've also seen impenetrable train wrecks and meretricious trash at theaters of all sizes. Popular appeal is not necessarily synonymous with pandering. The stages of London and New York, where actors generally are paid better, are hardly devoid of creativity.

With the aesthetic results being more or less equal, and with Equity's attitude leaning toward take-it-or-leave-it (with the exceptions of "self-produced work" and, to a lesser extent, membership companies), I prefer an adoption of the minimum wage to no change whatsoever.

Over time, a minimum-wage standard would result in actors who are more devoted not only to particular productions but also to the stage as a lifetime adventure, as opposed to a showcase or a hobby. And there could be another hefty benefit. If many of the new productions would now have to take place in venues with more than 99 seats, the potentially larger audiences could conceivably lead to more attention from donors and from the general public.

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered two British tourists in LA who had actually taken the rare step of booking tickets to a show here before they left the UK. They couldn't remember the title, the venue or the subject. The tickets cost only $15, so the production must be the work of "amateurs," they had concluded. That assumption is unfair to plenty of hard-working 99-seat practitioners, but like it or not, that's how most outsiders view most of LA's 99-seat theaters.

Speaking of 99-seat plan public relations, the most quoted speaker on behalf of the status quo at a recent rally was Tim Robbins - a presumably wealthy movie star whose generally leftist principles suddenly turned Republican when confronted with the possibility of a required minimum wage in LA theater.

He spoke of how much money he has personally invested in his own 99-seat company, the Actors' Gang - three cheers for that. Not surprisingly, he didn't point out that the Gang is a mere shadow of its former self, at least as far as adult theatergoers in LA's general public can tell. The Gang gets a lot of its revenue from international tours and has a big presence in prisons and schools, but for two years in a row the Gang's primary mainstage offering in its Culver City home - where it pays $3000 a month (* corrected) for rent -- was "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which can usually be seen in at least a half-dozen other productions every year in Greater LA. So much for the notion that the 99-seat plan invariably results in more diverse, adventurous programming. (However, the Gang is currently workshopping Ellen McLaughlin's "Lysistrata," so maybe hope is on the horizon.)

By the way, a Channel 11 news report on the Equity controversy began with footage of Robbins at the rally, with a voiceover from the reporter saying "Actor Tim Robbins - standing up for the little guy." So now someone who speaks against minimum-wage enforcement is "standing up for the little guy," with "guy" apparently defined as an individual company instead of an individual actor. That line from the reporter sounds as if it might have been lifted from one of the Gang's touring productions, "1984."

Of course, the question arises - where will the extra money come from? Well, if the producers of 323 shows in May 2013-May 2014 in Greater LA could find enough money to pay actors on contracts, I suspect that at least some of the 99-seat theaters could eventually find more money, too.

Perhaps some former theater majors who now make big salaries as execs in Hollywood - after virtually starving a decade ago, when they were would-be actors -- might be more willing to contribute to a nonprofit that's serious about paying actors. That also might be true of foundations and public agencies. The currently popular crowd-funding sites, which of course didn't exist during most of the history of the 99-seat plan, might garner a few more dollars for theater.

Unfortunately, cultivating such support isn't easy. Equity is rushing the process, without enough transition time. The union should be a lot more specific about its announced plan "to help build infrastructure and increase funding" for small theaters that try to move up to contracts.

In a column last September, I discussed the possibility that there are some midsize (100-500 seat) venues that might become available to house productions from smaller companies, increasing the potential box-office revenue somewhat without seriously diluting the intimacy of the theatrical experience.

The producers at existing midsize theater companies might well dread the day when smaller companies start competing more seriously for funding, but they could perform a great service to the larger LA theater community by opening their hearts and minds to the idea of at least occasional venue-sharing with the more acclaimed 99-seat companies. Perhaps foundations and public agencies could help make that pathway smoother.

Generally speaking, a concentration of LA theater at fewer venues with higher profiles and more seating might attract more media attention and more attendance - including tourists.

If Equity enacts the new rules next month, we're in for a rough passage in LA theater. A few worthy companies will probably decide to close. But we can take some comfort from the fact that LA is the home of a perpetually revolving door of theatrical talent. The traffic on our stages often has a whiff of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new. And the number of actors who burn out after about five years on LA's small stages would probably decrease if they're paid at least the minimum wage.

The long-term results might well be a theatrical arena that's not only better-known - but better in general, because the professionals who work at every performance of every production will no longer be singled out for discriminatory amateur-hour compensation.


On with the show...

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"Enter Laughing."

In "Enter Laughing," which just closed in the 144-seat Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis, the fictional protagonist David Kolowitz is a young would-be actor (played by the wonderful Noah Weisberg) who starts paying an acting teacher for the chance to be in the teacher's little student productions. Although David seems to have very little talent, finally he's told that he'll no longer have to pay the previously required $5 a week. Jubilant at this news, he exclaims, "I get to act for nothing!"

The audience roared with laughter at this line, when I saw this jaunty and hilarious Joseph Stein/Stan Daniels musical, loosely based on Carl Reiner's memories, under the direction of Stuart Ross of "Forever Plaid" fame. Perhaps the thoughts of more than a few of us flashed to the current situation in LA. Sometimes the actors who so righteously defend every comma in LA's 99-seat plan sound a bit like David.

Fortunately, the actors in "Enter Laughing" itself, as opposed to the play within the play, didn't have to feel as if they were the butt of the joke. They worked on a contract. I wonder if some of them left performances exclaiming "I get to make people laugh out loud in an intimate theater for $600 a week" - compared to their colleagues in 99-seat theaters who would feel lucky to get $60 a week.

"Enter Laughing" is just one of the many Equity-contract productions I've enjoyed recently in LA, as I again verified that it's possible to see a lot of good theater here outside the 99-seat houses.

End of the Rainbow_1NC copy.jpgAnyone who missed Peter Quilter's "End of the Rainbow" two years ago, when it was at the Ahmanson Theatre, should venture to Long Beach's International City Theatre in Long Beach. Gigi Bermingham is tearing up the ICT stage with her portrait of Judy Garland's final months, helped enormously by Brent Schindele's musical direction and his performance as Judy's accompanist and friend.

Meanwhile, at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, the West Coast premiere of Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox" gives us parallel stories of the final weeks of Robert E. Lee's retreat and a modern couple (with issues, of course) tracing Lee's tracks - and gradually learning to move beyond the past as Lee did. It's an intriguing premise, although it isn't as intriguing as the more ingenious set-up of Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," which recently closed at Pasadena Playhouse and which is set just a few days after Lee's surrender.

I can't recommend the premiere of Nandita Shenoy's "Washer/Dryer," a New York-set domestic farce at East West Players. It's so insubstantial that it threatens to reinforce the opinions of those 99-seat plan adherents who maintain that contracts and larger capacities tend to water down the work.

The West Coast premiere of Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive" doesn't feel so alive at the beginning, but it eventually becomes a lot more exciting. By contrast, Arthur Miller's "The Price" at the Taper grows more and more tiresome.

The miscasting of one crucial role is a problem with both "The Threepenny Opera" at A Noise Within and Deaf West's "American Buffalo," which is in a larger-than-99-seat production at Cal State LA, closing Sunday. However, I enjoyed the interplay between Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci in "Buffalo" and the nearly immersive use of the entire theater space in "Threepenny."

Speaking of the creative use of non-stage space, let's nod to two productions in unorthodox rooms with fewer than 99 seats. Good People Theater Company has drafted a recital room inside Burbank's Hollywood Piano store for a very satisfying revival of the brilliant Maltby/Shire revue "Closer Than Ever." And Chalk Rep has taken over the modernist Neutra Institute Museum in Silver Lake for a modern-dress version of "Uncle Vanya" - although a more modernist adaptation of the text might have made for a more comfortable fit for the concept (and more comfortable chairs for the audience might have helped, too.)

'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Ghosts of Versailles' plus more

alice-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgAlice photos: Mathew Imaging. Ghosts of Versailles: Craig Mathew.


They're at it again. The LA Philharmonic and LA Opera are going head to head with major contemporary works at the same time -- Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland" and John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

But wait. These are not nods to operatic novelty done on the fly, they're extravagantly produced enterprises, the former one boasting joint forces (a children's chorus, et al.) -- so that our Grand Avenue high-culture purveyors could be seen taking a few steps hand in hand.

The star power of "Alice" couldn't be brighter. Besides composer Chin, a boldface name in the new-music hierarchy, there's librettist Henry David Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), who deftly underscored Lewis Carroll's wordplay with twisted little rhymes; designer/director Netia Jones, an LA Phil luminary hailed everywhere; literati's popular line-drawing illustrator Ralph Steadman; and notable conductor Susanna Mälkki, the tall, strict, no-nonsense Boulezian leading the orchestra in an exhilaratingly detailed layout of the score's quasi-tonal declarations and accents, in a kaleidoscope of styles.

alice2-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgVisually and verbally there are enough subversive undertones to satisfy deep readers of the Carroll classic -- what with its various surreal contretemps and characters -- even if the whole turned out to be more of an intellectual exercise than an entirely engrossing music drama. But the imaginings of fanciful creatures (White Rabbit, Dormouse, Queen of Hearts, et al) popping up on platforms in and around the orchestra players held our interest.

And in case you haven't noticed, it was the women who held forth -- as composer, conductor, director -- while the concert-hall glass ceiling shattered.

The cast was top-notch. Especially the Alice of soprano Rachele Gilmore, who sang her high lines with a sweet, child-like purity and exemplary beauty of tone. Oh, yes, there was another standout here, bass clarinetist David Howard's long, glorious solo, spotlight and all -- possibly the single-most exposure he's ever had in his many orchestral years.

Bottom line for me: There has never been an equal to David Del Tredici's utterly captivating 1976 "Final Alice," which the LA Phil played so brilliantly, with the sublime Barbara Hendricks singing (also as Nanetta here in the Giulini-led "Falstaff. ")

That all happened across the street from the merely 12-year-old Disney -- at the Music Center, first real home of the Phil.

Now LA Opera has its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to itself. And so the other big-budget, from-scratch attraction, "Ghosts," took the proscenium stage there (while Disney does ad-hoc events in its theater-in-the-oblong.)

Count on it, though, prosceniums win out when cast members have to compete for the same space with orchestra players.

ghosts-of-versaille-dp.jpgTo pose a different question: Could a Mozart-Da Ponte opera be akin to "Downton Abbey"? And could American composer John Corigliano, with William H. Hoffman, have created a serio-comic pastiche on the whole class-collision thing, up to and including the French Revolution?

Well, you'll have to decide. But there's a hefty entertainment reward while you do, at LA Opera's lavish and intriguing venture, "Ghosts."

It seems to have something for everyone: A score that veers into the spectral netherworld of Marie Antoinette's upper stratospheric atonal laments and that also alternates with a shenanigan-loving Figaro's energetic, tuneful arias. Orchestrations that conjure the dire tumbrils of the soon-to-be-beheaded Queen of France with dissonant clusters and ominous wood block strikes and that also dance along in giddy rhythms. Even well-placed quotes from "Don Giovanni" et al.

Who knows? Maybe Corigliano was proving -- thanks to this 1991 commission from the Metropolitan Opera -- that he could write music tracing the classical style and join it to a current sensibility wherever the drama might lead him. Whatever the case, the result is immensely clever and skilled.

The host in this scenario is the real-life Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais -- yes, that one, the 18th century author of revolutionary plays who set Mozart and Rossini on their mark with more than a little socio-political stuff to gnaw on.

And that's what makes the premise of this opera within an opera so cunning -- here the author Beaumarchais tries to rectify the trouble he captured in those beloved "Figaro" operas. He even lets the characters realize some of their dreams; Cherubino, for instance, fathers a child with the Countess (as in "La mère coupable," his play.)

All of it takes place within designer Alexander Dodge's giant frame of a horseshoe-shaped baroque opera house, seen through a fish-eye lens that slightly skews the view. Four-stories high, it accommodates shifting central scenes on a stage within the stage. And the details, a painted ceiling included, are sumptuous, but even allow for a vaudevillian burlesque of a circus wherein Patti Lupone, riding a pink elephant, delivers her one-off comic aria.

A cast (of hundreds?) in Linda Cho's smart costumes carries out every nuance of director Darko Tresnjak's staging with apt characterizations.

As the "ghosts" who come back to life Patricia Racette is the soul of Marie Antoinette, regal but vulnerable, yearning and passionate, her soprano equal to the role's demands and Christopher Maltman, as Beaumarchais, elegantly pours out his love for her, while puppeteering the others' behavior.

Lucas Meachem makes a wily, full-throated Figaro, easily outsmarting his royal employers via his boisterous physicality. Robert Brubaker, as the villainous Bégearss, also captures major attention, while the others -- among them Lucy Schaufer, Joshua Guerrero, Guanqun Yu and Renée Rapier -- all rise to their various tasks.

Conductor James Conlon culls marvelous playing from the orchestra and enforces intense engagement with the stage.

Back at Disney there was the redoubtable Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic under Juraj Valcuha and teaching us again how the deeply internal heartbeat of a piece becomes its soul, its beauty. Few others can make this kind of sense or find the music's stimulus, then its response. She's something of a miracle to hear, when backed by her fabled technique.

The orchestral works, led distinctively by the Slovakian conductor, were also revealing. Did you know that "Storm," one of the Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes" was lifted directly into Bernstein's "West Side Story" ("a boy like that who'd kill your brother")? Or that Richard Strauss, in his "Death and Transfiguration" shared with Wagner the Germanic notion of death and love and here wrote his own "Liebestod?"

Well, Valcuha and the Phil gave us all this fine food for thought.

And I'd love to say that the immensely talented tenor Vittorio Grigòlo also left a solid impression at the Broad Stage. (He sang lead roles several times with the LA Opera before.) But young opera singers, no matter how commanding in a staged production, often lack the artistic finesse or nuance of expression needed for a recital. After all, we're talking about a special kind of intimacy with an audience, not performing to the galleries in a four-thousand-seat house with a full cast and pit orchestra.

So this Italian hottie, as handsome as they come and a star at A-circuit companies including the Met, is still on the hunt for his recital chops. And while we can't discount his voice's ringing brightness or his ardor a whole evening of Italian ballads and arias where he ping-pongs back and forth from forte to head tones within a given song came to feel automated. Even his ultra-sensitive pianist, Vincenzo Scalera couldn't change that.

February 19, 2015

Going local with "Chavez,' 'California Tempest' and 'Disconnection'

chavez-ctg-rehearsal.jpgRic Salinas, Richard Montoya, Sabina Zuniga Varela and Herbert Siguenza in rehearsal for Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival." Photo: Craig Schwartz

Despite my frequent blasts at Center Theatre Group -- aka "LAs Theatre Company" -- for ignoring LA in its choice of subjects, I never suggested that a revival of Culture Clash's LA-saturated "Chavez Ravine" might be a panacea for the problem.

Sure, "Chavez Ravine" is about an interesting chapter of LA history -- the obliteration of a bucolic Mexican American community in order to create public housing, the subsequent collapse of that plan because of the red scare, and the later development of the property for the new Dodger Stadium. Still, the original "Chavez Ravine" at CTG's Mark Taper Forum was hardly one of Culture Clash's finest efforts.

However, in what looks like a token attempt to produce something about LA in the current season, CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie chose to revive "Chavez Ravine" instead of applying the extra effort (and money?) to find a fresher LA-intensive production. And so we now have a rehash of "Chavez Ravine," this time in the smaller Kirk Douglas Theatre.

"Rehash" is my word, not CTG's. The official promotional line is that "Chavez Ravine" has been "Remixed. Relived. Reloaded." Unfortunately, the emphasis on the stage is on "Relived," not "Remixed" or "Reloaded."

A genuine remix might have helped. True, there are a few trims and other changes in this new version, and Jason H. Thompson's fresh projection design is quite effective. But the production still suggests "a collection of comedy sketches in search of a play," which is how I described it in my 2003 LA Times review. Culture Clash is still placing the emphasis on its own chameleonic talents, sometimes at the expense of the story it's trying to tell.

The three members of Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- plus the show's one actress (now Sabina Zuniga Varela) play 36 characters. Many of them are very superficially sketched, and many of them would be expendable if anyone seriously tried to "remix" the show. But apparently Culture Clash (and director Lisa Peterson) weren't especially interested in carving a "Ravine" that was tighter -- and deeper.

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"California: The Tempest"

A sense of clutter also afflicts another attempt to produce a locally-centered play -- "California: The Tempest," from Cornerstone Theater. In this case, the way the piece was assembled bears much of the blame. It's a "bridge" show, which means that it unites elements from 10 summer institutes that Cornerstone sponsored over the last decade, in communities throughout California -- along with a plot derived mostly from Shakespeare's "Tempest," but with some some faux-Shakespearean local references by playwright Alison Carey.

In Carey's variation, Shakespeare's warring siblings have become two sisters, one of whom has somehow managed to swipe the job of governor of California from the other one, who is now wandering through the northern California wilderness. Far-fetched? Yes, but it might have worked without the additional burden of Cornerstone's community-service priorities.

The production is on tour to all 10 institute-hosting communities over the course of a year, and apparently it was deemed necessary to acknowledge all of the communities in the script, with a little special attention paid to each stop's host community. And so, when I saw it in San Fernando last week (at a brief engagement that has now ended), that area of LA received extra nods. When it returns to Cornerstone's host community in the downtown arts district next June, presumably that community will get extra time and attention.

While the community members themselves probably appreciate these efforts, these dutiful digressions hardly enhance the overall experience for the general audience member. I've seen previous "bridge" shows in which Cornerstone integrated the disparate elements much more smoothly, but perhaps the fact that these particular components come from 10 locales within such a large state inherently makes the adaptation more unwieldy.

I saw one locally-oriented production over the last week that's much more clearly focused than "Chavez Ravine" or "California Tempest" -- even though its title is "Disconnection." Allen Barton's script is focused on Scientology, although it doesn't mention the word. In fact, Scientology is the show's indirect target.

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Photo: Ed Krieger

Barton has a history with Scientology, and this is a somewhat fictionalized account of his own story. Because Barton is now outraged at the way he was treated, "Disconnection" has a definite point of view. And the fact that its point of view is anti-Scientology is all the more notable because the producer is the Skylight Theatre Company (formerly known as Katselas Theatre), the venue is the same Beverly Hills Playhouse that Katselas once commanded, and -- oh, yes -- Katselas was a Scientologist as well as a famous acting teacher. However, from materials published in connection with the play, we learn (or you're reminded, in case you already knew) that Katselas himself apparently ran into some trouble with Scientology late in his life.

At any rate, "Disconnection" tells the tale of an attorney and his adult daughter who initially found succor in a Scientology-like church, only to become disillusioned and rejected to the point of, well, disconnection. Another character, the man's piano teacher, remains true to the church. The play's one other character is the church founder himself, who appears in a late-life monologue in which he too appears disillusioned, if not disconnected.

This scene about the founder might be more fascinating in a play devoted primarily to his own story, but here it feels -- sorry -- too disconnected from "Disconnection," especially as it fills the time that might have been devoted to a more detailed and compelling explanation of what exactly happened to the lawyer to sour his attitude toward the church.

At any rate, with Scientology probably more prominent in Los Angeles than in any other American city, it's refreshing to see a staged critique of it, especially in the same venue that Katselas once governed. LA's theater makers should examine LA for other relatively undramatized cultural phenomena that await their turns on the LA stage.

TERRIFIC TRANSFERS?

I'm always happy to see transfers of high-quality productions from one part of Greater LA to another. Every such venture might help the city's theatrical scene feel a little more cohesive. So take note of the successful transfer of South Coast Repertory's production of "The Whipping Man," Matthew Lopez's fascinating Civil War slave-seder story, to the Pasadena Playhouse. The West Coast Jewish Theatre produced the LA premiere of Lopez's play last year, but many more can see the play in these larger venues.

Likewise, I'm delighted to learn that La Mirada Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" is moving to the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Feb. 20-22. This winning musical is about a British boy's quest to become a ballet dancer, despite his background in a depressed coal-mining culture . You can read more about the Elton John/Lee Hall musical, directed by Brian Kite, in my Jan. 23 column.

INSIDE FOUR FILMMAKERS' BRAINS

pensotti-shirley.jpgPhoto: Steven Gunther

With LA rife with filmmakers and would-be filmmakers, it might be the world's second most appropriate site for Mariano Pensotti's "Cineastas" -- after Buenos Aires, where this panoramic theatrical production was created and where its fictional filmmakers live.

"Cineastas" is currently in downtown LA, at REDCAT, where Pensotti's "El pasado es un animal grotesco" intrigued me in 2012. That production involved a constantly-revolving turntable, which I thought I might see again in "Cineastas" -- but no, this time we can see two stages simultaneously throughout the production. The lower stage is devoted primarily to scenes from the lives of four filmmakers (two women, two men), who have achieved varying levels of success. The upper stage depicts scenes from the films that are being made by these four.

The most obvious subject is the potential interaction between filmmakers' personal lives and the narratives they're filming -- each can influence the other. But beyond the obvious, Pensotti is also examining what's ephemeral and what's durable in our lives and our culture.

As in "El animal," much of the action is narrated as well as enacted. Five actors take turns narrating the four stories, and it's narration -- more than the dialogue -- that is translated in English supertitles from the Spanish. Although there is little interaction among the characters of the different stories, the production flows almost seamlessly from one story to another. The stage is packed with people grappling for meaning -- in their movies as well as their lives -- and although it all runs less than two hours, I left it with at least a half-dozen characters and their passions mixing it up inside my brain. Pensotti turns introspective storytelling into a four-ring theatrical spectacle.

February 16, 2015

Sneak peek inside the Broad Museum space

bcam-couple-iris.jpgEmily Fox and Dan Kessler check out the Broad museum space on Bunker Hill on Sunday. Photos: Iris Schneider.

The Broad Museum held an open house on Sunday for the public to preview the space in advance of its September opening. The space is a feat of engineering, providing 13,000 square feet uninterrupted by interior columns. On the elevator ride up, a member of the engineering crew announced that the building "is one of the wonders of the world." It was also mentioned several times that the art elevator is the biggest in the city "despite what LACMA or MOCA may tell you." Only by a few inches apparently, but hey, who's counting?

The honeycomb windows allow only filtered light to enter and block the view of neighboring Walt Disney Hall. The splashy neighbor can only be seen through the windows on the north side of the building, but at sunset even a sliver is luminous. The jury on the Broad building is still out. Much will change with the interior space once the movable walls and art are installed. Reviews of the exterior are mixed. I think it's interesting to look at from the street, but feels very cocoonish inside. I found myself craving the light. For the art's preservation, they say, only filtered light will enter.

A sound and light installation on Sunday provided the public an opportunity to do some spontaneous shadow play, much to the chagrin of the artist, Yann Novak, who stood on the sidelines as adults and kids cavorted in the projector's light making hand puppets and hearts. "I wanted people to inhabit it and see themselves in it," Novak said. The public took his intention to heart, perhaps more than he anticipated. Tickets were $10 each.

bcam-shadows-iris.jpgFun with shadows


bcam-disney-hall-iris.jpgA glimpse of Disney Hall from inside the Broad..

bcam-all-eyes-iris.jpgThe exterior view.

February 15, 2015

Jacaranda's new music, Maestra Canellakis and Daniil Trifonov

Thomas-Ades-cbso-014.jpgThomas Ades

Shades of LA's celebrated avant-garde past lit up the new-music present at Santa Monica's 1st Presbyterian Church -- yes, at this location, a pristinely modern church.

Instead of Igor Stravinsky presiding, as he once did at historic Monday Evening Concerts, we had Thomas Adès (arguably his 21st century successor) at the host church's Jacaranda -- which is the reincarnation of our city's sanctum sanctorum of current music.

And I can't tell you what a feast it was.

If ever we needed to puncture the myth that contemporary music is laborious to listen to or so much doodling and noodling, this would do it.

Adés, the British composer who now lives part-time in LA (how nice for us), came to the stage for the standing ovation given his "Lieux retrouvés," a virtuoso work of graphic sensation and infinite nuance played by the stellar pianist Gloria Cheng and masterful cellist Eric Byers, a Calder Quartet member.

The audience went wild. What else? This was riveting music that crept into every crevice of human perception -- be it lulling waters or rugged mountains or a wildly macabre club scene. Cheng and Byers were dazzling. The event, with the composer present, felt like a history-maker (as did, a few months ago, the Calders' playing of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet with stunning soprano Yulia Van Doren, though absent the composer, of course.)

Neither were Gerald Barry's works anything but extraordinary -- dense, profoundly structured, breathless -- courtesy of musicians Joel Pargman, Louise Thomas and others.

But no matter how well-cued impresario Patrick Scott's all-British program, his celebratory nod to Peter Maxwell Davies' 80th birthday had a downside in the revival of "Vesalii Icones." Perhaps nostalgia got the better of Scott whose local performance art group 40 years ago, Eyes Wide Open, brought it to the public.

The problem here and now was that someone miscalculated badly and opted for cockamamie cornball -- to wit, the musicians played in hospital OR garb (gowns and masks) signifying Vesalius as the father of modern anatomy, while his intricate illustrations were projected on the stage wall. More's the pity because the sleek wood beam crucifix made a brilliant backdrop for the artist's drawings as Stations of the Cross, a theme Davies parodies. But with so much crowding onstage, dancer Jones Welsh's flailings seemed out of place, despite his perfect musculature, which depicted the anatomical images.

For other music in other places the question became: Does it smile? That is, can the music bring a smile of deep pleasure to your face?\

Karina_Canellakis_by_Masataka Suemitsu copy.jpgWell, it did, thanks to Schubert and Karina Canellakis (right) who led the sparklingly responsive LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall -- all sunny smiles all around with deliciously curving phrases and suffused warmth that could drive away any semblance of a sober, down-turned mouth.

But that's not all. Canellakis is a young American maestra of multiple, exceptional gifts -- though too young, probably, to know she's come a long way, baby, since the day of that then-novelty Antonia Brico at the LA Phil podium, her skirts swaying in the Hollywood Bowl breeze.

And now, just look at Disney Hall's distaff line-up this month: conductors Susanna Mälkki, Xian Zhang and the Phil's newly appointed assistant conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (just call her Mirga!) -- all of them most masterly in pants and this one, with her energetic stick technique, meticulously tailored.

Canellakis opened as a superb violin soloist, standing among the also upright string players, and cue-ing them in vibrant Vivaldi that almost danced off the stage with gusto. But her baton-wielding instincts go quite beyond this earlier music to embrace John Adams, whose "Shaker Loops" got the most forcefully motoric, bone-jolting performance I've ever heard.

And then there were the Russians. That current elite duo, pianist Daniil Trifonov and violinist Gidon Kremer, touring major cities worldwide, stopped off at Disney Hall, courtesy of the Philharmonic and wowed the cognoscenti in attendance.

At 67 Kremer has been dropping into LA for decades with one self-styled contingency or another -- remember his Kremerata Baltica? Last heard here in an unforgettable amalgam of the ubiquitous "Four Seasons" co-mingled with Piazzolla tango versions of same, he and his string players kicked the weary Vivaldi into sensual over-drive as the violinist led and strolled among the seated women musicians who gazed soulfully at him.

Daniil Trifonov-Alexander Ivanov.jpgWith Trifonov (above), the 24-year-old phenom whose Carnegie Hall piano recital was beamed internationally, he seemed to be showcasing the new talent. Indeed with reason.

Because hearing/seeing Trifonov via the Medici.TV streaming -- with cameras zooming in to every last strand of sweat-drenched hair framing his face, thus causing a sight distraction to the sound -- bore little resemblance to the full-dimension concert-hall experience of lucky witnesses here.

Something about that in-person physical presence allows perceptions not easily had through electronic transmission. His technique, for example: astounding, unimaginable -- so you hear what he did with a Mozart sonata, namely, squeeze from it sweet juice, in a very fine, gentle stream that Kremer actually got to duplicate in the second movement. And that was but one small part of their wondrous music-making.

January 23, 2015

Shaker spirituals and Frances McDormand at Redcat

mcdormand-wooster-iris.jpgFrances McDormand sings a Shaker spiritual at Redcat. Photos: Iris Schneider

In our modern times, when you can hardly spend five minutes without looking at a smartphone, watching a TV or reading a tweet, it felt downright restorative to spend an hour with Wooster Group at Redcat as the troupe channeled the simple spirituals of the Shaker sect. The program, called "Early Shaker Spirituals," was the third Wooster production that has a recording at its core. But the previous two, Hula dances and an enactment of Timothy Leary's recording called "LSD," were probably not treated as reverently as this one.

On a relatively bare stage, save for an austere Little House on the Prairie set of three wooden chairs around a window, four women dressed in simple cotton frocks and wearing sensible shoes sang along to the faint sounds of the recording of 20 Early Shaker Spirituals. If it weren't for the audio equipment strapped around their waists, and the modern earpieces they wore, you could easily imagine these serious women having just returned from their daily chores.

Earnestly sung in less than perfect voices, the songs extolled the virtue of the simple life lived by the Shakers, a celibate 18th-century sect known more for its furniture than its music. The most recognizable of the songs, "Tis a Gift to be Simple," tooks its place along with "The Gospel is Advancing" and "Come life, Shaker life," some of the 10,000 the sect is said to have written, in the evening's program. The songs extol the sanctity of work "consecrated to spiritual labor." But dance also has its place: "reeling, turning, shifting, take out all the starch and stiffening."

The women included Elizabeth LeCompte, Cynthia Hedstrom and Bebe Miller, all longtime Wooster Group regulars, along with Suzzy Roche of the Roche sisters and actress Frances McDormand. They were joined for the finale by four young men who reprised some of the earlier songs in oddly ecstatic folk dances as they joyously jumped and twirled around the stage.

Most affecting were two remembrances more spoken than sung, by Roche and McDormand, that paid homage to two women, Sister Mildred and Sister Paulina Springer, and the Shaker life they chose. Like each of the songs in the program, they were spoken seriously and respectfully, but in doing so the renditions exposed something very deep and profound about the life and lives of these Shaker women.

shaker-spirituals-iris.jpgFrances McDormand and Suzzy Roche

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La Mirada and Melrose musicals: 'Billy Elliot' and 'Serrano'

serrano-ds.jpgChad Doreck, Suzanne Petrela and Tim Martin Gleason star in "Serrano The Musical," at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. Photo: Brian McCarthy


Gotta sing, gotta dance. That's not just a familiar old lyric. It's also a thumbnail summary of the impulse behind musicals. Sometimes, spoken language just won't suffice. So the characters sing and dance.

One of two musicals that opened in LA County over the weekend, "Billy Elliot," could serve as Exhibit A for this expression of otherwise repressed emotion through music. Another new musical, "Serrano," is trying to serve as Exhibit B but isn't quite there yet.

"Billy Elliott" passed through Hollywood as part of a Broadway tour in 2012, but La Mirada Theatre is offering the Tony-winning show's first home-grown LA production. Meanwhile, "Serrano" is undergoing its first production anywhere, at the little Matrix Theatre on Melrose.

Before it became a stage musical, "Billy Elliot" was a well-regarded film. Yet in retrospect, it's hard to believe that it wasn't always intended as a stage musical - it's about a boy who defies the gloomy coal-mining culture in northern England and its notions of proper gender roles in order to pursue a ballet career. "Gotta dance" doesn't seem at all artificial in this situation.

Elton John wrote the music. The original screenwriter Lee Hall, who hails from the area where the story is set, wrote the libretto and lyrics. Despite John's potential glitz factor and the West End/Broadway trappings of Stephen Daldry's original staging, "Billy Elliot" manages to make us believe in its vision of its depressed social milieu in the mid-'80s, when the miners went on strike against the nationalized coal industry.

Indeed (spoiler alert), although Billy escapes what probably would have been a sad fate in a dying industry, and although we can temporarily bask in the warmth of seeing his own community helping him get out, the creators of the show don't pretend that anyone else is likely to dance his or her way out of town. We feel good about Billy, but we also care about the people he is about to leave behind.

billy-elliot-ds.jpgDirector Brian Kite, choreographer Dana Solimando, musical director John Glaudini, a stellar design team and a cast of 39 (!) honor the show's grittier roots as well as its polish and professionalism. Mitchell Tobin, a veteran of the show's national and international tour and its London production, shines in one of the most challenging starring roles ever for a young teenager. But the rest of the cast includes a number of familiar LA stage actors who appear to be right at home in these roles as well, led by Vicki Lewis as Billy's teacher and David Atkinson of Hollywood's Actors Co-op as Billy's dad. "Billy Elliot" is yet another excellent reason for Angelenos to head down the 5 to La Mirada.

"Serrano" is similar to "Billy Elliot" in some unexpected ways. Both musicals are about male protagonists who feel somewhat alienated from their own society, and both of these protagonists have male friends who might be even more alienated -- considering that these best friend characters, in both shows, enjoy cross-dressing.

"Serrano," however, doesn't feel nearly as organically created as "Billy Elliot." It's a modern American adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 classic, "Cyrano de Bergerac" - which was, of course, set in an even earlier era, the 17th century, and in a different country, France. "Serrano" is set in a particular subculture within American society - the organized crime families within Little Italy, New York. In some ways "Serrano" is as close to "The Sopranos" - but with a much lighter heart - as it is to "Cyrano."

The title character (Tim Michael Gleason) is a grown-up mob lieutenant. Like Cyrano, he has a sharply protruding nose and a similar sense of style, refinement and wit. Apparently he sometimes uses violence in his job, just as Cyrano himself was obligated to fight in war, but he isn't comfortable with those responsibilities.

In the show's only scene with any mob-style mayhem, Serrano allows a designated target to avoid death, instead choosing merely to chop off one of the guy's fingers. You might think this decision would get him in trouble, but there are no consequences from his boss (Peter Van Norden), who's a great fan of Serrano's. The boss also assigns him the task of training a young and handsome mob private (Chad Woreck) on how to woo a refined judge's daughter named Rosanna (Suzanne Petrela) - for dastardly ulterior motives, of course.

We can trace the outline of "Cyrano" in all of this, but it's not a particularly comfortable fit in Madeline Sunshine's book - or, perhaps, as a musical. The original Cyrano didn't need music and dance, because his spoken language was so dazzling. Serrano has a similar way with spoken words, so his need to break out in song or dance isn't nearly as strong as it is for young Billy Elliot, who lacks any trace of a gift for gab.

Of course, following the Cyrano model, there is one subject that Serrano can't openly discuss -- his own crush on Rosanna. The moments when he sings those sentiments to himself are highlights of the score (music by Robert Tepper) precisely because they're secrets to nearly everyone else.

Another problem in the book is the fact that two of the characters who would seemingly bring some gravitas to the story are slighted. The capo di tutti capi is initially played by the gifted Craig McEldowney, but the capo then virtually disappears as McEldowney is busy playing at least four other, more age-appropriate roles. And Rosanna's upright father, the judge, never even shows up on the stage. So no one is there to chide Rosanna about the potential pitfalls of socializing with criminals - in fact, her mother (Valerie Perri) seems to think it's a great idea.

I'm not arguing that "Serrano" is a waste of time and money. Director Joel Zwick and a contingent of fine musical theater actors create a mild sense of fun - and musicals have to be workshopped somewhere. It's better to spot the problems now than in a higher-budget production, and maybe they can be fixed. But the creators might ask themselves whether these characters "gotta" sing and dance... and if not, why not?

Lower photo: Vicki Lewis, Mitchell Tobin, Emily Frazier and Brooke Besikof in "Billy Elliot" at the La Mirada Theatre. Photo: Michael Lamont

December 31, 2014

25 highlights of LA theater in 2014

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Cate Scott Campbell and Steven Epp in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's Tartuffe adapted by David Ball. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

I don't believe in year-end Top 10 lists, especially if the components are listed in order of best to, say, tenth best. Why is it necessary to draw such distinctions between creations with very different goals and styles? Are apples really better than oranges -- or is it vice versa?

But I do believe that the ephemeral art of theater deserves an annual recap of the year's highlights. Of the 225 productions in greater LA I saw last year, here are 25 of the best:

Abbamemnon (Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre). This cockeyed blend of "Agamemnon" and the melodies of Abba had a few unexpectedly somber undertones, but it still was no slacker on the famous Troubie laugh meter, And let's not forget its turn-off-phones pre-show -- one of the wittiest such introductions ever. Photo below

Above the Fold (Pasadena Playhouse). Bernard Weinraub's journalism thriller, inspired by a real-life situation at Duke University, seemed downright prescient later in the year, after Rolling Stone's disputed article about rape at the University of Virginia. Taraji P. Henson was terrific as the buffeted star reporter.

The Behavior of Broadus (Burglars of Hamm/Center Theatre Group/Sacred Fools). May this droll and inventive musical about behaviorism guru John Broadus Watson, who was played by the protean Hugo Armstrong, find a larger venue.

The Country House (Geffen Playhouse). Donald Margulies created a group of Chekhovian characters with unrequited crushes, gathered in the summer-theater-festival of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Blythe Danner and Eric Lange helped wipe away the memory of the similarly set-up but crass and inferior "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Disassembly (Theatre of NOTE). Steve Yockey's farce, set in the world of young Angeleno singles and couples, drifted into darkness before we quite realized what was happening. Thanks to the Hollywood Fringe, I was able to see it -- and enjoy the ride -- twice.

Flare Path (Theatre 40). What was it like for the RAF fliers and their wives during the off-hours of the blitz in 1940? Written during the heat of the war, Terence Rattigan's deft drama took us there, abetted by director Bruce Gray and sound designer Joseph Slowinski.

ABBAMEMNON-ds.jpgFloyd Collins (La Mirada Theatre). The musical about a trapped caver and the media circus that arose around him, by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, was delineated with painstaking precision by director Richard Israel -- as the audience sat on the stage, within inches of the actors.

Harmony (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre). Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman crafted a compelling musical based on the saga of the Comedian Harmonists -- the German between-the-wars equivalent of a boy band. Shayne Kennon was especially charismatic as the "Rabbi," who survived the longest and ended up in Palm Springs.

Henry V (Pacific Resident Theatre). Director Guillermo Cienfuegos and star Joe McGovern adapted a script from several of Shakespeare's history plays into a complex and powerful tale, with imaginative design and fight choreography.

The Importance of Being Earnest (A Noise Within). Michael Michetti staged a crisply captivating version of Oscar Wilde's classic, with a memorable star turn by Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon, in a dandified outfit designed by Garry Lennon.

Into the Woods. Amanda Dehnert started her Oregon Shakespeare version of the Sondheim/Lapine musical with contemporary dress and scripts on stage (as did Cienfuegos in "Henry V," above). Then she gradually transformed it almost as much as the characters themselves are transformed, only to remind us of our real-life bearings again at the end. A powerfully searching journey.

Knock Me With a Kiss (Robey Theatre at LATC). When the daughter of W.E.B. DuBois married the poet Countee Cullen, it was the highlight of New York's black social calendar, but it didn't last long. Playwright Charles Smith ("Free Man of color") examined what went wrong, and Dwain Perry's staging got everything right.

Luna Gale (Goodman Theatre at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas theatre). Rebecca Gilman turned a tale of a dedicated but flawed social worker (the superb Mary Beth Fisher), who tries to help a newborn and her parents, into a thrilling human chronicle. A refreshing injection of substance into the usual December programming.

Pippin (Broadway tour at Pantages Theatre). By incorporating Gypsy Snider's circus acts so organically into the Schwartz/Hirson musical, director Diane Paulus enhanced its metaphorical content and succeeded in muffling the show's more dated qualities. A revelatory revival.

Premeditation (Latino Theater Company at LATC). Director Jose Luis Valenzuela staged Evelina Fernandez's contemporary, LA-set marital comedy as a sharp but swirling evocation of noir style, with propulsive music and movement. The best show I saw in the Encuentro festival.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at the VA Japanese Garden). Kenn Sabberton's in-the-round rendition of Shakespeare's play restored intimacy to its alfresco setting. And it moved like, well, two houses on fire, punctuated with doses of vibrant 1920s design and music, supposedly set in LA.

Sovereign Body (Road Theatre Company at Lankershim). As Emilie Beck wrote this tale of a middle-aged restaurant owner facing mortality in Pasadena, she made sure that it was a play, not a TV movie in disguise. Taylor Gilbert's performance was galvanic.

Spring Awakening (Deaf West Theatre at Inner-City Arts). The company's use of ASL awakened Michael Arden's staging of the Sater/Sheik musical with fierce energy and extended its meaning to include a new audience. I've heard rumors that this production might re-open in a larger LA County venue -- may they be true.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Scottish National Theatre at Broad Stage's Edye). A professor becomes undone at a staid conference in a provincial Scottish town. Wils Wilson's immersive cabaret-style production, in which the actors also provided the magical music, became a rollicking and then a lightly spooky party. David Greig wrote it.

Stupid Fucking Bird (Theatre @ Boston Court). Chekhovian updates were plentiful in 2014, but Aaron Posner's was the most original -- a dazzling treatment of "The Seagull" that shattered the fourth wall in a way that Chekhov might not have liked -- but it certainly amused and moved me.

Tartuffe (A Noise Within, South Coast Repertory). Two of the more professional theater companies offered very different examinations of Moliere's great comedy -- Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's funnier, wilder vision at A Noise Within and Dominique Serrand's chillier, melancholic perspective at South Coast. Two triumphs.

The Twilight of Schlomo (Elephant Theatre). Timothy McNeil ended a trilogy set in his east Hollywood neighborhood with this portrait of a sad-sack comic (Jonathan Goldstein) and his reunion with his adult stepdaughter, who's intrigued by his Jewish roots. Together they face an abusive neighbor. A masterfully moving experience.

The Whipping Man (West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse). A Jewish Confederate soldier and two of his former slaves are huddled together in the ruins of their war-damaged home during Passover. Howard Teichman's introduction of Matthew Lopez's play to LA was a remarkably charged experience.

Zealot (South Coast Repertory). Theresa Rebeck's play, set in Mecca during a present-day hajj, not only extracts crackling drama from diplomacy but also demonstrates the collision between idealism and pragmatism in US/British foreign policy. Marc Masterson directed.

December 14, 2014

CTG grapples with branding, the British and a baby

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Reyna de Courcy, left, and Mary Beth Fisher in "Luna Gale." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

More than once, I've asked publicly how Center Theatre Group can possibly justify branding itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - an ID that appears, for example, eight times in the program for "What the Butler Saw," now at CTG's Mark Taper Forum.

Since Michael Ritchie took the CTG helm, the company has displayed hardly any interest in LA-specific settings, subjects or talent. In the nearly-pervasive absence of such indicators, doesn't the use of that phrase suggest that CTG is LA's only theater company - which, of course, would be an extremely arrogant and inaccurate suggestion?

So I was fascinated when Diane Rodriguez, one of CTG's three associate artistic directors, raised the subject in an interview on American Theatre magazine's Offscript podcast.
Rodriguez was responding to a question from one of the interviewers, American Theatre senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, about the general relationship between CTG and the rest of the LA theater community. But it was Rodriguez herself who brought up the troublesome label: "We were branded a few years ago - my theater might hate me for saying this, but - we were branded as being 'LA's Theatre Company'...It is a big responsibility, and we weren't doing it very well, quite frankly, and...the staff struggled with it."

She then cited two recent examples of CTG's support of other LA companies: a commission to the Burglars of Hamm to help produce "The Behavior of Broadus" at the sub-100-seat Sacred Fools Theater this year, and the inclusion of some LA artists in the 2013 Radar L.A. festival that CTG helps produce.

Yet regarding the wonderful "Behavior of Broadus," here is the elephant-in-the-room question - why wasn't it performed at one of CTG's own, larger spaces, where (I assume) it would have received even more money and much better marketing? The Hammsters have had previous success on the 99-seat level, but they have never broken through to the professional Equity-contract level in LA. So the best thing that CTG could have done for them would have been to schedule "Broadus" as part of one of the CTG seasons, in either CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre or the Taper -- or, failing that, to have made sure that it was part of the last Radar L.A.

For what it's worth, Rodriguez said that "we were able to help a company up the ante" in the case of "Broadus," and "we want to do that on a yearly basis."

By the way, Rodriguez also revealed that she's developing and hopes to direct a CTG-commissioned piece about the relationship between the black and Latino communities in Venice -- LA's Venice, not the Italian original. It would be a collaboration between Roger Guenveur Smith and Richard Montoya, drawing on the resources of a book that USC's Josh Kun and Laura Pulido co-edited (Rodriguez didn't name the book, but presumably it's "Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition.")

This sounds like a promising glimmer of CTG interest in a very LA-specific subject, but CTG commissions don't equal CTG productions. CTG commissioned the New York-based Civilians to prepare a production about LA's porn industry, and now CTG has just announced that the piece will receive its world premiere -- in New York, not at one of CTG's LA stages.

Then again, perhaps Rodriguez's position near the top of the CTG brass will increase the chances that the Smith/Montoya Venice project will reach a CTG stage. So might the fact that Montoya and Smith are the most prominent LA artists who have previously managed to snag LA-related CTG productions during the Ritchie years, despite Ritchie's chronic disinclination to program with LA-specific interests in mind.

SPEAKING OF CTG

Let's look at what CTG is currently offering LA theatergoers. The company's ongoing productions at the Music Center appear as if they might have been planned to be part of some hands-across-the-sea salute to mid-20th-century British theater.

I can't yet comment on the quality of the Angela Lansbury-driven revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" - it was scheduled to open Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, and I wrote this column before then. But the aforementioned revival of "What the Butler Saw" at the Taper demonstrates that it's very difficult to pull off a farce that relies so heavily on satirical attitudes and polemics that were fashionable in another country 45 years ago.

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"What the Butler Saw," photo by Craig Schwartz

"What the Butler Saw" acquired its reputation in no small part to the murder of its playwright, Joe Orton, before it was produced. But in the hands of John Tillinger's cast in 2014, it comes off as one of the most dated plays ever produced at the Taper. It's especially tone-deaf to the current American culture in its repeated references to the "rape" of one of the leading characters in a way that implies that "rape" is really just consensual sex that has become inconvenient to acknowledge.

Fortunately, CTG compensated for "What the Butler Saw" by scheduling a hard-hitting, contemporary drama, Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale," concurrently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. No, it isn't a CTG-bred production; it's from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Nor is it LA-specific. But as it examines an Iowa social worker who's grappling with a complicated child custody case, it's easy for an Angeleno to think of the recent controversies over California's and LA County's foster care systems. Not that it completely mirrors California's problems - this particular social worker is trying to prevent the unseen titular baby from entering foster care. But its depiction of an overwhelmed child protective system will probably ring bells throughout America.

And lest you think that this sounds awfully gray and grim for the holiday season, be assured that Gilman has woven together the strands of her story in a dramatically thrilling way that produces a few hearty character-based laughs along the way. In fact, I laughed more deeply and often with the very human characters of "Luna Gale" than I did at the artificial, barely-human quips from decades ago in "What the Butler Saw" or even the more contemporary but equally artificial laughs that CTG's last two holiday offerings at the Douglas -- Second City adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" -- tried to generate. Indeed, if CTG feels it must call on Chicago-based companies to come up with its holiday shows at the Douglas, I'm grateful that in 2014 it turned its attention to the Goodman instead of Second City.

Besides, isn't any play revolving around a baby especially appropriate for your Christmas consideration?

AND ELSEWHERE

That phantom British mid-century theater festival I mentioned earlier isn't restricted to the Music Center. In fact, perhaps its most interesting component is in Beverly Hills, at little Theatre 40, which is offering what is described as the LA premiere of Terence Rattigan's "Flare Path," a stirring drama about RAF fliers in World War II and their wives. Set in October 1940 and first produced in 1942, midway through the war, it was revived in London in 2011. But chances are most Angelenos have never heard of it, let alone seen it.

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"Flare Path," photo by Ed Krieger.

It hasn't aged nearly as badly as "What the Butler Saw," perhaps because its tone is realistic to the point of understatement, even as it imports a Hollywood star to complicate the lives of its other characters. Rattigan's depiction of people in a wartime crucible is still all too convincing, considering that war has hardly vanished in the intervening decades. Bruce Gray's staging looks and sounds surprisingly authentic, abetted by Joseph Slowinski's intriguing sound design, which specializes in subtle variations on aircraft noises. The performances are superb.

Also continuing the mid-century British theme in Beverly Hills, "Love, Noel" is a two-person revue of Coward's songs, many of them focusing on his relationships with famous women, as opposed to his more personal life as a barely-closeted gay man. Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence read from some of Coward's letters as well as sing. The director is Jeanie Hackett, who was instrumental in bringing Coward's what-if-the-Germans-had-won play, "Peace in Our Time," to Antaeus two years ago.

Your reaction to "Love, Noel" may depend on how many other Coward revues you've seen. I've seen several, and this one doesn't especially stand out. But it's a treat to see it in the Wallis Annenberg Center's black-box cabaret space, next door to the main Annenberg theater, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Into the Woods" is currently entrancing audiences in Amanda Dehnert's imaginative take on the Sondheim/Lapine masterpiece.

Back to Coward for a moment - a Malibu Playhouse production of his 1924 play "The Vortex" closed over the weekend at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. 1924 isn't exactly mid-century, but director Gene Franklin Smith re-set the play in the '60s. It remained surprisingly lively, especially because of a third-act mother-son confrontation that is much meatier, angrier and more somber than anything that you might expect from Coward (unless, that is, you're one of the relatively few who has seen "Peace in Our Time.")

November 30, 2014

LA needs a Department of Interstitial Spaces

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: There is nothing extraordinary about the space under the North Spring Street Bridge just north of downtown Los Angeles. But that has done nothing to diminish its power to suggest and actually become a refuge from gang violence, a no man's land where the regular rules of street life were suspended, a gallery for graffiti and other art, a stage for music, a performance studio, a workshop, a town hall, a place for weddings and birthday parties, and even a Garden of Eden for some.

AnotherCityThumb2.jpgIn the city of Los Angeles there are 12,309 blocks worth of alleys like the one that runs along the north side of the North Spring Street Bridge before it crosses the Los Angeles River--a total of 914 linear miles, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Each one could suggest, as a neon sign installed under the Spring Street bridge by USC professor Manuel Castells suggests: "Another city is possible."

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, a new book by Jeremy Rosenberg, chronicles the extraordinary history of the transformation of the space under the Spring Street bridge between 2006 and 2013--which brought people and plants and parties of all kinds to "Under Spring," as the space came to be known. With a project to widen the bridge underway now, the future of that space is uncertain. But Rosenberg's book does what the best histories do. It reveals the possibilities alive in the past. And it attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today--12,309 possibilities.

Under Spring came alive because of an unusual confluence. Artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio backs on to the alley. Ed Reyes, the city councilmember from the first district, took an interest in the project to clean up and "activate" the space, in the lingo of urban planners. And Al Nodal, president of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, ran the bureaucratic traps to make it work. The key was an aptly named but little used provision in city rules called an "alley vacation." Since the space was not needed for any commercial uses other than those of the Metabolic Studio, it could be closed off and used for more creative public purposes. Under Spring became an ongoing, evolving work of art, created and curated by Metabolic Studio.

"This place was not unique in this city or nationally," Nodal told Rosenberg, "there are lots of underpasses, cul-de-sacs and traffic triangles. All absurd and eminently creative spaces."

Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, told Rosenberg: "When things don't have a designated function, anything else can occur." He added: "One could imagine that Los Angeles, of all cities, might have some of the most real estate that is interstitial space. Either under bridges or as part of flyovers and cloverleaves and freeway exchanges where the ramps kind of soar up and create little triangles or circles of space that you can't really get to. It's in those kinds of corridors, those eddies, those incidental spaces, where things that aren't scripted activities can take place."

Unfortunately, Under Spring's "alley vacation" is over. But here's a suggestion for Mayor Eric Garcetti inspired by Rosenberg's book: create a new Department of Interstitial Spaces. OK, maybe not a department. Just a small team, with a czar, or better yet, a wizard like Al Nodal in charge. The mission: scout out emerging opportunities where artists, neighborhood organizations, and citizens are re-imagining neglected patches of public space in the city, and help nudge the bureaucracy to get out of their way.

"This site in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is so full of destitute people and destitute places that the effort to rescue these destitute places and regenerate them is probably one of the most crucial projects," Manuel Castells told Rosenberg, for "a new kind of city and a new kind of society. Because we have made too much use of a policy of scorched lands in our cities. We'll call it a disposable city. You use it and throw it away." But, Castells added, "another city is possible, and even in Los Angeles, another Los Angeles is possible."

Possible, perhaps. That's at least what Under Spring suggests. But Under Spring is history now, beautifully captured in the chorus--verging on cacophony--of voices in Rosenberg's book. And it's unlikely that the unusual confluence that came together under the North Spring Street Bridge can be replicated in the thousands of other interstitial spaces that Matt Coolidge notes were "never intended to be used" but "represent a kind of untapped resource" in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

But with a little help from city hall to clear the way, citizens might tap the great resource of public space for creative purposes in their own communities. Because if history shows us the possibilities alive in the past, and attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, it is so that we can act.

Note: I'm on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society, which awarded Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. The book was published this fall by Heyday in collaboration with the California Historical Society.

November 29, 2014

Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro photos at the Huntington

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Wales, 1965. By Bruce Davidson


A new photography exhibit at the Huntington Library features a pair of octogenarian masters of the medium. "Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland" showcases the contrasting styles and experiences of both men.

In the accompanying book, Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts explains:

One man lives in the city, the other in the woods. One is drawn to the strife and the tumult of life. The other craves serenity and the contemplative forms of nature. Exceptional craftsmen, they still use and develop black and white prints by hand. They are now in their eighties. They have never met. Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro, two American photographers as distinct as night and day, traveled separately to Great Britain and Ireland a half century ago and brought their sensibilities with them. Davidson went first, in 1960, on assignment for a popular magazine. Six years later, Caponigro secured a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph in Ireland. Davidson went twice more to the United Kingdom and Caponigro took more than a dozen return trips across several decades. Their journeys helped establish their respective distinguished careers.

The exhibit first appeared last summer at the Yale Center for British Art (where the two photographers finally did meet). In addition to the 128 photographs, there is a sixteen-minute film called "Still Looking" by Huntington filmmaker Kate Lain. Lain, along with Watts, traveled to Caponigro's home in Maine, and to Davidson's in New York City, spending a few days talking and shooting with each. Lain admitted to being slightly starstruck by her legendary subjects but had no problem with diva-like behavior. Recalling her time with them she says "they were both very open to just let me know their objects and know how they define space. There's something about their spaces that has everything to do with what you see in their photography."


Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland runs at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens through March 15, 2015.

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Stonehenge, 1977. By Paul Caponigro.

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Connemara, County Galway, Ireland 1970. By Paul Caponigro.

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Dead Calf in the Sand, County Kerry, Ireland 1993. By Paul Caponigro.

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London, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

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Brighton, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

Previously on LA Observed
Bruce Davidson photographs Los Angeles
Bruce Davidson, around LA

November 21, 2014

Making choices along the sexual spectrum in three plays

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John Sloan and Angela Lin in "Stop Kiss." Photo by Jim Cox.

The politically correct attitude about sexual orientation is that it isn't a choice - or certainly not in most cases. An emphasis on that supposition has helped loosen laws that restrict the rights of those who are primarily oriented toward the same sex.

However, as I examine a few plays that are winding up their latest runs in LA, I get the impression that the playwrights didn't get the memo.

In Diana Son's "Stop Kiss" at Pasadena Playhouse, a young woman who has enjoyed sleeping with a particular man - a former college friend and possible future husband -- turns her attentions and her affections to another woman. This other woman is receptive - she recently ended a seven-year cohabitation with a boyfriend - but that boyfriend is still interested in continuing their hetero romance.

Near the end of the play, the first woman tells the second, in these exact words, "Choose me" - in other words, choose her over the boyfriend of seven years. In a very literal sense, she's talking about choosing the better caregiver (the second woman has been injured in a street crime), but she's clearly also talking about the choice of a romantic partner. Son could hardly be more explicit in indicating that a choice is involved in these decisions.

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Patrick Stafford and Rebecca Mozo in "Cock."

Meanwhile, Mike Bartlett's "Cock" at Rogue Machine is entirely based on the notion that a young man is wavering between his older male lover and a brash woman who's closer to his own age. The woman has apparently brought the young man sexual dividends that he enjoys. The performance of "Cock" I attended was followed by a talkback in which members of a bisexual-support organization expressed their appreciation of the play's acknowledgment that bisexuality exists and that it can create difficult choices between lovers of different genders.

Speaking of dramatic choices, a revival of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" again glimpses the possibility of going outside the species for a sexual partner. This was an especially audacious, well, choice for Los Angeles LGBT Center to produce at its Davidson/Valentini Theatre. Anti-gay zealots have for years suggested that toleration of homosexuality could eventually lead to toleration of bestiality. They could easily claim that Albee is endorsing his character's romance with a goat.

But I doubt that Albee had this in mind when he wrote "The Goat." And I get the impression that this production of "The Goat" emphasizes the opposite argument a little more than previous productions I've seen -- perhaps because the fury of Ann Noble, as the wife who must cope with "the other animal" instead of "the other woman," is so articulate as well as explosive. She makes it quite clear that this man is in fact raping this other creature.

Unfortunately, the authority with which she states her case undermines her husband's case more than usual - which, at least for me, increases the play's implausibility. Albee and director Ken Sawyer maintain such a rigorously realistic style that it's hard to accept the man's account of what is happening between him and Sylvia without hearing a few more explanatory details.

We hear no evidence that this man was ever even attracted to pets in the usual non-sexual ways (A.R. Gurney's play about a pet named "Sylvia" comes to mind here), or that he witnessed a lot of cross-species sex because he grew up on a farm, or that he was unhappy in his marriage. So why would he suddenly begin an affair with a goat? Inquiring minds want to know, but this play doesn't explore this man's motivations deeply enough.

Of course perhaps Albee simply wanted to underline or to satirize the inscrutability of romantic attraction in general by displaying this extreme case. But it's so extreme, and so essentially unexplained, that the play becomes more of a wildly entertaining freak show than an expression of common human feelings.

In "Stop Kiss" and "Cock," however, directors Seema Sueko and Cameron Watson (respectively) and their casts make completely credible their characters' decisions to "switch teams" within the general human league. Although "Stop Kiss" and "Cock" challenge the politically correct LGBT line about choice, perhaps it's time - with the generally greater acceptance of LGBT individuals and their orientations or their "choices" -- that a rigid adherence to that line is no longer so important.

At any rate, from a theatergoer's point of view, "choices" are almost always more dramatically engaging than unchosen "orientations." The evidence of those heightened dramatic stakes is obvious in all three of these productions.

This costume exhibit could be more wearable

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Photo by Iris Schneider

I love movies. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. That's how I felt at the Hollywood Costume exhibit on display at the future home of the Academy museum. The exhibit, showing at Fairfax and Wilshire in the May Company building that will house the museum, was put together (and is on its final tour stop) by the Victoria and Albert Museum and augmented with pieces from the academy's collections. It includes 150 costumes (40 from the academy archives) and it is impressive in its scope. You enter the darkened space to the swelling sounds of a film extravaganza. Unlike a movie trailer that is too loud, the music never stops.

Ushers remind you to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkened space, and guide you with flashlights so you won't go bump in the night. But the pitch black environment--simulating a black box theater with black floor, walls and ceiling--did not make it easy to navigate as the costumes were under hot spotlights, forcing your eyes to pingpong between total darkness and bright spotlights and video screens. Ouch! And while your eyes do adjust to the darkness somewhat, your ears are given no such mercy.

Each display is a cornucopia of information, replete with screens showing original notes from the likes of Charles Chaplin and other great directors and actors, videos showing costumes being worn in the films they were designed for, musings from actors and fascinating interviews-displayed almost life-size--with directors, actors and the costume designers who work with them. At one point though, Quentin Tarantino was talking about the costumes for "Django Unchained" while Martin Scorsese, in a too-close by display, spoke about "Gangs of New York." Maybe it's just me (I have a hard time filtering noise), but it was virtually impossible to shut out the sound of one in order to listen to the other. The exhibits are impressively multimedia, incorporating drawings, artifacts and fabric swatches to show how costume design comes together and illustrating the collaborative process that the best in the business prefer. But amid the cacophony of sound and light, it was hard to absorb the wealth of information.

As a sidenote, it is interesting that this exhibit comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having reported on the auction of half of Debbie Reynolds' extensive costume and artifact collection, I have always wondered why the Academy did not snap up that collection and others before these items were sold off at auction to individual cinephiles. When the museum opens we may get a chance to see what is in the academy archives.

There is a lot to learn at this exhibit--for instance, did you know that Meryl Streep got her degree from Vassar in Drama and Costume Design?--but after an hour, I found myself seeking solace. There must be a way to figure out how to create a more conducive environment in which to look at these iconic costumes and listen to lauded experts of their craft. They have much to say about the science of costume design and how costumes help them define and craft their characters. It's fascinating to learn about their process, and how these designers make something very complicated look simple: "My job," says Edith Head, "is to help the girl who wears the dress become the person she's playing on the screen."

The exhibition runs until March 2, 2015.

November 9, 2014

My week of culture in LA

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Al Pacino at the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival, above. Elevator Repair Service, below. Photos by Iris Schneider.

It was a good week in LA for culture. The AFI Film Festival began in Hollywood on Thursday with lots of star power and free tickets to those willing to put in the time to visit and re-visit the AFI website and, tickets in hand, wait in line for a seat at the theater. Once inside, you can be treated to both major and independent films and often a talk afterward with the lead actor and/or director or screenwriter. Marion Cotillard spoke, along with the Dardenne brothers, after the screening of "Two Days, One Night." She described the rehearsal period and working with the very demanding brothers -- who sometimes asked for 70 takes -- as an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. The powerful but understated film about a working class mom seeking a way out of impending financial doom seemed so real that it felt like a documentary.

Downtown at LA Live, and somewhat under the radar, was the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival. They had lots of stars willing to talk after the screenings, and unlike the AFI crowd, the people who asked questions at the AARP Festival were not beneath unmitigated adulation, simply asking to shake a hand or get a hug. Al Pacino, there to discuss his latest film, "The Humbling," was more than happy to oblige. The film, about an actor losing his craft, and fire, to the ravages of age, was riveting and his performance both tragic and comic, and totally without vanity as he shared the screen with a much younger Greta Gerwig.

arguendo-iris.jpgAnd then, back at the Redcat for just a weekend, Elevator Repair Service blew into town with "Arguendo," their raucous, and verbatim, look at the Supreme Court argument of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, brought by a group of strippers claiming that forcing them to wear pasties and g-strings violated their First Amendment rights. Just one word regarding Elevator Repair Service: go! Unfortunately only here for several performances over this weekend, they never fail to surprise and entertain while making you think and teaching you something at the same time. Like ERS director John Collins, I've always been curious about the goings-on inside the Supreme Court as arguments are presented. After this performance, I feel like I've been there -- minus a bit of artistic license of course. On a personal note: Thank you, ERS, for explaining the genesis of Chief Justice Rehnquist's gold-striped robe. I've always loved his bizarrely comic display of ego and personal pomp.


Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum

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Cristóbal Balenciaga museum, left, attached to a former palacio in Getaria, Spain.

I have to thank LACMA Costume and Textiles curator Kaye Spilker for pointing me toward what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my recent trip to the French and Spanish Basque country. While chatting with Spilker in late August, I mentioned that my upcoming travel plans included a day trip to San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border from where I would be staying with family in Biarritz. She suggested that, if time allowed, I should check out the museum devoted solely to one of the greatest couturier's of the 20th century, Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga. The museum is located in Getaria, a fishing village 20 minutes drive from San Sebastian. Accessible by a coastal road along the Bay of Biscay, charming Getaria dates from the Middle Ages and is known today for its beaches, delicious grilled fish and the signature wine of the region, Getariako Txakolina. Getaria is also known for being Balenciaga's birthplace.

Designed by Cuban architect Julian Argilagos and inaugurated in 2011, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa sits on a hill overlooking the Medieval wall guarding the old port. The modernist building incorporates the Palacio Aldamar, the former residence of the Marques and Marquesa of Casa Torres. Balenciaga's mother worked as a seamstress for the Marquesa and it was during the years that he spent by her side in the aristocrat's home that he was first exposed to fashion and art. The museum's opening, attended by Spanish high society and Queen Sofia, confirmed Balenciaga's exalted place in the country's culture.

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Lobby and the view from the museum. LAO photos.

The collection includes nearly 1600 pieces and represents the complete range of his oeuvre. Visitors can see examples of the designer's iconic looks, including his "infanta" dresses, the baby doll, and the balloon dress. My French cousin-in-law Catherine and I oohed and aahed our way through gallery after gallery of evening gowns, suits, coats, and accessories. Catherine, an artist and clothing designer who grew up with an awareness of Balenciaga, was especially keen to see his innovative use of fabric and embroidery close up. While the entry and public spaces of the museum are all light and glass, the galleries are cave-like and intimate. No guards were present in the galleries and we joked that we could probably try on the clothes, knowing full well there were most likely security cameras watching over us. After viewing the exhibits we watched a lovely, short film about Balenciaga's life and work being shown on a loop near the museum's entrance.

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"Baby doll" dress in ivory silk taffeta, left, Balenciaga museum. Wedding gown, photo by Judy Graeme.

Born in 1895, Balenciaga was formally trained in Madrid and began his career in Spain. With the Spanish royal family and the aristocracy as patrons, his prestigious position in the world of fashion was already assured when, in 1936 the Spanish Civil War forced him to move his operation to Paris, where his contemporaries included Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher. Among his most important design influences were Spanish history and art. The "infanta" dresses referenced paintings by Velazquez and some of his evening wear reflected garments worn by bullfighters. His clothing became more streamlined after World War II. He became, in essence, a sartorial architect, experimenting with line and volume. One of his most important designs, the "sack" dress, created in the late 1950's, created a completely new silhouette for women. Loyal customers included the Duchess of Windsor, Bunny Mellon, and Jacqueline Kennedy as well as countless lesser known but well-heeled clients.

Fellow designers Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy called him "the master." Coco Chanel said of Balenciaga, "he is the only true couturier among us." His retirement in 1968 and death in 1972 marked the end of an era for haute couture.

Back in Los Angeles, I stopped by LACMA to talk with Spilker about why Balenciaga matters to her as a curator. The Costume and Textile collection includes 76 Balenciaga pieces and some have been included in past exhibitions. Her passion for his design genius was evident as we looked at photographs of his creations from the 1930's through the 1960's. "The reason Balenciaga is important was that he treated clothing as art. He was a sculptor -- he made kinetic sculpture" she said. "Everything he produced was so incredibly elegant. It was refined and conceptually perfectly constructed in the sense that he knew the human body so well as an armature that he could do something completely sculptural."

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Silk lace cocktail dress, left, and silk evening gown and cape. LACMA collection.

"He frequently used very stiff fabric -- something that would shoot off an arm and yet you could still move in it," Spilker said "He was famous for making sleeves. His sleeves fit perfectly. One of the things he did was to take the collar away from the neck-so your neck is just like a swan. He made things that were, in effect, frames for a body. If women were wearing Balenciaga, it would be impossible not to notice them."

November 8, 2014

The intensity of 'Zealot,' plus big dreams within three musicals

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Demosthenes Chrysan, Charlayne Woodard and Alan Smyth in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of "Zealot." Photo: Ben Horak/SCR.

More than any other region, the Middle East dominates international news in the American media. And the American theater has produced plenty of plays related to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet plays about American diplomatic efforts in the area are rare. They're probably considered inherently less exciting than plays about young Americans putting their lives on the line in combat. Now, however, with most Americans resistant to "boots on the ground" involvement, diplomacy may be where the action is - the dramatic action, as well as the real-life action.

Theresa Rebeck makes a compelling case that Middle Eastern diplomacy can create crackling drama in her new "Zealot," at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

It's set in the British consulate in Mecca during the Hajj (which, this year, occurred in early October, just before this production opened.) An American under-secretary of state (Charlayne Woodard) shows up in the office of the UK consul (Alan Smyth) to discuss rumors of a possible political demonstration during the Hajj.

Their conversation is interrupted when an agitated local Saudi official (Demosthenes Chrysan) shows up to confirm that a violent riot has indeed broken out in the Grand Mosque. It was sparked when a group of Muslim women removed their head scarves, presumably in protest of strict laws about women's dress and deportment.

One of these women (Nikki Massoud) arrives. She has been dispatched by the protesters to bear witness to what happened. The U.S. doesn't have a consulate in Mecca, but she is seeking sanctuary from the Americans via the UK consulate. Soon enough, her background is revealed - she's an Iranian Shiite Muslim who studied for a year in the U.S. and earnestly believes in its founding principles. In the rigorously Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, these credentials aren't exactly a point in her favor.

This fictional incident becomes a microcosmic examination of the foreign-policy debate between humanitarian concerns - represented here primarily by the American - and the British official's more pragmatic "none of our business" attitude. Rebeck adds extra notes of irony by making the under secretary a Muslim and by making the Brit an atheist - and by having the Brit warn the African American under secretary that unwarranted intervention in this situation could be seen as a "racist" disrespect for Saudi culture.

Don't let any of the above lead you to the conclusion that this play might be too arcane or too talky. Although the verbal fracas is indeed lively, the play also includes a poignant moment that consists almost entirely of an unexpected silent gesture between two characters. Director Marc Masterson and company make sure that the three major characters are somewhat fleshed out - without spelling out every biographical detail and motivation.

Rebeck is a prolific writer whose plays sometimes appear to have spun off an assembly line, but this is one of her best and most original scripts. It's certainly more provocative and successful than her "Poor Behavior," which opened at the Taper in 2011. I'll let the Middle East experts comment on its credibility, but it seems plausible enough in the theater. We probably shouldn't be surprised by our ability to be surprised by new developments in either the Middle East itself or the plays that are set there.


PIPPIN, EDWARD AND MELCHIOR

Some of the currently running musicals in the LA area right now have a lot in common.

Pippin-ds.jpgThe tour of "Pippin," currently at the Pantages, is about a young man who pursues grandiose dreams. Because he's a prince, he has the ability to literally pursue them - but not to make them succeed. The man at the heart of "Big Fish," in its West Coast premiere from Musical Theatre West, has dreams that are just as grandiose, but he is a traveling salesman, not a prince, so most of his dreams remain on the level of tall tales. Meanwhile, the teenage Melchior in Deaf West Theatre's revival of "Spring Awakening" continues to envision a better future despite a series of traumatic events within the stifling culture of his community in 19th-century Germany.

Both Pippin and Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" also have big-time father/son issues - Pippin is the son of a dominant father (Charlemagne), while Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" is the father of a skeptical son. Both of these characters are also drawn to the circus - but in this "Pippin," the circus connection is largely a concept brilliantly added to the material by director Diane Paulus, while in "Big Fish," Bloom's flirtation with the circus is written into John August's script, based on his screenplay, which was in turn adapted from a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Musical-theater companies should be encouraged to produce more than the greatest or latest hits, so I was rooting for the success of "Big Fish," at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. Its score is by the still-promising Andrew Lippa, and the material was staged on Broadway by Susan Stroman. But it falls short of expectations.

The big production numbers depicting Edward's fantasies are disproportionate to the small story and begin to feel like showy opportunities to extend the length of the show instead of vital and revealing moments. By the end, the conflicts and complexities within Edward's personality have been forcibly ironed out by the show's creators. I suspect that they did this out of concern that he might not be likable enough if they didn't furnish us with additional evidence of his overall rectitude.

By contrast, the creators of this "Pippin" didn't worry about such matters. And the evergreen conflict between big adventures and the quieter pleasures of hearth and home, which has always lurked within the Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson musical, has never been as clearly delineated as in Paulus's Tony-winning staging. The circus acts from Montreal's Gypsy Snider provide graphic evidence of the lure of adventure - not to mention a showstopping opportunity for Andrea Martin.

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"Spring Awakening," photo by Tate Tullier.

The use of circus in this "Pippin" is an addition that's somewhat comparable to the use of ASL-signing deaf actors (as well as singing non-deaf actors) in Michael Arden's much more intimate revival of the Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik "Spring Awakening," for Deaf West Theatre and The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. "Spring Awakening" shares with "Pippin" the theme of frustrated, restless youth - and in the case of this "Spring Awakening" in particular, one of their key frustrations is their inability to communicate with the domineering culture. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Deaf West previously applied its distinctive musical-theater techniques to "Pippin" (at the Mark Taper Forum, in 2009). The gestural vigor of the current crop of Deaf West actors re-awakens "Spring Awakening."

November 6, 2014

For Harry Shearer, Nixon is still the one

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Harry Shearer.

I spent an enjoyable evening in Nixon's Oval office recently along with other Nixonphiles and -phobes like political writer Richard Reeves and KCRW's Warren Olney. Well, to be precise, it was more like the faux-val office, as created and brought to life by Harry Shearer in a continuation of what has become one of Shearer's passions: bringing the good, the bad, the ugly, the comedy, the tragedy and yes, the humanity, of Richard Nixon and his taped conversations into the daylight.

Shearer is an astute political thinker and observer of American politics and the media and has honed his appreciation of Richard Nixon to a saber's edge over years of impersonating and embodying the man writ large and small. As grateful as he is for mining the comic gold contained in those tapes, he also expressed some empathy for Nixon's huge character flaws which the former President unwittingly exposed for all the world to see once the tapes were made public.

This latest Nixonfest was, as Shearer called it, "a one-off," a ticketed event held at Raleigh Studios' Charlie Chaplin Theater to showcase Nixon's the One, a series of 6 episodes of reenactments of verbatim taped conversations and musings between Nixon and his White House aides, cabinet members and sychophants. After listening to hundreds of hours of Nixon's Oval Office tapes along with Nixon historian Stanley Kutler, "certain themes emerged," said Shearer--Nixon's hatred of the East Coast "elite," the Jewish-controlled media, the blacks and of course, his enemies, who often included former political opponents. But Shearer is quick to point out that the person who really should have topped Nixon's enemies list was Nixon himself. "He was a self-made man," Shearer said, "And self-destroyed." The episodes were put together by Shearer and Kutler and broadcast in Britain on the Sky Arts channel.

Now that the series is done, Shearer has been releasing the episodes to YouTube, after trying unsuccessfully to get them broadcast on American television. Given the drivel that ends up on television and cable these days, it's amazing that this series was rejected. The episodes are must-see viewing for anyone who remembers Richard Nixon, and certainly for anyone interested in American politics--there is much to learn about the risks of that complicated cocktail of power and ego when combined with a huge shot of human frailty. Shakespeare couldn't have done it better.

LA Opera's doubleheader, plus Dance Project and more

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Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of "Dido and Aeneas." Craig Mathew/LA Opera

"Bluebeard's Castle," based on the grizzly Perrault fairy tale, doubled with "Dido and Aeneas," the Greco-Roman myth -- together, they're asizzle onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of director Barrie Kosky, the current crown jewel at LA Opera.

Both works are about love ending badly. What else, in music drama?

It was last year that the celebrated theater man brought us his 1920's Chaplin-esque animations aka "The Magic Flute" from Berlin's Komische Oper -- replete with silent-film savvy, stylized cleverness and out-of-the-box imagination -- underscoring his U.S. allegiance to Los Angeles.

And now we've got Kosky's kit and kaboodle -- a pairing of modernist Bartok's only opera, explosively fraught, and Purcell's exercise in baroque mannerism, a piece of Hogarthian flamboyance in this scrumptious staging that you cannot take your eyes off of.

One-act each, they make a study in contrasts (And, by the way, tickets come as low as $17...)

Just imagine "Dido" in a neo-classically pure frame, costumes in sherbet colors suffused with a warm footlights glow, its characters seated on a white cross-stage bench, singing and mugging sad or happy, some of them adding absurdly comic dimension at times and ignoring proscenium convention while looking very post-modern.

To wit, the correctly small pit orchestra (including early performance instruments) is raised nearly to stage level and has the chorus clambering in and out of it. We can sense the whole thing as a unit. The music actually joins the action and lets the audience feel eminently connected.

Lively? You bet, even if Purcell is not exactly a composer who can exert forward momentum. What Kosky has wrought is a working definition of "opulent minimalism," as he calls it.

What's more, the cast doesn't let him down -- especially not mezzo Paula Murrihy as a long-suffering Dido who sings with lyric finesse, Liam Bonner (remember him as Billy Budd?), an ardent yet whimsical Aeneas who can take no for an answer. Conductor Steven Sloane kept balances unerringly on the mark. So did Grant Gershon find just the right integration with his chorus. Go before you lose the chance.

And after a single intermission you just might be blown away by its opposite: Kosky's black and white expressionist "Bluebeard," a nightmarish encounter between the man who's murdered many wives and their still-live successor who seeks to get inside his mind and memory, to bring light and cheer to him.

Now be prepared. Kosky is no William Friedkin, who gave us an eerily suggestive "Bluebeard" (2002), nor a Robert Wilson, that specialist in trance-like characters who act in semaphores. Actually, he's the opposite. So the couple's abstract but very physical struggle has lots of clinching and clutching, it's rugged and ragged -- he, a broken man given to seizures in response to her entreaties; she, the activist, the aggressor. Ah, but it ain't so, in their final pact: she does fatalistically become his eighth dead wife -- only as understood, though, not represented onstage.

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Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith. Craig Mathew / LA Opera

Robert Hayward, as a reactive Bluebeard, sang with dark vigor and Claudia Mahnke, summoned Judith's geschries with imperious urgency. Bartok's orchestral music is powerful and, with the full band at his command, Sloane enforced its somber ferocity, its lush subversiveness.

Get there -- by Nov. 15.

These days the city is also afloat in dance performances. Celebrity Benjamin Millepied (of "Black Swan" movie fame and subsequently named director of Paris Opera Ballet among other important posts) mounted his second program of LA Dance Project at the Ace Hotel theater downtown, again drawing a trendy crowd of revelers.

Smartly, he brought back William Forsythe's masterwork, "Quintett," this time with different dancers than those seen two years ago at Disney Hall. But if not quite as breath-catchingly intense they were also able, as couples, to unearth an incidental intimacy, striking deeply familiar nuggets almost too rare to find in all the copious choreographic flailings before us.

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Aaron Carr and Julia Eichten in "Quintett."

Gavin Byars' score, a profound stimulus to the work, wraps itself around a weary vagrant's voice softly rasping "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" -- emotionally powerful enough to make you cry. And Forsythe, we've learned, seemingly vented on his young wife's impending death as he made this dance. The pity here, is that the Ace's sound system practically blitzed -- hearing the words was impossible.

But what comes across loud and clear is Forsythe's singular separation from a host of current choreographers who embrace an ethos of body mechanics parading as dance. (More on that later.)

Millepied's own piece on the bill, "Untitled," as generic as its title, took Philip Glass' typically energetic, driving music as its basis -- and was much in the vein of Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," also to upbeat Glass. These coordinates are great audience-pleasers and the crowd went predictably wild.

But Emanuel Gat's "Morgan's Last Chug" tried harder to be substantive, even describing it in hyper-intellectual gobbledygook-ese as "a study on layered temporality." And, my god, his collage score included a monologue from "Krapp's Last Tape" (which we couldn't hear), excerpts from a Purcell opera and Glenn Gould playing Bach.

Happily, the Israeli choreo is more earnest than showy. Along the way, with dancers pulled into body knots intermingled with spasmodic circles and angles, Gat even quotes a José Limón gesture from "The Moor's Pavane." Nice to know all dance-makers were not born yesterday.

And then there was Batsheva, part of a curious Israeli influx here this season. Stopping on a 50th anniversary tour, the Tel Aviv company touched down at Royce Hall and gave us a prime example of choreographic currency -- namely director Ohad Naharin's "Sahed21," a 75-minute series of vignettes that mainly display body contortions.

What saved the work from an interminable display of Naharin's "gaga" exercises -- one dancer after another demonstrating self-styled, pretzel-like articulations, then sloppily padding offstage, bad posture and all ("naturalness," folks) -- was the male chorus line that reflected a poetic personal-ness.

Oh, yes, there were sexy moments, too, when gorgeous young things did some virtuosic maneuvers in their skimpy little tank suits. But all was lost when we got a solo of vocal autism, a tall skinny man standing alone and croaking unintelligible gibberish at the top of his lungs.

To think that Batsheva began all those decades ago with a Martha Graham imprimatur, went on to a ballet sensibility, and now entertains Human Detachment as a focus is mind-boggling. It's as though we have gone from dance as an artistic expression to its mere physicalization.

November 4, 2014

Millard Sheets mural moving to the Huntington

LAO-SHEETSMURALBEFORE-USETHIS.jpgMillard Sheets is known for creating very public art, including murals for schools, government buildings and, of course, Home Savings branches. One mural he painted for a private setting -- the dining room of a house in the Hollywood Hills -- soon will be seen at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The Southern California landscape was commissioned in 1934 by homeowners Fred H. and Bessie Ranke. It was donated last year by current owners Larry McFarland and M. Todd Williamson. The piece, which the artist signed and dated, had "undergone excellent care" and was in good shape, according to Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art. "The question was how to get it out of the house."

Fortunately, she says, Sheets had painted on Sanitas -- "kind of a fine-weave wall covering" -- and tests showed its original adhesive could be removed. "In this case, drying glue was our friend."

LAO-CONSERVEMURAL-USETHIS.jpgDuring a painstaking process that took several weeks last fall, the artwork was slipped off the walls in sections, rolled onto cylinders (the bigger the better to reduce creasing) and sent to the conservation lab, where it's being lined, stabilized and mounted.

Besides moving the mural, says Smith, "We had to figure out how to take something in a room of one scale and put it into a room of another. The nice thing about Sheets is that he used a relatively consistent horizon line throughout LAO-ROLLUP-USETHIS.jpgand addressed the top with a simple band of blue ... Even without the pieces above doors and windows, the composition still reads beautifully."

Smith describes the painting as "elegant," adding that it "captures Sheets' affinity for the California landscape and ability to create an evocative sense of place." Displayed on panels that together measure about 46 feet wide by seven feet, it will reside in the boardroom in the new education and visitor center, which is set to open next year.

The Huntington's holdings also include a Sheets lithograph and other materials related to the prolific Pomona-born artist, architectural designer and educator, who died at 81 in 1989.

Top photo: The mural in the dining room of a Hollywood Hills home / Photo by Tim Street-Porter

Bottom photos: Conservators prepare for transfer / Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

October 24, 2014

Deborah Strang on her 'lovely, crazy' life in the theater*

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Deborah Strang in "Tartuffe," left, and "Come Back, Little Sheba" last spring / Photos by Craig Schwartz

In more than two decades with A Noise Within, Deborah Strang has played a shrew, a stage manager, a fairy queen, a pompous wench, an earthy innkeeper, a jilted bride, a jealous sister and a host of wives and mothers silly, grieving, fierce and fragile.

ANW being a rotating repertory company, Strang has sometimes performed two of these roles in the same week -- or even weekend. "It's the ideal for an actor," she says. "It brings out the creative juices. You don't get any sleep and you don't have time for friends, spouses or extracurricular activities, but it's a heady, fantastic experience."

Currently, the versatile veteran is appearing in her 70th Noise Within production, starring as the magician Prospero in "The Tempest" through Nov. 22. "I've done all the mother parts so now I'm playing men," she jokes during a recent interview at the Pasadena theater. Why so many moms? Timing. "I was in my 40s when I started here and I'm in my 60s now." She doesn't hesitate to mention her age -- or to declare her preference for "my more natural head shot" in which wisps of graying hair set off soulful blue eyes. "I'm happy with the way I look."

strangheadshot-use.jpgStrang also is happy she's made her home with the classics-centric troupe led by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. The native of little Big Stone Gap, Va., worked in New York and Boston before arriving in L.A. in 1989. Three years later, she debuted with ANW during its early days in Glendale. Strang's credits include film and television, but her main focus is the stage, where she's earned acclaim for her skill and range. (She just won a 2014 Ovation award for her performance in "Come Back, Little Sheba.") Offstage, she teaches and runs the box office -- which is more than a day job: "I'm a better actor because I really get to know my audience."

"I also keep learning more about myself thanks to people here who know me so well they push me to keep growing." A few years ago, she recalls, "I asked not to be included in Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi' because absurdist theater isn't my thing. Of course, no one paid attention to me." Director Rodriguez-Elliott cast her and then suggested she begin the show sitting on a toilet. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' Well, it turned out to be so liberating. After you start out on a toilet with your pants down, you can do anything."

Here are some other memories and musings from Strang's "lovely, crazy" life in the theater:

Above: Photo by Daniel Reichert Photography


Preparing a role

lao-ubu.jpg "The bulk of my work is done in rehearsal," says Strang, who likens her approach to "jumping on a bucking horse and bucking around until I settle in."

"For contemporary works, like William Inge or Tennessee Williams, I read the play and the playwright's biography and research the period, but I like to be loose enough to respond to what happens in rehearsal." Her Bard prep is more text-based. "I spend a lot of time with the script, scanning everything I say for the meter and looking up every word. Shakespeare offers my most challenging parts. It's like singing an aria."

Above: "Ubu Roi" (2006) with Alan Blumenfeld / Photo by Craig Schwartz


Performing two roles

"Doing more than one play at a time, creating more than one character is like working out double time. You develop -- I stole this word from Geoff -- muscularity and the ability to pull out any actor tool at any moment." Strang compares the theater to baseball. "Every night, you get up to the plate and try to be as present as possible. I'm going to miss some, but I always give it my best shot. I try to imagine each show is important to somebody in the audience. It's their anniversary or this was the first play they saw as a kid."

Last spring, Strang portrayed a saucy servant in Moliere's "Tartuffe" and a disillusioned housewife in Inge's "Sheba." "That rep was really challenging because these are extremely complicated characters. Plus, 'Tartuffe' has rhyming couplets and language you have to wrap your brain around and 'Sheba' is such an emotional journey."

Usually, she says, it's easy to avoid mixing up plays. "By the time you are dressed and hear the pre-show music you are in that world." Once, however, "we were doing two Hellmans. In 'Another Part of the Forest,' I played the mother of the character I played in 'The Little Foxes.' I put on my makeup and was about to go on as the mother when I looked in the mirror and said, 'What's wrong? I'm too pretty!' It turned out I'd made myself up as the daughter."

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With Geoff Elliott in "O Pioneers!" (2003), left, and "The Chairs" (2011) / Photos by Craig Schwartz


Leading men

"Geoff and I have performed together so many times he's been my son, my husband, my lover, my sworn enemy, my father and my slave. [Elliott is Caliban in "The Tempest."] I know I can try anything with him, especially during rehearsal. I wouldn't normally haul off and slap an actor without asking permission. But I could slap Geoff and he would take it and respond and then I could respond. It's a wonderful way to work. Our history, in real life and onstage, is part of every part we create together."

A Noise Within also has given Strang opportunities to act with her partner of more than 30 years, Joel Swetow. "Onstage, there is a sexuality, a trust and a love that can be completely released because we are lovers. Then, at night, we go home and spend all of our time talking about the play."


What's next

"This spring," says Strang, "we're putting on 'REVOLUTIONRep,' two plays in the same day with dinner in the middle. I'm going to be Mrs. Peachum in 'Threepenny Opera.' I have no idea what I'll be doing in 'Julius Caesar.'" She stops and smiles, clearly relishing the prospect of performing Brecht/Weill and the Bard back to back. "It should be lots of fun."

This post has been updated to include Strang's winning a 2014 Ovation award Nov. 2.

October 23, 2014

Encountering Encuentro

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Jose Guerrero and Marialuisa Burgos in "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro.

Eight years ago, after the city of Los Angeles awarded a contract to manage Los Angeles Theatre Center to the Latino Theater Company, the Spring Street venue was marketed as "the new LATC." But the "new" was dropped in 2009, judging from the last post on the Facebook page that had been named "The New LATC."

Still, as I lounged in the LATC lobby between shows of the Encuentro festival over the weekend, I began to wonder if the "new" should be revived. That legendary lobby - which was the Grand Central Station of innovative LA theater in the late '80s - has been given a 21st-century makeover, with the addition of some comfortable sofas and handy coffee tables and snazzy lighting. The space now looks like a hip hotel lobby or - when a party is in session, as it was on the opening night of the festival last Thursday -- a nightspot similar to those that have cropped up in the gentrified neighborhood just outside the LATC doors.

Of course the free drink chits that were handed out with at least some of the Encuentro tickets and the free coffee, cappuccino and lattes that were dispensed in the lobby during much of the weekend may have contributed to that impression.

Sometimes LATC still seems to suffer from the previously bleaker reputation of its downtown neighborhood in the '80s. I occasionally encounter Angelenos, even some theater-loving Angelenos, who haven't been back to that area since then, apparently unaware of how much it has changed. There were plenty of unsold seats at the six Encuentro productions I attended over the weekend.

In case any of those Spring Street-shy Westsiders or Valley-istas need more lures to the LATC area, I should mention that theatergoers can now cross the street and buy terrific tacos for $2.50 each at the newest (since August) branch of Guisados, followed by dessert at the acclaimed Uli Gelateria next door.

But the onstage fare, not the offstage food and drink, is what really matters at LATC. I can't report that everything on the Encuentro stages is wonderful, but from now through November 10 there is certainly a lot more to choose from than there has been at LATC in recent years - 15 companies from LA and the rest of the United States (the festival also includes two productions by local companies elsewhere in LA.)

Almost all of the material is Latino-oriented. But that common theme is expressed in a wide variety of different styles, about widely disparate subjects.

And isn't it about time that LA got a concentrated dose of Latino theater? According to the Census Bureau, LA County's population was 48 percent Latino in 2013. But I would guess that the proportion of LA's professional theater offerings that deal with Latino characters or themes is much closer to 4.8 percent. Any discussion of how to grow LA theater audiences should consider this factor.

This imbalance appears to operate more or less on all levels of LA theater - large, midsize, small - although the fact that the Latino Theater Company itself operates in LATC's three midsize spaces might make the proportion of Latino-oriented productions in LA theater's midsize sphere just a little higher than it is in the larger and smaller arenas.


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Evelina Fernandez and Sal Lopez in "Premeditation." Photo: Ed Krieger


Of the six Encuentro productions I saw over the weekend, by far the most entertaining is the entry from the host, Latino Theater Company's "Premeditation." I wrote about it during its first run in this same space last April 29, pointing out that its noir-flavored story of contemporary middle-aged marital discord is "a delirious farce," not the earnest psychodrama that the subject might suggest.

I welcomed the chance to see it again, and I left the theater marveling over the precision of Jose Luis Valenzuela's direction, the award-worthy design components, and the vitality of each of the four performances, including that of playwright Evelina Fernandez..

"Premeditation" is very LA-oriented, but it doesn't look at the East Side, the media's favorite habitat for Latinos in LA. One character is a professor (as is Valenzuela) at UCLA, and much of the action takes place at "the Shangri-La Hotel" - the one in Santa Monica?

Another Encuentro production, Emilio Williams' "Your Problem With Men," from Teatro Luna in Chicago, also attempts to ignite comic voltage on the subject of female/male relationships - in the same downstairs LATC space. According to the program, it too is set in LA, although that designation feels as if it were tacked on for the LA run. A brief reference to Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood betrays the play's real roots.

Williams and director Alexandra Meda are examining their subject from a younger generation's perspective, with a dash of meta-theatricality. As in "Premeditation," a lot of attention is devoted to design and movement. But the results aren't nearly as propulsive or as polished as those of "Premeditation." Centered on the romantic woes of a young and very neurotic woman, "Your Problem with Men" is shorter than "Premeditation" but seems longer.

Encuentro is hardly all comedy, all the time. Of the more "serious" productions I saw, the best is "Juárez: A Documentary Mythology," from Theater Mitu in New York. It's a non-fiction piece, based on interviews in one particular city, somewhat in the spirit of Tectonic Theater Project's "Laramie" projects and the Civilians' "This Beautiful City" (which was about the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008.)

juarez-ds.jpgUnlike those other shows, however, the genesis of this one has a more personal history - Mitu artistic director Rubén Polendo was raised in Juárez, the one-time "murder capital of the world," across the Rio Grande from El Paso. He inserts fond memories and scratchy home movies from his youth, amid the more recent material about the violence in his home town and the economic reasons for it.

Yet apart from his personal narration, the storytelling is somewhat less personal than in those other shows. In the script's stage directions, Polendo says the actors the actors attempt to "transmit" and "witness" the material instead of embodying or "emoting" it. The design is fluid, projection-oriented and often ingeniously theatrical instead of representational. Of course, much of the material is grim, but the script ends with a ray of hope.

Another fact-based drama with a Rio Grande component is "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro in Denver. If the title sounds familiar, it's probably because reporter Sonia Nazario and photographer Don Bartletti originally told the story of a young Honduran man's repeated attempts to cross the U.S. border to join his long-absent mother in the Los Angeles Times, in 2002. Both of the journalists won Pulitzers for their work.

Anthony J. Garcia's stage adaptation is especially timely in the wake of the recent wave of immigration from Honduras and its neighbors. A lot of material had to be condensed, and all of the actors except Jose Guerrero's Enrique play more than one role, but the narrative is clear, if not exactly concise. For those who don't remember the original story, the most surprising and provocative element is the ending, which isn't quite as happy-ever-after as you might be expecting.

I don't recommend the other two Encuentro shows I saw. Coincidentally, they're both set in the early '50s. Karen Zacarias' "Mariela in the Desert," from Aurora Theatre in Georgia, is a listless drama about an artistic couple - long past their glory days - who are more or less decaying in a remote home in northern Mexico. Javier Antonio Gonzalez' "Zoetrope: Part 1," from Caborca Theatre in New York, is about a Puerto Rican couple who are driven apart when he goes to New York and she stays behind. Major turns in the "Zoetrope" narrative are strangely unexplained or unmotivated, and the 21st-century Wooster Group-influenced technique is a mismatched veneer when applied to the text's use of early '50s realism.

The productions I saw in Encuentro handle the English/Spanish bilingual question in different ways. "Premeditation" is virtually all-English. But when a production or a particular performance is primarily in Spanish, supertitles insure accessibility for English-only readers.

The festival continues through November 10, with four additional productions opening at LATC at the end of October. Meanwhile, a Latino-cast "Julius Caesar" at Casa 0101, playing through November 16, is also part of Encuentro.

October 18, 2014

Australians bring a feather-free 'Swan Lake,' plus Mahler's Fifth

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Australian Ballet, photo by Lisa Tomasetti


There it was: Tchaikovsky's wondrous score, "Swan Lake," its familiar strains being played impressively by hand-picked local members of the pit orchestra and led by Nicolette Fraillon.

But what was that onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of the Australian Ballet? Surely not the full-length masterwork that goes by the same name. Not the fairy tale kingdom that pre-supposes the moon-drenched mythic fantasy to come. Surely not the tragedy of a prince's quest for idealized love, only to get tripped up by human frailty.

No, choreographer Graeme Murphy has re-fashioned the story and re-ordered the music. It's now an everyday domestic drama, sort of a sordid soap opera with a sexualized prologue (bare-chested man and femme fatale in an acrobatic clinch.) But it did advertise itself truthfully, promising ticket-buyers a chance to see "the Jilted Princess" and "the Philandering Royal."

Along the way we get a mad scene with the heroine straight out of "Giselle" and later as Blanche when the asylum doctor and his attendants carry her off à la "Streetcar Named Desire" and even plunk her in a tub for some hydrotherapy ("Snakepit"?)

Now understand I'm not one to scream "defilement!" at all passing re-creations of a classic. Remember, there was Matthew Bourne's flinty opus, a "Swan Lake" steeped in rip-snorting socio-political satire. But his characters' epic conflicts were equal to those of the original narrative.

With the Australians we get plenty of entertainment -- the opening act was afloat in Kristian Fredrikson's deliciously cream-colored Edwardian costumes, all parasols and cutaway coats, suffused in warm lighting, and Murphy's winning choreography that supported the look. Strangely, though, he dropped the motif, as if its value was purely for pretty décor (and the chance to invoke Tudor's freeze-frame from "Jardin aux Lilas.") In the third act men wore contemporary tuxedoes.

But the "white" scenes -- those moonlit lakesides with a massed swan-corps spectacle -- were not so white. Also, they had no otherworldly aura, no ephemeral mystique. Short tutus were abandoned for knee-length shaggy skirts, which pulled the shade on leggy choreographic expression.

And nothing remained of the Act 2 pathos, that yearning-filled pas de deux, accompanied by a sorrowful violin solo and set up in Petipa's perfect steps -- they reveal the wounded bird Odette, who yearns, in her partner's arms, for the curse to lift so she could become a woman again. Arguably, there's no more intimate or classically gorgeous duet than this collaboration between the original choreographer and composer.

You will not see it here. But you can at Royce Hall this weekend with Los Angeles Ballet's most honorable and pristine "Swan Lake."

The Australians do boast a terrific company, though. Not only in Madeleine Eastoe as an Odette who carried out every role aspect assigned to her, and danced with alacrity, point and precision, along with Lana Jones, the character here named Baroness von Rothbart, who personified the seductive villain.

Poor Kevin Jackson, though, as Siegfried, was left to writhe in expressionistic torment throughout his two long solos, torn between dedication to his bride Odette and the evil temptress, with an awkward pas de trois thrown in for good measure.

Luckily, across the street we had the LA Philharmonic playing Mahler -- with deep love. Gustavo Dudamel loves Mahler, too, and began his career winning a big conductor's prize addressing the symphonic hero of our time. All this is known.

But few knew just how fabulous the outcome would be when our resident podium chief and his band feasted on the Fifth for their first concert this fall in Disney Hall.

I, for one, was gobsmacked by the performance. It seemed to lift off from the planet, because of who was doing what how. Understand, we're talking about Mahler, who could landscape both the 20th century's edge of social decay and its unshatterable joy, skirt the manic and the depressive with a musical quotient of genius, and who, according to Herbert Glass's astute program note, "composed emotion" while others might have "sublimated emotion."

The orchestra expressed all that Dudamel seemingly digested of Mahler. It delivered the haunted, nostalgic aftermath of crashing upheaval and the buoyant cheer so robust and gorgeous, and the waltzing ritards that led to combustion. There was no mistaking the depths of these sullied good times.

Especially, as the dancing-est maestro ever, Dudamel laid into other 3/4-time phrases with a washed-out drunken-ness -- one of them a darkly schmaltzy, world-wise theme with burnished low-note strings.

Gustavo-Dudamel-Hanauer.jpgThe brass, the best I've ever heard in the Phil, and led by trumpeter Thomas Hooten and hornist Andrew Bain, nailed their highly exposed passages dead on, strong, svelte and smooth-toned. And the whole orchestra, every section, locked together like one giant gyrating engine, all its components in mobile force, leaning inward, pumping to life, storming the heavens. To watch principal violist Carrie Dennis, alone, would have explained to a deaf person the music's vibrant thrust.

But there was another universe, to boot, occupying Disney Hall at the concert's start-- an unlikely one that seemed displaced, an ascetic one, courtesy of composer David Lang, with orchestra players dutifully plucking a single string from time to time. It shared not a shred of musical habitat with the Mahler that followed.

The piece, "man made," refers to various found instruments and was commissioned following Lang's justly deserved Pulitzer for his "little match girl passion," which has a theatrical framework. But when the soloists here, a quartet named So Percussion, sat up front snapping twigs while the Phil sat idly as a bystander, the whole thing seemed like a deprivation ritual.

A complete departure from ritual marked the joyous folkloric adventure of South Africa's Isango Ensemble, which touched down at the Broad Stage with its rendition of Mozart's "Magic Flute." Just for navigation purposes substitute the trumpet for the flute and you'll get the idea.

Which is, that Mozart, who adored improvisation, would likely have cheered on music arranger/conductor/instrumentalist Mandisi Dyantis in his trumpet riffs which made perfect sense of the composer's little singspiel and greatly added to the robust fun of it.

Now I can't use the word pristine, but this romp of a stagework, adapted by Mark Dornford-May, does light up the soul. Just to hear the overture's tunes and rhythms tapped out by the marimba band and and Wha Wha Mhlekazi's tenor voice singing Tamino with exactly the perfect timbre was pleasure enough. And if Zamile Gantano, as a Zero Mostel of a Papageno, couldn't manage to sing a single measure on pitch, well, it didn't matter, so instantly lovable was he.

Kudos to the Broad, the most inviting theater west of Beverly Hills. Its stage, whether for dance or music, is ideal -- especially for voices not big enough to carry at a 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, for instance.

October 11, 2014

Wanted: playwrights who walk the line between unpredictability and implausibility

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Jennifer Ruckman as Katha and Robert M. Lee as Ryu in "Maple & Vine." Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Here I examine five current productions in which the writers freshened material with surprising what-if twists, departing from conventional expectations but also managing to avoid falling into unconvincing or even inchoate fantasylands.

Of course whenever I start writing about "unexpected" developments in narratives, I run the risk of revealing too much. I'll try to restrain myself from telling all, but let that last sentence serve as one comprehensive spoiler alert.

I saw two plays by Jordan Harrison on a recent Saturday - first, "Marjorie Prime" at the Mark Taper Forum, then "Maple & Vine" at Chance Theater in Anaheim.

"Marjorie Prime" imagines a world in which "primes" -- virtual hologram-like replications of dead individuals -- are thoroughly briefed on the backgrounds of the deceased and then allowed to converse with the surviving loved ones. If those survivors are losing their memories, supposedly these conversations will provide a measure of consolation, as well as mental stimulation.

The idea is "Twilight Zone" material, and it works on that level to a limited extent, especially when the last remaining living individual checks out of the play -- and the primes are left to talk among themselves.

Marjorie and her prime are played by octogenarian Lois Smith. As Susan King pointed out in an LA Times interview, it's gratifying to see the two Center Theatre Group spaces at the Music Center occupied by plays featuring women in their '80s -- next door is "The Road to Bountiful," with Cicely Tyson. But Smith isn't the star of "Marjorie Prime" as much as Tyson is of "Bountiful," and most theatergoers will find "Bountiful" a more bountiful experience.

Harrison's other replication-oriented play, "Maple & Vine" at the Chance, is much livelier than "Marjorie Prime." Two Manhattan professionals, young and stressed, decide to escape by moving to a planned community that seeks to strictly duplicate suburban life in the '50s. Complications ensue, especially because they're an Asian/white couple, but also because their mentor has a big secret. The satirical strokes are broad but effective and, often, funny.

The biggest unanswered question is why the Asian-American doctor is assigned to manual labor -- wouldn't such a community want another doctor, no matter his racial background? A few more characters could help flesh out "Maple & Vine," but it certainly achieves a degree of entertaining provocation.

Outrageous comedies often require more suspension of disbelief than other plays, and one of the more common conventions in this genre is the character whose biological parents are mysteriously unknown -- for reasons outside the confidentiality strictures of modern adoptions.

One of the classics in this genre is, of course, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," in which the identity of Jack's parents is finally revealed after decades, along with a half-dozen other comic strands ingeniously knitted together. Michael Michetti's revival at A Noise Within is currently milking maximum merriment out of Jack's dilemma -- and Wilde's acerbic epigrams. Clad in Garry Lennon's dandified creations, Adam Haas Hunter's Algernon is the most memorable character here, but the others are just as good, if not quite as picturesque.

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Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon Moncrieff in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Craig Schwartz.

Another classic that employs the unknown parent/child trope is Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." Craig Wright's American adaptation of it, "Melissa Arctic," now at the Road Theatre on Magnolia (in NoHo), rewrites the convention as well as the social status of the characters.

They are no longer royalty -- the play is now set in 1970 and 1988 in Minnesota. So the jealous husband is unable to do whatever he wants with his wife's newborn child.

Wright gets away with making the original play's miraculous ending slightly less miraculous. He also adds a few songs -- not enough for this to be considered a musical, but enough to add extra resonance to certain moments. And he personifies the character of Time as a girl who silently watches the human beings huff and puff their way through life.

Director Scott Alan Smith has nurtured mostly vital performances, and the experience is a moving retort to anyone who has been baffled by the original play's jagged edges.

Finally, a word about "Affluence," Steven Peterson's new play at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, staged by Larry Eisenberg. It begins as a rather broad family comedy about the recessionary woes of the affluent, but it then pivots into a psychological suspense thriller. I won't reveal anything else, but the drastic turn in the narrative is not only surprising but also believable, adding extra dimension to the material. My only disappointment is that "Affluence," which won an award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild before it was even produced, isn't explicitly set in Beverly Hills.

September 25, 2014

Imagine there's no 99-seat plan (apologies to John Lennon)

The minimum wage is generating maximum discussion. And now the buzz about it has spread beyond the president and Mayor Garcetti and workers in fast-food chains and hotels - into the world of LA theater.

Much of LA theater rests on the efforts of actors and other workers who are paid considerably less than the current minimum wage - let alone the higher minimums that appear to be waiting in the wings.

This is the freshest angle emphasized on the new website Re-Imagine LA Theatre, which attempts to kickstart a discussion of the steps necessary to construct a better-paying, more professional, higher-profile LA theater scene.

In the website's "legal addendum," several attorneys' legal opinions and current investigations are cited that raise questions about the vulnerability of LA theater in general and its widely used 99-Seat Theater Plan in particular to legal challenges for violation of minimum-wage laws.

Meanwhile, Actors' Equity has announced plans to survey its LA members and hold focus groups in order to learn about more members' thoughts about LA theater, as part of a "focused campaign to bring live theater to the forefront in Los Angeles."

Of course it's no secret that Equity's LA-specific 99-Seat Theater Plan allows union members in tiny theaters to be paid as little as $7 per performance - and nothing for rehearsals. Although many small productions pay more than that minimum, no actor ever presumes to make a living wage by appearing in 99-seat Plan productions.

It's likely that most 99-Seat Plan producers support the concept of the minimum wage - in fast-food franchises and hotels. But they haven't exactly rallied around the concept of a minimum wage at their theaters.

Behind the Plan and its 1972-88 predecessor (originally known as "Equity Waiver") was the assumption that LA is overstocked with skilled actors and that most of them would rather work on stage - even for no money (or, starting in 1988, for minimal money) - because at least they might be seen by TV/movie execs who might hire them for better-paying screen jobs.

Nowadays, this "showcase" aspect underlying the 99-Seat Plan is widely denied and denigrated by many of the actors and producers themselves. They swear that the play, not the potential pay, is the thing that drives them to do 99-seat theater. It's a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme.

And it's true that as a showcase, 99-seat theater is hardly a guaranteed road to riches. Yes, a few of the actors in it probably get noticed by better-playing employers - but what's the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who get a big, lucrative break via 99-seat work? I imagine that it's a lot lower than the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who burn out after four or five years in the 99-seat trenches.

Actors often stop doing 99-seat theater not only because of the paltry pay, but also because 99-seat theater -- as astonishingly good as it sometimes gets -- seldom has enough seats or enough marketing resources to convince enough of the LA public that it's anything other than a showcase, or a hobby, or a workshop. And it's even more difficult to make that case to tourists or anyone else living outside LA. My impression is that most Angelenos and almost everyone outside LA who has ever heard about 99-seat theater still assume that it's primarily a showcase - no matter what the actors themselves believe.

Re-Imagine LA Theatre - a "call to action" signed initially by 46 LA theater practitioners -- delves into this quaqmire with useful information about the corresponding plans for the lowest tier of Equity-affiliated production in New York and San Francisco, pointing out that other alternatives exist. The website's authors delineate the differences in (non-showcase) goals among various users of the 99-Seat Plan - some artist-oriented groups are mainly trying to develop new work, but others are actively trying to reach wider audiences with more finished results. A "one-size-doesn't-fit-all" plan can't meet everyone's needs, according to Re-Imagine LA Theatre.

Essentially, a major overhaul - or a breakup - of the Plan is what's being proposed here.

And it soon becomes clear - although Re-Imagine LA Theatre isn't too explicit about spelling it out - that such an overhaul would result in the more ambitious, audience-oriented 99-seat companies gradually evolving into midsize companies.

Over the years, I have repeatedly (ad nauseam, anyone?) tried to draw more attention to the midsize theaters - those that have already clawed their way out of the 99-seat murk and now operate on more costly Equity contracts, as well as those that always have used contracts. Although even these existing midsize theaters, as a group, probably aren't in a position to pay any particular actor a real living wage, they represent a big step up in the professionalization of LA theater. For audiences, they generally offer most of the intimacy of 99-seat spaces without the risk that actors might suddenly desert the production for more lucrative work -- and without the potential guilt about exploiting cheap labor.

Unfortunately, most of these midsize companies haven't achieved enough public support that would allow them to hire larger casts with any regularity. And as a group, they barely register in public consciousness, finding themselves overshadowed not only by LA's relatively few bigger companies but also by the larger total of 99-seat companies as a group. LA Times critic Charles McNulty pays hardly any attention to the midsize theaters. The LA Weekly has traditionally emphasized the 99-seaters because its annual awards are limited to 99-seaters. Nor do the Ovation Awards acknowledge them as an individual category, lumping them in with the much bigger-budgeted "larger" theaters, while the 99-seaters receive special recognition as "intimate" theaters.

If, indeed, LA theater is "re-imagined" to the point that more 99-seat companies vow to grow beyond the 99-Seat Plan, what else will they need, beyond more recognition by the media?

Money. And space.

Obviously they will need well-connected development directors who will know how to beat the bushes for funding, private and public. Specifically, in LA, there is a perennial question of why more support for theater doesn't come from the film/TV industries - but of course the challenge is to find execs in those industries who, while fondly recalling the benefits of their own roots in the theater, will nevertheless refrain from expecting the theater to necessarily serve their own commercial purposes.

Of course midsize theaters could benefit from cooperative government officials. Certainly the LA County Arts Commission's hope to build a new 299-seat theater on the Ford Amphitheatre grounds would be a great way for the county government to abet the "re-imagining" effort.

But building new theaters is expensive. It often drains money away from producing theater. So any such evolution of LA theater would probably also require existing midsize facilities to be used more often, and more frequently shared.

I'm thinking about the three midsize venues at Los Angeles Theatre Center, which is now in the middle of the lively neighborhood that its original founders once envisioned. How about the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Boulevard and Vision Theatre in Leimert Park (though some of Vision's 750 seats might have to be roped off to fit midsize contracts)? Why hasn't Barnsdall Art Park been used by any significant runs of local theater companies since Independent Shakespeare left?

Would the Colony in Burbank or International City Theatre in Long Beach be open to hosting productions from other companies? El Portal's midsize space in NoHo keeps fairly busy with seemingly commercial fare, but might it be able to serve as a space for nonprofit LA productions?

Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie once vowed to open the midsize Kirk Douglas Theatre to other LA groups, and he managed to do it more than once. But why is the CTG-commissioned musical satire "The Behavior of Broadus" currently delighting audiences at the little Sacred Fools Theater instead of the Douglas?

Whatever happened to Blank Theatre's plan to renovate an old Hollywood movie theater into a midsize legit theater? Remember how RADAR L.A. was able to transform the downtown Tower Theater into a midsize space during last year's festival? Shouldn't Broad Stage in Santa Monica and the Annenberg in Beverly Hills develop more relationships with local theater companies?

La Mirada Theatre, which usually has 1200 seats, has now produced two intimate midsize shows in which the smaller-than-usual audience is on the stage along with the actors. Could other larger venues adapt their stages for similar purposes, perhaps in conjunction with other LA companies?

I know I'm throwing all these possibilities into cyberspace without sufficiently investigating the prospects for any of them in particular. But in the spirit of Re-Imagine LA Theatre, let's start brainstorming - followed by some serious planning - and see where it takes us.

A 'LONG ROAD' BETWEEN 'TEMPEST'S. A KISS FOR 'KATE'?

Looking southeast from Los Angeles County, South Coast Repertory is currently demonstrating that it knows something about creating a new midsize space out of a found site. Last weekend and next weekend, Santa Ana's Civic Plaza - a few miles north of SCR's Costa Mesa campus -- has become the home of "The Long Road Today," or "El Largo Camino de Hoy," which can accommodate audiences of 300 at each performance.

The project is a free-of-charge alfresco adventure in which the audience is divided into four groups that rotate on foot to four sites within the complex, following aspects of a story about two Santa Ana families who are torn apart by a fatal traffic accident. Each of the four sets of scenes is narrated by a bilingual actor who personifies a character derived from loteria card imagery.

In the tradition of many a Cornerstone Theater production, Jose Cruz Gonzalez's "Long Road Today" script was constructed after many hours spent in story circles with Santa Ana residents. Despite all that research, the script is curiously sparse in specific stories about real Santa Anans, preferring to concentrate on lively music and dance and Sean Cawelti-designed puppets. One segment includes a number of historical photos from Santa Ana history, but they are devoid of any informative narration and therefore seem oddly irrelevant to the rest of the production.

The cast includes amateurs from the community as well as professionals - but performances aren't the problem. It's the script - and not only because it lacks details about real human beings, but also because it gets carried away by its own pageantry. Gonzalez and director Armando Molina apparently were either unwilling or unable to whittle away the excess.

Still, this project is a welcome move by SCR into a nearby neighborhood that usually isn't given much consideration at SCR's home base. And as a gesture that distinguishes SCR from its big rival to the northwest, it stands in stark contrast to Center Theatre Group's almost total disregard for LA (explored in my last column.)

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Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham, Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR

Speaking of South Coast Rep, its production of "The Tempest" has attracted a lot of attention, primarily because of the magic introduced by co-director Teller into Shakespeare's script, a rowdy honky-tonk score by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and a Caliban who is actually two actor/tumblers (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) who seem to be joined at the hip. Aaron Posner of "Stupid Fucking Bird" fame is the co-director. It closes this weekend.

A week after I saw it, I saw another but very different "Tempest" at A Noise Within in Pasadena, staged by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. It lacks the SCR version's bells and whistles, but it takes much greater care to make Shakespeare's language fully accessible. Its female Prospero (Deborah Strang) is far more memorable than the male Prospero at SCR, and it has some evocative design elements that appear to be loosely inspired by Gauguin, as well as some haunting music and sound by Peter Bayne.

All things considered, I recommend SCR's version to seekers of magic and A Noise Within's to seekers of Shakespeare.

Also on the Shakespearean trail in Pasadena, Sheldon Epps' version of "Kiss Me, Kate," the backstage musical about a "Taming of the Shrew"-based musical, has just opened at Pasadena Playhouse. Epps has transformed the company in Cole Porter's 1948 original into an African-American company doing a black-oriented adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. This is immediately evident in the very bluesy arrangements (the music director is Rahn Coleman) for "Another Opening, Another Show," which indeed kicks off the proceeding on a high note that isn't reached again until the opening of the second act, "Too Darn Hot" (the choreographer is Jeffrey Polk).

I guess that means I was a little disappointed in Wayne Brady as the leading man. His efforts, including his singing, are a little too effortful. But Merle Dandridge is an impossibly elegant and imposing figure in the title role, which makes us wince all the more when the story ends as it does -- no thanks to Shakespeare himself.

Edited post

September 21, 2014

A telling "Traviata" opens LA Opera season

traviata-mathews.jpgNino Machaidze as Violetta and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Alfredo. Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera

"La Traviata" can withstand almost anything. It's nearly indestructible -- Verdi's brilliant work asks only: Can the cast sing and act reasonably well? Does the conductor observe the score's built-in drama. And do the director and designer allow the piece its storyline impact?

It hardly takes more than that -- and the audience bounded to its feet with noisy abandon when LA Opera brought it to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at last Saturday's season opener.

In fact, you can call this "Traviata" irresistible. Once again, Nino Machiadze -- who is to LA Opera what Anna Netrebko, that other Slavic soprano, is to the Met -- put another notch in her versatility chart in the starring role. (Remember her smartly ironic cartoon of a character in "Turk in Italy"? Her flamboyant Thaïs, her delicate Juliette?)

This time, when able to shed the production's flashy but wrong-headed guise of a 1920's flapper, she moves full-bore into the wrenching conflicts of Violetta, the rich Parisian libertine who never thought she could find love, but ultimately sacrifices her heart's desire in order to salvage his middle-class honor.

And savvy singer that she is, Machiadze (Mahk-ee-ahd-zee) hit all of the score's emotional targets spot on -- the coloratura glories of "Sempre libera" (that vivid declaration of free-will), the limpid tones of "Addio, del passato" (a backward glance of resignation) -- although it must be said that the drop-down from full-throated passion to long-lined soft singing of desolation was less than smooth.

In Marta Domingo's often-ridiculous staging, one of many permutations by the company chief's wife, this Violetta rose to the classic Romantic challenge, based on the 1846 social tragedy, "Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas fils -- even while made to slink about in a clingy satin gown and feather boa like a good little vamp and arrive in a 1929 Chrysler limo to a makeshift garage party (that should have been her chandeliered salon.)

Never mind the clash between stern bourgeois codes of the time and the demi-monde counter-culture of glittery courtesans. Here, what clash?

But mostly the cast triad came through. Arturo Chacón-Cruz, a sweetly smitten Alfredo, looked the callow part and sang with delectably pleasing tone and a cry in his voice reminiscent of Jussi Björling. Plácido Domingo, the headliner, gave an object lesson in how not to be a stoic paterfamilias but rather a deeply pained father trying only to release his son from a fallen woman, however full of nobility and pathos she may be.

What remains unforgiven in this staging are the ignored capstones Verdi so carefully constructed.

In act two, Violetta has sorrowfully agreed to separate from Alfredo without telling him; the two stand in the study exchanging remarks, but apart. At the climactic moment before she goes on an errand the orchestral music accelerates in a crescendo leading to her outburst, "Amami, Alfredo" ("Love me, Alfredo"), but -- here -- she does not run across the room to embrace him, uttering these words for the last time. She's already been bopping around near him and is prematurely at his side. Dropped drama.

And in her famous death scene the tubercular heroine is supposed to be sickly weak. But here she jumps up and down, up and down from the bed -- so Verdi's drama also evaporates for that other well-known orchestral cue: a feverishly rapid scale of rhythmic urgency that signals Violetta's last breathless surge of strength, finally impelling her to her feet before collapsing. "Rinasce," she says, "I'm reborn." Anti-climactic here.

Elsewhere, while she sings "Ah, fors' è lui," the sort of self-questioning thing Hamlet utters, she gets bothered by a maid helping her on and off with a dressing gown -- so that the shmata action takes focus.

I almost wonder if Ms. Domingo ever listens to the music.

Surely not, if you hear the prelude -- music of tone-setting pathos that bears your undivided attention. But while James Conlon is conducting it she stages a vignette: street walkers picking up johns and one of them nearly doing a pole dance against a lamp post. Similarly, Flora's party scene opens with guests doing the charleston, no matter that Verdi's unsyncopated rhythms don't match.

Looking for a correction, one full of poetic insights? Rent the DVD "Becoming Traviata" with Natalie Dessay, whose director (Philippe Béziat) and conductor (Louis Langrée) lead the way in a creative montage of analytic rehearsal and performance.

Watch the trailer at IMDb.

September 15, 2014

Where's the LA in CTG? Not in the new season

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Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall. Photo: CTG.


In recent years, I've annually checked Center Theatre Group's plans for the upcoming seasons at its three venues, looking for evidence that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - as CTG bills itself - plans to produce scripts that are set in or near LA.

Since my last report on this subject in the late LA Stage Times, I started writing for LA Observed. So perhaps it's even more appropriate now for me to measure the extent to which "L.A.'s Theatre Company" is observing LA.

CTG rolled out the schedule for the next season at its flagship Mark Taper Forum this past week, following previous announcements of the CTG seasons at the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters. So it's time to report the verdict:

Center Theatre Group still has hardly any interest in exploring its home town on its stages.

Only one play in the imminent seasons at CTG's three venues is explicitly set in LA - Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine," scheduled to open at the smallest of the three, the Douglas, next February. And it's hardly brand-new -- it's a "new version" of the show that played the Taper in 2003 (with the same director, Lisa Peterson.)

CTG found room for two plays about squabbling siblings at family reunions in the upcoming Taper season. One of them, Paul Oakley Stovall's "Immediate Family," is also a new version of a show previously seen in LA - it was produced by the tiny Celebration Theatre in 2008 under the (uninspired) title "As Much As You Can." But it's set in Chicago, not LA. The other, "Appropriate," is set in Arkansas. Perhaps LA families don't squabble enough?

CTG's myopia about its own community - at least as displayed in its programming selections -- is arguably getting worse. Last year at this time, CTG had scheduled three solos that were at least partially set in LA and environs: "St. Jude" and "Rodney King" at the Douglas and "Buyer & Cellar" at the Taper.

In retrospect, that may have been a high point of CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie's interest in the community in which he and most of CTG's customers live.

Once upon a time, CTG's website vowed to produce programming that "reflects and informs our own community" through "stories inspired on our own streets." But that language was removed from the website two years ago.

This disregard for local content in CTG's programming is often accompanied by a disregard for using LA talent in CTG productions - which tends to rile LA theater artists (who of course have a vested interest) more than even the apathy toward LA content. None of the announced directors in the coming season has been drawn from the active LA directors' pool. CTG's current fave director seems to be Les Waters, who is preparing "Marjorie Prime" at the Taper right now and will stage two additional CTG shows before 2015 ends. He's the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Still, general audiences probably don't care much about whether a director or an actor is local.

I prefer to concentrate on the absence of local content. If a theater examines its own area on its stages, its primary audience is likely to feel more of a proprietary interest in the programming - and less like generic patrons of the vast American nonprofit theater, with its many similar branches elsewhere. Theater takes place in one particular space and in one particular moment, in contrast to the electronic arts - so "local" should mean as much to CTG as it means in grocery stores and restaurants.

'RACE' and ''PARIS'

The next Douglas season actually began last weekend, with the opening of David Mamet's "Race." Its selection continues Ritchie's obsession with the later, lesser Mamet plays. This one opened on Broadway in 2009.

"Race" looks a lot like an episode of a TV lawyer show, with more profanity - but with no excursions into the lawyers' private lives or outside their office.

As the on-the-nose title indicates, Mamet is looking at the hidden ways in which tension between blacks and whites affects decisions made within this office, where two lawyers - one white, one black - are initially considering whether to take the case of a rich white man accused of raping a black woman. The fourth and most pivotal role is that of a younger black woman who apparently was hired as a paid intern or junior-associate-in-training.

The play is brief, and the characters are thinly drawn. They resemble talking heads and polemical pawns more than human beings. It all feels arid and somewhat contrived, especially in the wake of a recent and much more fleshed-out black-white-related saga that LA just experienced -- starring Donald and Shelly Sterling, V. Stiviano, Magic Johnson, etc. Now there is a local story that sounds like fodder for a lively play. But I guess that particular play is not yet written?

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Shon Fuller and L. Scott Caldwell star in the Colony Theatre production of "What I Learned in Paris." Photo: Michael Lamont


Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris," in its West Coast premiere at the Colony Theatre, also initially looks like a play about race. It's set on the heels of the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta's first black mayor. But Jackson is not a character, nor are there any white characters. Instead, Cleage - who worked on Jackson's campaign before she became a noted playwright - examines the immediate post-election behavior of two male and two female campaign workers, as well as a former Atlantan who's returning home.

The older man, a leader of Jackson's campaign, is about to marry the younger woman - but then his ex-wife shows up to re-claim her house, which has been in use as a campaign headquarters. The play emerges as a comedy about sex roles and partner choices - a very different goal from that of Mamet's treatise.

It's enjoyable enough, dominated by the vibrant presence of L. Scott Caldwell as the ex-wife who has returned from transformational adventures in California to become Atlanta's hostess with the mostest in Atlanta's interracial post-election future. It's fascinating to see how Cleage, who is black, downplays the role of race in her play - as opposed to Mamet, who is white and seemingly entangled in the most minute ramifications of race.

The two plays aren't at all similar in style - Cleage's is much longer and more successful at developing recognizably human characters. But occasionally Cleage goes through questionable narrative contortions in her quest to steer our attention away from race and back to gender.

It's fitting that "What I Learned in Paris" was first produced in Atlanta, where it's set. Of course, Angelenos also elected a black mayor in 1973 - Tom Bradley, who staged a comeback after a defeat by Sam Yorty four years earlier and went on to become LA's longest-serving (and only African-American) mayor.

From the perspective of just about any theater company in the LA area, the Bradley/Yorty campaigns would be much more exciting material than the post-election behavior of members of a campaign team in Atlanta. When will LA companies (and playwrights?) start delving more deeply into the LA-based drama that's at their doorsteps?

August 24, 2014

Arts window: Dance audition

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Melissa Barak concentrates during an audition Sunday for the Barak Ballet, at the Westside School of Ballet. Click the photo to enlarge. Photo by Judy Graeme.

August 21, 2014

Have you driven the Ford lately?

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Photos from the Ford Theatre website


An important LA venue is waiting in the wings. If it's built, it could become the most important new theater/dance-specific venue in LA since the construction of LATC three decades ago.

It's a 299-seat theater that would be part of a building that would replace the current south parking lot at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, overlooking the Cahuenga Pass in Hollywood.

Its most exciting feature is that it wouldn't be designed as the home of one particular company. It would be designed to serve as a steppingstone for a variety of smaller LA companies - theater and dance -- as they try to produce more ambitious, attention-getting shows, with more compensation for the artists.

This isn't a mere gleam in the eye of Laura Zucker, the executive director of the LA County Arts Commission, which operates the Ford. It's part of a proposed comprehensive upgrade of the Ford that already is the subject of an environmental impact statement, which is open to public scrutiny. But most of the money for the upgrade hasn't been approved.

I spent some time reading parts of that environmental impact statement, which makes a strong case that the project would respect the public park where it would be located. It would add a hiking trail behind the amphitheatre, but its new buildings (including increased parking) would arise only on already developed land. The statement analyzes concerns about earthquakes, traffic, noise, gnatcatchers and other subjects related to the area's physical environment in exhausting detail. It concludes that the impact of the project in these areas would be "less than significant" - in other words, it would be safe and green by most people's standards.

But the EIR doesn't address the impact that this project might have on LA's theatrical ecology. There, it could be "a game changer," Zucker says.

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For decades, too much of LA County theater has been barely noticed because it's mired in the stratum of sub-100-seat theaters, where the size of the audience is inherently small and most of the talent receives only paltry fees. Zucker and her husband, actor Allan Miller, used to run one such theater, the Back Alley in Van Nuys.

Meanwhile, a handful of larger companies (Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West) and a few midsize groups (Shakespeare Center, Theatricum Botanicum, Falcon) receive much of the available institutional support from public and private sources.

In the last three decades, several once-smaller companies (LATC, Colony, East West, International City, A Noise Within, Independent Shakespeare) climbed out of the 99-seat arena into midsize venues with more appropriate compensation levels. But upon successfully completing that time-consuming and difficult process, most of their leaders haven't been eager to share their hard-won spaces with smaller companies on any regular basis, nor have they often shopped in LA's smaller theaters for productions that might move up the ladder.

According to Zucker, the 299-seater at the Ford would be intended specifically to move some of the city's better smaller productions to a position of greater prominence and endowment. Yet it would accomplish this goal without seriously reducing the intimacy that audiences usually expect in a sub-100-seat space.

The process of picking the spotlighted productions would generally follow in the footsteps of the process that previously allowed selected smaller companies - usually without any permanent homes of their own - to use the 87-seat [Inside] the Ford venue, which is located under the main Ford Amphitheatre. But that program - while appreciated by the recipients - didn't give those productions even half the attention they might have received at the 299-seat level.

Under the proposed upgrade of the complex, the current [Inside] the Ford would be converted into a self-service market for picnickers on the adjacent Edison Plaza (plus, perhaps, a small rehearsal facility), while its functions as a sub-100-seat venue would move to a new black-box space that would be included within a building that would arise on the north side of the Ford.

Back on the south side of the property, the new building that includes the 299-seat space would also feature a restaurant, several levels of parking and a park-like plaza on top.

Are you licking your chops yet, theater fans?

Of course there is that nagging question of how to pay for it. Zucker estimates that the entire upgrade could cost $130 million, of which $27.5 million has already been authorized by the county for ongoing improvements in the Ford amphitheater itself.

"We're not planning to go to the board for the whole enchilada," Zucker says. "We're planning to break it up into pieces over time." And surely no one would object to a private offer to pay for parts of the project. There's a reason why we remember the names Taper and Ahmanson so readily - they were donors whose names are now planted on other county-owned theaters.

The 299-seat theater should be considered an essential piece of this package, not a frill that could be delayed interminably. Unlike, say, the new restaurant or the parking garages or the hiking trail, it would fill a need that isn't currently being met anywhere else in the county.

It's important that theater lovers throughout the county make clear how important this project would be to the health of LA theater. Right now, it's especially essential to make sure that Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver, the two candidates for the job of county supervisor in the district in which the Ford is located, are well aware of what's going on.

Kuehl apparently is already a believer in the proposal. On her website, she explicitly promises to "propose a funding program to implement the completion of the master plan for the Ford Amphitheatre, including new parking garages, a 299 seat theater, a restaurant and hiking trail. Funding must also include ongoing maintenance."

But Shriver doesn't specifically mention the Ford in a long statement about "the arts" on his website. He notes, however, that "the Supervisor for the Third District has traditionally led in building and maintaining our cultural infrastructure; I will continue that tradition." I'd feel a little more confident about that pledge if it were followed by a sentence that included the words "Ford" and "299-seat." Care to step up to the plate, Mr. Shriver?

August 15, 2014

Curator's guide: The Huntington expands on American art


Shreve & Co. silver vase and tray (c. 1904-7) with California landscapes / Photo: Tim Street-Porter

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has expanded its American galleries yet again. With this summer's unveiling of five rooms displaying nearly 120 works -- all from the 20th century -- the home of "The Blue Boy" and other older British gems has affirmed its commitment to presenting pieces (including modern ones) from this side of the Atlantic.

For Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art, more space means the chance not only to show more stuff but also to show it in ways that "fill in gaps," "broaden conversations," and spotlight "resonances," i.e., aesthetic and thematic connections. One example: "A Shreve silver vase that incorporates California flora has, depending on where you stand, a lovely backdrop of paintings representing the California landscape."

In our conversations, Smith offered some other thoughts about what you should know and see while visiting the new sections of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

The backstory

The expansion has added 5,400 square feet, enabling curators to exhibit several notable recent acquisitions, items that had been waiting in the wings and loans that, says Smith, "enhance our own collection, which is relatively young .... It has helped us explore the 20th century in greater depth as well as areas such as the art of California and the West."

She explains that the nearly century-old Huntington had some American works but didn't have a gallery dedicated to American art until 30 years ago. A gift in memory of philanthropist Scott included about 50 paintings and funds for a building, which opened in 1984. The San Marino institution's U.S. holdings now number more than 12,000 pieces. Over the years, the Scott complex has roughly tripled in size; the latest addition (converted from storage space) has increased the display area to about 21,000 square feet.


Eclectic array

Thumbnail image for lao-dove-august.jpg The first room features early 20th-century landscapes as well as objects such as the Shreve silver. (Smith says the galleries, which cover the colonial period to the 1980s, integrate fine and decorative arts and are arranged "thematically and loosely chronologically.") "The Long Leg," the c.1930 seascape by the realist painter Edward Hopper, has moved here. Joining it is the recently acquired "Lattice and Awning" (1941) by Arthur Dove, the nation's first major abstract painter. "The Dove adds a huge amount to the conversations we can have about artistic trajectory and landscape in the first half of the century," says Smith. "We also can have broader conversations about what was happening nationally because we include California and Western artists such as O'Keeffe and Dixon, along with Eastern artists such as Hopper and Sheeler."

Above: Arthur Dove's "Lattice and Awning" (1941) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


Weston's gift

Edward Weston, one of the pioneers of modern American photography, made 500 prints of his work just for the Huntington. A rotation of selections from this trove -- many from the late 1930s -- will be exhibited in the second room during the next year. The initial lineup includes still lifes and images from the South, the Sierra and Southern California.


'Monumental and muscular'


Sargent Claude Johnson pipe-organ screen (1937) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


A 1937 redwood pipe-organ screen by Sargent Claude Johnson dominates one wall of a room filled with what Smith calls "monumental and muscular" art from the '30s and beyond. The Huntington purchased the huge carved piece -- its first major artwork by an African American -- in 2011. Among its "resonant" companions, says Smith, are two paintings (one a loan) by African American artist Charles White and Reginald Marsh's "The Locomotive" (1935), which, like Johnson's screen, resulted from a government commission.


Geometric abstraction and pop art

Thumbnail image for lao-smith-august.jpgIn the fourth room, Smith suggests viewing Tony Smith's two-piece bronze "For W.A." (1969) with Frederick Hammersley's "See Saw" (1966). These acquisitions are "fine examples of geometric abstraction and minimalism nicely expressed in sculpture and painting." Also of note, she says, are a Smith painting, the Huntington's two Warhols and borrowed works by Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and John McLaughlin. The curator adds that "more painterly expressions of abstraction" such as Sam Francis' "Free Floating Clouds" are gathered nearby -- in one of three spaces adjoining new rooms that "underwent changes so we could refine themes in adjacent areas."

Above: Tony Smith's sculpture "For W.A." (1969) and Frederick Hammersley's painting "See Saw" (1966) / Photo: Tim Street-Porter


Rauschenberg's inspiration

The prolific and protean Robert Rauschenberg credited a visit to the Huntington in the '40s with inspiring him to become an artist. Smith says this connection and "resonances with the permanent collection" helped influence the Huntington's decision to acquire "Global Loft (Spread)" in 2012. The 1979 multi-image painting anchors the fifth room, complemented by prints lent by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.


Karen Wada is an L.A.-based writer and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. This is her first piece for LA Observed.

August 3, 2014

Dudamel does melodrama, National Ballet of Canada does downtown

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So who's on the opera conductor pantheon -- which includes the likes of Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine? Now it's time to add Gustavo Dudamel. Even though this news, for a podium personality who has already achieved rock-star status, may not be enough to stop the presses.

But hold on. Before an audience of 10,300-plus at Hollywood Bowl our resident maestro and his LA Philharmonic once again took up the lyric muse -- previously they did the same at Disney Hall with the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy and in other summers other operas at Cahuenga Pass. This season it was the double bill, commonly known as "Cav-Pag," those verismo potboilers that give over-ripe melodrama a whole new name.

Holy Moly! Did he and the band ever give their composers, Mascagni ("Cavalleria Rusticana") and Leoncavallo ("Pagliacci") a workout. Not only that, he urged the singers to ever-more passionate engagement. And while the event was not staged -- the cast stood before music stands reading from scores and wore concert dress -- its impact was next to earth-shaking.

Sometimes, given over-amplification, too earth-shaking. With voices not yet warmed up for "Cavalleria," Nancy Maultsby let out some painfully wide wobbles as Mama Lucia and poor Christopher Maltman, at the end of Alfio's whip-snapping entry aria, even elicited a loud, perfectly-timed double boo from someone sitting fairly close. Michelle de Young, as the wronged Santuzza, belted her anguish with an open-throat and Stuart Neill, in a white jacket that emphasized his mountainous look, used his stentorian tenor to effect as the vengeful Turiddu.

Only Tamara Mumford, as a silvery-toned Lola who slinked seductively onstage in a red gown, gave an inkling of physical characterization.

No early infelicities seemed to faze Dudamel, who coaxed the cast to stabilize as things went on. Despite a mis-adjustment here or there he led the singers to galvanizing climaxes, irrefutable attacks and, of course, drew out the orchestra to luxuriate in those long, lush, sweeping themes that a guy like Mantovani could only dream of.

"Pagliacci" drew a sharp contrast to the opening one-act opera. For one thing Leoncavallo's score has far greater compositional interest, not to mention its "La Strada"-like drama of a poor little commedia dell'arte troupe traveling from one small Italian town to another, run by the jealous chief clown who is married to the prettiest girl around.

Julianna di Giacomo gave us that girl, Nedda, in a shining personification -- she needed nothing more than her dramatic vocal expression, through rhythmically inflected phrasing and sweet purity of tone, to catch the moment's ardor, which flowed unhaltingly from her. A Dudamel find.

And thank goodness for Lucas Meachem, whose refined singing made for a thinking man's Silvio, her lover. The others doubled with the "Cav" cast, but Neill as Canio had the biggest cry at the end or, shall we say, laugh. His line,"commedia è finita" was a howling closer.

o-o-o

A week earlier Dudamel reunited with the Philharmonic for a Beethoven program -- which I heard in its second performance, when the sound engineers veered off the mark. For the Triple Concerto, with the Capucon brothers playing violin (Renaud) and cello (Gautier) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, the dial was so badly adjusted that poor Thibaudet's playing at the bass end turned to mud.

Otherwise, this was happily buoyant chamber music, the irrepressibly melodic lines sweetly merging, the themes bouncing back and forth, the orchestral backup adding thrust and heft.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which followed intermission and saw Dudamel changed from tie and jacket to his looser black shirt and pants, on that sweltering night, had all the thrilling momentousness of its original inspiration. Nothing ever seems too familiar, as this piece is, to dim his connection to the mobilizing musical force.

Whenever the jumbotron cameras fixed on him -- and often they wrongly landed on the two French horn players, whose parts could not be heard (singled out) from the high-decibel tuttis -- he clearly showed a cutback in his physicality, say 70% from those early, all-out podium kinetics that bespoke the very music to audience and players alike.

It was inevitable, then, this restraint against body wear-and-tear. No one can keep up such physical extravagance over a long career without harming himself. To be sure, the hair is also shorter and it flies around less picturesquely these days.

But that does not mean he holds back when it comes to being an inveterate mime with an audience, to wit: telegraphing for the cameras how hot he was -- flicking his shirt-front back and forth like a fan to show folks why he changed from the up-to-the-neck uniform to a blousy garment.

And there were other observations to make when Joshua Bell opened the Bowl season with a pops-leaning program. Namely, HD screens that put enhancing light on subjects -- who included the violinist's friends: Glenn Close, who sang a few songs gamely, and virtuosic musicians who travel other non-classical paths; and an improved sound system that kept good acoustic balance.

Man-for-all-summer-seasons Bramwell Tovey led the Philharmonic bookending the program with Stravinsky's cantankerously sparkling "Fireworks" and "Firebird" Suite No. 2. But Bell, who arguably performs more and in a wider spectrum than any other violinist today, gave us his "Eleanor Rigby" fantasy -- an elegiac and deeply soulful excavation of the Beatles tune that was nothing short of a wonder.

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National Ballet of Canada

But if the National Ballet of Canada -- which put in an appearance at the Music Center Pavilion with Alexei Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" -- turned out to be less than a wonder, it could be blamed on the high-water marks set by several previous versions and performances.

I can say that in this outing Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers danced with élan, though. Guillaume Coté was a Romeo who curved gloriously into the arc and sweep of Prokofiev's sublime music, thanks to choreographer Ratmansky. And Elena Lobsanova made aptly quicksilver stuff of Juliet.

Best of all, and this might be a small point, it was a relief to see her at the tragic end with feet gone limp, not arched, as all other dead ballerinas tend to make them. And the rest of their naturalistic last meeting was also deeply moving.

But the choreographer missed the ecstasy that Kenneth MacMillan's version created in the couple's balcony scene -- who could forget Alessandra Ferri's beyond-extravagant backbends, with arms flung low in her partner's arms as he lifted and swirled her in their passionate duet.

Ratmansky also missed Prokofiev's plangent cues for regal grandeur in the ballroom drama and more. Sometimes trying to outdo what's already marvelous becomes a fool's errand.

July 23, 2014

A classic LA summer - from Shakespeare to Queen

Summertime -
And the Shakespeare is outside.
Swords are jumpin'
And the concepts are high.
Oh, the language is rich
And the trees are good-lookin'.
So hush, LA audiences,
Don't you cry.

-- apologies to DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Midsummer in LA brings with it a remarkable profusion of professional Shakespeare productions in the great outdoors: Shakespeare Center at the VA's Japanese Garden, Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. Farther out, you can find Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove and the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks.

Taken together (which hardly anyone ever does, because of the distances between the venues), these companies constitute one of America's largest Shakespearean hotspots. All of them qualify for the "professional" distinction by using by using at least some Actors' Equity members on contracts.

The breaking news this summer in this arena is, well, the arena itself that Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is using for its "Romeo and Juliet" at the VA's Japanese Garden in Brentwood. In all my summers watching alfresco Shakespeare in LA, I can't recall seeing another in-the-round production.

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Jack Mikesell (Romeo) and Christina Elmore (Juliet) at the VA. Photo: Michael Lamont

With the audience distributed in properly raked seating on all four sides of a square, everyone feels close to the action. This is the great benefit of in-the-round configurations. And director Kenn Sabberton magnifies that effect in his "R & J" by sending the actors into just about every section of the space at some point during the play - occasionally using audience members as silent props. This production is continually on the move - in stark contrast to the excessively languorous pacing of Sabberton's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" last year.

Set and lighting designer Trevor Norton has furnished a balcony for the play's most famous scene in one corner of the square, overlooking the main audience entrance. Seated on an aisle, I was able to turn completely to the right in order to watch the scenes that took place there, but I noticed that the man across the aisle hardly ever turned to look at the balcony. Maybe he preferred just to listen.

So be prepared to be somewhat flexible if you truly want to see the entire play. Or almost all of it, that is -- the disadvantage of arena staging is that occasionally nearly every spectator experiences at least one blocked sight line. I noticed one such moment, when the Friar's back blocked my view of Romeo's face, but of course these moments vary depending on where you're sitting.

The advantages of this configuration outweigh these brief frustrations. The immersive quality provides a new perspective - or many new perspectives - on well-worn material. Also, the intimacy enhances our ability to parse Shakespeare's more ornate passages, especially when the lines are as well-spoken as they are by most of this cast.

This is that rare "R & J" in which Romeo seems a bit younger than Juliet - thanks to the puppy-dog scampering of Jack Mikesell's Romeo and the more mature command of Christina Elmore's Juliet -- who is supposedly 13, according to the text. Yet here we can read in the program that Elmore has already received an MFA degree. I wonder - couldn't most productions cut the reference to Juliet's age? It's difficult to find an actress who can handle the intricate language while also appearing to be just 13.

Early on, this is one of the funniest "R & J"s that I've ever seen - especially that balcony scene. But the ending is even grimmer than most - we don't see the usual final image of the two families finding commonality in their sorrow over the bodies of the lovers.

Most of the actors are just about ideal, and they're dressed in eye-catching 1920s finery designed by Holly Poe Durbin. Susan Goldberg's choreography draws on flapper-era steps, and Brian Joseph's score uses wailing, jazzy riffs in the haunting aural climaxes of each act.

The production was promoted as transforming Mr. Montague (Gregg Daniel) and Mr. Capulet (Elijah Alexander) into competing publishing magnates in '20s LA. Facsimiles of '20s Los Angeles newspapers are used as props, and the rowdy street gangs apparently are employed by rival rags. But there is no explicit mention of the families' holdings - the text is almost entirely the Bard's.

This production plays only through Saturday, and it should be high on the list of any summer Shakespeare aficionado.

Independent Shakespeare's and Kingsmen Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"s also ventured into the early years of the 20th century in their concepts. There is still time to catch ISC's version. Staged by Melissa Chalsma, it's briefly vacating the Old Zoo stage in Griffith Park in favor of "The Taming of the Shrew," but it will return for six performances in August, and it's a lively renewal of this oft-revived comedy.

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Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville and Julia Aks in Twelfth Night at Griffith Park. Photo: Grettel Cortes.

Its most unorthodox feature is that it casts Julia Aks as Fabian, a role that is usually cast with a man. In most productions, Fabian is a distant runner-up in the play's comedy sweepstakes, at least when compared to his fellow conspirators Toby, Maria and Feste. But here the gender change, Fabian's maid uniform, and her role not only as a music-hall partner for David Melville's Feste but also as his lover gives this Fabian extra dimensions. Speaking of the comic characters, Luis Galindo -- the actor who riveted audiences last year in the Scottish play and will open soon as Petruchio in "Shrew" -- does a 180-degree turn to play the distinctly less dashing Malvolio almost as memorably as he played Macbeth.

Those who have never experienced ISC should be aware that because of its free admission (but please donate) policy as well as its quality, it attracts crowds that can be much larger than those at any of LA's other classical companies - on weekends, as large as those at the Ahmanson or the Pantages. If you want a reasonably close spot on the lawn, Thursdays are probably your best bet.

Theatricum Botanicum has the longest season of any of these companies, from early June through early October, so getting good seats usually isn't a problem in rural Topanga. Currently running are four plays in repertory: "Lear," "Much Ado About Nothing," "All's Well That Ends Well" and yet another variation on Theatricum's annual "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Note that this "Lear" is not "King Lear," because this monarch is a queen, played by Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer. Her three offspring are sons, not daughters, and Gloucester's scions are daughters, not sons. Geer co-directs with Melora Marshall, who plays the Fool. Geer's queen not only rages with the requisite fire, but she creates quite a spectacle as she nimbly climbs over not just one roof but two - the roof of the primary building on the open mainstage and another on the little structure at the back of the Theatricum. No other venue in LA is as capable as the Theatricum at suggesting the vast reaches of the wilderness through which Lear wanders.

All of these companies should be encouraged to program occasional doses of the lesser-known Shakespearean plays, so I salute Geer's decision to stage the seldom-seen "All's Well" (with co-director Christopher W. Jones). But this vigorous production doesn't quite manage to make us believe that all is well about the play itself.

However, "Much Ado," with co-direction by Geer and her daughter Willow Geer (who also plays Helena in "All's Well" and Gloucester's good daughter in "Lear") lives up to its own catch-phrase, thanks to vital performances by Susan Angelo's Beatrice and Robertson Dean's Benedick. It's great to see Dean joining his A Noise Within colleagues Alan Blumenfeld, Abby Craden and William Dennis Hunt in the Theatricum company.

Meanwhile, Theatricum veteran Angelo - who is also a resident artist at A Noise Within -- began her summer by staging "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Shakespeare Orange County. Under the group's new artistic director John Walcutt, the OC company is making an effort to reflect its neighborhood's changing demographics by incorporating Hitia O Te Ra, an extremely animated Polynesian dance troupe based in Garden Grove, into a bracingly distinctive "Midsummer" that's set in the 1700s in the South Seas. Two performances remain, on July 31 and August 1.

Speaking of Shakespeare Orange County, fans of the Troubadour Theater Company - usually based at Burbank's Falcon Theatre - should note that the Troubies are venturing to Garden Grove under SOC auspices this weekend (Thursday-Saturday) for a rendition of their ever-popular "A Midsummer's Saturday Night Fever Dream," a mashup of the Bard and disco. Then the Troubies will trek to La Mirada Theatre the following weekend (August 1-3) for another round of "Abbamemnon," their hilarious but occasionally sobering blend of Abba and "Agamemnon," which closed in Burbank on July 13.

Both of these venues are much larger than the Falcon, and some of the comic intensity might not extend to the back rows. But considering how hard it can be to snag Troubies tickets in Burbank, those who failed to do so should consider making a trip (or trips) to Greater LA's southeastern precincts.

SUMMER FARE AT THE BIG INDOOR HOUSES: Center Theatre Group is going in the opposite direction from the classics this summer, diving into the shallow end of the pool. At the Ahmanson is the Queen spectacle "We Will Rock You" -- a decade after its US premiere in Las Vegas. At the Taper is the comIc monologue "Buyer & Cellar."

I enjoyed occasional moments in the first act of "We Will Rock You," which uses high technology to poke fun at a future society's obsession with high technology, before it degenerates in the second act into a more basic form of Queen idolatry.

Jonathan Tolins' "Buyer & Cellar" has a few good (albeit snide) laughs in its fictional account of a struggling LA actor (Michael Urie) who's hired by Barbra Streisand to operate a "shopping mall" in her Malibu home's basement. But it's truly depressing to think that this is CTG's current idea of what passes for an LA-set play - just as "I'll Eat You Last", the Geffen's solo show with Bette Midler as Sue Mengers last fall, was Geffen Playhouse's rare nod toward local content.

By the way, the fictional actor in "Buyer & Cellar" was fired from a job at Disneyland, but he consoles himself with the thought he'll have more time "to do LA theater - which is exactly as tragic as it sounds. I dreamed of working at the Taper or the Geffen, but that's like a totally closed whatever."

I'm not sure what Tolins meant by "as tragic as it sounds" - it could be interpreted as a cheap and uninformed gag about the quality and quantity of LA theater or as a more pointed remark about the financial compensation received by most LA theater actors. But if that follow-up line meant that the Taper and the Geffen don't take nearly enough advantage of the vast LA talent pool and LA subject matter, then that's one of the boldest, truest lines spoken at the Taper in years.

By the way, while the Ahmanson is presenting the flashy "We Will Rock You," the very un-flashy but Tony-winning musical "Once" is making its debut at the Pantages - and after seeing it from Row U, I can hardly think of a less appropriate venue for it.

"Once" is a small-scale musical that belongs in a much more intimate theater. I couldn't see facial features, and sometimes I couldn't tell who was speaking. Throughout most of its unnecessarily prolonged length, the entire top half of the view of the Pantages stage is occupied by a brick wall, which is inhabited by people only, well, once -- and even then the two actors who briefly move into that part of our visual field barely move a muscle. The lethargy of this experience made me yearn for a dose of the technological overkill on display in "We Will Rock You" or the Pantages' recent "Ghost."

"Once" is not enough, but seeing it at the Pantages made me hope to eventually see it in one of LA theater's fine midsize or small venues. The tragedy of winning a Tony and consequently having to adapt to inappropriately large houses, in an attempt to maximize profits, strikes again.

July 15, 2014

Kimono exhibit at LACMA

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Kimono photos all from Museum Associates/LACMA

Kimono for a Modern Age at LACMA presents more than 30 of the traditional Japanese garments, on display for the first time in the museum's Pavilion for Japanese Art. The kimono are from the first half of the 20th century and are displayed in tokonomo, described as "traditional viewing spaces as trios that relate in terms of motifs, themes, or approach to the graphic layout of patterns."

Curator Sharon S. Takeda shared some observations with LA Observed in the gallery.

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"These are all daily leisure wear, not ceremonial. The majority of them were made in the Kanto region around Tokyo, made after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Most are made of machine real silk and machine loomed silk and most were pre-dyed before they were woven."

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"They were fashionable- affordable by working class women. Because they were so fashionable it's thought that wealthy women also purchased them."

"I was interested in how they're still the traditional kimono but also that they're modernized. A lot of these are probably thought of as common rather than really high class. It's really more about the machine age and technology."

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"Even today there are different levels of kimono. They can be made in silk, cotton, polyester, rayon, any number of things. If you walk into the department store today you would have different qualities to choose from-machine printed, hand printed, hand dyed, and ikat dyed. So there's a whole hierarchy and price range."

"A lot of these were for a mass market which had it's height during the first half of the 20th century and then it kind of died out or started to dwindle particularly as Western fashion took a stronger hold post-World War 2."

"A lot of this was never handed down with the finely made things because it was considered 'fly-by-night' fashion or everyday wear rather than something precious."

"Kimono for a Modern Age" is on exhibit until October 19.

July 2, 2014

The Fringe binge continues

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Zombies from the Beyond. John Santo.

We're in the middle of the Hollywood Fringe season, although not the Hollywood Fringe Festival itself -- which officially ended Sunday.

Post-festival runs have been announced for more than 50 of the Fringe productions - out of a total of 290 shows. At least a few of these extended shows probably would have been running this month even if the Fringe hadn't existed.

During this year's festival, as I tried to devise a filter to help me decide which shows to see, I was drawn primarily to multi-character shows (as opposed to solos) that were produced by established LA companies, especially those that operate here during the rest of the year. I was hoping that emphasizing such shows would maximize my chances of seeing something worthwhile in the completely non-curated Fringe crapshoot.

After all, an ongoing LA company has to think about its long-term audience, as opposed to out-of-town producers who arrive only for two-week stands or even home-grown one-shot showcase producers. And, because it's logistically easier for an established LA company to extend a Fringe show, these companies produce many of the shows with extensions.

In fact, after five years of the Hollywood Fringe, I don't care how many newcomers it attracts to LA each year. Ambitious theater-related talent arrives in LA every day of the year, with or without the Fringe, and every weekend it seems as if at least a handful of newcomers' shows manage to find theaters to showcase their talents - many of them in the Hollywood district.

No, the Fringe is useful because it provides a structure in which established LA artists can develop their work. Or they can revive successful shows they've already done (as Theatre of NOTE did this year with "Disassembly") -- but for audiences that (theoretically) extend beyond their usual supporters into the ranks of those who are attracted with the assistance of Fringe marketing.

The Fringe is also stimulating because its concentrated geographical area and its concentrated time frame - which creates the ability to see a Tuesday matinee, if you so choose -- help convey an impression of heightened creative ferment, even if most of the Fringe shows don't approach the average quality of the productions that arise from our more far-flung outposts throughout the rest of the year. (By the way, the Fringe itself was more far-flung this year. Its 29 venues - nine more than last year -- included two that are on the east side of Western Avenue. One of these was also south of Melrose, on turf that usually isn't considered part of Hollywood.)

OK, I understand why most of the established LA companies - especially those with their own homes — avoid the Fringe. Why get lost in the crowd? However, unless they have built-in subscription audiences, perhaps they should also avoid producing their own shows elsewhere in LA during the Fringe period, because those shows run the risk of getting lost in the crowd, too. I recently noticed an offer of free tickets to a production at an established venue far from the Fringe activity.

Bitter Lemons, the website that provides handy links to reviews of LA shows, more or less ignored most of the non-Fringe theater scene during the past few weeks. As I write this on July 2, Bitter Lemons has yet to run links to reviews of the Geffen's "The Country House" and the Ahmanson's "The Last Confession," although both shows opened three weeks ago. The site's editor Colin Mitchell was busy participating in the Fringe this year, with his solo show "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," so the absence of such links is understandable. Still, it's important for the site's Lemon Meter to include links to independent reviews of the larger shows. Larger companies have a lot more money to spend on one-sided advertising than do the producers of smaller shows - and consequently there's probably more public curiosity about whether the larger shows measure up to the hype. (For the record, I've already written about how much I liked "The Country House," but I didn't get much redemption out of "The Last Confession.")

Still, if many of LA's most mature companies justifiably avoid the Fringe, newer LA companies and especially homeless LA companies might well benefit from Fringe participation.

Let's look at some of those shows from LA companies that produced in the Fringe and are now continuing after the Fringe.

Zombina.jpgI've been remiss in not previously seeing anything from the Visceral Company, but I'm glad I saw its "Zombies From the Beyond" as part of the Fringe, at the Lex. James Valcq's goofy musical, in its West Coast premiere, is a full-length take-off on cheesy '50s sci-fi films -- with occasional subversive dashes of 21st-century feminism thrown into the mix. It's one of the rare examples of this genre that doesn't wear out its welcome before the final curtain. Dan Spurgeon's staging is powered by the extraordinary vocal stylings of Alison England as Zombina, the chief alien (right). Preposterously attired, she delivers a performance that could make this show a late-night cult favorite for years - if her voice holds up.

"Dorian's Descent," a musical from Doma Theatre, is less likely to ascend. Chris Raymond's score has a few good moments, amid the excess. But this umpteenth adaptation of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is way too long (please, drop the entire character of the Demon who makes Dorian do it.) And it contains some rather awkward moments - for example, decades after Dorian's spurned lover commits suicide, her revenge-seeking brother is temporarily misled by the fact that Dorian hasn't aged along with his portrait. Yet the brother himself is played by the same young actor who played him earlier - and this actor, too, doesn't look as if he has aged at all. If Dorian isn't the only character whose appearance resists the passing years, isn't the point of the story blurred?

On to non-musicals.

I didn't see an earlier LA production of Gregory Crafts' "Friends Like These," but it's worth more attention. His company, Theatre Unleashed, unleashed an excellent revival for the Fringe and beyond, staged by Wendy Gough Soroka. At the beginning, Crafts quickly signals that a school shooting is going to happen -- but as he flashes backward to recent events that illustrate the social turmoil in the lives of several students, we're not sure who's going to start shooting. That the teenagers are involved in extra-curricular fantasy role-playing events intensifies the suspense. Crafts' focus is rigorously disciplined - he's not writing about parents or teachers, and we don't learn how the shooter got a gun.

no-homos-ds.jpgBrandon Baruch's "No Homo - A Bromantic Tragedy" won the Fringe First award as the best premiere. It's headed not only toward an LA extension at Theatre Asylum but toward the curated New York International Fringe Festival. Set in LA (extra points for this choice), the play is a wry look at two young men who are best friends, roommates, and supposedly straight - but their friends assume that they're really lovers. Jessica Hanna of Bootleg Theater fame directs a skilled cast (it won the Fringe ensemble award.) Baruch introduces more psychological knots instead of tying up the existing ones, which is refreshing, although it seems odd that no one mentions the word "bisexual," especially regarding the one guy who's actively pursuing a girlfriend. Wouldn't someone naturally bring up the "B" in "LGBT"?

"Things Being What They Are," a Moving Arts production that will continue a run at the Complex, is also about male bonding, although in this case the two men are middle-aged neighbors -- one divorced and one in a troubled marriage -- who have just met as the play begins. Wendy MacLeod's play is a little too committed to predictable tropes about men with very different personalities who find a common bond amid their crises. It feels especially wan in comparison to her "The Water Children," about the abortion controversy - I wonder if that 1998 play would still hold up? Darin Anthony directed.

Lower photo from "No Homo" by Clarke Surrey

June 30, 2014

New girl in town

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Janie Taylor at International Silks & Woolens on Beverly Boulevard. Photos by Iris Schneider.


In the short span of four months, recently retired New York City Ballet principal dancer Janie Taylor has gone from an emotional farewell onstage at Lincoln Center to cruising the streets of Los Angeles in her rental car, poised to build a life as a newly-minted Angeleno. Ballet dancers careers are finite, and Taylor, 33, and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Sébastien Marcovici, felt the time had come to move on from the company where each had spent half their lives performing. "We both had gotten to the place of 'OK, what's the next thing? We were ready to take that step," she said the other day during a downtown conversation at Il Caffe on Broadway. Their final performance was March 1.The couple have a years-long relationship with choreographer Benjamin Millepied (formed during their time together in NYCB), founder of the Los Angeles Dance Project. Millepied's need for a new ballet master presented an opportunity for the pair to start fresh in a new place — with Marcovici at LADP and Taylor free to concentrate on a different creative path.

They officially arrived in Los Angeles in mid-June. Although Taylor is still transitioning from dancing (she's not ready to say 'never, ever again') and definitely plans to guest teach, she wants to build on what has been up until now a side vocation: costume and dancewear design.

Originally from Houston, Taylor started taking ballet seriously at the age of 4. After studying at the School of American Ballet (NYCB's training school), she joined the company's corps de ballet in 1998. She learned to sew at the age of 14, just before moving to New York. The endless need for something comfortable to wear to class and rehearsals motivated her to start making her own leotards. "If that's all you wore all day, every day, you'd do it too!" she said laughing. Taylor also made leotards for some of the girls in the company. "I've always had an interest in fashion, always very experimentally made clothes for myself, and I'm kind of self-taught. I would cut stuff up and figure out how to construct things."


Taylor in 2013 talking about and performing Stravinsky Violin Concerto, one of George Balanchine's leotard ballets.

She recalls being influenced as a young girl by Alicia Silverstone's costumes in Clueless and later on by the look of the dancers in the classic 1948 film, The Red Shoes. Her taste and style influences are eclectic. "I tend to navigate toward graphic things," she says. "I like mixing patterns — especially plaids and stripes. People are always making fun of all the stripes I wear." She's drawn to the silhouette of 1950s women's fashion and loves to search for vintage brooches at flea markets. Hours spent being fitted in the NYCB costume shop were a learning experience. "I guess I was totally annoying — looking at every costume that wasn't for me, and asking questions."

She admires the work of Barbara Karinska, the Russian designer hired by George Balanchine to create many of the iconic costumes for NYCB. "All of her pieces were so beautiful and detailed," Taylor says. "I loved wearing them and analyzing every little thing." Taylor received her first big post-dance commission shortly before leaving New York. NYCB soloist and choreographer Justin Peck asked her to design the costumes for his new ballet, Everywhere We Go, which premiered at the company's spring gala. She had created costumes for a few smaller pieces before, but this was a new challenge. Peck liked one of the leotards she designed for class (striped of course) and wanted looks based on that. "Everywhere We Go" features 25 dancers, both men and women. Taylor had to conceive costumes that complemented Peck's choreography and also stood up to tough performance standards. "There's another mind that has to feel what you're making will express their art," Taylor says, alluding to Peck. "It was fun being on the other side but still involved. It's great to make a little world on-stage."

Still settling into her Los Feliz home, Taylor is already busy with new projects. She's been asked to design fabric and wallpaper. Costumes for L.A. Dance Project are a definite possibility. She's also still finding her way around the city, learning neighborhoods and adapting to all the driving she now has to do (Marcovici doesn't drive.) Although she got her license as a teenager, Taylor never drove in NYC. She only used a car once a year when the company would travel upstate to Saratoga during the summer. Mostly she seems to be enjoying her freedom.

"I've done one thing since I was 2 years old so it feels good to do a bunch of different things," she says. "It's not like I felt suffocated while I was dancing, but it controls a lot of other things in your life. You're always thinking — well, I have a performance tomorrow, or something's hurting and I should rest tonight. Everything you do is about that. It is liberating not to have that stress."

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June 28, 2014

Ballet Preljocaj's Arabic orgy, Ojai's (sort of) opera and more

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"Les Nuits" at the Music Center. Photo: JC Carbonne

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a pageant. Angelin Preljocaj has given us one more outlandish extravaganza and this time the French choreographer-turned-corporate calls his show at the Music Center "Les Nuits," after "One Thousand and one Nights."

It's yet another would-be fairy tale, the last one being "Blanche Neige" (Snow White). This time the frame story concerns Scheherazade escaping the Sultan's death blade by distracting/seducing him with exotic narratives, one after another. But Preljocaj, deep into his mode of dark, existential undercurrents, wields a wand that suggests depraved humanity -- not just abuse of the so-called weaker sex and certainly not its supposed triumph.

There's a scene with male couples, for instance -- feigned beheadings/throat-cuttings in unison; another one, dimly lit, with marauding mujahidin in all-black and head masks, who interrupt the opening montage: a drawn-out, slo-mo orgy with half naked, turbaned women, lounging about amid plumes of smoke, their arms moving in a snake-like tangle to an Arabic-pop-beat sound track. (At least no Mahler to defile this time.)

Sex (simulated, of course) sells. Always has. But nudity has become sort of commonplace. Trust Preljocaj to rely heavily on both. And to assert his glee with perversity too. (Where else but in his company would you see a stage-wide lineup with tall, well-proportioned women wearing long gowns and those with very bowed legs sporting above-the knee dresses?)

So what we have is a leisurely, sprawling rollout of disparate stage pictures taking up about 90 minutes -- with each season Preljocaj produces a more elaborate but less interesting series of superficial vignettes that settle on acrobatics (not dance), that show off bodies and focus on fetishes fit for Vegas. You can just imagine his self-satisfaction in spotlighting a seated woman, her naked back to the audience, undulating so that every ligament, tendon and muscle provide an anatomy lesson.

Does he "incorporate" haute couturiers and commercial composers for this latest offering? You bet. Does he preside at home base over a large, multi-faceted organization built just for him by big-name sponsors and luxuriously housed in Aix-en-Provence -- from which he tours the world in ever-more prestigious venues? For certain.

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Barak Ballet

But then there's his opposite, the Barak Ballet, a local start-up that's just dance, original dance, real dance. At it's essence, we're talking about the heroic venture of Melissa Barak, who for nine years performed with the New York City Ballet, choreographed work for it, and now heads her own company, which depends on the financial kindness of strangers.

So what distinguishes it, besides having all the artistic and administrative attributes rolled up into a single person?

Well, Barak happens to be a very talented dance-maker herself. She also has an eye for tracking down other choreographers' works that rely on substance, not shtick. She smartly recruits superb dancers during their home company's off-seasons. Her choices of music and costume design and her smoothly run performances that click along like clockwork are exemplary.

At the company's recent Broad Stage performance of various ensemble pieces and duets everything was based on advanced ballet technique, showing off dance at its highest level of beauty while exploring contemporary movement motifs and connecting keenly to respective musical sources. Sounds like a Balanchine model, yes?

Among the works was Frank Chaves' "Sentir em Nos," a couple's fierce interpersonal struggle likened, but subtly, to a bull-fighter and his foe; Barak's "For Two," a lovely lyrical duet that actually pauses to take breaths between ultra-sensitive encounters and Darrell Grand Moultrie's dramatic "Voices of Six," with its inserts of small but powerful expressionist gestures.

As for the well-established wing of local dance enterprise, Los Angeles Ballet reprised Balanchine's beloved "Serenade," which, no matter how often it's seen, reveals new facets -- so ingeniously made and sealed together with Tchaikovsky's innocently beseeching score is it. This time, though, when the girl falls in the third movement the lighting stayed too bright, lessening its emotional depth and impact.

Also returned to the bill was that 19th century hallmark of Romanticism, Bournonville's "La Sylphide," which the company again danced to perfection. I saw the cast with Allynne Noelle, so cheery and outgoing as to remove the sylph's sense of elusive spirit, but so committed to the role's detail otherwise that she overcame that flaw. Ulrik Birkkjaer, as the smitten James, flew about with apt passion and managed the devilish entrechats, those jumps-in-place with crossed-feet pointing down like arrows, with urgent precision.

................

Out of town to our north, at the 68th annual Ojai Music Festival, man-of- the-hour Jeremy Denk put together a marathon weekend of propositions -- all of them predictably probing. From the works he chose, to the musicians he enlisted, there was a sense of adventure that festivals ideally have, this one being devoted to new music about old music or new music "classics" or even an actual premiere, such as Denk's brainchild, an opera based on, of all things, Charles Rosen's "The Classical Style," a scholarly tome so acclaimed it's been translated into many languages.

Denk, inspired to lavish his wit and powers of conjecture on it, wrote the libretto and, together with composer Steven Stucky, came up with "The Classical Style, An Opera (Sort of)," which garnered world-wide attention -- both for the novelty of the idea and the fact that it's the MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning pianist-writer putting it down on paper.

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Jeremy Denk at Ojai

Sad to report, though, the performance remained unseen by many at Ojai because the re-vamped Libbey Bowl has poor to negligible sightlines for anyone under 6'2." So there was virtually nothing I could see on the stage. Only in the LA Times, days later, were there photos of what appeared there.

But hearing was not a problem, however limiting that sole prospect may be for a quasi-buffa opera like this. And the unraveling plot was comic -- what with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the main protagonists, all caught up in arguments over the declared death of classical music with additional characters personified by the Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant chords. Yes, there were lots of insider jokes and quotes from other composers' works. And Stucky did a capital job of putting it all together.

What turned out to be pure transporting poetry, though, was Denk's piano recital linking works by Schubert and Janacek. First, he explained how the two composers represented cultures crashing in on each other. And then, like an excavator of small, precious relics he played them, revealing degrees of whimsy all the way to oblique shadows of sorrow. His touch, the control, the sensitivity spoke volumes.

At the other end of this spectrum were his Ligeti preludes, those dense, ridiculously complex pieces that Denk also played masterfully weeks earlier when he performed with the LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall.

Many events followed -- from 8 a.m. to midnight all weekend long. One standout was the Uri Caine Ensemble with its "Mahler Re-Imagined," a traversal of the composer's well-known themes, from the Adagietto, to "Frere Jacques" to "Ging heut Morgen" brought to their echt origins and sounding like cool jazz or Jewish wedding music or Klezmer rambunctiousness. While it did go a bit too long, who doesn't love the stuff of a festival?

June 22, 2014

Two Geffen premieres, and two plays about addicts

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Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in "The Country House." Photo: Michael Lamont.

Geffen Playhouse is producing two premieres simultaneously. One of them, Donald Margulies' "The Country House," is wonderful. The other, Steven Drukman's "Death of the Author," isn't.

Although the plays are brand-new, their depicted situations aren't exactly fresh. The characters in them don't stray from the two professions that are so familiar to the Geffen's core audience - academia (the Geffen building is owned by UCLA, which is just across the street) and entertainment (the Geffen was created by the late Hollywood producer/director/schmoozer Gil Cates.)

Neither play employs cutting-edge techniques. Although the characters in "Death of an Author" discuss advanced literary notions, those ideas aren't successfully reflected in the play itself. As for "The Country House," Margulies apparently decided it was his turn to write a contemporary American play inspired by Chekhov.

But don't yawn just yet — even if you saw "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's overhyped and similarly Chekhovian-inspired effort at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year. Durang wrote a largely uninspired satire; Margulies is much more affectionate toward his equally flawed characters. He avoids the excessive lampooning that drained the life out of Durang's opus.

At the Geffen, the titular house is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts - home of the real-life Williamstown Theatre Festival. The great Anna Patterson (the great Blythe Danner) has called for a family reunion at the family's summer home, where she is preparing for a run in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." It marks her return to acting a year after the cancer-caused death of her 41-year-old daughter, an equally luminous actress, in this very house.

The blood relatives who show up are Anna's bedraggled and never-married son Elliot (Eric Lange) and her recently Yale-graduated granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), whose mourning for her mother is perhaps a tad more intense than that of Susie's father, the Hollywood director Walter (David Rasche.)'

Walter, who's nearly as old as Anna, has decided to introduce his new, younger girlfriend Nell (Emily Swallow), also an actress, to the clan. Also joining the group is Michael (Scott Foley), a 40ish friend who once played Marchbanks to Anna's Candida at Williamstown. Although Michael is now a wealthy Hollywood-based TV star and an advocate for building schools in the Congo, he's doing his summertime stage-acting stint in "The Guardsman" at Williamstown.

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Emily Swallow and Scott Foley. Photo: Michael Lamont.

Except for Walter and Nell, the relationships here stir up almost entirely unrequited feelings. Margulies and director Daniel Sullivan confidently orchestrate and navigate the turmoil. The pre-intermission finale is a stunningly funny surprise, and the play ends on a note of lyrical poignance that is, yes, convincingly Chekhovian.

To encapsulate the difference between this play and Durang's, note that the younger trophy fiancé (Spike) in "Vanya..." was a buffoon; the younger trophy fiancée in "Country House" (Nell), is treated much more respectfully. True, Nell does refer scornfully to "LA and all the crap that goes with it" — my advice to Nell, if she wants a non-crappy experience in LA, is to go see "The Country House" at the Geffen. But Hollywood big-shot Walter is also allowed to defend selling out to Hollywood so articulately that you almost might think that Margulies believes him.

By the way, considering that Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie ran the Williamstown festival before he arrived in LA (and he grew up not far from it), I began wondering whether he ever entertained the notion of trying to snag Margulies' play for the Taper. He certainly could have brought an insider's perspective to it. Perhaps, however, he thought a play set in Williamstown might look too insular, as if he wanted to show us a slice of his own past. Also, the Tony that Durang won for "Vanya..." may have helped convince Ritchie to do it at the Taper, after which he wouldn't have wanted to do yet another consciously-Chekhov-inspired production so soon — regardless of its quality. In this case, however, the Geffen got the better end of the deal.

Not so with "Death of the Author," next door to "The Country House" in the Geffen's smaller space, staged by Bart DeLorenzo. The only reason to seek it out is to admire Orson Bean's irresistible performance as a swashbuckling English department chair on the verge of retirement.

Drukman's play is a mess. You may have heard that it's about a case of plagiarism, pitting a professor against a student who's about to graduate from a prestigious college. The student tries to deflect this charge by arguing that the unattributed quotes that make up his paper reflect the nature of the genre about which he was writing. Without any presence on the stage of the plagiarized authors themselves, and without any literal visualization of the student's paper for the audience to see, the issue of plagiarism gradually recedes, and it's easy to dismiss it as a serious concern.

Next, the play appears to be about the malleable nature of readers' prejudices and perceptions - or perhaps it's about the class distinctions between the professor, who's from a blue-collar family, and the blue-blooded student.

Then again, the play's title is reflected in a very specific incident from the student's past - which we learn from his ex-girlfriend - or is she back together with him? The role of this only woman in the cast looks like a threadbare plot device instead of an actual character. Meanwhile, a more pivotal character - the dean who makes the final ruling on the case - isn't on the stage any more than the plagiarized authors. And why the oddly upbeat ending, almost as if we've been watching an earnestly uplifting sitcom?

If he plans to rewrite, Drukman needs to think more deeply about what his aim is and how best to accomplish it.

'STONEFACE' AND 'BLISS POINT'

Here's a shout-out to Pasadena Playhouse for picking up the Sacred Fools Theater production of Vanessa Claire Stewart's "Stoneface" from the 99-seat world and bringing it to one of LA's most prestigious stages.

And kudos to Sacred Fools, too, which seems to be remarkably adept at inducing such transfers, compared to the rest of its 99-seat siblings. On the same weekend that "Stoneface" opened in Pasadena, the Sacred Fools production of "Absolutely Filthy" - one of my favorite shows of 2013 - ran for a weekend at South Coast Repertory's smallest space (now let's see it advance to a longer run at a bigger theater.) Sacred Fools also originated "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," which moved to the Geffen in 2009. And Center Theatre Group will co-present the premiere of the CTG-commissioned "The Behavior of Broadus," from the Burglars of Hamm, in September at Sacred Fools. While this last tidbit isn't exactly another example of the same smaller-to-larger-theater phenomenon, might it eventually lead to a CTG production at a larger space?

Interactions between the smaller and larger spheres of LA theater should be much more common, and they also should involve the midsize theaters that provide an ideal compromise between the 99-seaters and the larger theaters such as Pasadena Playhouse.

Having said all that, "Stoneface" isn't quite as exciting in Pasadena as it was at Sacred Fools. Some of that is attributable simply to the fact that I had already seen the visual effects. I wasn't anticipating them when I saw them at Sacred Fools, and in Pasadena I was waiting for them. But Pasadena's problem isn't only that Sacred Fools had the honor of unveiling them for the first time but also that we routinely expect larger effects in a larger theater - and they don't seem all that larger.

I was, however, surprised by one thing at Pasadena - that there weren't more changes in the structure of the script. The play has a scrambled chronology that seems unnecessarily arbitrary. Perhaps because I wasn't quite as bedazzled by the effects and by French Stewart's still-remarkable performance as Buster Keaton as I had been when I first saw them, I became impatient with the frequent time shifts.

Of course, most of these objections probably aren't relevant to those who didn't see the original production. And I'm glad that the talent is finally being remunerated (or so I assume) on a level that's usually impossible in the 99-seat world.

"Stoneface" makes it clear that Keaton's alcoholism wasn't good for his art, but it's more about his art than it is about his alcoholism, and it maintains a softly sunny disposition about his life.

Another play with structural problems, Shishir Kurup's "Bliss Point," concentrates more on addicts and addictions - and the portrait is much darker. Directed by Juliette Carrillo, "Bliss Point" is part of Cornerstone Theater's Hunger Cycle. But unlike most Cornerstone productions, it's mounted in a 99-seat theater, the Odyssey, instead of a more site-specific venue that is related to the subject and the community under discussion. As a result, it doesn't convey the usual feeling that Cornerstone is serving a community through art - even if the art is a little rough around the edges.

Actually, I have no problem with the performances and production elements of "Bliss Point." The play's structure is the obstacle. In a series of vignettes, we meet several apparently unrelated groups of characters from two eras and two cities who are struggling with addiction issues, finally discovering how they're related only at the end of the play.

The shifts between times and places in "Bliss Point" are much more jagged - and baffling - than those in "Stoneface." And they inhibit our engagement with the characters. The play becomes an intellectual puzzle more than the searing examination of addictions that might have resulted from a reshaping of the script.

June 9, 2014

Coyotes sing with Garrison Keillor and 'Prairie Home Companion' in LA

keillor-greek-grab.jpgScreen grab from video of last week's Los Angeles show.

How appropriate - the taping of a show titled "A Prairie Home Companion" was interrupted by the howling of coyotes.

It happened Friday evening - but not on the prairie. No, the accompanying coyotes live in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles.

Garrison Keillor's public-radio landmark was in the home stretch of taping its annual alfresco LA production, at Greek Theatre in the park. Keillor had finished his weekly report and rumination on the latest events in Lake Wobegon, and the band had played a wistful ragtime-inspired musical interlude, which was intended to provide a smooth entry into a gospel number from singer Jearlyn Steele. The evening was winding down.

But the coyotes had other ideas. Somewhere higher up the hill, they began yelping wildly.

The human spectators, who filled most of the venue's 5,800 seats, buzzed and laughed. On the stage, Keillor momentarily seemed uncomprehending of the source of the clamor, but members of the audience quickly shouted that the noise was from coyotes..

Earlier in the evening, Keillor had mentioned coyotes within a reference to the non-human inhabitants of what he called "the largest city park and urban wilderness in the country" (he also mentioned the recently famous mountain lion, who - Keillor joked -- had "moved to Brentwood.") But he probably didn't expect a contingent of coyotes to interrupt his show.

However, he quickly regained control as the howling died down. He said the coyotes had apparently been "moved" by the performances so far. "What they're saying, if I understand Coyote well, is they're saying 'Bring that woman up and sing a gospel tune for the coyotes...Jearlyn Steele."

A few minutes later, however, as audience members exited, I overheard another, more literal motivation ascribed to the coyotes by several people - that the creatures had probably discovered another animal that would be their supper.

After the gospel song, Keillor briefly returned to the subject of coyotes by asking sound effects wizard Fred Newman to converse with the coyotes, prompting a series of coyote calls from Newman, "expressing the coyote that is within each one of us," Keillor remarked. The real coyotes didn't respond. Keillor then asked for some Newman loon calls. When Newman protested that LA had no lakes, Keillor rattled off evidence to the contrary - Toluca Lake, Silver Lake, Veronica Lake and the Lakers - so Newman went through his loon repertoire.

You may have heard the radio version of all this over the weekend. I usually listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" on KPCC, as I drive to and from weekend performances in theaters throughout LA. As an advocate of theater that uses local settings and talent, I've admired how Keillor and company go to great lengths to use local references, wherever they may be - the previous week, the company had broadcast from Flagstaff, Arizona, and Keillor interviewed one of the Slide Rock firefighters.

But when I drive, my attention is sometimes distracted by, uh, driving. This year, I decided to concentrate exclusively on "A Prairie Home Companion" for two hours by attending it in person.

This particular episode didn't use as much LA-based talent as some of Keillor's other LA shows, but many of the script's songs and comedy sketches were indeed dotted with LA references. If a national radio program can find dramatic material within LA, why can't more of LA's own theater companies?

But the most remarkable difference between seeing the show in person and listening to it on the radio had nothing to do with the local markers in the script. Instead, it was watching what Keillor does before the taping and during the intermission.

At several live tapings of TV shows that I've attended in LA, a stand-up comic warmed up the audience to make sure we were all in in a laughing mood. Taking no chances, the TV producers also furnished applause signs giving us cues on when to applaud.

Here, instead, is how Keillor warmed us up for his show Friday. With a microphone in hand, he walked from the stage into the audience and slowly hiked up one of the long aisles to the back of the Greek Theatre and then back to the stage, leading us all in a sing-along of "America the Beautiful" - including the obscure later verses. Then, at intermission, instead of taking a break from his virtually non-stop appearances on stage, he repeated his sing-along in the aisles, this time leading us in "America," yes, but also "I Saw Her Standing There," by the Beatles.

Garrison Keillor doesn't need to provide cues for us to laugh or applaud. These reactions naturally emerge as we watch or listen. It's something that a lot of theater artists should emulate.

By the way, on the other side of Griffith Park last Friday, from 8 pm to 8 am, the Old Zoo area had been taken over by tents and modern cages for a for-profit, 12-hour fright show, "The Great Horror Camp-Out," designed to simulate campers' nightmares for the minimum price of $159 per person. Activists within the Sierra Club had questioned whether an event designed to scare people into associating Griffith Park with confinement, torture and other horror tropes was an appropriate use for this great public space. Let's not forget that two real-life assaults occurred in Griffith Park earlier this spring.

I'm glad I chose "A Prairie Home Companion" over "The Great Horror Camp-Out." Keillor's message isn't all sweetness and light -- in his remarks Friday, he explicitly addressed the encroaching mortality of his baby-boomer fans, and of course those real-life coyotes briefly but vividly provided intimations of the more violent side of nature. But Keillor also reminded us of life's redeeming delights - which go far beyond the gratitude that must have been felt from those who finally escaped from "The Great Horror Camp-Out" at 8 am on Saturday morning.


SOME RECENT PLAYS SET IN LA -- AND BEIJING

Returning briefly to the subject of plays that have LA settings, I should report that not every company is as derelict in this department as Center Theatre Group, which I discussed in my last column. Last night I saw the reincarnation of the Hollywood-set "Stoneface" at Pasadena Playhouse (more on that in a later column), and in recent weeks, at smaller theaters, I've seen a number of plays set in greater LA.

Two of them were quite good -- Emilie Beck's poignant Pasadena-set "Sovereign Body" (now closed) at the Road Theatre in NoHo and Kres Mersky's "Flag Day" at Theatre West. The latter is a domestic comedy with several far-fetched screwball elements, but it generates a respectable number of securely-landing laughs, under the direction of Paul Gersten, through June 22.

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Flag Day


Both of those plays could easily have been set in other cities, with only a few cosmetic changes; their setting in LA didn't seem to be part of their essence. Not so with two plays I saw recently at Los Angeles Theatre Center - Alice Tuan's "Hit" and Company of Angels' "L.A. Views - Traffic Jam," a collection of short plays. "Hit" made a point of venturing into discussions of LA's character - or its many characters - and "Traffic Jam" peered intermittently into LA's past. Unfortunately, I couldn't recommend either of them as satisfying theatrical experiences. Both are now closed.

In my last column I also chided the current incarnation of Center Theatre Group for failing to find and develop ambitious projects - whether set in LA or not -- on the scale of CTG's big and acclaimed productions from two decades ago. I've recently seen two projects on that level that have won acclaim for companies outside California - Arena Stage and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

So I figured I should check out "Beijing Spring," which East West Players revived to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. It's a 1999 musical that had been inspired by the young Chinese protesters from a decade earlier. On paper, this sounded like an example of the kind of big-deal project drawn from recent history that I was seeking from CTG.

But inside the theater, it's not such a big deal. The original 1999 production was in two acts and lasted a little more than two hours. This new version has been crammed into the now-popular no-intermission, shorter-than-two hours format, which isn't big enough.

"Beijing Spring" is hardly sketch comedy or an intimate solo show. Considering the continuing importance of its real-life subject, this is one shallow "Spring."

No one is credited with writing a book for this musical - essentially, it's a staged song cycle by lyricist Tim Dang and composer Joel Iwataki. But the songs offer little depth or originality. The characters remain stubbornly stillborn. In terms of the history, the show assumes that the audience knows who Hu Yaobang was (do you?), and it also provides no details about the previous political activism that the fictional leading character's father and grandfather survived - which supposedly inspired their heir to join the same cause.

Much of "Beijing Spring" looks and sounds as if it were inspired less by what happened in Beijing in 1989 than by what happened in European musical theater in the decade leading up to 1989 - specifically, by "Evita" and "Les Miserables." But those shows had much richer characters and demonstrated much savvier storytelling skills than we get from the generic "Beijing Spring" (which closes next Sunday.)

You don't have to take my word for it - you can also see the first home-grown production of "Les Miz" at La Mirada Theatre through June 22. Indeed, any "Les Miz" newcomers who were alienated from the epic Schonberg/Boublil/Kretzmer musical by the recent botched movie version might want to check out Brian Kite's staging at La Mirada in order to see why the stage version became such an enormous hit.

James Barbour and Randall Dodge are as triumphant as Valjean and Javert, respectively, as anyone who has ever played these roles. As the rascally Thenardier, Jeff Skowron not only offers the requisite comic relief but officially becomes LA theater's hardest-working and most versatile stage actor of the past year - he won an Ovation for "Parade," then appeared in "Sunset Boulevard," "The Producers," "Silence!" and just a few weeks ago, "Into the Woods."

Still, it's a shame that we are more engaged in a musical set in 19th-century France than we are in a musical about a momentous event only 25 years ago in the world's most populous country -- which is still governed by a regime that is so frightened of free expression that it has tried to erase this event from its history.

June 8, 2014

Opera showdown: Are women fickle, immoral and crazy?

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Roxana Constantinescu and Miah Persson in 'Cosi.' Photo: Mathew Imaging.

What do women want, Freud once asked. More important, maybe, is why are men afraid of them? Opera composers, with their librettists, have always poked around for answers. And the spotlight stays on that mystery as the downtown music season ends.

Just consider "Così fan tutte," the last work of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy that Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic signed on to at Disney Hall -- it's translatable as "women are like that," in other words, they're fickle, unfaithful and can thus destroy men's esteem.

Well, the production ride this time focused sharply on that eternal question -- women as betrayers (but men as their enablers.) Also, as in "Don Giovanni" and "Figaro," the company stayed true to its goal: proving that opera stagings need not take place within a traditional proscenium and that they can also reach the ultimate hauteur in design/direction.

Oh, it can be tricky. But the Phil has done it again -- mounted a compelling "Così" that changes the atmospherics from rococo farce to today's social currency. For that, thank director Christopher Alden, who always drills down to the various characters' core, in moment-to-moment manner and comportment, just so we can relate to them. Do they slouch? Do they amble? Do they plaster themselves to the floor puzzling over a decision or awaiting an outcome?

And Zaha Hadid's molded white plastic set, a multi-level free-form affair where they do all this, sends them on their chic way, costumed in Hussein Chalayan's hip streetwear that keeps converting before our eyes. The result is no-holds-barred sophistication, carried out by a young, savvy cast that looks as good as it sounds.

Disney Hall certainly affords singers the most flattering acoustic. And Dudamel, with his orchestra only inches from them, kept the music stirring like the tenderest gentle breeze or ripping with a thunderclap but always breathing in sync with the voices. He even sang a line in perfect Italian in his beautiful baritone, with the surprised audience erupting into wild laughter and applause.

Rod Gilfry, as the schemer-in-chief Don Alfonso, stood out, with the able complement of Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Benjamin Bliss (Ferrando), Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Roxana Constantinescu (Dorabella) and Rosemary Joshua (Despina).

On to women as immoral: Of all Massenet's operas, "Thais" is the one most loaded with the French composer's deep-down conflict: a war between lust and God, between ways of the flesh and devotion to holiness -- as carried out by the title character and her reformer.

But we can be glad that when LA Opera went searching for a production of it for the company's mainstay star Plácido Domingo, now relegated to baritone roles after depleting his tenorial gold, it found the one from Gothenburg -- a far cry from what San Francisco put on back in 1976 for then-reigning diva Beverly Sills.

That one was a hoot. The courtesan splendor surrounding her spared no detail. A gigantic circular bed stood as her ungapatchked headquarters, with an enormous mirror suspended overhead. She pranced about in gilt belly-dancer garb. And nowhere could we find a trace of high-minded Anatole France in this perfumed hash.

But ah, LA Opera to the rescue -- that is, with the spiffy couture that designer Johan Engels made of fourth-century decadence in the city of Alexandria. The women paraded like pre-cursors of Ziegfield Girls, à la Cleopatra -- but with everything up-to-the-neck, no décolletage -- and the monk corps wore black shiny top hats, even while the sets seemed a poor fit for the Chandler Pavilion stage.

Nino Machaidze (remember her hilarious "Turk in Italy"?) carried off the title role splendidly -- polishing the high notes with pizzazz, if not getting into the teeth of French vocal intimacy -- and Domingo, as Athanaël, gave us a mad monk whose zeal was a mere cover for his fatal attraction to Thaïs, almost forging a growl in his passionate, near-grasp of her. Valentin Anikin's fine basso lent Palemon a persuasive note of caution to the unhappy hero, while Paul Groves was a less compelling Nicias.

But director Nicola Raab's flashpoint came at the end, after the obsessed holy man has dragged across the desert with his repentant party girl to deliver her to a convent. She re-appears there on a platform, totally committed now to a pious life -- it's a surreal scene surrounding her, with sand-dusted monks in their sand-dusted top hats and reclining sand-covered theater seats. As Athanaël looks up at her -- God's radiant bride standing in a gorgeous white gown with designer tiara (eat your heart out Vera Wang), wafting a gossamer scarf overhead and singing her ecstatic high notes to the heavens -- he rails lustfully from below. The two do not hear each other. Author France finally achieves his irony. This scene, a must-see.

Patrick Fournillier maximized Massenet's score coaxing passionate outpourings and even Wagnerian breadth from the orchestra.

But there's more. LA Opera brought us a special end-of-season bonus with "A Streetcar Named Desire," -- yes, Tennessee Williams' magnetic play, here scored by Andre Previn, libretto Philip Littell, and written for Renée Fleming.

On to women as crazy: Everything you loved about the original work (and later the movie starring Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter) is here. It's tantalizingly intimate -- in the way that so many contemporary operas are not. Previn is a musical couturier; his instrumentation can be eerily harrowing, suggest mad reverie and cut right to the alternating emotional undercurrent, while his vocal line is remarkable for staying true to every dramatic nuance of the text.

Fleming luxuriates in it. Her voice, with its impeccable colorations and its rounded tones high and pure, curves around the notes like a smile trying to hide pain. As Blanche Dubois, though, she is less fey than those who have portrayed the heroine desperately seeking to escape her shameful past, one who "depends on the kindness of strangers." Troubled, yes, but also cunning and glamorous, she comes across strongly. So, too, does Brad Dalton's staging make clear the atmospherics of this southern household drama.

A terrific cast included Ryan McKinny, shirt-less to show off his washboard abs and otherwise a convincing tough-guy as Stanley; Stacey Tappan, whose Stella is a natural as the hopeful sister and who sang with expressive depth and vocal beauty: Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, eager to be the gentleman for Blanche and even movingly sympathetic at her tragic end. Evan Rogister smartly led a small orchestra upstage behind the singers.

So too can musicians who don't sing make an operatic entrance. Take this one, for instance: A gifted pianist who arrives on the scene from a tiny Chinese province. He becomes an instant celebrity -- a paragon of the New China (after Mao Tse Tung), a magazine cover boy, a 60 Minutes feature -- what with his heroic story of rising from poverty to iconhood via a showmanship that exploits his powerful virtuosity.

Ten years later Lang Lang no longer exaggerates for the world-wide audience, no longer swoons at the keyboard like a silent screen star. Finally the tall, lean pianist has grown into his fabled talent.

And when he appeared with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Philharmonic in Prokofiev's Third Concerto everything coalesced. In a slim black suit with open-necked white shirt, a stylish but not extreme haircut, a long graceful body whose home is at the piano, and an ownership of both the instrument and music, he made it all come together like a miraculous whole.

Especially at the final cadence, when he and Dudamel struck thunder in a single electric flash, a depth charge of crackling intensity.

But that wasn't all. Our resident maestro proved once again he's the dancing-est fellow around -- squeezing his orchestra for the last juice of languor in Ravel's "La Valse" and "Valse nobles et sentimentales" and letting the three-quarter rhythms sweep into full plangency, all this inside the brilliant brass shatterings and assorted musical graphics. Ditto Paul Desenne's engaging "Sinfonia Burocratica," which got an irresistibly insistent dance treatment around and about its little sardonic asides.

June 2, 2014

A day at the museum for three Los Angeles designers

three-designers.jpgKo, Esquivel and Vivier.


Throughout their careers, designers Clare Vivier, Anita Ko, and George Esquivel have been inspired by museum and gallery visits. So when LACMA invited them to participate in the spring 2014 Wear LACMA collection, there was little hesitation to jump in. Created by fashion advisor (and wife of LACMA director Michael Govan) Katherine Ross in 2012, Wear LACMA gives local fashion designers the opportunity to tour the museum's permanent collection and choose an artwork to use as a point of departure for their own creations. The collaboration is a fundraiser for the museum, and the resulting pieces are sold at the LACMA store and on NET-a-PORTER.com. While mostly priced out of reach for the average customer (the least expensive items, t-shirts by Vivier for $85, quickly sold out) the "Wear LACMA" collection does shine a light on a growing group of clothing and accessory designers who have chosen to live and work in Los Angeles. All three approached the project from a personal perspective.

vivier-purse.jpg"I'm drawn to French things, to graphic pieces with text in them," says Vivier, who is primarily known for her handbags. "I'm inspired by people I see on the street...kind of from afar. I'll see someone when I'm driving or walking and I can't really make out what they're wearing--I'll turn it into something that's inspiring--it's almost like an illustration."

Vivier learned to sew while growing up in Minnesota. After college in San Francisco she moved to Paris, worked at various jobs and met her husband, Thierry, a journalist for French television. She began to design when, after returning to the U.S., the desire arose for a more stylish bag for her laptop. Business took off in 2006. Today there are namesake stores in Silver Lake and Manhattan, with one opening soon in Santa Monica.

A French embroidered man's vest from the LACMA costume collection (circa 1789-94) sparked the idea for Vivier's graphically printed clutches, tote bags, and t-shirts. "That was the piece that stayed in my mind. A lot of R&D work went into how we could print on leather and canvas. We tried a lot of different colors," she explained.

Related from LA Observed: Costume designer Marlene Stewart at LACMA


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"When I came around the corner I said, 'that's it!'" says Esquivel, recalling when he first saw Felipe Santiago Gutierrez's 1876 "Portrait of a Woman with a Marigold." The shoe designer had already decided to use something Latin American from LACMA's collection, "to speak to my heritage," and considered Diego Rivera. In the end he opted for something "less expected." The women's sandal and summer desert boot are his interpretation of the painting's colors and mood.

Esquivel_Sandal.jpgBorn and raised in Orange County, Esquivel lives in Cypress with his wife and three kids and produces his handmade line of men's and women's oxfords, loafers, and boots out of a 3500-square foot workshop in Buena Park. "Half of my business is direct to customer and we also sell at stores like Barney's," he says. He is also the creative director for Tumi Luggage.

Esquivel's turbulent upbringing (a father in and out of jail and living in motels with his mother and four siblings) makes him an unlikely success story, but he has made it all work in his favor. "I gravitate towards beautiful things because I didn't have them as a kid," he says. After discovering shoe-making on a trip to Baja in the early 90's, he worked as an apprentice, began to attract clients and got his first retail account in 2002. "Growing up the way I did you don't know how to dream. But, here I am...Never did I know you could be paid for ideas."


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Ko, a jewelry designer, "went in with an open heart and mind." But when she got to the Korean collection during her museum tour, it resonated with her due to her family roots in Korea. ko-ear-cuff.jpgA reading table from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) and a 19th century porcelain bottle, both with bat-like motifs (a symbol of good fortune), gave her the starting point she needed to design ear cuffs, a ring, and earrings. Ko grew up in the Palisades and "started designing when I was 8. I was that kid who always made her own necklaces." After a few years at NYU she returned to Los Angeles and launched her business. "I was very lucky to have parents who were supportive. It's like anything. I learned through trial and error."

The first piece she designed was a simple circle diamond necklace. Small boutiques began to carry her pieces and celebrities started to wear them. "I love walking around LA--seeing all the cool girls and all the cool boys. I'm inspired by their aesthetic. I try to design organically when it comes to me, rather than be pressured into a season," she says. "Jewelry lovers come from every walk of life--every socioeconomic class. I love seeing how people express themselves."

May 22, 2014

Where's CTG's next great LA play? Plus: Ghostly therapy

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Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in "Camp David."

On a recent trip to the other coast, I saw two plays -- within 24 hours -- about southern Democrats who were elected to the American presidency during my lifetime. No, not Bill Clinton.

Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" is primarily about Lyndon Johnson's successful shepherding of civil rights legislation in 1964, and Lawrence Wright's "Camp David" dramatizes Jimmy Carter's mediation of the talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat that resulted in an agreement between Israel and Egypt. In both of these situations, the presidents served as bridges between antagonistic parties -- the kind of presidential role that today seems much more difficult, despite the obvious need.

These two presidential plays were the products of ambitious commissioning programs at leading American theaters -- Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which presented the premiere of "All the Way" before it went to Broadway and which will open the "All the Way" sequel "The Great Society" in July, and Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, which developed and presented the premiere of "Camp David."

As an LA observer, I left these experiences with an LA-related question. Why isn't our most comparable theater company, Center Theatre Group, turning out comparably substantive and powerful dramatizations of American history that demonstrate how the past informs and affects present-day America?

The last time Center Theatre Group consistently helped forge dramatic works in this sphere was in the Gordon Davidson era of the early 1990s, when CTG played a critical role in the creation of "The Kentucky Cycle," "Angels in America" and "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992."

Schenkkan, who wrote "The Kentucky Cycle" as well as "All the Way," lived and worked in LA in the early '90s. So did the director of "All the Way," Bill Rauch, who was then a recent arrival as artistic director of Cornerstone Theater but since then was snatched out of our territory by that mighty contender to the north -- Ashland, Oregon, where Rauch runs Oregon Shakespeare. For that matter, Bryan Cranston -- the brilliant star of Broadway's "All the Way" (and, of course, "Breaking Bad") -- was an LA boy who attended Valley College and still lives primarily in LA.

I hope that I can safely assume that CTG is trying to obtain the rights to present "All the Way" in LA, preferably with Cranston working on his home turf -- although Cranston's understudy, Steve Vinovich, also has an LBJ-worthy face that's already familiar to LA theater audiences. "All the Way" could be a terrific cornerstone of the Taper's election-year season next year (but perhaps the Geffen Playhouse, which produced a lesser Schenkkan play and also hosted Cranston's last LA stage gig, might also have a chance?) CTG probably also should be trying to snag a production of "Camp David," preferably with its DC star Richard Thomas -- yes, the former John-Boy on TV's "The Waltons" is a very convincing Carter.

But wouldn't it have been great if CTG were developing plays like these and introducing them to the world?

To its credit, CTG last year produced the award-winning premiere of LA playwright Jennifer Haley's "The Nether," which raised topical cultural issues that resonated beyond its particular story. But its scale was small, compared to those of "Kentucky Cycle" and "Angels in America," and it was at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, not at CTG's larger flagship, the Mark Taper Forum. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Rajiv Joseph's imaginative take on the Iraq war, also opened first at the Douglas but then received the rare honor of re-opening at the Taper in 2010 -- the most adventurous sign of support for this kind of material that I've witnessed during the Michael Ritchie era at CTG.

But most of CTG's recent nods in the direction of historical or political relevance have been plays that previously opened elsewhere ("American Night", for example.) What did the Taper offer politicos during the 2012 election season? David Mamet's stale White House farce, "November," from the previous election-year cycle four years earlier.

Right now, at the Douglas, CTG is producing the premiere of Kimber Lee's "different words for the same thing". It's an engrossing play about its particular situation, but the lower-case and hard-to-remember title indicates the limited scale of its ambitions. Structured almost entirely in brief cinematic-style scenes, separated by a lot of furniture-moving by the actors, it's about people in a small town in Idaho.

When I first heard where it's set, I felt a twinge of jealousy -- thanks to the Samuel D. Hunter plays that have recently been seen at South Coast Repertory ("The Whale," "Rest") and Rogue Machine ("A Bright New Boise") and now Lee's "different words," contemporary Idaho seems to be getting more attention on the stages of greater LA than, well, greater LA.

That's a subject somewhat distinct from my earlier consideration of the overall ambition of the plays and their themes, but it's an important subject -- and it's an issue that I've regularly monitored over the last few years. Frankly, if I had to choose between more smaller-scale plays set in LA and a few larger-scale plays with clear-cut national or international resonance, I'd go with the former.

In an ideal world, however, CTG would be able to combine the two. It would introduce at least a few big plays with big themes that are set in the big city where CTG is located.

Perhaps that seems like an easier task for Arena Stage, as its home town is also the national capital -- "Camp David" deftly combines specifically local references with international themes. But LA is not exactly a shrinking bird-of-paradise on the world stage.

It's astonishing that CTG, which continues to bill itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company," can't find more interesting stories in the immensely diverse communities that surround the Music Center in all directions. In recent years, CTG has commissioned some potentially big plays with LA themes, but they haven't emerged from their developmental chambers. Still, every year I hope against hope that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" will avoid that generic-resident-theater feeling by finally paying greater attention to LA, with more involvement of LA talent as well as more LA settings.

The upcoming Douglas and Taper seasons are expected to be announced in the next few months. Does CTG have the will --- and the money -- to go big? And even if it lacks the money, perhaps it might still do something about the LA present or LA history. Is anyone out there writing a play about the groundbreaking LA mayoral showdown between Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty?

LA deserves an honored place at the CTG table -- and on a scale that might also mean something to the rest of America.

GHOSTS ON STAGE: In "different words for the same thing" at the Douglas, a young woman who died a few years ago appears as a realistic-looking apparition who communicates with some of the living. Of course ghosts have a long tradition in the theater -- think "Hamlet" and Macbeth" -- but those old-timey creations were more authentically scary. Now (and perhaps since the days of ""Blithe Spirit" and "Our Town") most of the dead who hang around in plays aren't scary. Instead, their usual role leans toward the therapeutic -- for themselves as well as for the survivors.

In the case of "different words," the ghost finally learns, as part of the climax, exactly how she died. Unfortunately, this is the weakest moment of an otherwise fine-grained play, because the explanation introduces a complicated subplot -- briefly sketched only in words, not in action -- that doesn't seem to have much relevance to anything else that's going on in "different words".

I saw two other plays over the weekend in which the dead remain literally alive for the audience, as representations of the survivors' thoughts. In Bekah Brunstetter's "Be a Good Little Widow" at NoHo Arts Center, a young husband's death in an airplane crash doesn't prevent him from returning to the stage. In Carey Crim's "Wake" at South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre, a somewhat older husband returns from beyond the grave to visitations with his wife, an agoraphobic who runs a mortuary within her own home.

The prevalence of this device on our stages devalues its effectiveness. It has become a cliche that playwrights apparently find difficult to resist.

Wake_Press_1_Web.jpgBut the ghost in "Wake" feels less cliched than the ghost in "Be a Good Little Widow," because the themes of "Wake" are bigger than those of "Widow." The title, "Wake", has more than one meaning, unlike the too-explicit title of "Widow." "Wake" depicts three generations of women, not the two represented in "Widow." The husband's death in "Wake" occurred three years before the play begins, so the play has a longer-term perspective on the aftermath of death, while much of the shorter "Widow" is about the first awful moments after a fatal accident.

Although Crim's tone is realistic, not satirical, her "Wake" contains a couple of wild plot twists that sound as if they might have been conceived by the younger Christopher Durang or the younger David Lindsay-Abaire. These developments aren't completely credible within the play's realistic surfaces, but they at least add welcome dashes of originality

Both of these plays are scheduled to close this weekend. If you'd like to see one -- but only one -- of LA theater's stories about the process of surviving a loved one's death, I recommend the livelier "Wake," which is produced by SeaGlass Theatre and directed by Matt Kirkwood. By the way, based on one particular line in the script, we can even count "Wake" as an LA-set script -- for those of us who care.

Bottom: "Wake" photo by Melissa McCormack.

May 2, 2014

Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty

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Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert. Courtesy of the Getty.


For a brief time last Sunday, the real life Queen Victoria and the 2009 movie version played by actress Emily Blunt crossed paths at the Getty Center in Brentwood. Born in 1819 and crowned in 1838, Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. The film, The Young Victoria, examines the monarch's early life and marriage. An exhibit at the Getty Museum, A Royal Passion, Queen Victoria and Photography, provided the backdrop for a conversation between three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. Powell designed the costumes for the film for which she won her third gold statue in 2010. She also won for "The Aviator" (2005) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1999). In front of a packed auditorium, Powell and Nadoolman Landis chatted about the challenges and rewards of designing period clothing while on-set stills of "The Young Victoria" cast flashed on the screen behind them. The audience included design students, fans of the film, and "A Royal Passion" attendees.

British-born Powell, 52, has become one of the go-to costume designers for period film. "There's more to do in terms of research — you learn something every time," she said when explaining why she prefers the genre. "It's really difficult doing a contemporary film — actually harder than period — because everybody has an opinion about what a contemporary person looks like — whereas in a period film you kind of have the upper hand."

Powell gave some insight into her creative process and revealed some tricks of the trade. She was attracted to Victoria's story because the script "was about a young vibrant woman who was thrown into the deep end." If she agrees to take on a project after reading the script, meeting with the director is the crucial next step. "Generally if we get on as people it works out," she said with a smile. In "The Young Victoria," Powell's challenge was to show the difference between the pre-coronation, sheltered, youthful girl, and the woman Victoria grew into after becoming queen. For the costume designer, that meant going from girly to "a stronger line, less fussy." In addition to looking at photographs and paintings from the period, Powell was able to do research at Kensington Palace in London, Victoria's childhood home and where her surviving clothing is now stored. She studied what she could for accuracy but, except for well-documented pieces (such as Victoria's wedding dress), Powell primarily made up her own versions "based on the look of the period — the kind of thing she would wear."

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Victoria and Albert at Buckingham Palace, 1854, by Roger Fenton.
Creating the massive amount of costumes needed for a film like "The Young Victoria" (58 changes for Blunt alone) is the sort of task the matter-of-fact Powell is seemingly undaunted by. After her initial sketches, she and her team shopped for fabrics, commissioned hats and gloves, and scoured the internet to find the best dealers for period jewelry. "I like doing the jewelry," she said. "It's one of my favorite bits. We do it at the end of the film when we've got all the clothes. Victorian jewelry isn't that difficult to find...and a lot of the dealers were willing to buy it back after we'd used it." Although Powell takes her inspiration from the fabrics she finds, she is almost always restricted by budget. "You don't always have to buy the most expensive to make things look expensive. You can get away with using cheaper fabrics — it's what you do with them."

Powell often hand paints pieces to look embroidered, and sometimes uses fake fur in place of real. When asked if she's excited by seeing the costumes come together, Powell said, "Of course, the organic process is the most exciting part, watching it develop. The real design moment is not the sketch at the beginning - design is when the costume is halfway there at the first fitting and you say, what does it need? Less here or a bit more there. That's the designing."

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Nadoolman Landis, left, and Powell.
Powell's Getty appearance came at a typically busy time — she flew in for the weekend from Cincinnati, where she is working on a new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol," with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. She did however, seem to enjoy having the chance to reflect on the role of the costume designer in the greater scope of movie-making. "We're creating characters in films. We're helping to make entertainment, summing up the essence of a period in clothing. The characters have to be believable and it's our job to make that happen." Powell answered honestly when a young audience member asked what is the thing she loves most about her career. "I like everything about designing and if I didn't it would be an impossible job to do. It consumes so much of your life - you have to sacrifice everything else for that period of time, whether it's three months or a year. The day I stop enjoying it is when I'll give it up."

Previously on LA Observed:
LA Observed goes to LACMA with costume designer Marlene Stewart (video)

Showcases for Baryshnikov and Von Stade: Meeting the measure or not

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Frederica von Stade


So what do starry eminences decide when the time comes to hang it up? Leave the stage? Not Flicka. Not Misha.

For these two, Frederica von Stade and Mikhail Baryshnikov, we must understand just how ingrained the love of performance is -- she, the lyric mezzo with the tender tear in her voice, the Cherubino who trembled with pubescent fervor and tickled us as the tipsy Périchole or melted our hearts with her "Pretty Little Horses"; he, the dancer who leaped in the air with laughing ease, defied gravity, devoured space, aped Jimmy Cagney moves with jaw-dropping accuracy and put his bravura technique to the service of powerful grief as Albrecht.

There's a reason the world calls them by their nicknames: And it's not because she was America's sweetheart soprano or because he acted in "Sex and the City" cameos.

They don't want to give up the stage and we don't want to let them go.

Take von Stade, for instance. At the Beverly Hills Wallis, which couldn't be a more inviting space for her in the Ricky Ian Gordon/Leonard Foglia one-act opera "Coffin in Egypt," the still-alluring star exuded the same genuineness she's known for. True, the white-haired-matron role adds too many years to an appearance that is otherwise much younger. And her jaunty spirit has been compromised by the requirements of this character -- an old lady looking back on her life with recriminations, regrets and grievances galore.

As such she also had to embrace the vintage vanity of upper-class southern whites, with typically racist references abounding as well as pre-feminist notions of women as second-class citizens -- none of which is too appetizing.

But if only the material had not been so hackneyed. And if Gordon had found some better musical means for the character to express the great dissatisfaction with her life at 90, waiting to die in a miserable Texas town named Egypt. And if Foglia had not resorted to so much repetition in his text, taken from a Horton Foote play.

Luckily, there was some respite from the ungrateful vocal writing -- high and shrieky -- with moments when von Stade could seize on a melodic wisp remindful of "Oklahoma" ("Oh, What a Beautiful Morning") or when she could wax softly nostalgic or be vocally resplendent in red. Losing the amplification installed at the Houston premiere, and here, would have helped considerably, also with the gospel chorus. Others in the cast had well-enacted speaking parts only and conductor Kathleen Kelly led the nine-member chamber ensemble ably.

But the pickings were better for Baryshnikov, what with two of Chekhov's stories within grasp. And although "Man in a Case," his third outing at the Broad Stage, was another instance of the star's cart before the horse -- the producers made a hash out of the Russian writer's first tale, "Case" -- Misha finally gained the upper hand in the second and shorter one, "About Love."

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Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Here he was at his affecting best: a man in love with a married woman as she suffers a severe depression because of their prohibited union. When he describes kissing her face and arms and hands that are wet with the taste of tears, his voice is deep and burnished, his Latvian-tinged speech earthy. It is Misha, the actor he could ideally be, never better revealed than at this moment.

But "Case's" depiction bore all the signs of unresolved trial and error -- despite the big-name team he surrounded himself with, one that gladly produced this pastiche for the still-luminous luminary. (After all, would there be a draw with a lesser name?)

The set was plain and simple, especially compared to his previous artfully sophisticated ventures at the Broad. As the lead character, Belikov, at first he seemed like a displaced person with a thick Russian accent trying to tell an ol' boy story in the American vernacular to macho jokesters. It definitely misfires -- no matter the add-ons of projections and screens, or the Ukrainian folk dancers and musicians/singers as part of the story, or his signature fillip of a few r&b steps.

As the incoherent format changes, our hero appears in a long black coat, dramatic and stylish, again as he was "In Paris" -- the outsider, the stoic loner beset with proprietary concerns. But the patched-together show did not jell. Too much false construction.

For an object lesson in artistry we had only to see Peter Brook's touring production of "The Suit" at UCLA. Unburdened with having to make a star vehicle, the 89-year-old theatrical wizard put together a marvelous realization of a South African story that reached poetic heights -- in speech, symbolism, music, stagecraft -- all of which had integral meaning, carried along by superb actor/musicians in tidbits from meticulously chosen Miriam Makeba to Schubert to Billie Holiday. Count yourself unlucky if you missed it.

But if you chugged downtown to a weekend of the Paul Taylor Dance Company there was predictable excellence. And the choreographer's signal motifs found their way to such golden oldies as "Airs," his Baroque ode to Handel, with its piety and joy intact, followed by two newer pieces.

In all three we could see his single, slyly humorous i.d. tag -- you know, the "shazam" arms, those sudden angular bolts of lightning in vintage comic books that are akin to the Nina letters in Al Hirschfeld cartoons. They last only nanoseconds and are unmistakably a Taylor emblem.

Otherwise, he gave us "Banquet of Vultures," a brilliantly organized complex of society's vanquishment by a dictator set to dark Morton Feldman music and its delightfully frivolous antidote, "Gossamer Gallants," which makes the inescapable point that sexual politics animates even winged creatures: females flirt and seduce, males gape and grasp, only to be ensnared and browbeaten.

Also downtown, at Disney Hall, and everywhere around the city, we had the Minimalist Jukebox celebration, a humongous event. One heart-wrenching entry was David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Little Match Girl Passion," performed by the LA Master Chorale under Grant Gershon.

There's a reason this music is universally beloved. It deals in barest simplicity, but the Hans Christian Andersen parable of a child's suffering -- as a beggar hungering in the frigid outdoors, to hallucinating of sumptuous suppers and longed-for grandmothers, to death -- is shot through with stark emotion.

Lang's "Passion," with Gershon and singers as his champion, emerged with a plaintive gorgeousness, its pathos rising from fugal lines sung in clipped phrases that spoke of icy deprivation -- only at the end of which came relief.

Quite a month it was.

April 29, 2014

Couples counseling in 'Premeditation,' ''Knock Me a Kiss,' 'Come Back,' 'Five Mile Lake'

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Scene from "Premeditation," photo by Ed Krieger.

Couples counseling is in session in two rousing productions at Los Angeles Theatre Center -- and in some other theaters around greater LA.

In Evelina Fernandez's "Premeditation," two middle-aged heterosexual couples in contemporary LA are in the throes of marital discord. But this is no earnestly realistic psychodrama.

It's a delirious farce. The narrative proceeds from the premise that one of the wives, Esmeralda (Fernandez), has met Mauricio (Sal Lopez) -- the husband in the other couple -- only when she hires him to kill her own husband, Fernando (Geoffrey Rivas).

And what dastardly deed has Fernando, a UCLA professor, done to merit such a fate? When Mauricio asks this burning question, Esmeralda begins by describing Fernando's habit of leaving his underwear on the floor... and Mauricio immediately begins sympathizing with his would-be mark.

Complications ensue, especially after Mauricio's own long-suffering wife Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez) gets wind of what she supposes to be a romantic tryst between Mauricio and Esmeralda.

"Premeditation" -- as with several other plays developed by Fernandez and her director and husband Jose Luis Valenzuela (who happens to be a UCLA professor) -- achieves a genuine comic brio, on the edge of satire, as it delves into the state of middle-aged marriage. The tone is established at the beginning, as the actors move in choreographed conjunction with mobile set pieces and lively music. Comedy also arises from the juxtaposition of '40s noir imagery -- in costumes, lighting and projections -- with the often-mundane squabbling of these 21st-century couples, who are chained to their personal phones, even as they try to appear aloof and mysterious. But the light-hearted style doesn't guarantee a happy-ever-after ending.

Let's move upstairs from LATC's Theatre 3 to the much smaller Theatre 4, where the endings are even less happy-ever-after in Robey Theatre's production of Charles Smith's "Knock Me a Kiss."

knock-me-a-kiss-ds.jpgIn 1928, the biggest social event of the season for "the talented tenth" of African Americans in New York was the wedding of the rising young Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen (Jason Mimms) to the daughter of the scene's leading intellectual light, sociologist/writer/editor/activist W.E.B. DuBois (Ben Guillory).

A year later, the marriage was kaput. Young Yolande DuBois (Toyin Moses) concluded that her husband preferred the company of his best male friend and that she -- perhaps too late -- preferred the company of the randy jazz musician Jimmie Lunceford (Keir Thirus), who had previously wooed her.

"Knock Me a Kiss" is not only about the younger couples but also about the somewhat strained relationship between the great DuBois and his wife Nina (Rosie Lee Hooks), who is depicted as holding a grudge against her husband for his previous choice, long ago, to work in segregated Atlanta. The discriminatory medical care there, she contends, led to the death of their young son.

But this grim undercurrent within the play is somewhat countered by the raucous interactions among the younger generation -- including Lenora, a wise-cracking best friend (Ashlee Olivia) of Yolande. Lenora picks up the remnants of Yolande's romance with the virile Jimmy.

It's a fascinating tale, told without a trace of rote reverence toward the historical characters, even as it acknowledges DuBois' status. Kudos to Robey and Smith for telling us a story that most of us hadn't heard. Of course, judging from Smith's "Free Man of Color" -- seen at the Colony Theatre in 2010 -- that appears to be Smith's specialty
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Dwain A. Perry's staging is especially refreshing as it arrives courtesy of a company named after Paul Robeson but tells a much more entertaining story than the two solo shows about Robeson that recently opened in LA.

Ebony Repertory Theatre just closed its revival of the longer but lesser Paul Robeson monodrama, "Paul Robeson," and Center Theatre Group just opened the better Robeson solo, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," at the Mark Taper Forum. "The Tallest Tree," starring Daniel Beaty, is considerably less devoted to hagiography than the reverential "Paul Robeson," but neither of them is nearly as full-bodied a play as "Knock me a Kiss," with its juicy roles for six actors instead of just one.

"The Tallest Tree" is actually a couples play, too -- in which Beaty plays both Robeson and his wife Essie, the former more convincingly than the latter. But at least Beaty allows Essie the opportunity to object vociferously to Robeson's affairs with white actresses -- a topic that was almost entirely avoided in "Paul Robeson."

Before we leave the DuBois/Robeson era, I also should note that "Porgy and Bess" -- yet another show about a troubled African-American couple during roughly the same period -- is currently at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre. Of course, it's set in provincial Charleston, not sophisticated New York. This controversial but Tony-winning version of the Gershwin masterpiece, directed by Diane Paulus from Suzan-Lori Parks' adaptation of the original Gershwin/Heyward libretto, is entrancing. And it's such a big show, by the standards of musical theater if not those of opera, that perhaps I should cut CTG some slack for simultaneously presenting an only-one-actor production, next door at the Taper.

A Noise Within in Pasadena is also reviving an American couples play, William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" -- which has a psychological trajectory that is somewhat similar to that of "Knock Me a Kiss." In both plays, a father figure strongly disapproves of a young woman's choice of a lusty young suitor, and she decides to go with someone who's considered more suitably marrigeable.

But Inge was less concerned with the play's twentysomethings than with its middle-aged adults -- Doc (Geoff Elliott) and Lola (Deborah Strang), a childless couple who feel empty and jealous as they observe the affairs of their young boarder Marie (Lili Fuller), her jock boyfriend Turk (Miles Gaston Villanueva and her fiance (Paul Culos).

Another major difference between the two plays is that "Come Back" is set a few decades later, in what here appears to be a very white Midwestern college town. But it ain't necessarily so -- Center Theatre Group altered that equation in its 2007 production at Kirk Douglas Theatre. S. Epatha Merkerson played Lola alongside Alan Rosenberg as Doc -- an interracial couple, although no one said anything about it.

Of course, Lola and Doc don't need the extra societal disapproval of crossing racial lines in order to break our hearts, as convincingly confirmed by the performances of Elliott and Strang. That these two are equally successful as the primary antagonists in Moliere's "Tartuffe" right now, also within the spring repertory at A Noise Within, should convince just about anyone that they're among LA's most protean actors. "Come Back, Little Sheba" is directed by Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott with an assurance that muffles any questions that might be raised by Inge's Freudian obviousness.

Finally, let's look at two more couples -- one apparently dissolving, one possibly beginning -- who inhabit the premiere of Rachel Bonds' "Five Mile Lake" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. These present-day couples aren't nearly as old as those in "Premeditation" or "Come Back, Little Sheba," but they're already feeling some of the anxieties and doubt that beset their elders.

The play takes place in a small Pennsylvania town. To Mary (Rebecca Mozo), the fact that she has never left this town is a curse. But the locale suits Jamie (Nate Mooney), her would-be crush who works alongside her at a bakery counter. When Jamie's Ph.D-trapped brother Rufus (Corey Brill) returns home from New York with his English girlfriend (Nicole Saunders), the city/country divide becomes more intense. No one is really satisfied with his or her place in life.

Many writers try to re-create that Chekhovian feeling in contemporary settings; Bonds comes closer than most -- especially if you compare her play to the explicitly Chekhovian "Man in a Case," currently featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov in a tedious, half-baked experiment at Broad Stage.

Daniella Topol's direction of "Five Mile Lake" allows the subtleties of Bonds' characters to emerge in a style that's a far cry from the urban pace of the people in "Premeditation" or even the stark anguish of the couple in "Come Back, Little Sheba." But the unknown futures of the "Five Mile" folks are tantalizing, too.

Lower photo from "Knock Me A Kiss," photo by Tomoko Matsushita.

April 19, 2014

When 'spoilers' are essential elements of a discussion

Like most of my colleagues who comment on theater, I'm usually wary about revealing spoilers, especially when they're in new scripts.

As a result, occasionally I sidestep information about what happens in a production (as do those who write about other narrative forms such as movies, TV series or books), although in retrospect that information might seem, well, critical to the character of the production.

I'm beginning to think that those of us who write about theater -- especially those of us who write apart from the early-deadline pressure and relatively larger readership of, say, the LA Times --probably shouldn't be quite as cautious about the use of well-flagged spoilers as those who write for what was once considered "the newspaper of record" in LA, or those who write about the other narrative art forms.

Theater is ephemeral. In LA, most productions are available for only a few weeks or months -- compared to the relative permanence of movies, TV series and books. Of course, theatrical scripts remain ready for possible revivals after a first production, but usually no subsequent productions are guaranteed at the moment when a potential theatergoer is deciding whether to buy a ticket to the premiere production.

Even if subsequent productions are likely to take place, what are the chances that they will be as accessible as the current production? The first revival might occur in another continent, for all we usually know.

Tickets to labor-intensive, one-of-a-kind theater events usually cost more than the fees charged for mass-produced movies, TV series and books (which can even be legally borrowed from libraries for no fee at all). Attending theater also usually requires more logistical planning than watching screen imagery or reading books.

For all of these reasons, potential theatergoers deserve to know a little more information in advance than would-be consumers of films, TV or books. And sometimes that information includes so-called "spoilers." After all, one reader's spoiler might be another person's reason to buy a ticket -- or not to buy a ticket.

Many people associate spoilers only with such obvious no-nos as revealing whodunit in a review of an old-fashioned mystery. But spoilers can go far beyond disclosing that the butler did it. Some readers might not want to know in advance about a particularly controversial topic -- or even a particularly distinctive moment of physical comedy -- but avoiding any mention of these components of the production can result in a very superficial critique.

Writers can always issue warnings about spoilers that are approaching soon in an article -- giving those readers who choose to avoid all potential spoilers a chance to stop reading in time to dodge the revelation or the description of something they would rather not know, while providing this additional information to readers who would appreciate a more thorough awareness of what's in store for them. And so:

SPOILERS AHEAD: I'm about to discuss two examples of what some readers might consider "spoilers," so if you really hate the idea of knowing "too much" in advance about the puppetized production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Broad Stage or "Rest" at South Coast Repertory, you should stop reading here.

I'll start with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Broad Stage. It might seem inconceivable that anyone would come up with something surprising, on the "spoiler" level, for a production of one of the world's most frequently seen plays (perhaps the most frequently seen?), yet this Bristol Old Vic/Handspring Theatre production has accomplished the unthinkable.

In fact, it's precisely because many theatergoers might be deterred from seeing still one more "Midsummer" that t'm going to discuss this particular aspect of the current production a little more explicitly than most of my colleagues have.

It involves the you're-so-vain character of Bottom -- the preening would-be star of the mechanicals' amateur theatrics. This Bottom's the top -- the funniest Bottom I've ever seen.

And it's not only because of the talents of actor Miltos Yerolemou in the role. It's because when this Bottom is transformed into the ass who enchants Titania, the actor is splayed over the top of a little cart that transforms into the rough shape of an ass, with his bare buttocks facing up. It's an ingenious and hilarious way to play on the character's name -- and, in retrospect -- it's amazing that we veterans of many "Midsummer"s have never seen it.

All by itself, this bottoms-up Bottom creates a reason to see this one more "Midsummer." And I doubt that my bare-bones, inadequate description of it in the above paragraph will weaken the comic charge it provides in the theater.

By the way, for some unknown reason I was assigned an unusual seat -- in one of the Broad boxes overlooking the audience as well as the stage. Bottom's bottom didn't register nearly as strongly with a friend who sat near the rear of the orchestra. You might want to take that in mind if you have a choice of seats.

Of course, with the Broad run closing on April 19, you might not get much of a choice, I can't recommend the entire production -- it's a little too long -- but most of the other design elements are also much more creative than those of most garden-variety "Midsummer"s. So anyone who would like a new perspective on this familiar and beloved play should take a look.

rest-scr-shirley.jpgThe element within Samuel Hunter's "Rest" that I'm about to reveal could hardly be more different from the rowdy "Midsummer" display of Bottom. Most of the reviews will tell you that the play is about the three remaining residents and the harried staff of a convalescent center in the middle of an Idaho winter -- and how everyone reacts when the most demented of the three residents is reported to have wandered off into the snow.

Without telling you every detail, let me add that the play is also about the possibility of mercy killing. Mentioning this element might prevent some people from seeing the play, but it could attract others who have some professional or personal interest in the agonizing decision-making that's often faced by those who care for the sick or the elderly.

This sounds grim, and "Rest" certainly is no "Midsummer Night's Dream." But Hunter, who has already made waves in the LA area with "A Bright New Boise" and The Whale," leavens the tone with some comic relief from the institution's hapless boss (Antaeus Company co-artistic director Rob Nagle), and he amplifies the subject of indecision over the end of life with a parallel subplot about indecision over the beginning of life.

Directed by South Coast's co-founder Martin Benson, the production also features three South Coast veterans in the roles of the residents -- Lynn Milgrim, Richard Doyle and Hal Landon. Milgrim is sharply nuanced in the pivotal role, and those who have spent several decades watching Doyle and Landon mature into older roles at SCR won't want to miss this latest chapter -- although let's hope that it's far from the last chapter of their SCR saga.

Photo from "Rest" by Debora Robinson/SCR

April 6, 2014

Quick look: Mike Kelley exhibition at MOCA

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Photos by Iris Schneider.


In introducing the Mike Kelley show in downtown Los Angeles, new MOCA director Philippe Vergne and curator Ann Goldstein both talked about when Kelley's show opened in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum on the weekend of the Sandy Hook massacre. Vergne said that Kelley's work is so timely, dealing with the difficulties of growing up, alienation, violence, religion and the complexities of society. "Looking at his work is so unsettling, and it shows how Kelly had his finger on the pulse of many important question," Vergne said. MOCA curator Bennett Simpson presented the show, which was organized by the Stedelijk and takes over the entire Geffen Contemporary and some exhibit space at MOCA on Grand Avenue. "The show will surround you," said Goldstein, the Stedelijk's former director. "It is total artwork. It comes at you from all sides: aesthetic, formal, magical, political."

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Vergne and Simpson at the media preview.

Going underground - and on stage - with 'Floyd Collins' in La Mirada

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Mark Whitten as Floyd Collins, photo by Michael Lamont.


One of the best midsize venues for professional theater in LA County has a somewhat unusual location - its 199 seats are on located on the stage of La Mirada Theatre,
adjacent to the actors.

Normally, La Mirada tries to fill its proscenium-style theater's 1,251 seats in the conventional way -- with the audience facing the stage -- but to get to the current "Floyd Collins," the audience bypasses the regular auditorium. The ushers direct the spectators to chairs placed temporarily on the stage itself -- in a raked, three-sided thrust around the action.

La Mirada introduced this much more intimate seating configuration into its programming last year with a intense production of "Spring Awakening," and now it has followed up that success with a second triumph - Richard Israel's revival of another very dark musical, "Floyd Collins."

The plot follows the plight of a young man who's trapped in a cave in 1925 Kentucky, based on the true story of Floyd Collins, which ballooned into one of the first major mass-media events in the age of radio. "Skeets" Miller, a young reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the story for the Louisville Courier-Journal and later worked for NBC, is depicted by name in Tina Landau's script.

Israel also directed a 2005 production of "Floyd Collins" at what was then the home of the now-largely-dormant West Coast Ensemble - a much smaller venue on La Brea. Now, on La Mirada's large stage, he and designers Rich Rose (scenic) and Lisa D. Katz (lighting) have a lot more room to suggest the expanses of the cave. Yet with the audience only a few feet away from the actors, they also have the ability to preserve the sense of claustrophobia of the scenes set inside the cave.

Still, much of the musical is set outside the cave, as family and media and rescue crews mingle. And occasionally scenes take us into dream territory, where the entrapped Floyd is free to come and go despite his actual predicament.

FLOYD COLLINS-LA MIRADA-3.jpgAdam Guettel's score is the show's ultimate star -- a quicksilver mix of joyful noises alongside the more expected melancholic and mournful strains, of bluegrass mixed with art song. It's performed to perfection by the cast and by David O's band, located in the venue's regular orchestra pit just behind the main bank of spectators. Designer Josh Bessom fills the arena with immersive sound.

The cast excavates the characters with masterful precision. Mark Whitten plays the ambitious but caught caver. Josey Montana McCoy portrays "Skeets," whose diminutive stature helps him reach a position in the cave within touching distance of Floyd. Kim Huber and Jonah Platt as Floyd's siblings and Larry Lederman (who also was in Israel's 2005 version) and Victoria Strong as his parents all offer distinctive perspectives on Floyd's sad saga. A men's trio provides a vaudevillian dash of media satire.

With this production drawing on Israel's initial work at the West Coast Ensemble, it's an example of a phenomenon that LA theater should encourage - using the sub-100-seat theaters as developmental arenas for midsize productions that furnish more remuneration for the talent and better design resources, while preserving the audience's up-close perspective. LA audiences should support such efforts for reasons that go beyond the merits of this particular show.

Still, the merits of this "Floyd Collins" are many - and they're well worth the drive to the southeast reaches of the county. Take the Rosecrans exit east off the 5 freeway to La Mirada Boulevard (go to lamiradatheatre.com for tickets and further guidance.)

Lower photo: Mark Whitten and Kim Huber in "Floyd Collins." Michael Lamont

April 5, 2014

The dancer dies, but the person inside lives on

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Edward Bigalow tying Tanaquil Le Clercq into her costume.
 Below: Le Clercq and George Balanchine. Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.


Melissa Barak is the founder and artistic director of The Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. She danced with the New York City Ballet for nine years.

When I was a young dancer, ballet dancers appeared to be these mythical creatures. I used to think Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov had always just been divine beings, certainly not regular people doing everyday things like I was. As a very young girl who happened to study ballet and loved it, I was quite unaware that pursuing a career as a ballerina was actually even possible.

Metaphorphoses, Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine.jpgAs I got older and began discovering that I had just as much of a shot as any to become a professional dancer, no company appealed to me more than the New York City Ballet. It was where dance legends seemed to be made. It had a history so rich, it drew me in. Like other young, hopeful ballerinas I watched videos about NYCB all the time and was smitten. I was determined to dance there.

In 1998, I found myself signing a contract with NYCB and I couldn't believe it. I had arrived, but it was overwhelming. I suffered a minor injury in rehearsal just before the gala performance that celebrated the company's 50th anniversary. Instead of getting to perform on stage that night, I watched the performance from the front. I don't remember quite where in the theater I was, but that was when I saw Tanaquil Le Clercq roll right by me in her wheelchair. Tanaquil was one of New York City Ballet's major stars during the company's inception in the late 40's. Her lyrical, sinuous style gave founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins inspiration for many of their early works. It was her feminine quality and physical ability that allowed these two significant choreographers to find their voice as makers of dance, thus changing the ballerina ideal forever.

She was being honored that night. Her story was true, this legendary woman I had always heard about and known of but not for all the usual reasons dancers hope for in their careers. She appeared ghost-like to me as she went by, fair skinned with silvery white hair and sharp yet delicate facial features. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Many dancers' careers are cut short due to injuries, but her fate was due to an illness that affected her life forever, and right at the height of her career. In the middle of a tour through Europe, the New York City Ballet was performing in Copenhagen when Le Clercq found herself unable to move one day. She was struck with polio, at age 27, and lost all use of her legs. Anybody who loves to dance can only imagine the utter horror.

In the new documentary, Afternoon of a Faun by Nancy Buirski, I learned more about Le Clercq's childhood, her illustrious career with NYCB, and her tumultuous relationships with two of ballets most influential figures, Balanchine and Robbins. Yet what I appreciated most from the film was her display of true heroism — her ability to laugh and be silly with friends during her life when dance was no longer an option. I didn't just learn about a special dancer, I learned about what she was made of as a human being. In the film you see how this courageous young woman must start her difficult journey in what's called an "iron lung" (which was horribly anxiety producing) to acclimating to an entirely new existence altogether. Most often with great ballerinas, you only learn of them as they always were - on stage seeming so far from real. Yet with Tanny, you get to know a rather quirky, cool person who is left with nothing but her very own humanness.

The dancer dies, but the person inside lives on. All of us dancers have to face that reality at some point. As a dancer ages, so does the body. The legs don't go up as high, the joints begin to ache, the years of pushing the body to the limit begin to take their toll. Tanny's life is a story about resilience. It's a lesson every dancer must take in — that you simply can't do it forever and that finding balance and other interests is crucial in order to move forward and find renewed purpose in life.

"Afternoon of a Faun" opens in Los Angeles on April 11. A trailer for the film:

April 1, 2014

'Lucia di Lammermoor' hits the boards again, and action spills over at Royce Hall

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Kronos Quartet performing "Orion: China" by Philip Glass. Kathleen Schenck


Promise them anything but give 'em "Lucia." No one, after all, can resist the Bride of Lammermoor, loony Lucey, who goes mad after being obliged to marry -- not the one she loves, but a noble who can save her brother's Scottish castle -- and stabs that husband to death in their wedding bed.

So when the opening night crowd cheered, whistled and hollered for LA Opera's new production of the Donizetti favorite, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, it came as no surprise. All those delectable tunes and a savvy soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, who could luxuriate in them -- what else could anyone ask for?

Well, a few things. Better coaching for the lead tenor, Saimir Pirgu, for starters. Then this Edgardo might have entered the stage without comic exaggeration of anger, his arms flying awkwardly in false force and barking his music instead of singing it. (What is it with so many tenors who come here in hard-sell mode and have either forgotten or never learned that bel canto means beautiful singing, albeit somewhat agitated at times?)

He did tone it down as the night progressed and went on to deliver his final farewell fervently, if less than heart-crushingly (as Neil Shicoff did here some years ago).

And couldn't director Elkhanah Pulitzer help James Creswell manage a bit more than the standard stolid priest figure as Raimondo -- so that his mellifluous basso could have a real live character inside it? And what about those stage lapses between narrative and music where the drama nearly falls apart?

Lucia2014-LdL2179-PR.jpgLuckily, the big moments came across well enough, even though the orchestra, under James Conlon, occasionally disconnected from the singers. Designs by Carolina Angulo and Christine Crook set an aptly dark atmosphere to what looks like modern gothic.

But Shagimuratova, a Lucia who knows her way around the stage, could cower like a gullible girl manipulated by a tricky brother and give a well-choreographed version of her big scene: the bride turned bloody. Most important, she has the coloratura chops -- agile and bouncy with a wonderful pulse to those rapid notes. What's more, she's not one of those chirpy canaries, but very Russian, up to being a little metallic on top.

All others in the cast did well, especially Vladimir Dmitruk, an extremely fine tenor.

But it's hard to forget the then-slim and gorgeous Anna Netrebko, who sang Lucia here a decade ago -- how she twirled and swooned and danced while pouring out bell tones and all manner of intricate, nuanced coloratura.

So much for the 19th century. Onto to the present. And hardly any enterprise speaks to that tectonic shift better than the Kronos Quartet. Because four decades after violinist David Harrington founded this iconic string ensemble there is arguably no other that has ventured so far into the realm of theater while pushing the cross-cutural/political boundaries of esoteric new music even beyond the recognized avant-garde.

Just imagine, for instance, its 40th anniversary celebration at UCLA's Royce Hall: in one piece the four musicians performed under strobe lights to suggest the work's title, "Spectre" by John Oswald; in Penderecki's "Quartetto per archi" they stood with their backs to the audience, while reading/playing a huge projection of that composition; elsewhere they intermittently put aside the instruments they play so pristinely to crush and crumple paper on cue.

So I guess you could say that if the music on this bill didn't make a great impact in itself, then at least its dramatization posed a curiosity. But Philip Glass's "Orion," which featured the sensuous lyricism of pipa player Wu Man, certainly needed no physical enactments, nor did Alter Karniol's souful "Sim Sholom," with the cantorial solo played exquisitely by cellist Sunny Yang, a new Kronos member. And to hear Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" prelude reduced from its grand orchestral plushness and slivered into four string instruments was revelatory, like strolling among harmonic skeletons.

Above all, there was the spirit of Harrington permeating the hall, his warmth and deep appreciation of fellow musicians and all the composers he's brought to his platform over the years, the passion with which he embraces them, not to mention a certain gemütlichkeit you will find anywhere Kronos performs.

A similar spirit spread through the largely subscription audience at Royce Hall for LA Chamber Orchestra concerts. Last week the birthday announcement of its long-standing principal oboist drew cheers and whistles from the massed crowd. So did the whole evening's performances merit the same. The music-making, under the rising young guest conductor James Feddeck, was impressive throughout -- at every turn he coaxed expressive pliancy from the players and found shape and form to all the works.

Little wonder, with the added impetus of another rising star, Jennifer Koh, and her eminent mentor Jaime Laredo -- violinists who netted big roles in the program.

First they played as a duo in Anna Clyne's "Prince of Clouds," a wondrous new piece for string ensemble. It hinted of Britten with its far-off wistfulness sounding in long lines -- only to churn with agitation later and contrast with the orchestra's splintering harmonies, before turning meditative.

Second they played Bach's D-minor Concerto for two violins -- she with the richer, fatter, duskier tone and he the lighter and more agile. Their vigor and intensity in the outer movements, their sheer tenderness in the slow one, their vital interchanging of roles, created pure magic.

Last, Feddeck and the orchestra took up Schubert's early Symphony No. 3, its touching innocence and blithe spirit intact. All told, it was one of those perfect nights.

Not so LA Ballet's mixed bill at Royce, which, in one serious miscalculation, showed a lapse in taste and judgment that I've never seen before from directors Thor Christensen and Colleen Neary. More on that later.

StrangLand-LAB-2014sm.jpgWhat was marvelous was the staging of Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land" (1975), an homage to Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko who had suddenly died back then. It not only sets a matchless choreographic standard but proved that the company can carry out the artistic high level required by a work so sensitive to tone and expressive subtlety.

There were images of singular beauty and strikingly ethereal hints of sorrow carried on the strains of Janacek's music, with an exquisitely timed release here, a sense of ecstatic quietude there.

And even Christopher Stowell's "Cipher" shows the choreographer's astute attention to Balanchine study, along with Noah Agruss's piquant score that suggests a knowledge of Stravinsky. Alynne Noel defined the pert and picturesque signature movements with great charm.

But don't even ask about Sonya Tayeh's "Beneath One's Dignity," which can't decide whether to reveal Victoria's Secret Fantasies or hi-jack some misbegotten modernisms of doom and gloom. Dignity, above or beneath, was never in supply here.

Middle: Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia. by Robert Millard; Bottom, LA Ballet Photocomposition by Reed Hutchinson and Catherine Kanner.

March 27, 2014

Candid 'Song at Twilight,' rowdy but repressed 'Reunion'

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Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison in "A Song at Twilight," photo by Michael Lamont.


They look as different as day and night - "A Song at Twilight" at Pasadena Playhouse and "Reunion" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The former is set in a posh Swiss hotel suite, literally during the day as well as back in the day (the '60s). The latter is set in a cheap room in a contemporary Massachusetts motel, long after dark.

Yet both of them (spoiler alerts?) are about the psychological costs of men's repression of homosexual activity from their pasts.

In "A Song at Twilight," Noel Coward wrote about a character much like himself - a clever and somewhat closeted man of the theater. Then, in the premiere in 1966, he took the then-audacious step of playing the character, whose long-ago devotion to a now-dead male lover is revealed as part of the first-act climax.

The play's other two characters are women - the Coward character's understanding wife, and another woman with whom he once had a rather chaste affair. This former beard has obtained possession of his love letters to the recently deceased male lover.

Gregory S. Moss' "Reunion" takes longer to get to its somewhat similar revelation. It also has three characters -- men who meet in the motel room following their 25th high school class reunion. The three of them had also met in the same room following their graduation in the '80s. We learn late in the play (here's a more explicit spoiler alert) that two of these men had a sexual encounter with each other that distant night, in this room. But none of the three men is openly gay, 25 years later.

Considering how candor about homosexuality has become so much more common since the '60s, it's amazing that Coward's play and its characters were more open about the subject in 1966 than are the characters in Moss' brand-new play, set in the present day in Massachusetts.

Perhaps we should allow for the fact that Coward's characters are veterans of the theater, an arena where homosexuals could come out sooner than they did in the general culture. By contrast, the men in "Reunion" clearly grew up in a world where a premium was placed on being conventionally masculine, even macho -- long before Massachusetts pioneered legal same-sex marriage.

Still, while watching "A Song at Twilight," we shouldn't credit only its theatrical milieu for its frank tone. Let's not forget that when it opened in 1966, England was still a year away from decriminalizing homosexual acts - a point that director Art Manke makes in a program note and that Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps makes in a press release. Give Coward himself some of the credit for being such an uncowardly lion.

The remarkably advanced treatment of homosexuality in "A Song at Twilight" is in stark contrast to its dramatic style, which is rather old-fashioned, not only now but even in 1966. But Manke and his team - including actors Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart - find a lot of life in the old-fashioned tropes, especially in the second act. (By the way, those who saw a revival of "A Song at Twilight" four years ago at the Odyssey Theatre will probably be somewhat less startled by the play's audacity than those who are seeing it for the first time.)

"Reunion," on the other hand, seems old-fashioned in both its dramatic structure (is it just me, or have we all seen a few too many plays set at reunions of old friends?) and in its rather reticent approach to homosexuality.

This is reflected in the marketing of the production, which doesn't begin to suggest a hint of gay content, as well as in the text. Presumably the marketers (and perhaps the playwright?) wanted audiences to be sufficiently surprised by the revelation of a previous man-on-man moment when it's finally recalled in the theater. But it isn't all that difficult to guess in advance, despite the hush-hush approach.

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Michael Gladis and Kevin Berntson in "Reunion," photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Meanwhile, this treatment of homosexuality as an issue-that-still-hardly-dares-to-speak-its name seems a little outdated and slightly condescending to audiences. Simply in 2014 marketing terms, I'm wondering if explicitly mentioning a gay angle in pre-show marketing might actually attract more theatergoers than it would deter.

At any rate, despite its relatively discreet approach to homosexuality in comparison to Coward's play from nearly five decades ago, "Reunion" is hardly discreet in its approach to middle-aged men getting together and behaving again like rowdy teenagers. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt marshals her cast (Tim Cummings, Michael Gladis, Kevin Berntsen) into impressive displays of man-boy anxiety and anger, fueled by alcohol and '80s rock.

"Reunion" closes Sunday, but "A Song at Twilight" plays through April 13.

March 18, 2014

Captivating 'Harmony' at CTG, bare-chested 'Macbeth' and more

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"Harmony" at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre. Below, Shayne Kennon and Leigh Ann Larkin. Photos by Craig Schwartz.

Center Theatre Group has been obsessed with young guys' bands in recent years. Just since 2013 began, CTG offered the forgettable new musicals "Backbeat" (about the early Beatles) and "The Black Suits" (about a Long Island garage band.) The 2011-12 season at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre included post-Broadway runs of the dramatically threadbare "American Idiot" (with a Green Day score) and "Fela!" (about the Afro-pop star.)

Finally, however, "Harmony" is redeeming CTG's stubborn faith in this subject matter. "Harmony" is by far the best of the lot.

It's about the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular German sextet that rose during the Depression and fell to the Third Reich.

Part of the tremendous power of this show is attributable to its remarkable real-life story about young men whose lives and careers were wrecked by the 20th century's most famous villains. Also, as many critics have acknowledged, Barry Manilow has created a wonderful original score, sung to perfection at the Ahmanson (move over, "Jersey Boys"), where the heavenly harmonies are in stark contrast to the brutal narrative.

Where some of the critics are drawing an unnecessary and hyper-critical line is all over Bruce Sussman's book.

Yes, it's a challenge to write in-depth roles for so many characters -- six men and two of the women in their lives. But Sussman's script provides focus by framing the story around the reminiscences of the Harmonist who survived the longest -- "Rabbi" Josef Roman Cykowski, whose last job was as a cantor in Palm Springs, not far from where Manilow lived when he became interested in Cykowski's story.

Shayne Kennon delivers a potentially star-making performance as "Rabbi." He not only delivers the goods during the heart-on-sleeve highlights that Manilow has written for Rabbi as a vital young man, but he also captures an acute sense of survivor's guilt in Rabbi's later glances backward, including scenes in which he expresses his regrets in otherworldly cantorial (but English-language) recitatives.

Harmony-Photo-16-ctg.jpgThe other Harmonists aren't written with the same depth, but they are written with vivid individuality. Indeed, one of the themes of the story is that these men create glimmering harmony despite a variety of backgrounds that go beyond Jewish and gentile and despite a variety of vocal registers and body types. Their many variations are part of the reason we're fascinated to watch them in action, and JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography makes sure we notice the diversity among the moves.

Also, in case potential women theatergoers are tired of CTG's obsession with men's groups, be aware that the two wives (Hannah Corneau, Leigh Ann Larkin) here are hardly doormats; they too have moments of musical magic - and dramatically different fates in the narrative.

Tony Speciale directs here, as he did at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta last fall. I don't know the next stop for this production, but I know that LA is lucky to have it with us through April 13.

TWICE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

Seldom do LA audiences have their choice of two concurrent versions of the same Shakespearean history play, but that's our option right now, with "Henry V" up at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice and also in a Porters of Hellsgate production at the Whitmore in NoHo.

I saw both of them last weekend, separated by about 43 hours. They're strikingly similar in their first images. As audiences enter tiny black-box theaters, we see the casts in contemporary casual dress, mingling and socializing on the stage and also backstage, as if they're about to begin a reading of the play. We even get occasional glimpses out the back doors of both black boxes.

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"Henry V" in Venice, left, and in NoHo. Photos by Erika Boxler, left, and Rob Cunliffe, right.


The idea behind this set-up is to acknowledge, as the opening speech by the one-man Chorus notes, that we are indeed in a tiny theater - Shakespeare described it as a "cockpit" - but that we are to imagine that we're in "the vasty fields of France." The main difference between the two pre-shows is that some of the actors sit behind a table in Venice, while some of those in NoHo sit in a semi-circular arrangement facing the audience.

But when the play itself begins, more substantial differences begin to emerge. The NoHo cast is larger than the Venice cast - 17 to 11. The more plentiful NoHo actors usually linger on the stage even when they're not participating in the action, while the Venice actors usually exit from our view when they're not in a scene. So the NoHo stage looks more crowded and retains more of a rehearsal ambience, as opposed to the more immersive look of the Venice.production.

Also, in the programs you'll learn that the 11 actors in Venice play a total of 22 characters, while the 17 in NoHo play a total of 34. The running time in NoHo is slightly longer. By the way, both directors are also on stage as actors. The Porters director in NoHo, Charles Pasternak, also plays the title role. In the Pacific production in Venice, director Guillermo Cienfuegos - using his actor's name Alex Fernandez - plays the Chorus.

The texts, although based on the same "Henry V," are quite different. No adapter is listed in the program of the NoHo production. In Venice, however, director Cienfuegos and Joe McGovern, who plays the title role, get an adaptation credit. They have incorporated a few excerpts from other history plays in order to better establish the previous relationship between the father-and-son Henrys and to bring Falstaff (Dennis Madden) on stage. Cienfuegos also uses lighting and scenic design (Norman Scott ) and fight choreography (Jonathan Rider) in a way that emphasizes the brutally sculptural, non-verbal aspects of combat in a graphic way that's barely suggested in NoHo.

Purists who want a relatively uncut "Henry V" may prefer the Porters version, in NoHo. But it's less sharply focused. I left the Porters production thinking that the company performed admirably in an overly episodic, perhaps overrated play. I left the Pacific production in Venice with the feeling that I had just seen a rich and complex tale unfold before my eyes.

AS THE 17TH CENTURY TURNS

Move forward a few years from when "Henry V" was written and you find "Macbeth," about a different war. The Scottish play is impossible to overrate, for it is indeed one of the best plays ever written.

Macbeth-260.jpgA Noise Within's new version, directed by Larry Carpenter in Pasadena, is almost as male-oriented as "Henry V." Men (Amin El-Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb) play the witches, assisted by picturesque puppets designed by Sean T. Cawelti; the same three men also play a number of smaller roles. Only two women are in the cast - Jules Willcox as Lady Macbeth and Katie Pelensky as Lady Macduff and Donalbain.

The costumes, designed by Jenny Foldenauer, feature a distracting detail that I've never seen in "Macbeth." The men are frequently bare-chested (although they usually wear other garments over their shoulders), and their torsos are especially exposed when they're in combat -- when you would expect them to be especially cautious about wearing ample protection. It's not as if this is supposed to be occurring in some warmer country than Scotland -- a large map of which sometimes appears as a backdrop. So why the romance-novel-model look? I couldn't figure it out.

Elijah Alexander as Macbeth and Willcox do suggest a lot of sexual passion in their early scenes, but at least at the performance I saw, Alexander's vocal delivery sounded lighter than expected, almost as if he were undecided about how far to pursue Macbeth's indecision. Carpenter visually emphasizes that the Macbeths apparently lost their one and only child, which was also a focal point of Jessica Kubzansky's staging for Antaeus Company two years ago.

Still, the recent LA "Macbeth" that most clearly stands out in my mind is Independent Shakespeare's and David Melville's ultra-visceral version with Luis Galindo, presented last summer in Griffith Park.

Written a few years after "Macbeth," but set in a considerably warmer setting - Spain - Lope de Vega's "La Dama Boba" is receiving a rare revival from the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Lincoln Heights, spoken in Spanish with English titles. Lope wrote 1,800 plays, and this one usually isn't listed among his best - it's a formulaic comedy about two marriageable sisters of starkly different personalities, and their suitors. But the BFA's wide stage is handsomely deployed in Margarita Galban's staging.

Bottom photo: Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth. Craig Schwartz

March 11, 2014

Abelardo Morell makes the national parks his camera

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Old Faithful Geyser exposed on the ground inside a tent by camera obscura. Abelardo Morell


It's not easy to find someone whose right brain and left brain are each working overtime. But photographer Abelardo Morell is more than a creative spirit. In a recent talk at the Annenberg Space Skylight Studio, in conjunction with the current show, Morell called himself a "closet scientist" who has invented a new way of seeing and recording images, or rather re-invented a very old way of seeing using new technology. His recent photography has turned rooms into cameras by employing the technique of camera obscura (literally "dark room") and figured out how to take it on the road. The resulting images of the US National Parks, currently part of a sweeping exhibit honoring 125 years of National Geographic photography at the Annenberg Space for Photography, are stunning and totally fresh. In this digital age, where we are bombarded nonstop with images, that is saying something. These photographs will make you stop and look again.

Morell's technique is to create a pinhole camera you can walk into by creating a tent of lightproof plastic. The image reflected through a pinhole is exposed onto the ground of the park (or sometimes in a hotel room or bedroom wall) and becomes a layered image incorporating the reflected image and the surface it is reflected on. His series on the national parks is seen in the film created for the Geographic exhibit, and like each of the Arclight productions that accompany the Annenberg shows, the film alone is worth the trip.

Morell, whose work was recently on exhibit at the Getty Center and at the Rose Gallery in Bergamot Station, has been a photographer and photography teacher for over 30 years. In his talk at the Annenberg Space, he explained how his photography went from doing simple documentary work of his family, into exploring "the simplicity and mystery of photography itself" by turning common household objects, like lamps and glasses, into tools for actually making images. "In the late 80's I turned my classroom into a camera by taping dark plastic over the windows and making a small opening in the plastic to produce an image projected inside the room," he said.

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Left, Joshua Tree National Park. Right, Yellowstone National Park. Abelardo Morell.


Morell said people had been inside camera obscura before, but no one had ever made a photograph using the process itself. Once he realized that, he was off and running. He turned his living room into a camera, then a hotel room in Times Square, and a bedroom across from the Brooklyn Bridge. He spent a whole summer trying to figure out the correct exposure. "The early ones were 8 hours long...but then I converted to a digital back," he said. For someone who described himself as "anti-technology" in his early days, Morell says "it was like Dylan going electric. Instead of 5-6 hour exposures, now they are 5-6 minutes."

His decision to take this technology on the road led him to the national arks project. "It's fascinating to be inside a tent and see nature," he said. The project has many meanings for him. "It's about the meaning of where we live, the nature of time, the nature of things, the nature of what we see." And, ultimately, who we are.

The Abelardo Morell national parks project can be seen as part of the exhibit, "The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years." The show closes April 27, 2014.

A 'Stand-Off' over Native Americana in 'Cry, Trojans!'

From his seat in the audience at REDCAT on Saturday, Randy Reinholz booed. He was registering his response at the end of the first act of the Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans!"

WoosterGroup_CryTrojans05.jpgReinholz, the founding artistic director of Native Voices, the Native American theater company based at the Autry, is also an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He found "Cry, Trojans!" - in which white actors from New York pose as Native Americans in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" - "offensive and racist," in his words.

A few audience members approached him as intermission began, after he booed. The first group was initially hostile. But his subsequent conversation with other audience members who approached him was "very calm." Someone asked him if he might be a plant from within the production -- in other words, part of the show.

Hardly. This production didn't need to stimulate any additional controversy by using scripted hecklers. Its depiction of Native Americana was already generating angry responses, especially on social media in its LA run - in contrast to the response to a recent workshop run in New York.

As it happens, Reinholz's own company, Native Voices, is currently offering the premiere of "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," a traditionally realistic play that in some ways parallels the situation in "Cry, Trojans!" but in other ways delivers a sharp riposte to the muddled artifice of "Cry, Trojans!"

In Vickie Ramirez's "Stand-Off," set in the present in upstate New York, a small group of Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) take a stand against a proposed new road that they contend will cut across tribal land without their permission. The eldest of the group (LaVonne Rae Andrews) smiles as she resists by straddling her chair across the soon-to-be-bulldozed border.

SOH293-shirley.jpgThree representatives of the National Guard arrive to help maintain order, and one of them (Eagle Young) is a member of the Haudenosaunee. He vows to obey his orders from his Guard officer (Matt Kirkwood) without letting his background influence him, but when push comes to shove...

Playwright Vickie Ramirez is herself from the Tuscarora tribe of the Haudenosaunee, with whom she obviously sympathizes, but she isn't deaf to the other side's arguments, especially those of the young black woman (Tinasha LaRayé) who's in the National Guard contingent. Ramirez also depicts the two younger Native activists (Kalani Queypo, DeLanna Studi) as having personal regrets that shadow their motivations. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter (Fran de Leon) is on the scene, increasingly confident that she has a compelling story.

In other words, Ramirez seems to appreciate the importance of examining the situation without blinders as much as possible, even while registering her own point of view about the dispute. She maintains admirable clarity of vision - until near the end, when the plotting momentarily raises a few questions, after one particular character suddenly reverses course offstage without sufficient explanation.

Still, "Stand-Off" is considerably more lucid than "Cry, Trojans!," which closed Sunday. "Trojans" began as a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a 2012 production of the enormously challenging "Troilus and Cressida" in the UK. Shakespeare's play is set during the Trojan War. In that 2012 effort, the Americans played the Trojans as generic early American Indians, while the Brits played the invading Greeks (and, judging from photos, dressed in present-day military fatigues). Apparently the production attempted to comment on American imperialism through the centuries.

Returning to America after a disappointing reaction to the London production, the Wooster Group's director Elizabeth LeCompte decided to revive the material by assigning her actors to play all the parts on both sides, with the title "Cry, Trojans!," but also with the assistance of a tape of the British voices from the London production.

And so, at the play's official premiere at REDCAT, both the Trojans and the Greeks wore Indian clothes, while a tipi dominated the background. Almost any direct parallel to American imperialism faded - the conflict looked more like an inter-tribal Native war.

The Greeks were distinguished from the Trojans mostly by wearing little black masks atop their Indian outfits, which still exposed enough of the men's skin that the costumes (inadvertently? or ironically?) emphasized how white these actors are. They seemed to be white guys playing "Indians and Indians," as opposed to "cowboys and Indians."

With most of the actors in multiple roles and with Wooster's signature assortment of sometimes opaque design choices, confusion reigned during far too much of this production.

Indeed, even Reinholz, in a written statement after seeing "Cry, Trojans!," allowed that the lack of conceptual clarity prevented him from assuming that the goal of Wooster's "offensive stereotypes" was to provoke -- "It was unclear if the company's intention was to offend by these images and narratives. It is unclear what social change the piece was advocating for by enraging Native people. It is clear - they were racist."

In a talkback after the Friday performance, LeCompte cited a number of secondary sources she used in her research - books, movies, tapes, some of which were created by Native Americans. But there was scant evidence that she had talked to any Native Americans. According to Reinholz, "there are thousands of Native American theater artists, scholars, and community leaders easily available for art makers to call upon. We are not hiding in the margins."

During the talkback, LeCompte said a close friend - a playwright - had told her, "I wouldn't do a play like this without making sure I had a Native American in it." But, LeCompte added, "that is not where I live. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that." Then, though her language was vague, she appeared to indicate that she thought that adding Native Americans to the company would be seen as "who's at the party?" tokenism - "and that's horrible to me....Plus it's not about that. It's about everything bigger...We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people...We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn't be a problem."

New York, we have a problem.

For the record, let it be noted that Wooster has also presented Kate Valk, the white actress who plays Cressida here, in blackface in the title role of "The Emperor Jones." I didn't see that production, but it sounds as it would have resulted in a much more biting satire of racial stereotypes than what we get in "Cry, Trojans!," in which the intent too often remains clouded.

Asked for a comment, REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy emailed to say that "I appreciate that it is a complicated play and a complicated issue. I know that the artists had no intention to offend anyone."

He said the Wooster Group is "a remarkable and influential company and I deeply value our years of collaboration with them. I look eagerly forward to their next projects."

Meanwhile, Native Voices has offered to accept any used or unused tickets to "Cry, Trojans!" for admission to "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," which plays at the Autry in Griffith Park through next Sunday.


Top: Andrew Schneider and Ari Fliakos in "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)." Photo by James Allister Sprang. Bottom: Eagle Young as Private Thomas Lee Doxdater, Kalani Queypo as Darrin. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

March 8, 2014

Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

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Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project Plié, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

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Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.



Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.


Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.


Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC

March 7, 2014

Wooster Group's 'Cry, Trojans' has a theme of young love

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Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk as lovers Troilus and Cressida. Photos by Iris Schneider.

The Wooster Group, the avant garde theater company known for deconstructing and mashing up classic theater in a totally inventive way, is back at Redcat with "Cry, Trojans," their multi-media production of Shakespeare's obscure Troilus and Cressida. I was at Redcat to see the invigorating and elegiac production of "Gatz" produced by Elevator Repair Service, and many of the actors in "Gatz," including the narrator Scott Shepherd, are onstage currently in this production. This time around, my reaction is a lot more subdued maybe because, unlike "The Great Gatsby," Shakespeare's language is dense and harder to easily comprehend.

Wooster Group definitely has its fans and followers and many were in the audience--at least until intermission. The theme of young love was echoed in video screens above the stage that ran scenes of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood from "Splendor in the Grass" which directly mimicked the actions of Troilus and Cressida onstage. Such staging added another layer to an already layered production which, while sometimes difficult to unravel, was never boring.

wooster2-iris.jpgThe production began with a previous collaboration between Wooster Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company in which each company worked separately until close to production time, embellishing on the theme of conflict between the Greeks played by the RSC and the Trojans played by Wooster Group. In the current independent production, the Trojans became a fictional tribe of early Americans. One element, which included masks and vests worn on the backs of the soldiers and looking suspiciously Roman, added a physical and visual dimension to the action onstage. The costumes were designed by visual artist Folkert de Young and they gave the feeling that each character carried more weight, whether real or imaginary, as they walked onstage to do battle encumbered or emboldened by their comrades on their backs.

While I don't feel that the production was a total success, I salute the creative process that Wooster Group embodies, always pushing the audience to think and imagine in new ways.

The show continues through March 9.

February 26, 2014

A bedazzling "Billy Budd" and Dudamel does Tchaikovsky. And more

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Gustavo Dudamel does Tchaikovsky.


A soul-crushing dilemma that leads to actual suspense -- thought by thought, moment by moment, note by note, measure by measure. Would this be the stuff occupying an opera stage?

Bet on it. Because our local importers of Benjamin Britten works have brought back the composer's full-scale, grand opus, "Billy Budd" in this last, extraordinary centennial gesture to the composer. And rejoice that you can still rush downtown to LA Opera's acclaimed production by Francesca Zambello, borrowed again from Covent Garden (through March 16.)

We all know the easy pathos of Puccini, the soaring song of Verdi -- to name a few bread-and-butter box office faves. But Britten's adaptation of the Herman Melville novella stands as a monument to interior battles of a psycho-social kind, wrapped around anti-war, anti-class rhetoric. And not incidentally it marks the revolution we see today: from the Brits' branding of gays as criminal until 1967, to open declaration of sexual identity -- whatever it may be -- in much of the civilized world. (Hallelujah!)

What's more, the team in charge this time at the Music Center handles it all -- the miraculous score, the full-stage complement with chorus and visuals, the direction of each character's enactment, the orchestra and its various soloists -- superbly.

BillyBudd2014.jpgNo composer better than Britten evokes the sense of mortal aloneness at sea. And here, as in the deadly, grim waters of "Peter Grimes," we get two characters experiencing it -- Billy, the innocent whose goodness doesn't allow him to feel the evil around him; and the Captain, who sees but can't change destiny. Throughout we hear masterly poetic strains in murmuring strings, a plaintive saxophone, a soft rustling of tympani.

And the singers, each an expert in delivering melismatic filigree, ride above all this. The slave-like sailors are actual characters, a thrilling chorus, and at the taking down of Billy they huddle low and grunt out a menacing fugue that can't help but scare an audience.

Alison Chitty's simple yet striking set features a raked platform as ship's deck -- it rises up to reveal the huddled crew below. Atop is a cross-mast suggesting the martyr's "crucifixion" to come. The stage picture, with critical dimension lent by Alan Burrett's lighting, is an integrated whole, ever-changing to reflect the musical mood.

The main triad in this all-male cast carves out the dramatic poles, without any need for female voices. There's Richard Croft, a compelling Captain Vere whose silvery tenor masters that helpless cry of remorse arching smoothly upward in the musical line, and Liam Bonner a brave, tall-standing Billy with a sturdy baritone whose stutter, and background as a foundling, do not hinder the inherent goodness in him. The third is Greer Grimsley, the villainous Claggart, whose animated basso highlights his homophobic hysteria over Billy, whom he is intolerably drawn to and calls "beauty" and, in the end, must see killed -- which he does, unwittingly.

James Conlon, presides passionately over the orchestra and stage, lending all the nuances Britten scores so ingeniously.

dudamel-300.jpgThe other major music event right now is across the street at Disney Hall: it's Gustavo Dudamel, back in town charging up the soundwaves via an ambitious take-your-breath-away Tchaikovsky Festival -- and not just with his LA Philharmonic, but also his fellow-Venezuelans, the mighty Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra as well.

It took only the two names, Dudamel and Tchaikovsky, to sell the Philharmonic to the walls at 11a.m last Friday. Yes, 11 in the morning on a week day! True, that audience looked a bit like the cane-and-conveyance brigade. But never mind, there was everything to warrant a mob scene, especially in the way the band and its leader went at the composer's final symphony, his 6th, the famous "Pathetique," where yes, as Britten often did metaphorically, Tchaikovsky laid bare his anguish over his sexuality in the last movement.

As with some of this score's great readings Dudamel drew out those wrenching strings, which swept all into the vortex of lament with shuddering intensity. Each solo -- with flute and horns in seamless balance -- and each motif became a vital animation of character, all of it pretty damned gorgeous. Even the march exploded into a unison frenzy the likes of which could match what Ken Russell himself would conjure.

At the conclusion Dudamel took 34 seconds to bring down his hand and allow applause, as the musicians sat at absolute attention. He's right, of course, to let the last tones dissipate before any sound intrusion -- even if there's a question about how long that may take...

No one seemed to be looking for signals though at downtown's brand new Ace Hotel, in days of old the United Artists Theatre at Broadway and 9th. At least not from French-born Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project which staged its first event there in this petite Pantages, an ornately gaudy relic of 1927 now refurbished to a shine, with dribble-castle-like stalactites hanging from the enormous domed ceiling.

Instead the chi-chi crowd seemed intent on enjoying a big mingle, which pushed the curtain to 40 minutes beyond starting time, but allowed all the beautiful trend-makers and followers to be amply seen.

And considering Millepied's career trajectory that milieu makes sense. After all, he went from dancing with the New York City Ballet, graduated to choreographer, then to cast member of Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-winning film "Black Swan," to marrying its lead Natalie Portman to being named LA Dance Project director and, quickly following that, to the Paris Opera Ballet directorship. All the stars are in alignment. Each day seems to bring him a new title all over the world. Minutes ago he was named artistic advisor of the just-formed Colburn School Dance Academy diagonally across from Disney Hall. Now you can call him a Sponsor Magnet, the name that brings donors from Hollywood, and yes, from everywhere. Watch them roll in.

If he stops long enough in any one place chances are we'll see something worthwhile -- remember he did bring us William Forsythe's unforgettable "Quintett" last year and the year before a whole program of his own choreography. But the Ace show -- despite a commission by Van Cleef & Arpels, a piano score by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, played by the eminent Gloria Cheng, and even some clever electronic hi-jinks -- registered weakly if at all.

Not so the sold-out run of "Love, Noël" at Beverly Hills' Wallis studio theater, which got converted to table-and-chair seating for this cabaret event. It's gone now but L.A. needs to bring it back and soon -- because once New Yorkers get a whiff, say at the Carlyle Hotel café, they won't let it go. Noël Coward's songs and letters in the hands of John Glover and Judy Kuhn, with master pianist David O accompanying them, are deliciously enticing. "Mad About the Boy," for instance, is but one of the literary wit-composer-playwright's brilliant ballads, delivered powerfully by Kuhn.

Classic con artistry in 'Tartuffe' and 'Music Man,' and plays for the Passover season

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Tartuffe (Freddy Douglas) romances Elmire (Carolyn Ratteray.) Photo: Craig Schwartz


Con artistry requires the ability to get the victims to suspend disbelief - the same quality that theatrical artistry usually requires of audiences.

So it isn't surprising that stories of brazen con artists often inspire dramatizations ("American Hustle," anyone?) Sometimes these stories even take place in the world of the actual arts. On Sunday, "60 Minutes" presented a segment called "The Con Artist," about an infamous art forger. It's no stretch to imagine that this criminal's story might easily become a Hollywood movie or a Broadway musical.

But I didn't see "60 Minutes" on Sunday. I was busy watching the bogus band director Harold Hill's gentle swindling of River City in Musical Theatre West's revival of "The Music Man."

Also, earlier in the day, I took in the more savagely funny tale of Tartuffe - a con artist who uses a faux-religious façade to take in his victims - at A Noise Within. Molière's "Tartuffe," which dates back to 1664, is not only a sire of all later satires about conniving hypocrites but also the best of the genre - or at least it seems that way in Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's splendid staging in Pasadena.

Part of the strength of "Tartuffe" is that it's about the title character's deluded mark - the wealthy Orgon (Geoff Elliott, whose mellifluous voice is in risible counterpoint to the goony glasses he's wearing) - even more than it's about the scoundrel Tartuffe himself (Freddy Douglas.)

Orgon has invited the supposedly indigent and ostentatiously devout Tartuffe into his home, perhaps impressed in part by the newcomer's appearance - he looks like Brad Pitt preparing for an upcoming role as Jesus Christ. His rustic rags are in striking contrast to the frippery worn by Orgon's family, which is on display in an elaborate party scene before the dialogue even begins. This wordless scene clearly establishes the general tone of indolence that pervades the household.

Still, everyone except Orgon and his mother (Jane Macfie) is on to Tartuffe - and they are soon roused to join forces against him. The skeptics includes Orgon's wife (Carolyn Ratteray), his brother (Stephen Rockwell), his young-adult children (Alison Elliott, Mark Jacobson), his daughter's intended (Rafael Goldstein) and above all, the chief servant (Deborah Strang.)

The family's anti-Tartuffian strategy sessions yield nothing at first, simply driving Orgon to raise the stakes by threatening to marry off his daughter to the intruder. He doesn't even blink when Tartuffe kisses him on the lips late in act 1. But then act 2 arrives - with one of the funniest revelation scenes ever written.

Rodriguez-Elliott uses the witty rhymed couplets of Richard Wilbur's translation. And she enhances the artifice with a lavish scenic design (Frederica Nascimento) and costumes (Angela Balogh Calin.) Billowing white fabrics create comic confusion as they spoof 17th-century style, and a giant portrait of Tartuffe evokes gravitas when the time is right. Near the end, a king's officer (William Dennis Hunt) who arrives with a handy deus ex machina is converted into an amusing mashup of disco deejay and Ziegfeld Follies emcee.

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Molière's play completely lacks the sentimentality that courses through Meredith Willson's portrait of a con artist in "The Music Man." However, in MTW's production of the musical, which closes Sunday at the Carpenter Center on the campus of Cal Stage Long Beach, Davis Gaines maintains a shrewd slickness in his portrayal of Harold Hill, reminding us that he is a traveling salesman, not a boys' band director. Gaines has one arm in a sling as the result of a real-life accident, but the sling actually feeds into the idea that Harold injured himself in a previous encounter with the outraged victims of one of his previous jobs.

Gaines and Gail Bennett, as Marian the Librarian, sound great, and it's fun to see Troubadour Theater's artistic director Matt Walker as Harold's sidekick. Director Jeff Maynard has no brainstorms that add anything to our previous notions of "The Music Man," but I couldn't stop wondering if Walker is even now using his role to develop ideas that he'll incorporate into a later Troubie production. How about a combination of the songs from "The Music Man" and the story of "Death of a Salesman"?

o o o

AS PASSOVER APPROACHES, three Jewish-themed plays are playing in small theaters. Compared to the Christmas fare that dominates LA's stages in December, these productions are less plentiful but more provocative.

SM3M0123.jpgThe play that's the most pointedly and powerfully Passover-related of this group is Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," produced by West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse. It takes us to the shell of a once-grand house in Richmond in April 1865. The wounded scion Caleb (Shawn Savage) of the (presumably Sephardic) DeLeon family has returned to his family home from service in the defeated Confederate Army, only to find that the rest of his white family has scattered. The house is occupied solely by two of the family's now-freed slaves, Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn) - who, after living in this house for years, also consider themselves Jewish.

The three of them have different reasons for continuing to stay in the house, and past wounds emerge into plain view as they hunker down with each other. Still, when Passover arrives, they hold a makeshift seder, with its stories of the previous Jews' escape from slavery. It's a remarkably charged scene. But this family that prays together won't necessarily stay together.

Howard Teichman directed this gripping production, which is scheduled to run through April 13 - the day before seders resume as part of this year's Passover.

Asher-Lev_3NC.jpgMeanwhile, at the Fountain Theatre in east Hollywood, "My Name Is Asher Lev" explores another form of Jewish liberation -- only here the escape isn't from slave masters but from the family-enforced strictures of a Chasidic brand of orthodox Judaism itself. Based on a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner's script traces the gradual emergence of a free-thinking painter (Jason Karasev) from a culture that discourages free artistic expression.

Stephen Sachs directs a cast of three, with Anna Khaja playing roles ranging from Asher's mother to his nude model to his wealthy gallery owner, and Joel Polis playing Asher's father, the rabbi his father works for, an encouraging uncle and a secular Jewish painter who becomes Asher's mentor.

The play isn't an undiluted screed on behalf of unfettered art; it depicts the pain Asher's parents undergo when they become the unwitting subjects of his masterpiece - and the conflicts this causes within the still-mostly-observant Asher. At times Asher feels like the irreverent child who's mentioned in the seder.

By the way, your eyes are drawn to the actors' faces here, not to any facsimiles of Asher's art - a wise decision. In another play about an artist that's currently running in NoHo, the paintings on display simply can't live up to the extremely lavish words of praise with which they're heralded in the script.

lebensraum-ds.jpgFinally, a few words about Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum." This fascinating play from the late '90s depicts a what-if scenario, in which a German chancellor actively invites Jews to move to Germany with full benefits of citizenship, as a form of penitence for the Holocaust. Some unemployed Germans are not thrilled by the prospect of millions of new competitors for jobs, but other contemporary Germans are quite welcoming.

As with the previous two Jewish-themed plays above, this one has only three actors, but here they play dozens of characters, covering several individual stories in a remarkably brief running time, with no intermission.

I somehow missed Fountain's production of "Lebensraum" more than a decade ago, so I'm grateful to director Don K. Williams, his skilled cast and the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company for introducing me to this brain-tickling adventure, which holds out hope for the kind of rebirth that's celebrated in the seder. Too bad it's playing only two more weekends at Art of Acting Studio in Hollywood.

February 17, 2014

Sex and basketball -- and why Durang's Tony is wrong

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William Reinbold and Stephanie Zimbalist star in the Colony Theatre Company's production of "Sex and Education." Photo: Michael Lamont


Sex, basketball and cheerleaders. Two productions that opened over the weekend at two of Greater LA's midsize theaters share these popular topics. Let no one say that the stage focuses only on the more esoteric concerns of the elite.

At Burbank's Colony Theatre, the title is "Sex and Education." But basketball, cheerleaders and selling houses are also on the agenda in Lissa Levin's probing comedy set in a high school classroom. The school's hoops star Joe (William Reinbold) and his English teacher Miss Edwards (Stephanie Zimbalist) are both on the verge of graduation - he to college and then (he hopes) the NBA, and she to a new career in real estate.

But Miss Edwards catches Joe passing a note to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah (Allison Lindsey) during the final exam. So the veteran instructor requires the campus BMOC to stay after class in order to dissect and then re-write his profanity-laden note, which was an effort to get the answer to one of the test questions - and, more important, to arrange a hook-up.

As she analyzes Joe's writing, the two of them tangle not only over issues of grammar and persuasiveness, but also the meaning and value of an education. Meanwhile, Hannah appears on the sidelines in order to deliver little cheers comically emphasizing Miss Edwards' points. Hannah also has a few scenes with Joe that depict events before and after his encounter with Miss Edwards.

Levin's play, which had its Burbank (and area) premiere in 2011 at the smaller Victory Theatre, looks and sounds even sharper at the Colony, under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. It brings potentially fusty arguments to life in a match that has some of the hallmarks of a competitive and fiercely fought basketball game.

Meanwhile, I'll continue the basketball analogies, as I note that the Colony is doing very well on the boards right now, with great rebounding stats to prove it. The company announced last week that its most recent fund-raising efforts raised more than $260,000, enabling it to describe itself as "once-struggling" in a reference to a near-death experience in 2012.

That's great news for LA theater in general. The Colony is one of the most important teams in the midsize theater leagues that offer LA artists and audiences a happy medium between the intimacy of the smaller stages and the better-paying contracts of the larger stages.

Chance Theater, in Anaheim, intends to be one of the newest players in this same league, and it took a big step toward that goal over the weekend, as it opened its new, larger facilities with the West Coast premiere of "Lysistrata Jones," a musical that also offers the lures of basketball, cheerleaders and sex.

The company's new theater, just down the block from its former digs, has been converted into a miniature basketball court. A little more than a hundred fans are seated on one side of the court, while the band occupies a platform on the other side.

J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell<br />
Photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image StudioDouglas Carter Beane's book and Lewis Flinn's score re-set the story of Lysistrata - the legendary Greek feminist who led the campaign to deny soldiers sex until they stopped fighting -- in contemporary America. The location is "Athens University," where the incongruous name of the athletic teams -- "the Spartans" -- indicates the level of haplessness on campus and the level of comedy in the show.

A particularly determined cheerleader vows to lead the basketball squad to victory via a campaign to withhold sexual favors from the team members until they win. A few too many plot machinations follow. The goal of her campaign eventually expands beyond winning a basketball game.

Despite some narrative clutter that makes "Lysistrata Jones" a little too long-winded, the energy level of director Kari Hayter's cast remains high. A few of the lines weren't quite audible in the new space, but enough of the one-liners land to sustain the high-spirited whimsy.

Taking one step at a time, the Chance hasn't yet graduated to using Actors' Equity members in its larger quarters, but it intends to pursue that goal, say the company's leaders. Chance created a considerable name for itself even without Equity contracts, and the talent of its young non-Equity casts is undeniable. But if those actors are to mature into pursuing long-lasting theater-devoted careers, Equity is the next essential step.


NYET: Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" comes with the heavy baggage of high expectations at the Mark Taper Forum.

If you're aware that it won the Tony Award for best play last year, you might assume that it was, well, the best new play -- at least among the shallow pool of new plays that appear on Broadway. Also, many theatergoers - include me in this group - might look forward to Durang's latest because of fond memories of some of his earlier work and the plays of Chekhov, which Durang is gently spoofing here.

vanya-and-sonia-shirley.jpgBut high expectations often lead to disappointment. Durang's recent Tony winner isn't as funny or as edgy as many of his previous plays - remember "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" (which Hollywood's Blank Theatre produced in 2009)? And "Vanya..." isn't as heartbreakingly funny as almost any of Chekhov's plays.

Durang gathers contemporary American versions of Chekhovian characters into the sun room of a Pennsylvania exurban house, which looks just a little too comfortable at the Taper. The glamorous middle-aged actress Masha (Christine Ebersole) owns the place and passes through it for the period of this play, accompanied by her latest young stud Spike (David Hull) - might he be her next, sixth husband?

The house isn't Masha's primary home, but it serves as the permanent abode of her seemingly never-employed brother, 57-year-old Vanya (Mark Blum), and their equally unengaged 52-year-old sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) - who was adopted into the family.

The play's only characters not mentioned in the title are the young, aspiring actress Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), who lives nearby, and the voodoo-practicing housekeeper (Shalita Grant). This last character predicts poetic doom in the style of, yes, the ancient Greek prophet who shares her name - Cassandra.

Cassandra serves primarily as one long, tedious joke. But she is merely the worst example of the problem with the entire play - it's an over-extended comedy sketch, in which a few bulls-eye laugh lines are accompanied by many that miss the mark, which then undercut any serious sentiments that might be evoked.

In the evening's worst examples of sloppy writing, Sonia has a long solo telephone conversation in which she clumsily has to repeat what the other person is saying so we can understand her answers, and Vanya has an even longer rant about cultural artifacts he misses from his youth (including his very youngest years - he mentions the '50s more than once, although he apparently was born in 1957.)

This long slog of a speech is apparently supposed to be the play's climax; actually, it's the clearest indication that Durang didn't know how to edit his own work. And David Hyde Pierce, who appeared as Durang's Vanya on Broadway but directs here, surely felt no incentive to suggest any edits on a script that, after all, won a Tony. The play might have become better if it had remained Tony-less.

Middle photo: J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell in "Lysistrata Jones," photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image Studio. Lower: David Hull and Shalita Grant in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," photo by Craig Schwartz.

February 12, 2014

Ry Cooder at The Echo

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Ry Cooder at The Echo. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Ry Cooder was at The Echo last night, backing for Juliette Commagere (his daughter-in-law) on the slide guitar. The show was a free event, part of a month-long Tuesday residency with Belle Brigade, the sister and brother band of Ethan and Barbara Gruska.

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February 10, 2014

'Above the Fold' in Pasadena, drugs on stage, two musicals

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Top two photos from 'Above the Fold' by Jim Cox


Quick -- without checking Wikipedia, do you remember the much-publicized 2006 case in which three Duke University lacrosse players, all of them white, were accused of raping an African-American stripper who had entertained at their party?

If so, do you remember how that case was resolved? I confess -- I didn't remember, and I would guess I'm not alone.

That's one of many points that Bernard Weinraub makes in his blistering new "Above the Fold," at Pasadena Playhouse -- that we often remember the initial headlines about high-profile criminal cases but not the conclusions.

Although he was inspired by the 2006 case, Weinraub has carefully fictionalized it. The play is set in North Carolina, but Duke and lacrosse aren't mentioned. And he has updated his tale to the Twitter-infused present day. Because it's fictional, no one can say that he's distorting the real story as egregiously as an unnamed "New York newspaper" does in his script.

ATF_7.jpgBut it's that newspaper's reaction that Weinraub is most interested in dissecting. He's an alumnus of the New York Times reporting ranks, and his wonderfully dimensional protagonist -- Jane (the splendid Taraji P. Henson) -- is an African-American reporter who's covering the case for the New York Ti--... er, newspaper.

Jane breaks the story in the national media with the eager cooperation of the prosecutor (Mark Hildreth), who is also running for Congress as a white man in a predominantly black district. She says her initial attempts to reach the accused are unsuccessful -- first, because they haven't been identified and then because "their lawyers are freezing me out" (it might be helpful if we saw this actually taking place on the stage.)

Oops. When she finally speaks to the alleged rapists, she begins to regret the tone of her earlier articles. Yet it's too late to suddenly change her tone, says her editor (Arye Gross), who had earlier raised some precautionary questions.

Jane's ambitious. She has an eye on a coveted foreign post for the newspaper. It turns out that the purported victim Monique (Kristy Johnson) has ambitions of her own. But the play never resorts to the cheesy level that some producers might find irresistible -- there is no romance between Jane and the prosecutor, for example.

Weinraub has taken big steps as a playwright since his "The Accomplices" opened at the Fountain Theatre in 2008. And director Stephen Robman whips the ingredients into a compelling journalistic thriller. An intricate projection design by Jason H. Thompson helps convey the currency of the situation, although part of the imagery unfortunately developed a tic on opening night Wednesday, so a slice of the visual field went dark for most of the second act.

Although no one mentions it in the program, "Above the Fold" is a fascinating follow-up to the revival of "Twelve Angry Men" that the playhouse's artistic director Sheldon Epps directed last fall. That production was unnecessarily schematic. Six black jurors gradually were convinced to save the day for the unseen defendant (who was also apparently of color), against the rush to judgment of six white jurors. There were no Latino or Asian-American or female jurors.

Weinraub's examination of the journalistic system, as opposed to "Twelve Angry Men"s treatment of the justice system, is much more nuanced -- less black and white, metaphorically as well as literally. I can't remember a play with a more detailed demonstration of how easy it can be for the media to make mistakes that matter.


Drugs, anyone?

rx-photo-shirley.jpgKate Fodor's "Rx"is a sprightly satire focused on the clinical test of a new prescription drug designed to combat "workplace depression." One of the test participants (Mina Badie), who edits a pork industry newsletter, and her medical monitor (Jonathan Pessin) -- who's as depressed by his own job as she is by hers -- begin an unlikely and perilous romance. News flash -- complications ensue. John Pleshette directs a nimble ensemble at Lost Studio (130 S. La Brea Avenue.)

Illegal drugs launch the very different "Se Llama Cristina," by Octavio Solis, at Boston Court (70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.) It hinges on the not-entirely-plausible premise that a couple awakens from an illegal drug binge with almost total amnesia. The man (Justin Huen) and woman (Paula Christensen) then gradually prod each other into re-creating their shared past from their returning memories, which include the suspicion that they're apparently neglectful parents. Director Robert Castro emphasizes the script's inherently dreamy quality to explore the turbulent feelings produced by severely flawed parenting, but the ending is surprisingly upbeat. "Se Llama Cristina" is as close to performance art as it is to being a play. Fortunately these performers know how to sustain interest.

Musicals to the Southeast

Since the death of Reprise, the city of LA lacks a fully professional company devoted primarily to producing (as opposed to presenting) musicals. LA fans of musicals now spend a lot of time in their cars on the way to Musical Theatre West in Long Beach and 3-D Theatricals shows in Fullerton (Plummer Auditorium) and Redondo Beach (at the city's performing arts center.)

Last Sunday I combined a matinee of 3-D's revival of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" with an evening performance of one of South Coast Repertory's rare musicals in Costa Mesa -- the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas/Elizabeth Spencer romance "The Light in the Piazza."


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Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR


"Piazza" follows a North Carolina mother (Patti Cohenour) and her not-quite adult daughter (Erin Mackey) on their vacation in Florence in the '50s. Much to her mother's chagrin, the young woman falls for a brash Italian not-quite adult man (David Burnham) and vice versa, despite linguistic barriers. Then the mother begins to consider her own conventional but threadbare marriage, and tables start turning. Kent Nicholson's crystalline staging is smaller and more intimate than the one that played the Ahmanson in 2006, but the nuances are perhaps clearer and the ending just as moving.

As for "The Producers," I'm guessing no synopsis is necessary, but I'll just say that the leads -- Jay Brian Winnick as Max and Jeff Skowron as Leo -- are as accomplished as their Broadway predecessors but lack the hype that might have raised some expectations too high. Would you believe that Skowron recently won the Ovation Award for best actor in a musical for 3-D's revival of the musical about the lynching of Leo Frank, "Parade" -- which has virtually nothing in common with "The Producers" other than a Jewish connection and the fact that both titles start with "P"?

These are Don Shirley's first reviews for LA Observed. Don was the LA STAGE Watch columnist and copy editor of LA STAGE Times, a website (now on hiatus) published by the LA STAGE Alliance. He was the primary theater reporter for the Los Angeles Times for two decades, writing many reviews as well as news, feature articles, and larger commentaries. He also has been the theater critic of LA CityBeat, a (now defunct) alternative newspaper, and KCRW, a public radio station. Early in his career, he was on the staff of the Washington Post and wrote extensively about DC theater. He is a graduate of USC and also studied at NYU and at the National Critics Institute of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

February 6, 2014

New Zealand Ballet vs. UK's modern McGregor and Jacaranda's 'old' new music

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If only "Giselle" had just one act, the second act. Because in that case the Royal New Zealand Ballet's calling card -- here at the Music Center in its U.S. debut -- would leave an extravagantly moving impression.

There it was, this moonlit scene with the Wilis: jilted be-veiled brides in their white nether world, sweet sorrow in the air, gossamer skirts floating as they stepped in hushed, nun-like unison. And there was the queen of their spiritual kingdom, Myrtha, danced with magical definition by Abigail Boyle, imperiously resolute in her condemnation of all the past faltering swains.

Not only that, but Gillian Murphy staked her most credible effort as Giselle here in Wilidom, where her famously steely technique took the doomed innocent beyond human, but also showed the character as a powerful supplicant, begging Myrtha for the life of her lover Albrecht, danced by the high-skilled though self-conscious Qi Huan.

And here, bringing equal impact to the performance, was the extraordinarily artful conducting of Nigel Gaynor, who charged his sizeable orchestra with hitting the dramatic heights in Adolphe Adam's beloved score.

But it's the first act, in the land of the living, where class breakdown between peasants and royalty must pass the bright-lit test of characterization. For all her carefully grafted-on vulnerabilities, though, Murphy remains a pragmatist in her body's manner, not the charmingly fey, terminally naïve thing that is Giselle. Her mad scene lacked the delusional fever pitch of such a creature. And the Kobborg/Stiefel choreographic changes did not help here or elsewhere.

Surely no one could blame Murphy for wanting to inhabit this role, which stands as the Hamlet of the ballet. Also, the well-known ABT dancer now doubles as principal guest artist with the New Zealanders, since her husband Ethan Stiefel took on the post of company director.

Overall this a perfectly decent regional troupe made of well-trained Pacific Rimmers. But not quite at the level of the Los Angeles Ballet.

From another mentality altogether, a contemporary British one, came Wayne McGregor Random Dance to UCLA's Royce Hall. His work, "FAR," is the very model of high-tech and extended boundaries, its idea taken from Ray Porter's "Flesh in the Age of Reason," a treatise on the mechanisms of thought and emotion.

Now you can forget all this and just know that the eminent choreographer has created a feast full of explicated mystery, spoken in an unknowable language. What materializes onstage is a mapping out of the myriad ways bodies can twist and undulate and juxtapose their limbs, torsos, necks and shoulders.

So at first we're watching not humans in their usual expressive modes, but other forms of animated life sparked by dancers who are superb specimens. They move in non-continuous spasms dictated by an electronic score (fade-ins-fade-outs, amplified piano with vocals, mingled sounds) and set against a backboard of blinking lights.The totality is entirely engrossing, a spectacular piece of theater.

Also contemporary: Jacaranda. And not for the first time at this outpost of modernism, was there a packed house (or should I say church?) at Santa Monica's First Presbyterian -- even though no vestige of mainstream music showed up on the program, only what could be identified as outlier soundscapes.

No matter. It was the big names from the past -- composers Stockhausen and Xenakis, those original avant-gardists of the '60s -- who drew the hordes: oldsters with backpacks, elegant arty types, college students and even some unlikely middlebrow greyheads.

Call it a gathering of the enlightened, an enclave of enthusiasts -- all of them game for whatever challenges that artistic director Patrick Scott might dream up in his passion for new music.

To start off the "old" new music there was Timothy Loo, who showed us the extreme difficulty Xenakis imposed on any cellist attempting his solo "Nomos Alpha" -- an arduous series of alternating mystical whispers, purrings, agitatos, tappings and slurs. His brow glistened with sweat. His string-fingering hand wore a white glove to protect it. He also imbued these various sounds with an immediate, human presence-- along with beyond-the-call virtuosity.

And then there was Stockhausen's "Stimmung," which brought VOXNOVA, the amplified vocal sextet from its native Italy for a U.S. debut. Sitting in a darkened circle, with only the green reflection of their music stands for light, the singers induced the audience's familiar head-bobbing during especially hypnotic passages, their voices blending like elastic bands and issuing an occasional auctioneer yell, along with recited lines of poetry.

No such experimental diversions materialized, though, when the St. Lawrence String Quartet dropped by at Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater for an evening of Haydn, Beethoven and multi-faceted Korngold -- the latter well-known in Hollywood for his many film scores, as first violinist Geoff Nuttall entertainingly pointed out, but a composer unfairly consigned to movie music.

It was good to hear chamber music in this acoustically attractive hall, especially given the St. Lawrence's invigorated, alert readings. But violist Lesley Robertson looked like a somewhat inert exile on the wide stage, positioned at what seemed like a far distance from the others. And somehow the push-pull, close interactions we hear in other quartets were hard to find here, one factor being that Nuttall's physical playing -- with his knee bouncing in the air along with a whole range of energetically expressive body movements, contrasted strongly with the other three musicians.

So too did the Ballets Jazz Montréal showcase wide contrasts a few nights earlier at the Wallis. This versatile company featured a lovely, if adynamic, duet choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (remember him, late of New York City Ballet and the film "Black Swan"? He just took the chief post at Paris Ballet after the big to-do of heading the brand new L.A. Dance Project downtown). In total contrast was Barak Marshall's "Harry," narrative musings on war, death and love -- all those pictorial things he illustrates so passionately with his dancers.


January 29, 2014

The greatest concert Pete Seeger never gave