“See You at the Funeral” — It’s Not What You Expect

This is not a funeral.

It’s a 90-minute, one-woman show in three parts. And yes, the third part takes place after a death — but not in an undertaker’s parlor. You don’t need to wear black, or bring flowers.

In See You at the Funeral, Tova Katz offers a dynamic triptych, visits from three intense, intriguing figures. They appear in a sequence somewhat reminiscent of the “mother – matron – crone” archetype: the first is a young singer/songwriter, the second a mature star entertainer, and the third … well, a being for whom gender seems irrelevant, a “tutelary presence,” a sort of guide to the Underworld like the ghost of Virgil was for Dante.

Photo: John Klopping

In Part I (the program calls it “Take the Candy But Don’t Get in the Car”), a diffident chanteuse takes the stage, guitar in hand, to begin a song. But she interrupts herself to explain — which, it turns out, is her besetting weakness. In and out of a half-dozen angsty ballads, as she accompanies herself on guitar or piano, words of explanation erupt from her like water from a broken hydrant. Amid the torrent, we learn that she has escaped Texas to make it in LA, she’s gay, she loses all her loves, and she’s so engaged in the story of “a friend” who unwittingly became pregnant that she shatters completely and must leave the stage.

photo: John Klopping

In Part II (“The Diva — The Legend”), an insouciant superstar manages to both slink and stride as she walks on. She peels off her furs and cape to reveal a dress of rippling sequins, which barely outshines her massive, glittery, sinuously woven coif.  She does not take off her dark glasses. She has been cursed, she explains (while singing and tap-dancing), by a jealous Athena, who turned her hair to coiled snakes and gave her the power to turn to stone anyone who looks into her eyes. A power which, unfortunately, she cannot control. Hence the glasses. But her greatest need is to feel the connection with her audience, by looking them in the eyes — what’s a girl to do?

Photo: John Klopping

Part III (“In the Deep End”) introduces us to an unnamed figure, hunched over a cane, whose duty it is to greet newcomers like us and explain the rules of the afterlife. Her most important instruction is to turn sadness, a debilitating emotion, into anger, an active state one can control. But midway through explaining how she came to this, she glimpses — for the first time — the possibility that despair might, somehow, be transmuted into joy. Cast into doubt (and perhaps hope), she bids us farewell and shuffles off to the seashore to meditate.

All of this takes place on a bare set (deftly assembled by Romy Aura from elements left from a prior show) made crepuscular by smoke and fog. The costumes and wigs by Jay Kuhns unmistakably tell us who we’re meeting, and where doesn’t matter (except in Part III), so the design works perfectly.

The what lies in Katz’s performances –one of this show’s most fascinating dimensions. Her ex-Tex chanteuse is not a skilled musician, nor singer, nor even songwriter; her work is too often cryptic, self-referential, and blurred by her loss of emotional control and her obsessive interruptions. But they do deliver the character.  Katz’s diva could never become famous as a dancer, though she’s a pretty good belter; but again, it’s the character that matters. And the crone’s only stock in trade is her odd wisdom, which she herself recognizes is precarious. She

gives us little useful techne knowledge, but reveals who she is.

All three of Katz’s characters take us deeper than they mean to, beyond the tale itself and into why it’s being told.  The collision between expectation and experience, between dreamed-of perfection and all-too-human imperfection, is a constant theme.  So is what to do about the resulting disappointment, and the depressing force with which it can disable you. Or me. Or us.  Imperfections in the characters’ own performances beautifully underscore this theme.

There’s even a structural imperfection: The third part does not quite fit with the others, as if a hinge in the triptych has broken, and the last painting dangles loosely. Didn’t the playwright notice this, or try to fix it?

I didn’t notice all this, or see its coherence, while I sat in the theater.
I was caught up in the performance, and in my role as audience member. Meanwhile the back of my mind was tied up with dissatisfied questions — “Why isn’t she singing any better?” “Could such tap-dancing ever make a star?” “What kind of unhealthy wisdom is this?” The best theatre, they say, sets unresolved questions in motion, so that you’re still thinking about them afterward, and talking about them over coffee. As my friend and I did until the café closed.

See You at the Funeral, we concluded, is a work of remarkable artistry. It addresses the thorns of life that catch and tear at us, and often deeply wound us. And it does so indirectly, by suggestion, using apparent ineptness to create in us the same dissatisfaction and discomfort that the characters complain of. The show calls to mind the Greek notion of hamartia, falling short, like an arrow that fails to reach its target (which the Bible’s translators horribly misconstrued as sin, an intentional misdeed). This play’s falling short is intentional, on the artist’s part — not to transgress, but to help us see and have compassion for our own unmeant failings.

Katz, in designing all this and bringing it to life, is rather brilliant. So are director/choreographer/ dramaturg Diana Wyenn, who lets it live and breathe and stumble just right, and the almost invisibly effective lighting (Avery Reagan), sound (John Zalewski), and music (Brenda Varda and Richard Tuttobene). And stage manager Courtney Rhodes nicely carries off her appearance in the house when things start going awry.

Theatre, I find myself saying over and over, is the place we go to learn empathy — for ourselves, as well as one another. See You at the Funeral is an unassuming but very effective demonstration of what our art is all about.

WARNING: You have only one chance to see the current production — unless you can badger the producer into extending it!
See You at the Funeral: A Dark Musical, by Tova Katz, directed and choreographed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented by Jer Adrienne Lelliott at the Broadwater Mainstage, 1078 Lillian Way, LA 90038.

Saturday, Nov. 30, 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.eventbrite.com> or at the door.






Fun with Dead People: “Romeo and Juliet in Hell”

“This,” said one exhausted but happy performer afterward, “is a play for theatre people.”

Romeo and Juliet in Hell delivers plenty of laughs — and groans — to folks who know theatre well. But the fun is open to everyone. It’s not deep or subtle, it’s fast and foolish. And like all good comedy, it’s driven by the familiar foibles of folks who may be famous but are actually just like us. (“Say, doesn’t that fit tragedy, too?” Another conversation.)

The premise: Romeo and Juliet awaken to find that they’re (a) dead, and (b) in Hell. Worse yet, this corner of Hell is populated by all the Shakespeare characters who die in their various plays. (The others are in Heaven, with the Bard. ) The young suicides’ personal torture will be to listen to the West Side Story soundtrack on eternal replay.

Colton Butcher, Lauren Diaz (photo: Patty Mo)

Fortunately, they discover an option: They can sit through a staging of their own story, just once, performed by all the other dead characters. But it has to be a musical. (The Devil, it turns out, is Bob Fosse.)

Romeo and Juliet in Hell is a swift, silly romp in which the characters take turns stealing center stage and chewing the scenery. And it requires an impressive array of talent — actors who can play, for example, a ham actor who’s playing Lady Macbeth who’s playing a parody of Juliet. But in every case, this matryushka doll trick works. No surprise: As so often in LA, the program’s cast bios are a goldmine of  top-notch training and experience.

Carlos Chavez as Tybalt and Nick Ley as Mercutio gleefully introduce the slain couple to their mad new world, Chavez with a protean energy that bubbles and flows like lava, and Ley with a naive dignity that recalls Stan Laurel. And the pair work as smoothly together as any of the great two-comic acts.

Fosse, being Satan, shares the story-driving tasks. Kawika Aguilar sustains this drive while showing us a welcome-masked host with a very dark interior (reminiscent of Cabaret‘s Emcee — or Fosse himself as a director).

Ron Gabaldon (Lear) and Mikael Mattsson (Hamlet/”Romeo”) do two nice — and quite distinct — takes on the actor who bathes his role in Elevation and Nobility. Meanwhile, Chloe Zubiri (Desdemona/Nurse) and Therese Olson (Lady Macbeth/”Juliet”) create a similarly matched yet separate pair of women who’ve gone beyond the pale.

Graydon Schlicter surprises us with a Macbeth who’s hail-fellow-well-met and chats in a Scots burr, while Brenton Sullivan’s Othello exudes a genteel calm we hardly expect from a military man who’s just murdered his wife. Speaking of gentilesse, David Chernyavsky as Laertes exhibits an easy elegance onstage that makes us wish for more.

Romeo and Juliet are, for all their quirks, the sane ones, our fellow explorers in this unknown territory. Colton Butcher and Lauren Diaz skillfully win our sympathies at the outset, and then keep them through all the slings and arrows of an outrageous adventure.

Music opens and closes this show. A flirty yet menacing demon, the redoubtable Jennifer Novak Chun, brings us in with her violin (including “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and J. Elijah Cho, whose turn as an egregious Tony crooning “Maria” greets the newly arrived Romeo and Juliet, says farewell to us all at the end with four bars of song that bring down the house.

Playwright Matt Ritchey has deftly raided Shakespeare and modern theatre, from Stoppard to Lloyd-Webber, for this delightful pastiche. And as director, he keeps his 14 actors (and two dozen characters) in balance, in motion, and in focus. The costumes (Gail Murray, Leanne Hall, Melissa Muñoz) are spot-on, and the simple, clever set (Jerry Chapelle) and lighting (Sebastian Muñoz) interact to produce fun infernal effects.

Romeo and Juliet in Hell sets out to amuse and surprise, and does so delightfully. If I ran a Shakespeare company (ahem, King’s Men, Porters of Hellsgate, Shakespeare by the Sea), I’d lock up the rights to this as an annual fundraiser. Until that happens, Force of Nature will continue operating their laugh-filled infernal joyride through November 23rd. Grab a seat!
Romeo and Juliet in Hell, written and directed by Matt Ritchey.
Presented by Force of Nature Productions at the Actors Workshop Studio, 4235 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91605.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
through Nov. 23.

Tickets: <www.fonprods.tix.com>



“Crack Whore” takes us into everywoman’s hell

This play vividly enacts many forms of humiliation, abuse, and violence that women in our culture endure. If such trauma has touched you or anyone you love, seeing it portrayed may well be difficult. Take care of yourself.

Crack Whore, Bulimic, Girl Next Door begins lightheartedly enough. Three engaging actors tell the story of an average girl, each playing one of her avatars from the title. Between scenes, they carry jaunty title cards across the stage, recalling the sexually-laced, humorous worlds of burlesque and vaudeville.

Soon, however, clouds appear. Tactless schoolmates, a stern dance teacher, a cruel pep-squad coach, leave wounds deeper than the half-comic shame and awkwardness of first menstruation.

Internalized misogyny enters her body (in a chilling metaphor), corroding her sense of self and sealing her addiction.  By the time one of her selves interrupts a teen necking scene, shouting, “No! Tell it like it happened!” we have left the halls of comedy. Stripped of the privilege of distance, we become her fellow sufferers.

I`ll tell you no more of the story. Screw your courage to the sticking point, and experience it yourself. If you can. Many — perhaps most — of us, having whooped with laughter in early scenes, found ourselves in constant tears (some near throwing up) through the show’s latter half. Some still felt unhinged an hour after.

In Crack Whore, playwright Marnie Olson takes on an enormous challenge: telling it like it happened. Having split her protagonist apart, she wisely holds a linear path through time. Similarly, she shrewdly blends age-old comic tropes and post-modern sensibilities (I mean, a vaudeville number about “boobs and blood”?).

But even with comedy’s softening touch, this is a piece fueled by rage. It cries injustice in a voice first raised in The Trojan Women, and Iphigenia in Aulis; it assaults our comfort with a fierceness that would make Antonin Artaud and Berthold Brecht proud.

In a future incarnation, Crack Whore might benefit from Brecht’s trick of a narrator, to hold the audience’s hand through its harrowing arc. Olson might also, with more than the Fringe’s tight 1-hour limit, unlock the metaphor of the protagonist’s awful, sudden healing.

But as it is, Crack Whore is terribly effective theatre, a cri de coeur no one in our era can ignore — men especially. Director Jennifer Novak Chun, a master cellist, displays a musician’s sense of timing (and misdirection) to manage constantly shifting roles, sometimes in mid-word, and distract us from countless onstage costume changes. Elizabeth Blake, Gloria Galvan, and Michelle Danyn toss the ball back and forth endlessly, making it look easy; and Edward Alvarado handles all the other parts (of whatever gender) with energy and precision. The Olson/Chun team’s music and costume choices are always accurate, often piercingly so. It never ceases to amaze, what passionate artists can do with a shoestring.

I don’t warn people against theatre unless it’s bad — i.e., soulless and shameless. Crack Whore is the opposite of bad. It is theatre as the ancients of every race intended it — soul medicine, powerful and healing. But being strong medicine, it can be bitter. I don’t know a woman (or an LGBTQIA+ person) whom I would not warn about the triggers. And I don’t know a man I would let off the hook. That said, I repeat: See it.
Crack Whore, Bulimic, Girl Next Door, by Marnie Olson, directed by Jennifer Novak Chun.
Presented by Roadkill Productions, at the Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90025.

Saturday, June 15 at 8:30 pm,
Thursday, June 20 at 10:30 pm,
Sunday, June 23 at 2:00 pm – ASL Interpreted
Wednesday, June 26 at 6:30 pm

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5614>


“Hour of the Tyrant”: A New Richard, a New Star

In Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant, now on Hollywood’s Theatre Row, adapter/ director David MacDowell Blue means to improve on Shakespeare’s original. He’s got a point: Richard III is not the Bard’s best play.

For one thing, it’s the last in a four-play cycle, and assumes the other plays have introduced the dozens of characters who pop in and out. They haven’t, since the four plays are almost never done together. So Richard III buries us in an avalanche of unfamiliar dukes  earls, wives, noble offspring, and plebeian thugs.

For another thing, the Bard’s play is a political hatchet job. It’s a stage version of Thomas More’s biography, which Henry VIII (the second Tudor king) ordered to “prove” it was divine justice that his rebel father killed Richard and took his throne. More paints Richard as physically and morally twisted, a cartoon villain. Shakespeare tries to improve the story, but has to stick to the main idea (his royal patron, after all, was Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth).

Libby Letlow (photo: Richard Michael Johnson)

Shakespeare comes up with what he shows us again in Othello‘s Iago — a determined liar and manipulator we’d today call a sociopath. But Blue isn’t interested in clinical labels.  What intrigues him is the play’s label: The Tragedy of Richard III.

If it’s a tragedy, not a history (like the other three plays in the set), why? What is Shakespeare thinking?

Elizabethan artists all firmly held to Aristotle’s doctrine of the “tragic flaw” — a shortcoming in a person of noble nature, that causes their downfall. Being born evil like Iago isn’t a tragic flaw, it’s an unchosen, immutable condition.

Blue finds Richard’s tragic flaw not in being born deformed, but in a key line he speaks in the previous play (Henry VI Part III): “Love forswore me in my mother’s womb.” Told all his life that he is inhuman, disgusting to any woman — even his mother — Richard believes it. And in that belief, he pushes away every love and friendship life offers him.

Blue makes this the tragedy’s focus. He also sharpens the political question that can get lost in Shakespeare’s pandemonium — How did Richard ever succeed? How did all these shrewd, experienced politicians allow a dictator to take over? As in our time, it’s sadly about no one putting the people’s interests above their own.

Blue also deletes several characters, and generously adds lines and scenes from other Shakespeare plays to help us understand the characters who are left. The result is a much clearer story (with all the famous bits but one left in), and a true tragedy.

TheatreANON’s shoestring production is a bit uneven, but brings us this story fairly well. In the absence of scenery, the costumes (by Maryanne Van De Car) help keep time, place, and character clearly sorted. Richard’s costume is simple, brilliant storytelling. Likewise, the combat choreography, a graceful kabuki-like stylization by Michaela Slezak, enhances both story and ambience (no strangers bashing about in the fog here).

But the play’s greatest asset is Libby Letlow as Richard. Familiar as a comic actor and puppeteer, Letlow takes full command of this new tragic hero. Her unyielding focus and energy recall the master performances of Lisa Wolpe (founder of LA Women’s Shakespeare), and her use of stillness (reminiscent of Mireille Enos’ Emmy-winning work in The Killing) is simply riveting. Letlow can make an offstage glance as revealing as a soliloquy, and her Richard is so composed that we relax in his presence — despite what he tells us and what we see him do. Letlow’s performance is a piece of LA theatre history you don’t want to miss.

Other ensemble members also deliver memorable moments. Daniel Adomian, soberly affecting as the doomed Henry VI, later explodes in a hilarious version of the young Prince of Wales as a goofy adolescent jester needling his guardian uncle. Claire Stephens brings similar manic clowning energy as Richard’s honest but ill-fated brother, the Duke of Clarence. And Judith Foster Thompson’s unnamed scene changer wears a knowing smirk, which flows smoothly into her traitorous Tyrell.

Given the blackbox stage’s limits, Blue as director opts for a presentational approach, with scenes in succession (not overlapping). This helps us keep  characters distinct — which we  need, even with fewer than half the original’s roles. More rehearsal might bring the ensemble into closer stylistic harmony, and smooth out the usual Shakespeare language issue (speed vs. clarity).

But even with its rough edges, Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant more than repays the price of admission. Blue’s thoughtful, artful revision is a serious candidate for the performing canon — and Letlow’s creation of Richard will warm your memory (and, if you’re an actor, keep teaching you) for years.
Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by David MacDowell Blue.
Presented by TheatreANON and Oh My Ribs, at the Oh My Ribs Theatre, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturdays at 2:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 26.

Tickets: <ohmyribs.com> or <theatreanon.blogspot.com>



“Southernmost”: Diving Deeper than Aloha

The farthest south you can go in the US is in — Hawai’i. Geographically, anyway. How about culturally?

In Southernmost, playwright Mary Lyon Kamitaki finds issues in island life that we’re used to seeing in the mainland’s Deep South. Family, the land, whether to leave them … plus something you don’t see in Dixie: an angry goddess.

Alberto Isaac, Amielynn Abellera (photo: Kelly Stuart)

Charlene, who’s gone to college on the mainland, brings fiancée Jessica to meet the folks. But this isn’t a coming-out drama: Her folks have already figured it out. Charlene’s conflicted about “home,” while Jessica, a city-bred haole, likes learning village ways. But this isn’t a tale of culture clash, either.

The story really locates in Wally and Becky, the parents, and their struggle with the angry goddess.

Pele — in the form of nearby Kilauea volcano — starts pouring fiery lava toward the village. Wally, who’s found coffee farming as a way to remain active in retirement, wants to stay and tend his saplings. (He’d like his daughter to join him, but she’s got her return ticket.) Becky, the practical spouse, starts packing as soon as the lava runs. But she’s not sure whether Wally will come or die with his boots on.

This quiet drama, which settles to its center as steadily as lava flows to the sea, gets sure guidance from master director Jon Lawrence Rivera. Justin Huen’s scene design, rural simplicity hiding natural wisdom (like the grass  emerging between the floorboards), sets place and tone. And the sound and light (Jesse Mandapat, Lily Bartenstein) create Hawai’ian serenity and Pele’s shocking wrath.

At the center of it all, of course, are the actors. Amielynn Abellera, as Charlene, leads us into the story with ease then begins to fragment in her ambivalences; it’s an intelligent and moving performance. Kimberly Alexander accompanies her with a goodhearted, coltish Jessica who, in crisis, starts gaining a hold on her inner resources.

Sharon Omi lets Becky, like her village setting, gradually reveal the clarity and courage that have always lain beneath her plain surface. And Alberto Isaac’s masterful Wally grows from a delightful comic fellow to a man of tragic proportion — without losing his sense of humor. Aaron Ikeda nicely supports the couple as a loyal and slightly hapless friend.

Like Wally, and the island culture he embodies, this play gives us an aloha — a warm, easygoing welcome. But it also shocks us, with Pele, into feeling the force that disturbed nature (like a disrespected deity) can exert on our lives. And it  suggests what we will need to find within ourselves to respond.

Once again, Playwrights’ Arena gives the stage to a promising new LA playwright (from USC’s formidable greenhouse). And with Southernmost, it once again illuminates a previously unknown — but nonetheless important — corner of American life.
Southernmost, by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 4:00,
and Mondays at 8:00,
through April 29th.

Tickets: <www.playwrightsarena.org>


Watching “Blood Sugar” Could Save Your Life

Diana Wyenn does life in a way most folks don’t have to. She performs a daily — almost hourly — balancing act between two substances. Each is something she needs in order to live, but each can also kill her.

The two are food and insulin; Wyenn has diabetes. In Blood Sugar, she takes us on a hair-raising journey that began 15 years ago on a London subway train. Along the way, we learn facts that come laced with pain, fear, and sometimes hope. We feel the constant terror of a disease that can’t be healed, but can throw you with a moment’s warning (or none at all) into a coma or death. We hear lines from Shakespeare as if we’ve never heard them before.


(photo: Mae Koo) 

How does Wyenn do all this? An actor, dancer, and vivid storyteller, she weaves the experience from her body, voice, and soul. Her fierce, subtle artistry is augmented by lights, projections, recorded sound, and a live handheld camera (which she at times brings with her in leaping, spinning, rolling on the floor).

What is so powerful about Blood Sugar is that we are swept up by  Wyenn’s magic art (and the deft help of her assistant spirits) and we’re taken on this fight-for-your-life journey with her — whether we want to go or not. Just as she was.

This is not a victim story. Moments will terrify you, and what must be endured may make you weep; but this is a triumphant tale, the confession of a canny survivor who’s had to take a breath and improvise at every step — and who emerges laughing, with victory in her teeth, each day.

In an hour, those of us who don’t live with a chronic deadly disease come as close as humanly possible to understanding how it feels. Those of us who do wrestle daily with mortal illness feel, “Ah! Someone knows what we suffer.” And all of us begin to see that we’re living in the face of our own dying, waking gratefully and using whatever we have to win another day.

Wisely, a talkback (with Wyenn and a diabetes professional) is part of each performance, giving audience members a chance to discharge the energy the show has summoned.

The program credits nine assistant magicians. Chief among them is Laban Pheidias, who orchestrates everything from an onstage booth (and as her husband, partners Wyenn in each day’s improvisations). Joey Guthman’s simple set and explosive lighting, Jason H. Thompson’s engulfing projections, and John Zalewski’s impeccable sound, create an omnipresent, ever-shifting context. To Wyenn’s masterful Prospero, they are invisible Ariel.

Blood Sugar is a powerful, harrowing, joyful piece of theatre — true theatre. Created from suffering, it brings us together, our souls trembling as they touch.

WARNING: You have only two opportunities to share this unique experience — tonight, and tomorrow night. It may change your life.
Blood Sugar, written and directed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented by Plain Wood Productions, at the Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA 90057.

Tonight and Friday at 7:30.

Tickets: <www.bootlegtheater.org>





“Sunday in the Park”: No Picnic, But Art Isn’t Easy

Sunday in the Park with George is great art, and it’s about great art. Master composer Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony (and Pulitzer Prize) musical brings to life a classic canvas by master painter George  Seurat, inventor of pointillism.

Of course, as one of the main songs says, “Art isn’t easy.” Sondheim writes complex music and  lyrics. Seurat made complex paintings. Their works demand close attention — and they’re worth it

[Rachel Berman, Brian Pinat (photo: Shari Barrett)]

The Kentwood Players stage this masterpiece with energy and taste — and considerable resources for a small theatre. (They’ve been in the game for over 60 years.) Music Director Mike Walker leads a 7-piece orchestra, and the 18-member cast has enough skillful singers to fill the major roles and several smaller ones.

Rachel Berman plays Dot, George’s hapless (and wryly named) model in Act 1, then plays their daughter in Act 2. With a clear, versatile soprano, crisp enunciation, and smart acting chops, she carries the lion’s share of the story — and our sympathies (even the play’s title is from her point of view). It’s an impressive turn.

As George, and his namesake great-grandson in Act 2, Brian Pirnat works within strict limits. Laconic by nature and obsessed with his art — traits now seen as signs of autism — George rarely takes the lead, even in private with Dot. Nor does he reveal much  in his solos, beyond a confused lack of insight. His great-grandson, a multimedia artist struggling with self-promotion, isn’t much better. Pirnat handles them well, emerging briefly to assert something (often awkwardly), and muting the force of his light tenor.

Janet Krajeski, as the painter’s mother (Act 1) and an imperious art critic (Act 2), creates strong, complex characters and sings them with power and clarity. Don Schlossman, a rival painter in Act 1 and an art buyer in Act 2, similarly commands the stage, moving and singing with stately strength.

Vincent Paz-Macareno’s comfort onstage, and his rich baritone, make us look to his characters as reliable sources of insight and feeling. Roy Okida likewise gives us characters we believe (even when they’re not being fully honest). And a talent about to emerge is Genevieve Marino: She speaks and moves with authority, and wields a bell-like soprano we can expect to hear often.

On the Westchester Playhouse’s small stage, director Susan Goldman Weisbarth deftly moves her cast through action scenes and song/dance numbers with fluid clarity. And then there are the tableaus, culminating in the evocation of Seurat’s masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte.

Walker’s music direction (after finding the balance between singers and orchestra) shows to fine advantage in the multi-layered choral numbers, notably “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Putting It Together, ” as well as in such duets as “Beautiful” and “Move On.”

Finally, costume designer Ruth Jackson and her team deserve special applause for meticulously dressing the famous figures of Seurat’s grand canvas, as well as the poseurs and careerists of the modern art “industry.”

Sunday in the Park with George asks a great deal of its performers — and audiences. (Seurat’s ambitious paintings also grew slowly toward the acclaim they now enjoy.) The current Kentwood Players’ staging  offers a rich, rare work of art, faithfully and delightfully mounted.
Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine; directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth.
Presented by Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., LA 90045.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through April 20th.

Tickets: (310) 645-5156 or <www.kentwoodplayers.org>




“Breaking Legs”: Simpler Times, Simpler Crimes

When “high crimes and misdemeanors” are making headlines, we may need to get away and laugh a bit. Currently, Oxnard’s Elite Theatre offers a retreat to a simpler (if only imaginary) world where crime may pay, but it definitely isn’t organized.

Tom Dulak’s Breaking Legs throws together a play-writing college prof and three goombahs; he’s hoping they’ll finance his latest script. They meet in a restaurant one of the fellas owns, where his daughter (who’s near 30 and unwed) is the manager.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, suit and indoor

Larry Shilkoff, John Comstock, Reef Noelle, Ray Mastrovito (photo: LJ Stevens)

The story shows us the clash between their worlds, and the little bits they have in common. One thing they share is the title phrase, a tradition in both the theatre and the mob – but with very different meanings. Another is murder: The prof’s latest play examines it philosophically, while the would-be investors have, um, more hands-on knowledge. Indeed, the play’s turning point comes when they enact a murder before his eyes (but, mercifully for us, offstage).

Two worlds colliding is the basis of this comedy, but the best of it comes from the characters. They seem like familiar cartoons – yet each bounces like a pinball between who they are and who they imagine themselves to be.

The professor (Will Carmichael) thinks he’s superior but flounders in every scene, trying to swim in shark-infested waters and salvage a scrap of dignity. Lou (John Comstock), the restaurant owner, likes to play the genial host – but he’s so charmed by his own voice that he can barely hear anyone else. And Tino (Ray Mastrovito), the senior mobster, tries for the silent wisdom of a don but can’t hide his timid naivete.

Mike (Larry Shilkoff) is the one the others actually defer to – he’s clearly the smartest, and has an unsettling ability to play hardball. But given a shot at Broadway, Mike also reveals a hidden side – a secret showbiz fan, he itches to get his hands in making art. Mike drives most of the play, and Shilkoff makes the ride worth the price of a ticket.

Lou’s daughter Angie (Bethany D’Ambra) is a part waiting to be written. Typical of playwriting 30 years ago, Dulak has thought about how others see the play’s only woman, but not about how she sees herself (and them). In her stage debut, D’Ambra tries steadily to let Angie emerge – but the playwright has her boxed in.

Frankie (Reef Noelle) has a similar problem. He’s a deadbeat, who’s been invited here to be whacked, so we don’t get to know him or see him change. Noelle, an opera singer, throws all he’s got into it, but the container’s too small.

Despite these weaknesses, Breaking Legs is an amusing, fast-paced tale. These artists have tucked some fun Easter eggs into the mix, nods to classic comedy. And it’s a welcome relief to spend an evening with folks whose moral failures don’t threaten the republic.
Breaking Legs, by Tom Dulak, directed by Allan D. Noel.
Presented by the Elite Theatre Company at the Elite mainstage, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard 93035.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 24th.

Tickets: <www.elitetheatre.org>


“America Adjacent” shines light in a hidden corner

Immigration is a hot political issue. Theatre must, of course, address it — but not by lecturing or arguing. Theatre’s way is to bring together characters and audiences, and let the characters’ stories become part of the audience’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.

Seven women are performing that magic right now, at the Skylight Theatre. In America Adjacenta smart, densely packed new play by Boni Alvarez, they’re creating the experience of a group of women who’ve come to America from the Philippines.

[Sandy Velasco, Toni Katano, Arianne Villareal (photo: Ed Krieger]

But these aren’t your usual immigrants. In fact, they’re not immigrants at all. One is a US citizen, and the other six have arrived not to become Americans — but to give birth to them. They’re pregnant, and  babies born here have automatic US citizenship. For mothers-to-be from Asia, LA is the place to come. This semi-clandestine practice, called “birth tourism,” isn’t actually illegal — but ICE swiftly deports any woman they suspect.

Of course, we don’t know any of this when the lights come up. We just watch woman after woman enter an apartment living room jammed with recliner chairs being used as beds. The five of them are pregnant and keeping a low profile — no noise, no going out except to the back yard. They remind each other of the rules, bicker when one returns from a forbidden off-site jaunt, and invoke the feared power of “The Administrator.”

Then there’s a knocking at the door. Everyone hides. The administrator bursts in, bringing food, housekeeping supplies and a newcomer, a “country girl” who gets teased by the others (who are from cities – Manila, Quezon, Davao, Cagayan.) The administrator, no older than they are, chastens and warns them while taking the new resident’s money and passport “for safekeeping.” They complain that they haven’t seen Hollywood or Disneyland, as promised. We wonder — as do they — whether the administrator is honest or running a racket.

Later, when the newcomer follows the rule-breaker out the back gate and into the wilds of LA, we begin to realize just how innocent and at risk these women are. And we learn, as they talk and wonder, how profoundly going to America to have a baby has disrupted every one of their lives. None of them is sure what she will find when she returns home (and none can imagine the “reverse culture shock” that awaits).

Enough plot. The heart of this play is the women – the state of anxiety they live in, triggered by everything from jets flying over to sirens and door knocking. And the threads of pleasure they grasp – sharing memories and songs, choosing baby names, peering over the back fence into the lives of a neighboring couple.

The actors, who work together as smoothly as an ensemble company, bring the women clearly to life. Toni Katano floats as a languid courtesan who may be losing her position, while Samantha Valledon’s country girl vibrates with fear but drives the group to hard questions. Evie Abat, as the rule breaker, nicely hides the anguish of postpartum depression beneath her daredevil exterior; Arianne Villareal’s timid piety, meanwhile, concealsan awful, complex secret. Angela Baesa deftly portrays the anxious peacemaker, while Sandy Velasco shines at injecting playfulness – and hope – into the stress-filled mix. Hazel Lozano’s administrator surprises us with her youth, her briskness, and her caring.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps these several brooks running swift and clear; his pace allows the moments in Alvarez’s text to pop like fireworks, keeping us as off-balance as the anxious women. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set gives us familiarity and discomfort, and Mylette Nora’s costumes mark the characters and their uncertain perch in an unknown world.

America Adjacent is a world premiere that addresses an explosive political issue. “What an indictment of our messed-up system,” a seat mate said afterward. But Alvarez’s text, and Skylight’s lively, skillful staging, introduce this American story – one few of us are aware of – by letting us live in a hidden corner of the immigrant experience. Come to the little theatre in Los Feliz and let it open your world.

America Adjacent, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, at the Skylight, 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays (in March) at 8:00;
through March 24.

Tickets: <http://SkylightTix.org>






Brontes Take Surreal Romp in “Sisters Three”

The title summons powerful ghosts — Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov. Will these sisters be wrestling with the three witches who guide Macbeth’s fate? Or with the Prozorovs, who yearn for Moscow?

Neither, it turns out. These are the Brontë sisters — Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, early Victorian poet/novelists who burst into fame when Charlotte’s Jane Eyre hit print. But in this telling, they’ve morphed into modern women. Emily’s a math genius on a PhD fellowship, who prefers to be called E.J.; Anne’s camped in Emily’s dorm room while trying to start a PR career; and Charlotte has gone off to join an island commune.

Kara Hume, Dana DeRuyck (photo: Rachel Rambaldi)

They’re all struggling with their beloved brother’s sudden death. With him, they had shared a tight-knit childhood, centered on an imaginary world where they ruled adjacent realms.

This  closely mirrors the historic Brontës, who for decades escaped their impoverished Yorkshire home for adventures in the Empire of Angria and the island continent of Gondal, recounted in secret illustrated volumes. Their brother, a gifted painter, died an addict at 31; without him, the sisters declined swiftly. Emily and Anne were dead within six months, and Charlotte only lived five years longer.

Without their brother, the modern sisters are also at sea. They still resort to the game in times of stress. And the island Charlotte has fled to is named Gondal. What’s at stake is whether these three can somehow navigate loss better than the originals did.

The plot is driven by Anne’s plan to build a canoe, row to Gondal, and rescue Charlotte — and by E.J.’s dogged effort to solve the famous Riemann Hypothesis. But when their fragile facades clash, both fracture, and we see the roiling lava underneath. We come to care more about these sisters’ inner lives, and their survival, than about their quixotic quests.

As Anne, Kara Hume rides the edge of ADHD like a butterfly, pulsing with the electricity that powers her precious phone. Dana DeRuyck as E.J., meanwhile, exerts every ounce of energy to hold her rage and grief silent — but erupts, to her chagrin, again and again. Charlotte (Robyn Cohen), when she appears, brings yet another kind of near-madness to the mix, in a bravura monolog.

When the play ends, we know these characters far better, and care about them far more, than we did at first. What we don’t know is any answer to the central question, how they will fare. It’s a testament to playwright Jami Brandli — and to the company of artists — that rather than feeling cheated, we feel satisfied.

Sisters Three raises the ghosts of the historic Brontë sisters, yet I do not see it wrestling with them or their legacy. Nor does it appear to be commenting on differences between the two eras. As a longtime Brontë fan, I enjoy the parallels between the two sets of siblings — yet the modern trio are crafted well enough that this would be a fine, funny play even without the historical underlay.

The Inkwell Theatre mounts this fairly energetic play in a tiny black box. Set designer Lex Gernon uses it to evoke a cramped dorm room — made infinitely worse by the bulky presence of Anne’s canoe. Director Annie McVey keeps the action contained so that when an enraged E.J. stomps into the boat to get to Anne, we feel the violation. And when the two, in their royal personas, fall to angry swordplay, Collin Bressie’s fight direction — and the canoe — keep the stakes high and the action credible.

Sisters Three tells an emotional family story, but not as a kitchen-sink weeper. Instead, it’s a lively, intelligent comedy, half realistic and half surreal. And the smart, energetic performances are worth the price of admission.
Sisters Three, by Jami Brandli, directed by Annie McVey.
Presented by The Inkwell Theater, at VS. Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd., LA 90019.

Thursday (Dec. 27) at 8:00;
Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays (Jan. 7 and Jan. 14) at 8:00,
through Jan. 20th.

Tickets: <inkwelltheater.com>