Sunday, April 15, 2018

Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe by Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo, Story by Theresa Chavez, Louis Pérez and Rose Portillo


By Joe Straw

About Productions present Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe, story by Theresa Chavez, Louie Pérez and Rose Portillo, written by Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo, directed by Theresa Chavez, and featuring the music of David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez at The Plaza de la Raza, 3540 N. Mission Road, Los Angeles, CA  90031 and closed April 8th, 2018.

It’s easy to get to Plaza de la Raza Theatre from the Westside if you don’t follow the directions of your iPhone’s map app since it will get you about 90 percent there; the rest of the way you need to figure it out for yourself.

The parking lot is small for the theatre so it fills up quickly.  Fortunately, street parking is plentiful.

The setting of the play Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe is in 1968 Los Angeles.

In the comfort of her home, in the barrio, no one can hold Evangeline Ibarra (Ashley Diane) still. She is always flitting about her home with enough energy for three people. Aside from dancing as she cleans the house, she makes sure her brother Ray Ibarra (Moises Castro) has on a clean shirt and eats breakfast before shuffling him off to high school.  She does many little things to keep the household running and to help her brother and mother; all of this under the watchful eye of her deceased father in a military photograph from the mantel.   

Alicia Ibarra (Blanca Araceli), Evangeline’s mother, moves slowly this morning. She knows she has to find work to pay the bills. These are now crammed in a box that she keeps by the door, a box whose contents are stacking up beyond closure.

Evangeline sends her off, wishing her the best of luck. Then she daydreams herself to be a dancer.  Moments later, she is interrupted by her cousin, Rita (Keyla Monterroso Mejia), made-up with foot-long eyelashes. Rita doesn’t use the front door; instead she struggles to crawl in through the kitchen window.  

Evangeline shares that she has an interview for a dancing job at a club in Hollywood. Rita offers to drive her there in her brother’s car. He left the car in her care when he was shipped off to Vietnam. Evangeline gets the job!

Alicia comes back home and shares that she got a job.  She is ashamed because it is at a sweatshop for little money but whatever is better than nothing. Alicia tells Evangeline that her father always wanted her to go to college but this isn’t in the cards for the young Evangeline.

So Evangeline must improvise.

Evangeline sees the life around her and it is not good. Desperate to free herself, she slips out of the house in a Norms Diner uniform to go to her job in Hollywood.  There is “something” about being on stage, the moment with singer Edgar (Adrian Brizuela) and his backup dancers in go-go motif that translate into ecstasy.  Sandy (Kye McCleary), and the ensemble (Michael”Naydoe” Pinedo, Natalie Polisson) dance, keeping their eyes on a moment that works on stage.

Part of the fantasy of the whole night was Gaby Moreno as lead vocalist and guitarist playing effortlessly with her long strident fingers hitting all of the right notes.  Moreno was an extra-added bonus to the night and it was wonderful to see her in this venue.

Moreno plays as part of “The Neighborhood” Band featured Sebastian Aymanns on percussion and Kimon Kirk on bass.

That said:  On to the criticism.

The night was successful. The story by Theresa Chavez, Louie Pérez and Rose Portillo hasn’t changed much from the 2012 production at The Bootleg Theatre, as indicated by the reviews of that production. They mention of tackling too much in a short period of time, which is fair to say.

There are many good things that can be said of Theresa Chavez’s direction. It is wonderful in moments but lacking focus in other moments. The title suggests Evangeline, the queen of make-believe, had an over active imagination but, with the exception of the first scene, there was little in the way of make believe throughout the course of the show. Dancing gets her where she needs to go but the imagination must propel her to get what she wants.  And, once she gets the first thing, she must never lose that sense of make-believe to get more. She must always be dreaming.

The perspective of “make-believe” is an idea or the through line that must be accentuated throughout the play. But, then again, make-believe is who the person was as, and throughout the night; she gets a cold dose of reality every step she takes. Either way, a stronger choice in either direction would make the night a little more successful.

Diane Ashley does a fine job as Evangeline.  She is a bubbly actor.  The make-believe doesn’t stop when dealing with her mother, her brother, and her cousin. They are part of the conflict when trying to pursue her dreams. Evangeline needs to find a way to put back the hem of her Norm’s skirt back before she leaves the stage.  The pain of the unpaid bills must be enormous and a pain that leads her on all in keeping with the through-line The Queen of Make-Believe.  Still, Ashley does a fine job and is wonderful to watch.

Adrian Brizuela does terrific work as James, a hippie crooner, trying to make it big and discovering that he may have neared the end of his artistic life. Brizuela also plays Edgar, a completely different character, a Chicano activist and rebel rouser, who’s slightly confused of where his actions are taking him and his cause.  Both roles are well executed showing Brizuela off in very fine form.  

Moises Castro is Ray, Evangeline’s brother. Castro has a good look but may need to find better choices to make the character engaging.  Ray seems to follow rather than make conscience choices so it is left to the other characters to make choices for him.  There must be something this character wants, something that excites him to move in his own direction.  He is young but must have an idea of what he wants, what stops him from getting what he wants (conflict), and how he is able to reach his goal.      

Blanca Araceli is a wonderful actor who lights up the stage when she enters.  Her craft is extraordinary and her dancing is exquisite. Alicia is a broken woman who finds her dreams only to lose it once again. Araceli’s performance is heartbreaking. Do not miss her performance!

Keyla Monterroso Mejia is Rita, the cousin with the big heart. Mejia could add more to strengthen the character. Her strength lies in her relationship with her brother, his death, how she deals with it when confronting Evangeline. The anger is understandable but the pain must go deeper when giving the news to her cousin.

Kye McCleary does good work as the understanding dancer, Sandy.  McCleary is statuesque, stunning, and knows her way around the dance floor.  She shows some terrific work in her relationship to the other characters that indicates strong training. She is wonderful to watch.

Michael “Naydoe” Pinedo appears to be just another hippie 60’s dancer but then has a terrific dance number that was just amazing.  It was the beating heart, the soul of the play that made it so astonishing.

Natalie Polisson is another member of the ensemble that needs a slight definition of character and objective.  But the dancing was very fine.

Abel Alvarado, Costume Designer, transports the audience back to 1968.  It is terrific work.

Michele Bachar, Choreographer, also takes us back to 1968 and the dance number with the mother is spot on wonderful.

Gerardo Davalos, Set Designer, give us a workable set and is simple in execution.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Davey Donaldson – Sound Designer
Ginevra Lombardo – Lighting Designer
Gabriela López de Dennis – Graphic Designer
Claudio Rocha – Video Designer
Angela Sonner – Stage Manager

Run! Run! And take someone who loves the sixties music and dancing the next time it comes around.
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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard & Patti Smith


L - R Adam Navas and Joey Bothwell


By Joe Straw

The Hotel Chelsea in New York City was a fashionable place to create art.  If one was inspired enough to enter, one was inspired to manner art in any fashionable form.

Arthur Miller moved into #614 after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. Bob Dylan wrote “Sara” in #211; Janis Joplin fellated Leonard Cohen in #424, an act immortalized in “Chelsea Hotel #2” (“you were talking so brave and so sweet/giving me head on the unmade bed”); Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in #100. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Chelsea, William Burroughs wrote The Third Mind, and Jack Kerouac had a one-night stand with Gore Vidal.  By Nathaniel Rich in Vanity Fair October 8th 2013 – 12:00 AM

Somewhere I read that Sam Shepard and Patti Smith wrote Cowboy Mouth passing the typewriter back and forth until they created a play.  They wrote the play in the Hotel Chelsea during a significant fling. And, after mounting a production, Sam Shepard performed it once and walked away from the production and Patti Smith. Somewhere I read.

Girl Trip proudly presents Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard & Patti Smith and directed by Harrison James at the Broadwater Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard through March 31, 2017.  (Four performances, a very short run.)

Upon entering and seating at The Broadwater Theatre, I noticed the circle A, the anarchist symbol that was noticeably and dramatically painted on the wall and perhaps in a few places. It is a symbol that brings attention to the ideal of the anarcho punk lifestyle that played out in a dramatic setting on this night. 

Cavale (Joey Bothwell) had her reasons for kidnaping Slim (Adam Navas). Maybe it was because he was young and handsome.  And, if he wasn’t willing, she had an ace in her pocket. It was just a little gun, with a long barrel, something that looked like a 45.  Oh, he put up a fight at first but no one even noticed him going into the room at the “notel motel” (my quotes) with all the crazies milling around.

Really, Slim wasn’t dragged into the room, he was intoxicated by her voice, heeding to every word, every little “if”, “and”, and “but” before he mentally floated into the room.  The words to him were something like following a pleasant whiff of an intoxicating perfume.  

But that’s about all Slim saw in Cavale.  Her manner just didn’t cut it with him, the look in her eyes, her way about the world just seem at least, peculiar, and at worst, dangerous.

This dirty room, had spray-painted walls, books on the floor, instruments in the corners and a cot that served as a bed.  If this was living then they both had hit rock bottom. (Set Design by Kenton Parker)

That Slim was there indicated the bitterest of contradictions. He had a wife and kid, he didn’t much care for, and now he was stuck in the room with, her.   

But Cavale thought he was the one, Slim, a rock and roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth, who could perform and charm the pants off of any unrespectable woman ready to drop trou for any half way decent looking man.  And that’s just what Cavale wanted 'cause that’s what she thought. Her thinking made no sense unless one were to see it through her eyes, and then stare and squint a certain way.

No one needs to talk about her mental status, but Cavale was slightly misguided, and mentally unstable, to put it politely.  But,  she thought of herself as a beautiful crow trying to convince this coyote that he was the one.   She saw it in his audacious gestures, the way he beat the drums and strummed the guitar, (proving to himself not to be the master musician she thought he was), with only three chords under his belt.  

How does one connect when your opposite is making love to a crow, a stuffed one at that, kissing his beak and stroking his thinning feathers? How do you know she’s the one?

They were both in trouble—Cavale getting out of a mental institution and Slim having a wife and kid back in Brooklyn.  That ain’t the stuff dreams are made of. And neither was the Lobsterman (Marland Burke), just a dream away, a phone from infinity.

Harrison James, the director, does an exception job with this production.  In short, her version is pleasing to the senses and elevates this production with a brazen sincerity and barbarous amusement.  The play is ambiguous enough to be interpreted many different ways.

Just an observation with the play and this version with these actors:  What keeps them in the room together?  The gun?  No, that seems to be an afterthought whenever she needs it.  Slim only threatens to leave once.  He is not afraid of her.  They have a romantic physical relationship but we never see the deep connection—the “I can’t live without you” connection.

Why does Slim threaten to leave? One reason is because he is exasperated by her peculiarities.  He wants to be infatuated with her stories but when Cavale tells him, he seems only interested in the flesh.  Is there a way to absorb the tale and partake the flesh with equal abandon?

The physical life between the two lives is there, no need to change that, but we really need to find out why they are both there, that one moment that keeps them passionately together, in that room.  

Cavale really doesn’t throw herself down upon his feet.  She says he’s the one but maybe she needs to show an ecstasy that encompasses that action.  

Joey Bothwell is a stunning actor and also the choreographer of the dancers in this show.  She is physically fit and perfectly captures the physical life of Cavale. Bothwell is able to move with grace and present a quiet dignity.  Although a physical specimen she requires a little more work on the mental part of this woman.  Ay, there’s the rub, the mental characteristics of the character that are open to many ideas.  Cavale is the one mentally unstable, and that part of her character must keep her partner off balance. Her eyes, at the right time, must give away her complete lunacy. And that lunacy must keep Slim in that hotel room and her prisoner.  Also, Cavale is not far from living on the street, the only thing she’s got going for her is the money that supports her now which will probably not last long.  She needs a partner to save her from the life she is living. But her mental problems and exasperation runs deep when trying to get it her way.  That may be what we need to see.

Adam Navas presents a young strong figure as Slim.  Slim threatens to leave at one point, one really didn’t get the reason he stayed.  It wasn’t the gun that held him back, but it could have been.  Curiosity brings him back and that is her voice, and her story.  But, what is the strong action that makes him crawl back?  Slim plays the drums well, that’s a feather in his cap.  But after the few chords on the guitar, he loses confidence, or appears to, that he is not the man she wants.  He is not Jesus with the cowboy mouth. Navas presents a strong craft where little out of the ordinary phases him. (see Lobster Man) Curiosity is the key here. Navas does some really good work.  His craft is strong and his physical abilities are his strength.

Marland Burke must have had the time of his life presumably shaking the can of beer backstage as Lobster Man and then presenting it to Slim before leaving the room. The beer exploded in Slim’s hands foaming the contents onto the stage.  The actors took it all in stride before moving on.  Lobster Man, dressed in what appeared to be orange like prison garb, had claw-like hands and a mask over his face.  He did not speak; rather he had a muffling cry of some sort. Interesting.  Burke has a promising look and was fine in the role.

Joey Bothwell - Foreground, Background L - R Kandace Hurdle, Chelsey Morris, Marland Burke and Sarah Polednak


The three dancers Kandace Hurdle, Chelsey Morris, and Sarah Polednak provided some nice dance moves during the love making scene, each missing what was left of the beer on the floor.  Terrific work.  They also sat in the audience, in costume, and were very pleasant.  One note for the dancer: the dancers need to make a choice when they confront Slim. They either need to love Slim, or hate him.  Either way, that emotion must be conveyed to Cavale.

Sam Shepard & Patti Smith’s play is open to many interpretations and this was a good one, in this venue, and on this night.  The show had a short run of four dates March 23, 24, 30 and 31st and has now closed.

Partial proceeds from the production went to Write Girl, a creative writing and mentoring nonprofit promoting critical thinking and leadership skills amongst teenage girls globally.

The Executive Producers of this show were Joey Bothwell, Steve Harrison, Harrison James and Kenton Parker.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Mel Ciaravino – Associate Producer
Alex Pepel – Costume Designer
Alonzo Tavares – Stage Manager
Joe Morrissey – Lighting Design
Crash Richard – Music
Nicole Balin – Publicity
Ian O’Phelan, Shannon Burke - Graphic Designers
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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Alik by Julio Vera


L to R Colleen Greenhalgh, Ryan Hughes, and Justin Powell


By Joe Straw

EXTENDED!!  Culver City Players at AmVet Post 2 House.


Saturday, April 21, at 8:00 pm
Sunday, April 22, at 7:00 pm
Saturday, April 28, at 8:00 pm
Sunday, April 29, at 7:00 pm


Elysium Conservatory Theatre in association with Wende Museum of the Cold War presents Alik by Julio Vera and directed by Cassandra Ambe is now playing through March 30, 2018 in Culver City.

Some things happen by happenstance, free parking at the Vets center to see a musical, turns into an unexpected turn, a discovery, and an unanticipated focus on the new Wende Museum of the Cold War. In that moment of curiosity there was a dogged determination to collect bits of information that caused me to look through the window. 

The museum appeared to be closed, but the doors were open, the staff provided a friendly greeting and asked if  “I was here to see the play”.  I wasn’t aware there was a play in this building where observable Stalin sculptures glowered and Russian paintings were absorbed in mental limitations. 

This is a place to study a particular time and place, a polemology of the Cold War. It is a natural venue for those who necessitate the gathering of information and disbursing it for consumptive purposes or otherwise.

And this is a perfect venue for this play.

Emerging from the darkness, a soft-spoken writer, Julio Vera introduced himself. He shares that the play, Alik, is a drama about Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina living in an apartment in Minsk in 1961 and 1962.  Curiosity runs deep of that time and place where in hindsight governments had little to share.  

“This play is a work of fiction.  Names, people, places and incidents are the creation of the playwright and used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events, locations or people (living or dead) is coincidental.” – a note in the program – Author Unknown

The actual playing space in the museum is probably the size of your living room. At first one wonders how they will manage to create an apartment in Minsk in 1961 with nothing visible.  The audience sits in two sections facing each other about fifteen feet apart.

One imagines the theatre patrons are the observers of that apartment in Minsk.  This darkened utopian socialist world is one where we are all gathering information. Intentional or not, we are the KGB, the CIA, and any other spy entity you care to mention -  eavesdropping by any conventional means or otherwise.  

Alik by Julio Vera is a wonderful play performed by a magnificent company, the Elysium Conservatory Theatre.

The equally magnificent Cassandra Ambe, the director, has a critical eye of character, moments, movement, and relationships that tie the entire night together.  She moves the actors through time and space without missing a beat and it is a wonderful journey of story and craft. 

The actors give depth and meaning to their performances. Only a few moments into the play, we observe that they have had extraordinary training.   

Suddenly, the minimal set pieces move in quietly, small walls interchange, and turn an empty space into a viable arena, Set Design and Construction by Julio Vera and Gerard Moore.  

Marina (Lauren Fordinal) walks into the apartment with a bright red summer dress and matching seductive lipstick.  In comparison to other apartments in the area, this apartment is a penthouse with a great view. She is excited to be there.

Justin Powell, Lauren Fordinal


Following Marina is Alik (Justin Powell) who has managed to bring her up to the room. Alik, 23, is infatuated with her, her red lipstick, and lets it be known that he would like to kiss her.

“I must touch your lips.” – Alik

But Marina is cautious. She doesn’t know this man, although she would like to, and there are many unanswered questions about his history and reasons he has the apartment.  

Alik, an American, with his southern accent, and Robert Mitchum eyes, is not exactly forthcoming.  He tells her that he is an orphan, he’s from New Orleans, he loves classical music, and he leaves out a lot of information before he gets to the part that his real name is Lee Harvey Oswald and that he is 21 not 23 years old.

Ryan Hughes, Colleen Greenhalgh


They know who he is.  Pavel (Ryan Hughes) is a “friend” who is happy to be with him as he negotiates his way around Minsk.  Pavel tells him to be careful about what he says in his new apartment, where to speak, because they are always watching. (Little does he know.)

Larissa (Colleen Greenhalgh) is Marina’s friend. She is there with Pavel and they are a couple of sorts. Marina lived with Larissa and Valentin (not seen) for a brief time.

Later, they celebrate Lee’s and Marina’s wedding but in the middle of a toast, Lee gets distracted grabs the wine glasses and takes them back into the kitchen, spilling the wine on the floor in the process. 

Beyond the circumferential wall of their apartment, Oswald’s head is filled with demons from his past.  The empty wall presents shadows of his past life and animates the room with traumatic moments that expose his psyche. We see his brother Robert (Ricardo Diaz), his therapist Evelyn (Mariah Kirstie), his former Soviet girlfriend Rimma (Tory Castillo), and most of all, his mother Marguerite (Michele Schultz) who chases him like a roach on a wall, banging incessantly with her shoe, until he either surrenders or is squashed.

Vera’s play is wonderful heightened reality, august in it’s flow, and breathes at times like Chekov. (Oh, the boundless melancholy of suffering Russians waiting in long lines for cutlets now missing as they finally reach the barren shelves.)  It is amazing in its simplicity and movement that explains two lives struggling in Minsk.  There is an extraordinary amount of work here, fine details about the participants’ lives, things we knew and things that ring a dramatic truth despite being a work of fiction. The references to Eartha Kitt and jazz plays beautifully with the struggles they all endure.   

Lauren Fordinal (Marina) is a stunning creature who is grounded in character and in place. Marina holds her own position to get what she wants from her husband, never letting go of her own dream. Her performance is wonderful and her craft is amazing.

Justin Powell is Alik, the title of the play.  He is actually Lee Harvey Oswald who has to overcome the demons brought on by his mother, brother, wife, and his former girlfriend. Powell’s actions are measured, letting little go until the right time. In his internal pain he is craving for help but little is given.   His performance is remarkable.

Ryan Hughes does good work as Pavel and friend and co-worker to Oswald. Hughes has a strong presence and in character is a man that you don’t want to mess with.

Colleen Greenhalgh is Larissa, Marina’s friend.  She is the open eye and an instigator of sorts, one minute saying Oswald is a good catch, the other minute saying Marina should leave him. Larissa never gets in the way of others but that doesn’t stop her from trying.  Greenhalgh is another remarkable actor that brings an incredible truth to the character.

Ricardo Diaz plays Robert, Oswald’s brother. There is much to his performance that rang a sincere truth, simplicity of desire, of want that needed something from his younger brother.  But what that was was so deep to be incomprehensible, or at least, ambiguous. In any case, fascinating to watch.  Re-thinking the costume for this character would be the only thing to change, as it looked too modern.  

Michele Schultz is Marguerite (Oswald’s mother) and comes on really strong in the beginning.  This is a character that grows on you during the course of the play.  The scene with the therapist perhaps lingers on and could use some work.  Marguerite is a woman who wants to become famous and in any way possible.

Mariah Kirstie as Evelyn, a therapist to a younger Oswald, who tries her best to save him but loses out to his mother.  Kirstie does an admirable job playing to a young Oswald and a younger mother.

Tory Castillo has some wonderful moments as Rimma, Oswald’s former “friend” and tour guide. Much is brought to the forefront about Oswald’s current past when he first entered Russia.  Castillo comes in late in the show but shows a remarkable relationship with all who are in her scene. 

This was a play with massive costume changes by Cassandra Ambe, also was responsible for the lighting design and the direction.  But, rather than stop the action, the fellow actors changed the costumes on stage with hardly a break in the action. In fact, everyone chipped in to keep the play moving marvelously.   Larissa is wearing a wedding ring in the opening moments of the play, and it is a nice one.  (One suspects that ring is not coming off for the purposes of the play.)

There is much more to write about this play.  I may come back to it.  (Check in from time to time.) The show is closing this weekend and something must be said before it does close.

Run! Run! Run!  And bring a mysterious comrade!

Wende Museum of the Cold War – 8:00pm in Culver City- 310-216-1600
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addendum

 
I had the opportunity to see this remarkable production two weeks later at the AmVets Post 2 house just a door away from the Wende museum.  I wanted to see how the cast settled into the roles and also to witness three new cast members.    

The moments in this version were heightened and the relationships worked marvelously.

Sam Flemming played Pavel and was quite different from the earlier Pavel.  In this version, Pavel was much more imposing, the beard gave a great look to this Russian, and his relationship to his girlfriend added an extra flavor to the role.  Flemming moved seamlessly into his role and gave the character another essence and one more dimension.

Melissa Ortiz plays Evelyn with a stronger New York presence and a strong accent (Brooklyn?).  There was a quiet dignity in Ortiz’s performance as a character that wanted to get to the bottom of the child’s problem but she was conflicted by the law that ultimately ruins her work.

Monica Ross is outstanding as Rimma, a Russian woman, a Muscovite that has had a previous relationship with Oswald. This Rimma was flamboyant, vivacious, and a little coy in her brilliant scene near the end of the play. Ross used the space remarkably well as though Rimma had known Oswald’s apartment inside and out.  

Charlotte Spangler also plays Rimma but did not perform the night I was there.

There was so much more to get viewing Julio Vera’s play the second time around, subtle moments that are jarring.  Vera doesn’t come right out and say “this is what happened” rather, he explains events, not in one moment, but over the course of the play. 

Alik is a remarkable play, with an equally remarkable cast, and has an outstanding director, Cassandra Ambe making her directorial debut.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee –Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rachel Sheinkin, Additional Material by Jay Reiss


By Joe Straw

Culver City High School & The Academy of Visual Performing Arts present a Blurred Vision Theatre Company Production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rachel Sheinkin, directed by Kristen Opstad; it finished its four-performance run on March 17, 2016 at the Vets Center in Culver City.

I was fortunate to see this production three times and, with each opportunity, I found the performances got perceptively better; that is exactly what should happen with a high school troupe learning their craft.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about a group of contestants trying to win their local spelling bee contest. 

What makes this musical enticing is that no one comes alone. They all bring their fraught family relationships and emotional baggage as they negotiate their way to victory.  

Rona Lisa Peretti (Sequoya Henry) enters the spelling bee hall with all the poise and confidence of a previous winner from day’s gone bye.  She was the winner of the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Peretti is followed by last year’s previous winner Chip Tolentino (Dillon Zehnder). Chip is wearing his Boy Scout uniform.  This year though his road has taken a nasty turn - onto puberty highway - which makes his life in this bee, precarious

Not far behind him is Logainne SchwartzandGrubeniere (Ryanne Biernat), a very young physical specimen looking for a fight and an easy victory.

Leaf Coneybear (Jaylen Rosado) is the oddest-looking contestant, wearing a cape and homemade clothing.  A telephone with a cord that lead to nowhere is an accouterment on his being. (later missing in a later version of the show) He has a mysterious way of spelling as he falls into a green trance.  

William Barfée (Joey O’Neal), appears to be dancing on stage, lissome, in a Fred Astaire way. He spells using his foot as he lifts his arms high into the air.  He is allergic to peanuts and can only breath through one nostril.

Marcy Park (Kacey Oschack) has stepped out of a fancy private school athletic, “Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrow”, athletic, and a girl who had it all except that one thing.

Olive Ostrovsky (Maya Derbise) came on the bus without the $25.00 entrance fee.  She is doe-eyed, completely lost, a smile that shows only her upper teeth, and looking for another friend on this day.

Vice Principal Doug Panch (Aidan Van den Broeck) is the announcer. He announces the spelling words, provides definitions, and uses the words in sentences.  Nothing bothers this man with exception of certain indigestible foods.  He can be volatile at times.

Mitch Mahoney (Dylan Staal) has just stepped out of the confines of a local jail and is now doing community service for the spelling bee and trying to be altruistic in his way.  

And what would a spelling bee be without Jesus (Annie Melnick), a woman bringing the good word to the bee.

Carl Dad (Oliver Marcus) and Dan Dad (Yogi Sylvain) are there to support their daughter Logaine SchwartzandGrubeniere and make it so she wins – even if they have to cheat on her behalf.

There was also a terrific sporting cast of dancers and singers including Sophia Martin-Straw (Brook Coneybear), Sophia Posner (Pinecone Coneybear), Avery Bielski (Raisin Coneybear), Charlotte Feit-Leichman (Landscape Coneybear), Sophia Price (Paula Coneybear), Izzy Layne (Karen Coneybear), and Sophia Lafaurie Munoz (Rascal Coneybear).

Kirsten Opstad, director, showcases refulgent talent in this portentous, imaginary, whimsical, and delightful musical. Although this is a slightly truncated version of the original Broadway show – they bring it down from a “PG” to a “G” rating (High School!) – it still packs a punch.  

(The show generally features adults playing kids, somewhat looking back on their experiences. And although it is a comedy, the show, in its long form, tackles serious issues like depression, anxiety, and abandonment, which makes it a wonderful night of theatre.  Still, in any form it is a delight.)

Sequoya Henry, in her tremulous glow, showcased her powerful voice. Kacey Oschack nailed I Speak Six Languages. And when Maya Derbise sang The I Love You Song, it just brought down the house.  

Jaylen Rosado wins over audience with his version of “I’m Not That Smart.” Joey O’Neal wows them with “Magic Foot.”  Ryanne Biernat was very physical in her character portrayal bringing a lot of laughs to this musical.   

The Blurred Vision Theatre Company was backed by a delightful orchestra lead by Tony Spano, Music Director.  Thomas Gaff was the Accompanist, Celine Cuadra on flute, Baxter Hamilton and James Kocher on clarinet, Xaul Starr on soprano sax, Matthew Kojima and Riley McCrary on alto sax, and the percussion section was Wesley Page, Mikael Nida, Mario Bechtloff Weising, and Angel Sanchez Perez.

Choreography by Carol was enchanting.

Other members of the fabulous crew are as follows:

Celine Cuadra & Shavit Melamed – Set Design
Alekos Tetradis – Props Design
Emily Wulf – Lighting Design
Anneliese du Boulay – Lighting Mentor
Erin Hamill – Sound Design
Will Schuessler – Sound Engineering
Zoe Alamillo & Malaika Stamble – Costume Design
Kelly Carson – Stage Manager
Thistle Boosinger – Artwork  

A lot of work went into this show and I’m glad I went!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes

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Elisa Bocanegra and Al Rodrigo - Photos by Gio Solis by Bracero.la

By Joe Straw

Theatre is remembering the moment. – Narrator

Haditha, Iraq is on fire. It rages out of control as explosions engulf fleeing innocent women and children. 

One more bomb explodes and lifts Shar (Vahen Assadourian) off the ground into an almost a backflip and onto the dry desert sand.

After the cut in action, Elliot (Peter Pasco) becomes aware that the Jordanian wind has caused the stunt to go awry.  He’s concerned that Shar flew exceedingly far and might be hurt. He runs to her and ask questions to check on her mental and physical acuity.   

“I’m Shar. I’m in Jordan filming a movie.”Shar

In the course of doing the physically demanding stunt, Shar has soiled her abaya (a long black long-sleeved robe worn by Muslim women) and needs another one. 

Ali (Kamal Maravati) hired as a local expert and doubling as an assistant costumer, says he will get her a change. But there’s the bad news—she fell the wrong way and Nigel, the director (not seen), wants to do it all over again.

L - R Kamal Marayati, Peter Pasco, and Vaneh Assadourian


Ali, more than generous, scurries off to get Shar a new abaya.  

This gives Elliot time to share the on-the-set gossip—the lead actor got fired on this docu-drama.  This is good news for Elliot. His agent has already negotiated for points on the film. And now, he is moving up in the world.

Elliot knows they have the next day off so he enlists Ali to drive them to Egypt.  Ali says it’s too dangerous because of the upheaval with Mubarak leaving office.

The Latino Theater Company presents The Happiest Song Plays Last written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Edward Torres and now playing downtown on 6th Street through March 17, 2018.  

Scene 2

Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), doing the neighborly thing, has just gotten Agustín (Al Rodrigo) out of jail.  It is too early in the morning to be pleasant to one another and yet all Austín can think of is the food on the stove. (Well, that’s the second thing on his mind.) Yaz, still delirious from waking up during the graveyard shift, won’t let him have a bit of it.

“I hate jail.  Thirty people, one toilet, no food.”  - Agustín

“Then stop going there.” - Yaz

“If there was someone else I could have call, I would.” - Agustín

“You have a wife. Her name is Miriam.” - Yaz

“Best friends are less judgmental.”   - Agustín

Despite all the grief, they enjoy each other’s company, the stories, and everything Yaz does to liven this northern Philadelphia neighborhood.  Yaz pushes Austín in the direction of his wife, but he is not budging and that’s when Lefty (John Seda-Petre) looks through the window and then bangs at the door.

Even though Yaz has an unlocked door policy, Lefty needs Yaz to let him in. Lefty is homeless, bound in garb that keeps him warms on the streets of Philadelphia. Lefty calls Yaz “mom”, and immediately Yaz directs him to the pots, to get food for himself and for the assortment of other hungry homeless characters in the neighborhood.  

Agustín is interrupted in his quest for more than a moment of Yaz’s time as Lefty sits, eats his food, and eyes both of them.  

Stopped in the progression of his task, Agustín waits for Lefty to leave. Meanwhile we learn that Agustín is a musician and an educator—he was Yaz’s first music teacher in high school. Also he has sent many poor kids to college including Yaz who went to Yale and has become a professor of music.

Agustín wants only one thing before his time is up and that one thing will make all the difference in the world.

There is something enchanting about this play, directed by Edward Torres, that says a lot about life, and about bringing life into this world. And it is also about enriched cultures expressing a quiet rage, a particular point of view, where lives can change in a dramatic instant.

This production is pleasing to the soul.  It is remarkable in so many ways, it is visually stunning, and the acting is top notched. But there are a few observations that need to be addressed, which I will get to later.

One of the things I enjoyed in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s work is the simplicity of the dialogue, the timelessness of the issues, and the complexities of living in today’s world.  “Happiest” is about doing the thing you love to do best.  Hudes gives us delectable oblong morsels in her art, strong visuals of life, and words that play like music.

In addition to bringing happiness into the world, there is another side to Hudes’ work—about death and destruction and people starving in the streets. One catches glimpses of these backstories in this play but still we feel the immeasurable importance of the struggle of unfortunate human beings as they negotiate their way about the world.

What gives this story its dramatic glow is the unconquerable obstinacy of people trying to make right for things that are horribly wrong. And these individuals are doing their best, by offering the smallest part in saving the world.  It is touching in so many ways and stays with you long after you have left the theatre.  On top of all that, it is graphically poetic in ways that art enlightens the soul.

 
L - R Elisa Bocanegra, Vaneh Assadourian, Peter Pasco, and Kamal Marayati

Edward Torres, the director, has a fine time with this ensemble.  All of the actors grow in their moments on stage. And there is an extreme fascination in witnessing their hard work on stage. But some opportunities to reveal character traits are missing.  These are the physical traits that create and move a character toward their objective. With that said, there appears to be more going on than the spoken word.  Two characters in a room alone conflicted by what they want, because that conflict hinders those persons from their objective. The two are in a sparring match, moving beyond a moment only after embracing a resolution in conflict.  For example, there is a lot to be added to the relationship between teacher and student, among adulterous neighbors, among co-workers, and even among adversaries.

Also, the play begs to be performed in a much more intimate space. Se Hyun Oh, Scenic Design, gives a wonderful set for the actors to create, a modest home in Philadelphia, and a desert space in Jordan. But, the night begs to see actors, up close, highlighting their subtle moments, their conflicted eyes, and the slight touches of an awakening romance. Still, one can’t help but be amazed when walking into the theatre and seeing the beautiful set.  

Elisa Bocanegra (Yaz) brings a lot of humor to the role. She has a lovely voice in the opening number, which is a wonderful addition to the play. Yaz is a delightful character with a compassionate heart – one that wants to give to the entire Philadelphia neighborhood and possibly the world.

Al Rodrigo (Agustín) has a commanding presence and a wonderful way about the stage. His movements toward a physical relationship are possibly too subtle for this venue.  Rubbing someone’s callous feet doesn’t move far enough into establishing a significant romantic relationship. Still, overall his performance brings a heartwarming smile.

Peter Pasco takes time to grow as Elliot. But after a time, he settles into the role. There’s more to be had with his relationship with his yet to be girlfriend and in particular the opening number, which plays like co-worker interacting rather than potential lovers.  Also, there’s more to had with his relationship to his cousin, an intimate backstory that needs addressing.  The back and forth on the phone/computer worked if you listened to the voices and not looked at the out-of-sync video projected on the walls.

Vaneh Assadourian presents a strong female figure as Shar, a stuntwoman and a graduate of Julliard. There is never a hint to a physical intimacy between her and her soon-to-be husband during this performance.  The scene of committing to travel together, the eating scene, and the hotel scene all have opportunities to make that happen.  Still, Assadourian presents a pleasant figure on stage.  

Kamal Marayati plays Ali, a lovely soul, who is Iraqi hiding in Jordan and working on the film. Marayati gives a tremendous amount of backstory to the character and I will remember the moment about the passport forever.  This is a performance not to be missed.

John Seda-Pitre
 
John Seda-Pitre also gives a marvelous performance as Lefty, a homeless character and is incapacitated with a mental problem. Lefty is an interesting character with an ambiguous objective for Seda-Pitre to conger. Lefty and Yaz need each other but how that translates to the ending is anyone’s guess. 

This version of the play has been changed from the published version available on Kindle.  So, if you’ve read it, you’re going to be enchanted by something a little different.

The music was brilliant by Nelson Gonzáles (Special Guest Artist) and accommodated the action on stage.

Dianne K. Graebner’s work as Costume Design was superb.

Ivan Robles’ Sound Design fit nicely with the accentuated dramatic moments on stage.

Other members of the hard working crew are as follows:

John A.Garofalo – Lighting Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Jess Wolinsky – Assistant Director
Cristina “Crispy” Carrillo-Dono – Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Lehrer – Production Stage Manager
Lucy Pollock – Publicity

Run! Run! Run! And take someone from Puerto Rico.  It will make all the difference in the world. 

One more note:  This was the best of the trilogy now playing in Los Angeles. 


Reservations: 866-811-4111

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nice Fish by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins

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By Joe Straw

I never thought fish were nice
Their incongruity mortared
on their oblique narrow being

They breathe through a superior operculum
And navigate the lake with a spiny dorsal
beyond the anal fin down to their overly proficient tail

But, sinisterly greedy they are
To take, or eat the bait
moments before hooked in perpetual agony

Caught, nice fish don’t
struggle, back and forth,
to get back to the water’s edge

But, do they deserve this murderous absurdity?
From one so obsequious

Off the hook and into
The bucket?
Or, back in the pond?

It must be said
I never thought fish were nice
But twice said neither am I. - Narrator

There is a lot to like about Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins and directed by Rob Brownstein and Anita Khanzadian, and presented by the interact theatre company, now playing at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles through March 25, 2018.

The crew was marvelously fantastic with all that was going on, on stage, here, there, everywhere, snow, wind, odd puppetry, making the most of the place, a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota, late winter, or early spring, on the last day of ice-fishing season.  

This production requires one to prepare for something a little different from other plays.  The words or dialogue, meaning the prose poems, are a little offsetting in the traditional ways that one views dramatic or comedic theatre of objectives, conflict, and character resolution.

This play is likely to find a different light and differ each night, depending on the moments and audience participation, no matter how the directors Brownstein and Khanzadian have structured it.

Time has little relevance on this lake, day can be night, night can be day, but time passes in what could be thought of anywhere from an extended weekend or even months.  In the flash of winter lighting, moments pass quickly and possibly weeks fly by. The time spent on the ice is a humanistic endeavor that outweighs the visual countenance of time.  

And yet, all of this is absorbed, and happening, dancing in your imagination.

Erik (Don Fischer) is an “ice-fishing enthusiast”. He’s married but doesn’t talk about his wife too much especially when he is fishing.  He brings his college friend, Ron (Barry Heins), who is single and knows fiddly-squat about fishing.

Ron is over bundled so as to not to get cold. He brings a hand-held ice auger but he has no luck getting through the ice. Erik, with his gas-powered ice auger, plows through the ice like it’s nothing, and smiles while he’s doing it.

Erik, then settles on a plastic bucket near the hole in the ice, plows through a lot of fish philosophy hoping Ron understands the complexities of fishing on ice.  Ron can only nod his head, drink his Bud, and sit in his cushy chair.

Fishing not only gives one time to contemplate, sharing ideas of the mundane, but it is also discovering the mysteries of the earth through the art of life.

I can’t give too much away, because that would be giving too much away.  This is a delightful production with a lot of unusual and madcap activities happening throughout the theatrical night and wonderfully directed by Brownstein and Khanzadian.  Even if you don’t get everything, the night of portentous prose poems produces visuals you only dream of in a good night’s sleep.  

Evan Bartoletti, Scenic Design, gives us a portion of a frozen lake somewhere in northern Minnesota, where brightly painted fishing huts dot the icy landscape, and bare trees line the lake bed. It is both beautiful and detailed magnificently.

The sound by Chip Botcik of cracking ice, wind, and monster trucks are very pleasurable, the sound of physics and humanity all rolled into one.

Don Fischer is pleasant as Erik.  There’s more to be had with this character as an enthusiastic fisherman.  We get that he is a serious fisherman, little tidbits of a non-querulous nature, but we never see the enjoyment of learning new things.  For example, when another fisherman says he needs to talk to the lure, stuff like that should drive him ecstatic  – learning new things.  There is a reason he brought his friend this day and maybe that reason is too internal but it is a secret that needs to be express sometime during the course of the play.

Barry Heins has a very good look as Ron and is perfectly suited for the role.  For some ungodly reason, I didn’t see either the phone or the shades fall into the ice hole; that needs work so to focus our attention in his direction.  More is needed to show that he really really enjoyed the sauna. Those are really small things for an overall delightful performance.



Tamika Simpkins is excellent as the man-hating, go by the rules DNR Officer.  One pictures her as having a bible in one hand and a rules book in the other. The last day of the season and she is all over the men who are perceived to be fishing. And she won’t let go until she gets her quota for the day and back home to her wife, “that’s right I said, wife.”

Kristen Egermeier plays Flo.  Flo is a character type that manages to show up in the most peculiar places dressed in atypical garb.  For example, she is a type of an unexpected guest showing up at a beach house, or Burning Man, or Joshua Tree trying to make friends.  Flo appears out of nowhere to express her atypical lifestyle. She holds a book “Moby Dick” navigating her way, making friends where there were no friends moments ago.  She seems to have made a love connection but, does it go far enough? The stunning actress is below holding onto the palm tree and her name is spelled Kristen despite what the photograph says.



Rick Friesen is Wayne, grandfather to Flo.  He carries the spear fishing implement, something he’s not suppose to have.  He also carries the spirit of the Ojibwa as a constant companion along with the chi of the fish. Wayne imparts his wisdom to those who have a receptive ear. His relationship to his granddaughter could be improved in a myriad of ways that progress with the through line. (Oh, a perceived through line.)

Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, the playwrights, take us on a very interesting trip.  It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other begins but, either way, the descriptive visuals takes the viewer on a very pleasurable trip.

Keaton Shapiro does a very fine job as a producer.

Sam KS and Michael Skloff created the original music.

Carolyn Mazuca’s costume design was perfect for this show.

Cate Caplin was the choreographer.

Stevie Anne Nemazee was responsible for the puppet design and the puppets were magnificent and oddly beautiful and unique in their own special way.

Jonathan Martin Berry was responsible for the guitar.  Gina S. De Luca was the stage manager.  

The publicity was by Ken Werther Publicity.

818-765-8732

Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA  90026 

Run! Run! And take an avid fisherman with you!