Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis


By Joe Straw

The Motherf**cker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Tony Gatto is now playing at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre through January 28th, 2017 for a very limited run in Los Angeles.

Stephen Adly Guirgis has written a masterful play of characters in dramatic intercourse – without conjugation. Set in New York, Guirgis captures the essence of these New Yorkers and adds a comedic barrage of obscenities to the mix accentuating their lives according to their own moral codes. This makes for a fascinating theatrical outing where one asks the question: if I were in the same predicament, what values would I identify with? 

Tony Gatto, the director, manages to articulate the heart, and create the physical life of Guirgis’ spoken words.  And this speaks volumes of his meticulous craft giving the audience an amazing night of precision rarely seen in a 99-seat venue. Gatto guides the characters in a way that highlights each character’s unconquerable obstinacy.      

Fayna Sanchez

Veronica (Fayna Sanchez) had three lines of coke next to her second line of offense – a bottle of gin or vodka – sitting on the small table in her dilapidated singles. An unmade mattress on the floor and a catchall love seat, all the unpleasant reflections of a life half lived.    

Today, Veronica is speaking to her mother on the phone and going a mile a minute with a Puerto Rican/New York accent – a sensory flavor that can be unquenchable when absorbed in small quantities.   When you think about it, it was probably the best time for Veronica to talk to her mother – high on coke – just to get all the words out in the least amount of time - about that man her mother is dating – asking her if she want to f*ck him or fry him.

Folding laundry, wearing only the necessities of clothing, black tights, grey sweat top, not really covering her black bra; she folds, only stopping to run back to take another snort from the neatly trenched lines on the mirror which was possibly lined with her maxed out credit card.  Bending down to take a snort, the mirror sadly reflects her eyes half shut.  Her single life, on her small table, and in her sparse apartment has got to get better.

Jackie (Jorge-Luis Pallo) appears out of nowhere, he doesn’t even knock, and one suspects a key was pulled from a lining of a forgotten pocket. But there he is, just watching, anticipating the realization of all the fantasies he had in jail.    

Oh and just from catching her eyes, there is a relationship here, a strong one, of two lovers who have not seen each other in a very long time.  Jackie brings her some flowers, a chocolate bar, movie tickets, and even pulls out a tiny fuzzy white bear for her secondary embraces.   

“Got a job.” – Jackie

“You’re sober and got a job.” – Veronica

Veronica gets a little misty-eyed knowing her Mr. man lover is employed. 

Jackie downplays his job as a porter in an apartment complex but he says there is a chance for advancement.

Any direction up is a cause for celebration.    

They embrace; well technically, they are all over each other like brown on (brown) rice.   Jackie wants to make it right now but Veronica says she’s a little gamey and wants to shower first. Veronica runs to the bathroom while Jackie starts to take off his clothes. And not short on words either Jackie shouts through the door, and the running water, so Veronica can hear him.  He undresses to his underwear until he sees a pork pie hat – a hat that is not his.

Jackie runs to the bed and smells – “dick and aqua Velvet” – on the sheets and now his mind is racing furiously. 

Veronica appears out of the bathroom in a laced bra and panties only to find the room temperature has changed.  The mood is now icy cold as Jackie inarticulately accuses, but he is unable to get the words out completely before Veronica volubly lashes out at him for making false accusations.  Jackie wants to know about the hat but the Puerto Rican rectification is flying fast and furious.

(Me thinks she protest too much.)  

It’s tough battling against her barrage, but in his squinting dumbfounderment, Veronica cuts through the mishmash of confusion, sees his slightly charming taciturn self, is somewhat hopeful, and asks him to go have pie with her.

“You’re so wrong.  Put the ghetto on hold.  Let’s go to the pie place.” – Veronica

Jackie is not much for thinking but he realizes that he has stepped out of prison and into the discomforting heat of another stockade; clearly he is out of his verbal league with this chick.

After pie, which apparently didn’t go well, Jackie runs to his AA sponsor Ralph D (Nelson Delrosario), a yeasayer, and a yoga man with a comforting health drink in his hands.  Ralph D offers Jackie a nutritional drink and shouts to his wife, Victoria (Libby Ewing) in another room to make another one.  But Victoria only shouts obscenities, a negative affirmation, something that happens a lot these days.   

“She lied to me in the pie place.” – Jackie

“Calm down.  Pray with me.” – Ralph D

And so they pray, a little, Ralph D says Veronica is an addict and maybe someone he should avoid.

From first judgment, one suspect that Ralph has got his life together – well, it’s his life, his togetherness – all except for the happy wife part.

Jackie tells Ralph D that he’s got a gun and he wants to get even with the motherf**ker with the hat. Ralph D convinces Jackie to give up the gun and Ralph D commits to stay with him until the task is done.

So, they visit Jackie’s cousin, Julio (Eddie Martinez), a funny top-heavy ambiguously gay man married to Marisol – a woman we never see. Cousin Julio has just rustled up his famous batch of empanadas and Beck’s beer for his new guest. Jackie gives the gun to Julio, who agrees to hide it, as a favor.

“Not doing this for you, doing this for your mother.” – Cousin Julio

Jackie says the gun belongs to Chuy Alvarado.  Jackie says he strolled over to the motherf**ker with the hat’s apartment, threw the hat on the floor, and then shot the hat. Jackie says he sorry about how it ricocheted into the television, and then through another man’s apartment. 

Jorge-Luis Pallo

Jorge-Luis Pallo has given Jackie a strong voice possibly to emphasize a character that is not heard.  Jackie manages to not understand the events of his life with his face constantly scrunched up in bewilderment. But, Jackie, despite going to jail for various offenses, has a newly acquired strong moral code, an unyielding rigidity of being honest and not cheating on his friend. Pallo does a tremendous job encapsulating that moral code; still there’s room for the other side of the coin when engaged with the other players who are not his girlfriend.

Fayna Sanchez is wonderful as Veronica as she gives the character a strong physical life. This is also true when she listens on stage, turning with her back to another character, deciding what she is going to do next, or how to get out of the predicament she is in. Veronica is unsure of her life, where to go, loving the one she is with, rather than the one she wants, if she wants anyone at all. This makes for emotional and conflicted woman when push comes to shove, and there’s a lot of shoving. Also, another thing, I loved the accent!

Nelson Delrosario

Nelson Delrosario is funny as Ralph D, a narcissist who believes the world and its inhabitants are there for his pleasure. He thinks nothing of hurting anyone as long as his pain is minimal. Friend, lovers, it is all a physical game to him for as long at that will last.

Libby Ewing

Libby Ewing is a very enticing Victoria.  Her performance is superb and her fluidity on stage displays a very strong craft.  At this point, Victoria’s love life is non-existent non-evident with her unreadable stare in her opening moment. Whether that is an intentional choice remains to be seen. Still, there is another choice to create a stronger relationship when she first meets Jackie, who is, after all, a single man, and possibly a future lover.  Ewing is a fascinating actor who takes risks with the character in a terrific non-stop performance.  

Eddie Martinez

Eddie Martinez is marvelous as Cousin Julio.  Martinez employs a strong craft and brings an amazing backstory to his character, Cousin Julio.  His story builds in humorous fashion taking us from his childhood to the present day. Cousin Julio is a man with strong emotional bonds and familia ties. It is a role Martinez nails exquisitely. Also, Martinez has a very strong presence on stage.  He is an actor for which you want to hear every word.

Okay, I have a couple of notes.  Don’t read any further if you can get tickets for this show.

There are times where dialogue gets in the way of intentions, which momentarily stops the action.   Those times are rare.  But, two scenes come to mind.  The first is when Jackie smells another man in his girlfriend’s apartment and when he seeks help he doesn’t notice the same smell in Ralph D’s apartment? Also, when Ralph D sees the gun, it’s unclear why he doesn’t react considering he might be the next victim. The subtext is critical when a scene is moving along.  

This show is presented in the round or rectangle.  Seating is on all four sides. Some things may have been missed when an actor has his head turned facing the opposite direction. But, the actor’s voices were strong and hardly anything was lost.

Other members of the crew were as follows:

Veronica Roy – Stage Manager
Kimber Pritts – Assistant Stage Manager
Stephanie Rios – Assistant Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run!  And take meat eater, someone who likes it juicy and raw!

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Last Straw Awards 2016 by Joe Straw

This year’s theatrical outings have grown tenfold and are surprising in ways I could not have imagined. They made me laugh, cry, and raised an eyebrow when I saw a moment that just sent me into the stratosphere.

I’m not sure how the changes to the 99-seat rule will affect the current situation of limiting the work by AEA actors. Up until this time the work and production values kept getting progressively better, especially in the 99-seat venue, who are now competing with the big boys that want your dollars.   

What is true is that actors need to work.  The work is the instrument to their being.  They also need to be seen to validate the work.

As long as I write, I will write about the work of the writers, the directors, and the actors and keep it on the level of the work so that others may benefit. I’ll try to tell it in stories, and break some rules while I am at it, with just enough flavor for you to absorb in case you want to produce the play in your own hometown.

The Last Straw Awards 2016 are presented to the Writers, Actors, and Directors whose work I found to be inspiring, unique, and also made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.


Evelina Fernandez – La Olla
Bryonn Bain – Lyrics From Lockdown
Aliza Goldstein – A Singular They
Tommy Nohilly – Blood From a Stone
Carla Ching – Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up
Robert O’Hara – Barbeque
Karen Zacarias – Mariela in the Desert
John Morogiello – The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart
Daniel Henning – The Tragedy of JFK (As told by Wm. Shakespeare)


Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams – Coeurage Theatre Company – Directed by Jeremy Lelliott
Jonathan Kells Phillips
Sammi Smith

Jack & Jill A Romance by Jane Martin – Directed by Jack Heller
Tanna Frederick
Robert Standley

A Singular They by Aliza Goldstein – Blank Theatre Company – Directed by Christopher J. Raymond
Lily Nicksay

Lyrics From Lockdown by Bryonn Bain – Directed by Gina Belafonte
Bryonn Bain

La Olla by Evelina Fernandez – Directed by José Luis Valenzuela
Cástulo Guerra
Esperanza America
Evelina Fernández
Xavi Moreno

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti – Junction Theatre – Directed by Benjamin Pohlmeir
Nicola Bertram

The Story of Alice Book & Lyrics by Michael Cormier, Music by Scott Hilzik – Directed by Gary Lee Reed
Emily King Brown
Emily Barnett

Blood From A Stone by Tommy Nohilly – LB Production – Directed by Thomas C. Dunn
Joanne Baron
Chad Brannon
Frankie Ingrassia
Jossara Jinaro
Ryan Lahetta
Gareth Williams

La Cage Aux Folles – Book by Harvey Fierstein, lyrics by Jerry Herman – Directed by Tim Dang
Jon Jon Briones  
Gedde Watanabe

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger – The Group Rep – Directed by Drina Durazo
Bert Emmett

All The Best Killers are Librarians by Bob DeRosa – The Establishment – Directed by Alicia Conway Rock
Lauren Van Kurin
Jennifer C. DeRosa

Ajax in Iraq – by Ellen McLaughlin – Not Man Apart – Directed by John Farmaesh-Bocca
Joanna Rose Bateman

Next to Normal – Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey – Directed by Thomas James O’Leary
Isa Briones

The Two Kids That blow Sh*t Up – by Carla Ching – Artists at Play – Directed by Jeremy Lelliott
Julia Cho
Nelson Lee

Barbeque by Robert O’Hara – Geffen – Directed by Colman Domingo
Frances Fisher
Yvette Carson

Moral Imperative by Samuel Warren Joseph – Theatre 40 – Directed by Howard Storm
David Hunt Stafford
Brandee Steger

The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) – Conceived, Adapted & Directed by Daniel Henning
Tony Abatemarco
Chad Brannon
Cris D’Annunzio
Casey McKinnon
Jacob Sidney
Time Winters

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Revisited by Jane Wagner – Directed by Ken Sawyer
Ann Noble
Rachel Sorsa
Julanne Chidi Hill

Vonnegut USA by Kurt Vonnegut adapted by Scott Rognlien – The Next Arena – Directed by Scott Rognlien
Marjorie LeWit
Eric Normington
Paul Plunkett
JR Reed

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias – Directed by Robert Beltran
Rachel Gonzalez

Vanya, Sonia, Masha,  & Spike by Christopher Durang – Directed by Barbara Tarbuck
Michelle Danner
Nate Golon
Christine Dunford

A Christmas Carol in Prose Being A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens – Directed by Jen Bloom  
Yael Berkovick
Mike Nedzwecki
Julianna Robinson

The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello – Directed by Jules Aaron
Brian Stanton


José Luis Valenzuela – La Olla
Gina Belafonte – Lyrics from Lockdown
Thomas C. Dunn – Blood From a Stone
Jeremy Lelliott – Two Kids that Blow Sh*t Up
Daniel Henning - The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) 

The Ortiz Award 2016 is given to the play that provides us with a grand presentation of diversity in a theatrical presentation. This year there are four recipients.

La Olla – The Latino Theatre Company
Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up – Artists at Play
La Cage Aux Folles – East West Players
Barbeque – Geffen

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello

By Joe Straw

Despite all conflicts, films manage to get made – providing the principals want it made – but the making of each film, a collaborative endeavor, is usually a life and death struggle with death being the operative word. – Narrator

John Morogiello has written a wonderful play that explores a myriad of social, political, and economical issues and does so in dramatic style. His dialogue is taut, specific, and leading in a way in which a play must progress.   Without giving anything away of this 90-minute drama, a character caves into the demands of an economic and political nature, and then takes it one horrifying step further.

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills presents the West Coast Premiere of The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello and directed by Jules Aaron is brilliantly executed, and elegantly produced by David Hunt Stafford and unfortunately it has closed.

As a theatregoer, one can see the similarities between the characters in this play and the political theatre presently being enacted in Washington DC.  

In short, the play explores the realities of allowing politics to censor a work of art, and in this case, allowing a Nazi to goosestep his way into a 1939 United Artist lot.    

In real life, Georg Gyssling (Shawn Savage) was a former athlete (member of the bobsledding team in the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics), a member of the Nazi party and part of Hitler’s Hollywood consul, and a man who persuaded Hollywood not to make pictures that criticized Hitler and Nazi Germany. Whether he had any influence is questionable (probably not as much as the Motion Picture Production Code) but on this day and in this play, he was tenacious in his objective.

The color brown prevails in the set (Jeff G. Rack, Set Designer) and the costumes (Michéle Young, Costume Designer) are a gloomy reminder of the Brown Shirts that played a role in Hitler’s rise to power. Whether this was intentional or not remains to be seen.

The Consul, The Tramp and American’s Sweetheart is told from the perspective of an older woman, a personal secretary who, tragically, who looks back on her adventure with fondness. And yet it is Miss Hollombe’s (Laura Lee Walsh) story from which this story emanates.  Hollombe paints the picture in the fashion she desires.

Today Gyssling, in a nice brown suite, is a nuisance.  He is an Anglo European, a German behemoth with slicked back hair who has the appearance of an athlete out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, Olympia to be precise. Currently in Miss Hollombe’s office, he is a sty in the eye of the personal secretary, with his intrinsically cruel German accent, in a  provocative manner of asking questions without any sense of delicacy.    

Gyssling insists on seeing Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff) and he will not leave until Pickford leaves her office.  

“I’m not letting you in.” – Hollombe

“So I understand. Are you letting her out?” – Gyssling

Gyssling, breathing down Hollombe’s neck, has a slight change of tactic. He asks her the origin of her name, whether she is Christian, is a question that inflames his party’s rhetoric – a line of religious hatred. The act is both disruptive and unsettling.  Hollombe moves to complete her office duty tasks without answering the question.

But, all in all, Miss Hollombe is not having any luck getting rid of Gyssling, if that is her objective.   In fact, he is making her nervous as she tries to type and, at the rate she is going, her words per minute is a minus one.  (How did she get this job?)

Frustrated beyond comprehension, Hollombe dials Pickford who, up until this time, has not moved a muscle, quiet as a mouse, as she listened through the walls.  Pickford picks up the phone and says she is busy.

“Do your job.  He can’t stay here forever.  Even Nazis get hungry sometime.” – Pickford

“He’s daring me to call security.” – Hollombe

“Be right out.” – Pickford

Pickford, peeks out of her office door, and wastes little time in trying to dismiss Gyssling by saying that it’s Friday before Labor Day weekend. But, Gyssling stops her with a threat.

“You realize this decision could affect the distribution of all films produced by United Artists in Europe’s second largest market for American cinema.” - Gyssling

Pickford acquiesces.  Still, her altruistic impulses kick into high gear as she invites Gyssling into her office.  She tells Hollombe to interrupt her as much as possible as she slips the door closed.  

Gyssling is effusive, telling Pickford that he has admired her films but Pickford is a businesswoman and wants him to get right to the point.

“You’re threatening to withhold my studio’s films from the German market unless I do what you want. – Pickford

“Not a threat, dear me, no.  You shouldn’t feel threatened.  I merely ask that Americans be aware of what the German people find acceptable and unacceptable in a motion picture.” – Gyssling

Pickford knows that Gyssling is up to something, and has something on the studio.  And she is right, as Gyssling wants to know more about the next Charlie Chaplin (Brian Stanton) movie. Gyssling says Chaplin is doing a film about Hitler.  It’s in the trades.  Alarmed Pickford asks Miss Hollenby to ask Chaplin to come to her office.

Gyssling leaves and Chaplin charms everyone by just stepping into the room. Pickford works her magic to get the answers from Chaplin and his answer are not entirely forthcoming.

But, once Pickford finds out about Chaplin’s next film (The Great Dictator), she must make a decision about whether to green light the movie. She does so by calling D.W. Griffin (He says, “No.”) and then calling Douglas Fairbanks the other owners of the studio.  She also says she has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders.

Jules Aaron, the director, does a fantastic job with this play including throwing Keystone antics of Chaplin as part of the makeup of the play when Gyssling and Chaplin fight. It is brilliantly staged and wonderfully unexpected.  That also holds true for the quiet moments caught on stage that was also exceptional.  The action, moving in and out of Miss Hollenbe speaking to the fourth wall with the lighting and the characters freezing, worked brilliantly (Lighting Design by Ric Zimmerman.) Without getting into details “the decision” worked less effectively.  Chaplin has worked years in pre-production to have this decision come down on him and the audience must really see the emotions coming from him. The same holds true for Hollombe who has worked her entire young life to get to this position. Also, Chaplin and Pickford have owned the studio for 20 years leading up to this moment.  What must this say about someone’s true colors once the decision has been made? And, how does this change their relationship forever?

Melanie Chartoff is superb as Mary Pickford, Canadian born and America’s Sweetheart.   Chartoff brings the right amount humor to the character, which longs to be in front of the camera again, but is resigned to running a studio. Chartoff brings enough of the backstory to be totally immersed in the daily life of a movie mogul.  Chartoff is smooth and unpredictable down to the last capricious moment.

Shawn Savage is also outstanding as George Gyssling, a man of unyielding rigidity with the weight of a political power behind him.  A man who believes he can come in and proscribe a dictum - that will have a movie studio bow to his political demands. Savage, complete with German accent, is excellent in the role and the fight scene was excellent.

Charlie Chaplin, wonderfully played by Brian Stanton, is at the top of his game and Stanton plays him as such.  Stanton brings an excellent physical life to the character that practically dances on and off the stage.  The scene with the globe worked to perfection on this night and Stanton shows us a life of a man who must have been a complete physical specimen.  Chaplin is the one character of this show that stands by his values no matter the cost going so far as to not answer the question of his religious makeup. Still, at times Stanton requires a deeper emotional life in Chaplin, one that will show us his humble beginnings when things get really tough in the trenches.  

The one character I found problematic was that of Hollombe, a character resembling Mary Wickes, with a loud, lanky, and wisecracking persona. This is Hollombe’s story, however articulate she wants to make it.  Hollombe is on her second day at the office with no visible reason for being there.  She doesn’t know how to type.  She’s hired by the most successful woman ever to run a studio, and can’t find anything to do, except to eat popcorn and listen to the conversation through the office walls. To round out the character, the relationship to Pickford must be unusual, pragmatic, and unique. This character should have more on the ball, should be extremely intelligent, and should be able to multitask any time at any given moment and in any given circumstance. Hollombe’s focus is disoriented with problems involving her boyfriend who has found a job in New York. Laura Lee Walsh’s unconquerable obstinate choices require strength and, at times, she must lift her way from the wallflower status while the other three are on stage. Being young and inexperienced should not hinder this character.  Hollombe had neither the beauty nor the talent to justify the position and the relationship with her employer necessitates further exploration by the actor.  That said Walsh did some very nice things but needs to add to her performance.

Other members of the remarkable crew are as follows:

Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer
Judi Lewin – Makeup/Hair/Wig Design
Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Michele Bernath – Choreographer/Asst. Director
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager 
Phillip Sokoloff - Publicity

If you have a chance to see this play in another carnation, Run! Run! Run! And take someone who has a gritty side to their political leanings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Christmas Carol in Prose Being A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens

By Joe Straw

L - R Troy Dunn, Arlo Petty, and Julianna Robinson
A homeless black woman with untethered eyes occasionally walks down the center of my street, carrying her life in a backpack, treading carefully, one small struggling step at a time moving toward an unknown physical destination.

But on this evening, with the weight of the day on me, moments beyond sunset, I looked up at the moon, and, then glanced down the street; there, I noticed a shadow sitting on the sidewalk, a dark disconsolate asomatous figure that appeared to levitate above the cold and insincere concrete. 

This sexless figure was blackened, backlit by the streetlight, motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, legs crossed, yoga style, an indistinguishable faceless shadow, hardly moving, and as I think about the play, I attribute the image to an “undigested bit of beef” or an “underdone potato”.

Curiosity got the better of me, though, but not so much that I called out or investigated, having come across ghostly figures in the past.  Try as hard as I might, I could not tell if the silhouette was a man or the homeless woman. 

I moved to the comfort of my home steps and when I opened the front door, inquisitiveness beckoned. I turned to look again and the shadow was gone. – Narrator

The way Eric Bloom announced the title made sense; it just rolled off the tip of his tongue but it confused me – A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. This is a slightly elongated title of “A Christmas Carol”.  One might suggest the play (in prose form) is actually an adaptation of the book.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater presents A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens directed by Jen Bloom through December 18, 2016.

Miles Memorial Playhouse is an excellent venue for holding the mansuetude of A Christmas Carol, a book that caresses and warms even the harshest of souls.

In reviewing, I told myself that I would not be harsh, that I would wrap myself with my woolen scarf, place it over my mouth if need be, and not utter grumblings of a disagreeable nature.  Grumpy was not on my list of adjectives this night.

And, there are times when it is better to footle, if only to let my imagination run spiritedly!  And with that,  I will give you what I heard and what I imagined I saw.  

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” – Dickens

Poor Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn) – a fragmented man who has lost touch with all of humanity, on this Christmas Eve.  Not lost in one fell swoop, mind you, but lost over the course of time, the elements, and the circumstances of his life, lonely as it were.

Scrooge sits at his desk counting money and adding figures for his firm – Scrooge and Marley – Marley being the absentee owner – having died seven years ago - Christmas Eve - on this very night.

Scrooge, concerned with every coin, pays scant attention to his nephew, Fred (Eric Bloom), who interrupts Scrooge in his cold and unpleasant office.  Fred, in great spirits, implores his Uncle Scrooge to attend his Christmas party and meet the woman he is madly in love with, his wife Belle (Yael Berkovich), but Scrooge will have none of it.

“…keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” – Scrooge

“Keep it! But you don’t keep it.” - Fred

“Let me leave it alone, then.” – Scrooge

Scrooge dismisses Fred with hardly a second thought to return to his solitude.

Moments later, two attractive women enter to solicit funds for the desperately poor and the overtly soiled.  One (Tanya White) is experienced while the other (Julianna Robinson) has very little training and is pushed into much-needed practice of asking for “slight provision for the poor and destitute”. .  

“Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?” – Scrooge

Not in the position to argue, the ladies make a hasty retreat.  Prison and workhouses rings a bell to delicate ears and those words will haunt Scrooge in the coming night.   

Watching and working at the warmth of the photocopying machine stands Bob Cratchit (Mike Nedzwecki) who moves himself to gather a modicum of warmth and to garner enough courage to ask Scrooge for Christmas day off.  Something he’s repeated for oh-so-many years! All because Cratchit wants to be with Mrs. Cratchit (Julianna Robinson), Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty), and all the assorted Cratchits – if it’s convenient.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December! But I suppose you must have the whole day.  Be here all the earlier next morning.” - Scrooge

In a facetious mood, Scrooge leaves the office but suddenly feels the weight of time and loneliness, his shoulder are hunched, and he walks a stiffened gait through the piercing cold and deserted impious English streets. He is alone, and no one comes near just to greet him.  It’s as if he had the plague.

Arriving home and turning the key, Scrooge perceives Jacob Marley (Bart Petty), a disfigured face shadow, as the knocker in the door. Scrooge thinks nothing of the image - this once being home to Marley – but now it is his refuge – a miserable hovel – a place with little fixtures, a table which doubles as a bed, a chair, dirty bed curtains – sparse furnishing for a man who has everything, and nothing.

Certainly, seeing Marley was something to think about after seven years. One imagines the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up and chills running egregiously down his trembling spine.

Rather than having unexpected guests, (better to be safe than sorry) Scrooge locks the doors not once, not twice, but three times.  Still, Scrooge thought of Marley, shivering as the night got colder.  The gruel he made from his minimal fire, got thick and cold. Indeed, there was more to come and everyone understood it, including Scrooge.

The darkness from the marginal candles was a cheaper alternative to light, and in that darkness, Scrooge waits for the light of disturbing images that must come. And given the nocturnal quivering on this night this might just be the time to shiver under the comfort of his stale bed coverings.   

Jen Bloom, the director, employs a variety of prodigious theatricals illusions including shadow theatre to make a point of this production and manages to throw all sorts of theatrical devices to keep the play moving at a 90-minute clip. Fezziwig’s party worked to great satisfaction.  But the production needed a stronger core with stronger relationships to tie the characters together. (There I go again.)

The shadows show us things, as they were, part of the idea of the past, a hand gesture, a sword, a finger pointing, numbers, and a lonely candle. But making it all work is something else that I will speak to later.

Thinking outside the box, one might want to come inside the box, out of the cold, and cozy up next to the fire of space and relationships. One idea, with the sword shadows, a young Ebenezer Scrooge reads a book of Ali Baba.  Separated by space, the shadows should dance from young Charles Dicken’s head, and having him near the shadows would presume the images are dancing thoughts.  

I can’t do this, a critique; it is not in my nature to deride A Christmas Carol based on the choices.

There are wonderful performances.  All of the actors have moments that shine in one character or another.  An interesting device employed in this production is the use of various characters acting as the narrator usually reserved for Charles Dickens (Ewan Chung), instead handed off to members of the ensemble. This may have worked better with additional lighting, giving the speakers a light, and the actors in a performing spotlight – e.g., a spotlight highlighting the action.

I can neither praise nor critique the tremulous light vibration that is the frangible workings of Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn), complete with his human miseries. But, then again, I can’t help myself.   

Troy Dunn employs a powerful voice as well as powerful muttonchops making his character something out of the 1830’s, while almost everyone inhabited the images of various time periods including Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty) who had a backpack with a breathing instrument protruding from it.  Gone was the lame Tiny Tim that I so enjoy.  

Also, Dunn wasn’t connecting to the other actors (on this night), which means there is a lot to overcome. (The show seemed to be moving at breakneck speed, without some actors, finding the moment to relate and establish a strong relationship). Gone were Scrooge’s monetary wicked doctrine, his behavior from being isolated, and his moral nihilism. He didn’t change much and that’s not what we want from our Scrooge. (I can’t believe I did it again!) 

The ghosts did not provide the ghastly intimacy moving Ebenezer in the right direction.   Jacob Marley’s grim exultation did not send Ebenezer fearing the next three days. There is a reason Jacob Marley’s head is wrapped. Because the kerchief is holding his jaw in place, and without it Marley’s jaw would fall to his breast and all of his teeth would fall out. The ghosts did not haunt effectively nor did they convince Ebenezer to change his ways. And you can’t have A Christmas Carol with the catharsis.

Also, the narrator’s perspective was in a constant state of flux and that was thoroughly enjoyable if not entirely effective.  

Still there are choice words for the things that did go right.  And those choice words belong to the actors.

Yael Berkovich is Belle and other ensemble characters.  She is a wonderful actor and brings much to the overall feel of the show.

Eric Bloom is Fred and is very natural on stage.  One would have preferred a Fred who was a little more cheerful trying to convince his uncle to visit him and to never give up on that objective.

Ewan Chung plays Charles Dickens and Master Peter Cratchit and was also in a fine period piece costume.

One also enjoys the play-making of Sara Mayer as Fan.  She has a grand presence on stage and is extremely enjoyable in the quiet moments on stage.

Mike Nedzwecki plays Bob Cratchit, and he is an actor who gets it, plays the moment, and is true to his objective.  He is especially true to the task when he says “Christmas Day” with the assorted Cratchits all around him. Nedzwecki, waits for that moment, and wow, this is a solid moment in this play.  Nedzwecki is a wonderful actor.

Arlo Petty does a nice turn as Tiny Tim and a member of the ensemble.

Bart Petty is also a member of the ensemble and Marley, the first ghost, who needs to scare the wits out of Scrooge.  This is a role in which an actor can find innumerable choices and there is more to add with this performance.

Juliana Robinson has a lot going on as Mrs. Cratchit and the other various roles in the ensemble.  Each role is different and Robinson adds a slight quirkiness to each character. Robinson is wonderful to watch on stage.

L - R Tanya White, Barbara Urich and Julianna Robinson

Barbara Urich is the Ghost of Christmas Present and does a fine job.  Her eyes, that radiance, projects well beyond the seats, and her quiet moments are particularly enjoyable.  Notwithstanding, a wonderful job. 

Tanya White was particularly enjoyable as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Pleasant is a word for this ghost until she drives the point home. White has a wonderful smile and has a very natural presence on stage.

Ben Landmesser and Sara Patterson are understudies and did not appear the night I was there.

Run! Run!  And take a Tiny Tim fan! You’ll have much to talk about on your way home.

Other members of this delight crew are as follows:

Ben Landmesser – Assistant Director
Adrienne Johnson-Lister – Production Stage Manager
Leslie K. Gray – Scenic and Shadows Design
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Design
Maddie Keller – Costume Design
David McKeever – Sound Design
John Mulhern – Associate Producer/Technical Director
David & Choy Publicity, Niki Blumberg – Publicity
Damla Coskun – Assistant Stage Manager
Eric Bloom, Bart Petty, Adrienne Johnson-Lister, Sarah Gurfield, - Co Producers
Sean Kohnen – Production Photos
Yael Berkovich – Program Layout Design
Linda Larson – House Manager

Contact Information
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To purchase tickets by phone: (844) Hum-Bugg (486-2844)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang

L - R Nate Golon, Christine Dunford, Brian Drillinger, Michelle Danner, Remy Nozik, Tamika Katon-Donegal - Photos by Teferi Seifu

By Joe Straw

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang was my first Broadway show.  I had orchestra seats and was three rows back from the stage (see review on this blog).  It was a wonderful New York scene, a wonderful evening, and a wonderful play.  Months later, another version played in downtown Los Angeles directed by David Hyde Pierce.  I did not see it, so when the chance came to see it at a smaller theatre, The Edgemar Center for the Arts, I jumped at the chance. - Narrator

I usually don’t speak of the second act but Michelle Danner’s performance (Sonia) was breathtaking, so much so that I will remember the moment, forever, with indifference to the passing of time.  She stood silently, listening, accepting what was to come, alone in a room, the phone moving from one position of her body to the next. She spoke, now quiet, heeding, and projected a moment in theatre that plays upon an emotion so deep that it hurt, and brought joy, and carried forth unimaginable happiness, all in one unforgettable warm memory.  It is that dramatic moment when one wants to rise, vigorously applause, and say, “That’s what I’m talking about!” But for now, it’s about an absorbed moment, and one that I will remember the rest of my life, for the rest of my life!

Edgemar Center for the Arts presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Tony Award winning play written by Christopher Durang, directed by Barbara Tarbuck, and produced by Alexandra Guarrnieri is playing through December 11, 2016. (but dark on Thanksgiving weekend)

The play opens on Edvard Grieg’s – Peer Gynt – Suite No.1, Op. 46.1, and music for the morning, in a sitting area of a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya (Brian Drillinger), in his pajamas, finds his chair, sits gingerly with a perfect hot cup of coffee, and waits for the blue heron to come to the pond nearby.

Sonia (Michelle Danner) saunters from the kitchen with a coffee cup and a diet soda.

“I brought you coffee, dearest Vanya.” – Sonia

“I have some.” – Vanya

Sonia sees the cup in his hand, glares, and appears perturbed, which might be an understatement, given the proclivity of her mental state.

Vanya and Sonia have been living together for quite some time.  They are in their 50’s and are accustomed to each other’s wants and needs. Despite their somber and un-miraculous morning, trouble brews, slightly, beneath the surface of the steaming cup.

“Oh.  But I bring you coffee every morning.” – Sonia

“Well, yes, but you weren’t available.” – Vanya

Chekhovian is a term used for a Chekhov character in a mood of introspection and frustration and that is clearly evident here in this house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, especially in this household, and in particular where coffee is concerned.  There is a dramatic weight to their inner feelings, unconsciously, each knowing where the other might be heading.

Sonia insists that Vanya take the coffee she has made especially for him.  But, before things get out of control, the docile Vanya accepts the coffee and life continues. For the moment, there is tranquility.

“Has the blue heron been at the pond yet this morning?” – Sonia

It takes just one sip of the coffee for Vanya to realize the cup he gave up tasted better, which he voices.  Well, that should not have been said – it makes Sonia feel bad, useless, and slightly pathetic all in one Chekhovian fell swoop.  

“I mean I have two pleasant moments every day in my f**king life, and one of them is bringing you coffee.” – Sonia  

Sonia then takes the non-preferred cup of coffee and smashes it somewhere near the kitchen (on this night, it doesn’t break and Sonia gives it another go) smashing it into unseen tiny pieces; she returns moments later to share the reason for breaking the cup, is that she hates her life and she hates him.

For now, Sonia has nothing, no one, so, and as a last resort she directs her attention to Vanya. She pines for Vanya. No luck again as Vanya marches to a different drummer. Besides, Sonia is related. She is the adopted sister, and has been with the family since the age of eight.   

As the moments tick away, Vanya’s coffee becomes cold again.  Politely, Sonia offers to heat it in the microwave, and with a delicate passion, and nimble feet she takes it. 

Vanya waits for the curiously inevitable as Sonia smashes that cup against the floor.

Neither one will volunteer to clean it up. They leave it for the maid, Cassandra (Tamika Katon-Donegal), who will join them later, bringing with her visions of doom and broken coffee cups.

“Beware of Hootie Pie.” – Cassandra

Cassandra tells Vanya and Sonia that her psychic powers connect Hootie Pie to them!  They will lose the house, become homeless, and they will eventually walk themselves to the poor house.

“Surely someone will give us a ride.” – Sonia

“No, you will walk.” - Cassandra

Moments later. Sonia says that Masha is coming to visit and no sooner does she say it, than Masha (Christine Dunford) and her oversexed 27-year-old boyfriend, Spike (Nate Golon), aka Vlad, arrive for a visit.

“Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same. Older. Sadder. But the same.  It’s wonderful to see you, Vanya. Oh, and you too, Sonia.” – Masha

Spike ingratiates himself to the family, smothers Masha with kisses, throws off his clothes, and runs to the pond for a swim. There, he meets Nina (Remy Nozik), a lovely would-be actress, whom he invites back to the house to meet a real-life movie star.  

Barabara Tarbuck, the director, has put together a pretty amazing cast.  Each actor has moments to shine, but really, shine is an understatement, as each actor contributes mightily to a terrific night of entertainment.  Lost Chekhovian characters in search an unattainable goal.

For the record though, the first few moments of the opening scene were off in the way that Sonia and Vanya connect and establish a relationship.  And it is a relationship that fits with being a Chekhovian family; Sonya is discontent, upset, and regretful while Vanya is resigned to his lonely way of life.  It is here, in these first few moments, that one needs to see the actors connect, the relationships established, and the fury in their offbeat sense of self-pity pay off dramatically.  There is no need to rush this scene, establishing a relationship will give us a deeper connection between the characters and a stronger sense of self and place.  

Also, Vanya needs to be in a nightshirt which projects femininity, or someone who spends his time in bed with little or nothing to do, whereas pajamas give a masculine impression or of someone who has been ill for quite some time.  (Also, Durang writes that Vanya should be in a nightshirt.)

Brian Drillinger is Vanya, and is very exited about the birth of his new play. In fact, that is the only thing that excites him, well almost.  But most of the time, Vanya is a desultory character, both wry in wit and confused in purpose.  He has not had the enthusiasm to get what he wants from life.  He is content with doing little or nothing and living with his sister as long as it doesn’t cost him anything. Seeing the blue heron is the highlight of his day.  Warding off his sister and her advances is either an annoyance to him or an assault charge in some states. But what does he want aside from living in his nightshirt? He is a budding playwright and maybe he wants his words to save the world, if he only knew how to get started. Drillinger has his moments but needs something extra to complete the character – an additional mannerism or another vocal inflection – all in keeping with his objective. The monologue at the end has a purpose, trying to get your message across, and connecting to make everyone’s life better. Drillinger has a lot of fun and is a pleasure to watch.

Michelle Danner is remarkable as Sonia, a character that stepped out of a Chekov play. Sonia’s backstory is clear – she has sacrificed her life to take care of her adoptive parents.  Now, she has nothing to show for it, not even the house.  She needs her one true love before all is said and done. Without realizing it, she moves in that direction. But she is saddled with the mental problems of being bi-polar and having a self-diagnosed incipient dementia. She spends her days making references to Chekov about there being no life.   Still, there is something very lovable about this woman whose father once called her his little artichoke.

Christine Dunford

Christine Dunford is brilliant as the aging movie star, Masha, who sends zingers to her siblings and anyone within earshot.  She is highly aware of her own self-importance despite the slasher movie roles that have now becoming infrequent.  Forced film retirement due to age, Masha dreams of turning her attention to performing on the stage.   Masha brings bad news of selling the house and throwing her siblings into the street.  She fails to think about her siblings and what their lives would be like without the home. Five marriages later, she is onto her boy toy and not really finding happiness.  Finding the one thing that makes her completely happy is the reason she makes the decision at the end.  Dunford is a brilliant actor who creates an astonishing physical and comedic life on stage.  

Nate Golon

Nate Golon is superior as Spike, a man in his physical prime, if not an emotional one.  He is happy to be the boy-toy not only with his girlfriend but also with anyone that may cross his physical unclothed path, which included everyone in or around this household, male or female, gay or straight, as long as they notice, him. Spike is an actor who has not gotten past the audition stage but hopes that one day, one day, he will reach his mercurial destiny. This is a wonderful role for Golon and he fills the bill marvelously.  

Remy Nozik has an incredible presence on stage as Nina. She glides effortlessly from one moment to the next and is extraordinary in the way she handles adult conflict in her character’s youthful inexperienced life. Nozik has a very enchanting look suitable for film.

Tamika Katon-Donegal is very pleasant as Cassandra, a woman who has voodoo at her fingertips and the ability to tell the future while missing only some of the details, if anyone would listen. But Cassandra has a pretty good batting average with her predictions. Katon-Donegal has a very nice look on stage and manages to strike into the heart of the character.  One believes Katon-Donegal can take Cassandra to another extreme in character and costume and still gets what she wants which I believe is her job.

Christopher Durang, the writer, hit all the marks here and brings forth all of his knowledge of actors, writers, stars, and Chekhov in a wonderful night of entertainment.  The Sonia monologue plays to perfection; while I have seen Vanya’s scene at the end, I have yet to figure out what it is about, or what it accomplishes.  Can a character go completely Chekhovian and get what he wants?

Alessandra Manias the Production Designer has created a wonderful set, a pre-revolutionary style home with semi-modern accouterments, for which the actors can create their magic.  There is a bench upstage center that is very peculiar and not used.  One supposes it is an outside courtyard.

Other members of the crew who contributed mightily are as follows:

Carly Llewelyn-Ryan – Production Stage Manager
Anna Zak – Directors Assistant
Gianluca Zago – Production Design Assistant
Larae Mychel – Costume Designer
Kyle McAnally – Lighting Designer
DJ Medina – Sound Designer
Rob Riley – Associate Producer and Graphic Designer
Josephine Hies – Associate Producer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves Stanislavsky and his ideas that Chekhov wrote delightful comedies.



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