Friday, October 21, 2016

The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) – Conceived, Adapted & Directed by Daniel Henning


Casey McKinnon and Ford Austin - All Photos: Rick Baumgartner

By Joe Straw - EXTENDED THROUGH 11/20/2016!

Casually having coffee in a diner, he let some information slip; as if he knowingly let anything slip in his life.

“The army wouldn’t give me the security clearances I needed to get up to another level – cause of I have distant relatives from the Soviet Union.” 

The time, circa 1967, and he was just a corporal, an army office grunt.

He was just the kind of outspoken man, with an I.Q. tested over 175, the army loved to send to Vietnam.

Never mind that he just adopted five kids and needed to remain in the states for a year to finalize the adoption. They don’t care who they send.  

And, while there, in Vietnam, some strange eye opening papers brush across his desk.  Strange little items like military contracts with Lady Bird Johnson’s holding company name on them.

After Vietnam, he was flown to Alaska for debriefing.  He was told not to mention what he had seen and he kept that secret for over 40 years.  

Vietnam was very profitable, for some. LBJ, et al. – let’s face it somebody has to win in a war.  - Narrator  

Walking into the Skylight Theatre in Hollywood is like walking through a cavern with a high ceiling, the vomitorium of no return. After going in you come out a different person.  

The Blank Theatre presents the World Premiere of The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) conceived, adapted and directed by Daniel Henning at the Skylight Theatre through October 29th, 2016. Produced by Daniel Henning, Bree Pavey and Noah Wyle.

Daniel Henning, the writer and director, stood outside the theatre door, busy as usual, although he took a moment to thank patrons for coming.  He is always charming, and a bit thinner than one remembers, possibly from wrangling this large cast.  And he appeared appreciably nervous, unable to comprehend of what the night would bring.

The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) by Mr. Henning is what Los Angeles theatregoers crave. Henning, an ingenious perfectionist, offers a new voice and ties it into the words of William Shakespeare of an event that is etched in our collective memories.

Henning rides his creative theatrical horse on this day bringing nourishment to those who crave more from their 99-seat venues.  He does this by conveying his rich ideas and perspectives imploring theatregoers to take his hand and take the ride.      

William Shakespeare died 347 years before the Kennedy assassination. One cannot attest to time travel, certainly some men have peaked into the future.  But one would guess that Shakespeare, in fact, did not see this coming.

But, then again, there were some strange similarities.

I’ll not tell you on which play Mr. Henning adapted, that would spoil the fun. But, if you are a fan of William Shakespeare you will get it almost immediately.

The lone gunman theory haunts many Americans.  Visions of the immaculate pristine bullet in the car shine as bright as the televisions, which broadcast Oswald, being gunned down by Jack Ruby (Rubenstein).

There were too many bad actors covering up on a nonsensical stage in Dallas, Texas. An average Joe could see that visual events did not project a truth, and still don’t. You don’t have to look too far to know who had the most to gain. 

Lyndon Baines Johnson (Time Winters) was an honorable man, so were they all, all honorable men.

Aside from LJB, who had the most to gain?  

J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco) was not a friend of Kennedy as both JFK and RFK wanted him out.  Knowing this, Hoover wanted to keep his job, by any and all means necessary.  

Carlos Marcello (Jerry Della Salla) was a member of an organized crime family in New Orleans.  He pleaded the 5th under questioning by Senator John F. Kennedy and Robert R. Kennedy’s congressional committee investigating organized crime.  Marcello was deported once but found his way back to the states.

Gov. John Connally (Jonathon Lamer) wanted a legacy, more power, and a significant bond with LBJ to achieve that power.  Things never turn out the way one wants.

Allen Dulles (Bruce Nehlsen) was the former head of the CIA. Dulles was responsible for the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, the overthrow of Iran’s elected government, the U-2 program, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Algiers putsch against Charles de Gaulle. (One catastrophe after another.)  Kennedy would have no more and accepted Dulles resignation. Dulles was on the Warren Commission and his job was to steer the investigation in Johnson’s favor.

McGeorge Bundy (Jacob Sidney) had a lot to gain since Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam and Bundy did not.  Bundy was considered the chief architect of the Vietnam War.

General Edwin Walker (Johnny Walker) was a man with an ostentatious stare and a chest full of metals, a ranking staunch conservative and responsible for handing out leaflets with JFK’s photo on it titled “Wanted for Treason.”

Did William Shakespeare impart a truth of the events leading to that faithful day in Dealey Plaza?  One cannot be sure but I can’t think of a better idea or a better way to spend an evening, than to venture out on this night to receive that truth.

So, watch the flickering light, the sputtering 8mm frames of the Zapruder film and see what this theatrical illumination has to offer.  

Dealey Plaza sets the place, a rather ominous place that will live in infamy and it lingers on stage throughout the setting.  Set Designer Sydney Russell creates a nice symbolic message that lingers long after the audience has left.  It is a place where the memories don’t change and the spirited shadows move from place to space.

The shadows lingering there are JFK (Ford Austin), RFK (Chad Brannon), LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, Clyde Tolson (Cris D’Annunzio), Jackie Kennedy (Casey McKinnon), Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Denaker), Evelyn Lincoln (Kelie McIven), Allen Dulles, Clint Muchison (again Cris D’Annunzio), Carlos Marcello, Gov. John Connally, Jack Valenti (again Jerry Della Salla), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brett Collier) Lee Harvey Oswald (Brian Brennan), McGeorge Bundy, and General Edwin Walker.

The actors came out and introduced themselves and each bore a striking resemblance to the character they portrayed.  Some wore different hats and explained the characters they would be playing. They spoke in modern day language and there was no iambic pentameter at this moment.

A short while later…

“Beware of Dallas.” Evelyn Lincoln 

L - R - Time Winters, Bruce Nehlsen, and Tony Abatemarco

In the world of politics one name sounds just as good as another, “JFK” versus “LBJ” as J. Edgar Hoover would tell it as he moves to the direction of the “aw shucks” Vice President Johnson, a man with open eyes and seething political ambition.

And as the President is giving a speech…

“Can you see your face?” J. Edgar Hoover

The conversation must be handled delicately but the ambitious LBJ is no fool.

“What dangers would you lead me?” - LBJ

J. Edgar Hoover does his best to side with LBJ, to impart his wisdom about a man, JFK, who is only a man and like all men must move onto a ghostly plain. Hoover downplays the President’s life as extraordinary, and offers LBJ a delicious barbeque plate of political fodder.   

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name:
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em.” – J. Edgar Hoover

Events play into the hands of the ambitious LBJ. He sees the value of J. Edgar Hoover’s words, knows that Kennedy suffers from a number of ailments, including Addison’s disease, and a rare autoimmune ailment.  LBJ is getting old and he knows that he must make his move, or let the others make his move, knowing that he will be too old for the presidency should Kennedy run again.

“Let it be who it is.” – J. Edgar Hoover

“But O grief, where has this led me?” – LBJ

Hoover arranges to come to LBJ’s house late that night with the co-conspirators.  Waiting with drink in hand, LBJ steadies his nerves. 

The men enter and LBJ asks each one of them for their oath of allegiance.   

Lady Bird Johnson quietly steps out of the bedroom to find out what was going on.  LBJ brushes her off and tells her to go back to bed.

Chad Brannon as RFK - Center, Casey McKinnon as Jackie Kennedy - Center right

This is really a very remarkable cast.  The actors create an enormous life with little props or set pieces.  It is an amazing way to create under the symbolic looming image of Dealey Plaza.   And each actor, in his or her own little way, brings about a historical naturalness.

Tony Abatemarco is remarkable as J. Edgar Hoover.  His voice is strong, his intentions are clear, and he has an instinctual way about the character that is extremely clever.  Abatemarco packs a tremendous amount of history into that character.

Ford Austin is John F. Kennedy, a rather robust Kennedy, in public persona, but adding a personal touch that gives Kennedy a hint of the maladies that affects him. (e.g. walking up the steps, gingerly.) Austin displays Kennedy with grand style, charm, and a broad smile.  The personal fault with character is that he listens to a stranger interpreting his dreams rather than his wife. That gets him into trouble for which he is never able to recover.  Austin is terrific.

Chad Brannon is surprising as Robert F. Kennedy.  The voice and mannerism all work to perfection. The play suggests that RFK could do little after the assassination but to play along and that he would be taken care of later in his political career. RFK fell into that trap, gave the “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” speech and made a number of political enemies after that. Brannon is an astonishing actor with a terrific range to his craft.

One can never get enough of the Zapruder film so when the film was playing I lost sight of Brian Brennan playing Lee Harvey Oswald. I can’t tell you if he picked up the rifle on stage and aimed.  And ultimately, it was part of the confusion on that day.  Earlier, LBJ gives Oswald the gun, probably a metaphor, while Oswald is asleep in what appears to be the LBJ’s porch.  If there was anything needed in this production, it was the cleaning up of this relationship.  Was it a metaphor? Maybe we need to take this a little further.

Brett Collier does an admirable job as Martin Luther King, Jr.  The song and the march were outstanding. How King fits into the Kennedy assassination, one is not really sure.  

Cris D’Annunzio plays Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s confidant and Clint Muchinson, Sr., a Texas-based oil magnate and political operative. D’Annunzio has a great look and was superb in the roles offering a wonderful history to the characters. Watching this actor in others plays, this has to be the finest work to date.  

In the broad scheme of things, I didn’t get the connection of the character Carlos Marcello, an organized crime boss, portrayed by Jerry Della Salla and how the character fits into the picture.  Salla presents a character with strength, someone who would pledge allegiance, and carry out the job.  But, how it all fits, is one’s guess. Also Salla played Jack Valenti. His face is clearly on the photo on the plane when LBJ was sworn in. The two characters, both Italian, represent strength and love. Marcello was the muscle and Valenti was the love and making the distinction for both roles would only add flavor to the roles.

Susan Denaker was excellent as Lady Bird Johnson.  Denaker provided a rich history to the character and was specific in her characterization. She was the smarter one of the two and the one with the most money.  Denaker made the most of Lady Bird Johnson, being an adoring wife, but letting her husband know who controls the strings.

John Knight was an Aide and Pollster. Roslyn Cohn has a very distinctive look and did well on this very night.

Jonathan Lamer did well as Gov. John Connally filling out his role.  It is possible that we don’t see the true nature of Connally’s political ambition in this portrayal.  It might be something to an already nice performance.

Kelie McIver was Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, who warns Kennedy about going to Dallas.  Lincoln is the soothsayer.  McIver has a wonderful strength on stage, never giving up to reach her objective. Her performance was subtle at times and her craft exhibited wonderful execution.  

Casey McKinnon is the apotheosis of Jackie Kennedy, and she is equally stunning.  Her craft is evenly exquisite as she executes with a precision rarely seen in a 99-seat venue down to the wisp of hair that falls near her eyes in the burial scene.   

Bruce Nehlsen portrays Allen Dulles. Kennedy fired him and later LBJ hired him as one of the commissioners of the Warren Commission. So Dulles was an enemy but had little do on stage.

Jacob Sidney is always delightful and carries a strong presence and sophistication in the character. Sidney is playing McGeorge Bundy considered the Chief Architect of the Vietnam War and also involved in the Bay of Pigs. Good buds with Allen Dulles. Bundy had much to gain from the assassination. It is a marvelous role for Sidney and well done.

John Walker is wide-eyed General Edwin Walker who wanted Kennedy arrested for treason, in fact he handed out leaflets during Kennedy’s final motorcade ride. The purpose of the role, I suspect, was a diversion from the matter at hand, the Kennedy assassination. 

Time Winters is excellent as Lyndon B. Johnson.  His art is an afflatus to the manner of his craft. One can’t down play the aw-shucks manner in character as the Vice President, the shuffling of shoes, and the inebriated manner with which he conducts business.  All part of the business that is inspiring to watch in an actor. Winters provides a character rich in history, a backstory that shows the intimate details of his every flaw, and there were many flaws, and he also included Johnson’s political acumen for which he famously controlled the nation after the assassination. Wow!  This was a terrific performance.

L - R Brett Collier and Chad Brannon

Daniel Henning, the director, is a master craftsman; little time is wasted on stage. The characters, mannerism, and objectives play to perfection. But, the Civil Rights protests which played a significant role in the ‘60s moved the production in another direction without seeing how we can tie the additional tragedies the assassination of Martin King, Jr. April 4th, 1968, and Robert Kennedy June 6th, 1968 to the people who may have been responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy.  How do we tie Johnson and Hoover to those deaths as well? (While we are on the subject of doing that.) I enjoyed the haunting figure of JFK over the shoulder to LBJ.  It makes for such a nice picture of guilt. Add RFK, and MLK to the mix – center stage during the phone conversation – and that guilt intensifies. It forces LJB to not seek re-election.  Mr. Henning gives a hint of what he believes when one wishes for something a little more definitive, but that’s probably something we will never get.  

There is an alternate cast that I did not see but everyone who works deserves a mention and here they are:

Stephen Anglin Jr. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
James Babbin (John Connally/Allen Dulles/McGeorge Bundy)
Dane Bowman (John F. Kennedy)
Elliott Davis (Lee Harvey Oswald)
Vince Donvito (Carlos Marcello/Jack Valenti)
Don Lucas (Clint Murchinson/Clyde Tolson/Gen. Edward Walker)
Stasha Surdyke (Jackie Kennedy)
Greg Winter (Robert Kennedy)

Other crewmembers that did outstanding work are as follows:

Brandon Baruch – Lighting Designer
Naila Aladdin Sanders – Costume Designer Assistant
Judi Lewin – Hair/Wig/Makeup Designer
Warren Davis – Sound Designer
Mike Hawley – Assistant Director/Dialect Coach/Music Director
Ken Werther – Public Relations
Katherine Hunter-Blyden – Marketing Director
Erica S. Bream – Casting Director (Gathering a rush of recognized talent – an outstanding job.)
Cara Chute Rosenbaum – Casting Director (ditto from above)
Cynthia Aquino – Associate Producer
Amanda Faucher – Associate Producer
Shah Granville – Associate Producer.

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the 1960s!

Or Phone: 323-661-9827

The Skylight Theatre
1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Monday, October 3, 2016

Moral Imperative by Samuel Warren Joseph


By Joe Straw

A moral imperative is a strongly-felt principle that compels that person to act.

Seth (Martin Thompson) is not known for his quiet ambiguity, he finally gets to his point, in a superfluous academic way.  His stories are an amphiboly, sometimes an arduous journey, but he labors to reach his destination.  Tonight, the lights are on him as he is giving a speech, a party favor, a titillating bon mot that permeates the room; one suspects this is an intimate gathering, and a party in his home.

Seth continues with his story about a nefarious grade grubber.    

“I’ll do anything for an A.” – Student

“Anything?” – Seth

This is a defining moment, one that projects an uneasiness of this crudely jocular professor.  He throws a sinister glance and exercises an exaggerated pause.

“Yes.” – Student

Another pause.

“Would you study?” – Seth

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills presents the World Premiere of Moral Imperative by Samuel Warren Joseph, directed by Howard Storm, and produced by David Hunt Stafford through October 17th, 2016.

Art is ambiguity and Moral Imperative, in all of its ambiguity, is art.

Moral Imperative penned by Joseph is a delicious morsel of art executed on a theatrical canvas under Storm’s direction, accompanied by a wonderful gathering of thespians on Jeff G. Rack’s beautiful set.  Michéle Young, the Costume Designer, sets the tone and place creating a delightful look of this New England town that plays host to the mythical private college, Briarton University.     

Math and science are considered precise fields. But theatre, by its very nature, is ambiguous. It written in a voice translated by the actors to make imaginative choices; it is molded by the director’s through line, to guide actors as they sally forth with strong objectives.  A play is, by definition, ambiguous.  If it were anything else, what would be the point?

But, one can always take a look and decide if a presentation successfully worked.  Or, could the direction be slightly altered to solidify moments? 

Overall, the night was successful; the actors very strategic, but the moral questions, some behavior issues, and actions had me slightly puzzled. One will speak of choices made on this particular night in due time.  

Everyone thought that Seth, a provost and philosophy professor, was in line for the job of President of Briarton University, having been at the University in excess of thirty years. Such was not the case. 

Seth is slightly upset, but not demonstratively so. Seth’s wife, Mary (Susan Damante), also thought his chance was excellent. 

Seth’s intimate friend, Dean Robert (Ken Kamlet), has a phlegmatic respect for Seth as he joined to commiserate on this rather awkward social gathering.   

Seth, gamboling around the living room, says he is fluent in five languages including Latin, if that were criteria for being president.  Those words speaks volumes about his character as he neither celebrates nor commiserates.

“My father said I won’t amount to anything.” – Seth

An interesting moment that hits at the heart of the matter and also one that takes a low-spirited turn.  And, as the guests are thinking of leaving, Mary holds them there with the smell of a caffeinated drink.

Mary is a doting wife, perhaps that is misnomer as she handles a multitude of duties.  She is a professional, a doctor, and, if one must praise, she also makes a great cup of coffee.   

The work for the night is not quite done.  Academic professionals are known for being extremely inquisitive and this night is no exception.

Robert’s Asian wife, Karen (Kyoko Okazaki), is not academic; she teaches very small children.  She is fluent in Spanish after spending time teaching in Central America.  She hesitates to speak, knowing little about University life, and is cautious when engaged in small talk amongst the brilliant.  Karen has strong Christian beliefs, and while most professionals in the room are skeptical yet polite, Seth silently scoffs at her repeated mention of God and Jesus.    

Mary tries to keep Seth in check by making eye contact and politely reminding Seth they are guests in their home.

Still, hardly anyone in the room can blame Karen for her faith considering that she has overcome a great deal of adversity.  The trauma of having her daughter die in a tragic automobile accident, of which she was the driver, still rings a memory of horrific sounds.  

But, the discussion suddenly turns to Oscar (David Hunt Stafford) of whom the Trustees have appointed to the job of the President.  Oscar is brilliant and a conservative savvy operative.  He is also an inveterate political figurehead who was responsible for the death of sixty thousands Central Americans. It is a fact that the Trustees willfully ignored when they chose him to be the president.

Academics are noted for talking shop in any intimate gathering and tonight are no exception as Robert reads an article about Oscar wanting to seize control of the University and to get rid of tenure and unwanted professors. In short, Seth believes the institution will be destroyed.

Tired of the conversation, Mary and Karen leave the room to look at some toys Mary wants to give to Karen for her kids.

It is here that Seth sets a disturbing course of action. They joke at first, but then Seth turns to the moral imperative of ridding the world of a deplorable.  The pustulous intercourse takes a deadly turn.  Spurned on by Seth’s plan of action, he wants Robert along for the ride.   

Robert, in pusillanimous mode, says they were only joking about assassinating Oscar. He’s not sure how this discussion has turned into an eristical game.  

“You’re not the first professor who had an affair.” – Seth

Ouch, not so much a game anymore. Seth goes pretty low when he mentions Roberts’s marital infidelity and one, in particular, that caused a young woman to commit suicide.   

“Can’t believe the trustees made such a bad decision.”  - Robert.  

Seth, using his words, is persuasive, implementing every trick to get Robert on board.

“Oscar asked that you be at the meeting.” – Seth

“If we did this, can you live with yourself?” – Robert

“Yes!” – Seth   

David Hunt Stafford plays Oscar, and about the only thing that I can tell you and still stay in the first act is that an attempt is made on his life, an overly aggressive attempt. Stafford does an excellent job, his execution is done in small increments, and it is magnificent in its final implementation.  

Brandee Steger plays Detective Pauline and she is much like Columbo without the trench coat.  It is a marvelous role for Steger who makes the most of an exciting character that manages to get to the bottom of things one way or another.

Kyoko Okazaki plays Karen a hapless character filled with strife and worries, mostly inner struggles of the death of her child and her husband’s infidelities. Karen is strong in her beliefs and is naïve in the way she believes things work. Okazaki’s work incorporates a strong technique especially the personal background story and her relationship with the other characters.

Susan Damante presents a very strong figure as Mary. Mary puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, although it takes her a while to do so.  When she says that her husband was reading her medical book that set off some red flags for me but her husband paid scant attention to that remark.  Sometimes I would like to see more of a moment and Mary’s entrance at the end of the first act should play longer for various reasons of what is going on on stage.  Delay this entrance and make it excruciating long, for the sake of a moment, drop your keys, have a multitude of bags in your arms, key jam in the door, scream for help, etc.  That aside, Damante is excellent in her craft and her work plays to perfection in all of her quiet moments.

Ken Kamlet is Robert and was successful on most fronts. There were problems with his relationship with his mentor that were not clearly defined or illustrated.  Most of it had to do with infidelity and the manner in which it is used against him in order to be an accomplice. There is more we need to see in his relationship with his mentor.  What is the one thing that makes him want to go along with the plan? Also, faith, conscience, and guilt plays an important part in his being and holding the glass has to be the most terrifying event in his life. They had spoken about it. His back is turned when the drink is poisoned.  He is handed the drink.  Did he look into the givers eyes? Is he shaking, or having seconds thoughts?  These are things he can add to an already terrific performance.   

Martin Thompson is Seth and his motives must be stronger. Without giving too much away, an event toward the end provides a key reason as to why he pushes everyone to the brink.  But his actions are not strong enough, not powerful enough, and sometimes plays like a melodrama.  Is it the polite academia charm that keeps him from pushing the boundaries?  Little is made of Seth reading his wife’s medical journal when in reality she is giving away his secret! Also, the affair remark is said in such a casual way that the intention is lost, the – I’ve got you on this, I’ve kept your secret, so you must help me – intention!  Also, Seth must have a fall guy in case something goes terribly wrong so he can throw the spineless Robert under the bus. And all that aside, Seth is holding on to a terrible secret, something has gone wrong within him, and whether that’s what spurns him on, one can’t say, but it would be nice to have those clues.  

Also, Seth and Robert must have a stronger relationship and that relationship must defined in a myriad of ways, colleagues, mentor, master, slave, and manipulator.  Most were used in various forms but the execution was mild and needed strengthening for a stronger theatrical presentation.

The funny thing about Howard Storm’s direction is that the first act plays like a comedy including the assassination scene but in the second act actions becomes very dramatic. The humor is not wasted in the first act, but action could be more pointed to the dramatic and not lose a thing. I’ve mentioned the poisoning of the drink and that scene could be taken to another level.  The same holds true with the scene of the end of the first act.  There is a lot more dramatic action to add in this scene. The smoking scenes don’t progress the play, slightly taking away from the objective, and only giving an understanding of a causal link in the end. On another note I had a little problem with the nitroglycerin bottle that Oscar had in his possession, and was later taken from him by Robert.  But then where did the bottle go?  Who has the bottle? I found it an important question to ask.  Others disagreed with me.

Samuel Warren Joseph has written a wonderful play.  It rings so delightfully true of academia, of the people, and place.  In the end Seth’s motives are heinous, because he is doing it all for himself, not his wife, not for his kids, and not even for his friends.  Joseph has created a tragic character who is extremely selfish, and is a very appalling figure of someone who is willing to sacrifice others for the one thing he needs. He gathers little sympathy in the end and he loses everything for the want of that one thing. What more could you ask for in a theatrical presentation?

Run! Run! Run! And take your favorite professor.  I did and she loved it!

The other crew members are as follows:

Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer
Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Jean Sportelli – Assistant Director
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Judi Lewin – Makeup/Hair/Wig Design
Ed Krieger – Photographer
Richard Hoyt Miller – Program Design
Philip Sokoloff – Publicity

RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Barbecue by Robert O’Hara


L - R Elyse Mirto, Frances Fisher, Dale Dickey and Travis Johns - Photos:  Jeff  Lorch Photography 

By Joe Straw

I came wanting to laugh hard on this night.  It’s not really hard for me to laugh; still I wanted it to be a hard laugh.  I did.  Mission accom… No, I don’t want to say that. – Narrator

The Geffen Playhouse presents the West Coast production of Barbecue written by Robert O’ Hara and directed by Colman Domingo in Westwood through October 16th, 2016. The Off Broadway play was presented at the Public Theater in 2015.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue is wondrously funny in ways you can or cannot imagine. Joyfully engaging and infinitely enlightening, this is a play that both dramatically reawakens the senses and delights in meaningful ways as it pokes fun at the trials and tribulations of a family in crisis.    

Barbecue also speaks an honest truth, exposing the lives of iniquitous characters while also splashing a sudsy dose of our own reality all over our face. It is a comedic two-sided vinyl record, one side is black, and the other side white, but still playing the same great music.

(Bare with me on the colloquialisms.)   

The dew had not yet dried off the foliage that morning when James T (Travis Johns), beer in hand, arrived a little early, well earlier than the rest, to grab the spot in the park, just in case someone else had their own plans.  One gets the feeling that his sisters, who are set to join him, are not even out of bed yet. When they finally get there, there’ll business to attend to.     

James T sets his backside to a wooden park bench claiming the space and other things in the park.  An ice chest warns that this spot is taken.  So he sits along the two park benches, which are nestled under a wooden awning.  The sturdy post, holdin’ up the awning, is a nice place to secure someone should it come to that.   

Near the awning is a happy metal sliding board with peelin’ yellow lead paint, something delicious for the kids to enjoy were they’re any, and shrubbery to protect against prying eyes.

(Sibyl Wickersheimer, Scenic Designer, crafted a wonderful space for the actors to create their magic.)

James T (his mother was probably a Star Trek fan.), with his man bun, looked around like he had everything under control and appearing confident as though he had a phaser strapped on his belt.   

All okay, but the phone wasn’t working to James T’s satisfaction, talkin’ to his sister Lillie Anne (Frances Fisher), like he’s talking to his mama and not sparing any of the profanity that goes along with it. G*d D*mn this and G*d D*mn that. 

James T tells Lillie Anne that he has faith that their sister, Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), will show up.  He just doesn’t know if she’s gonna’ show up all liquored up, cracked up, or something else up, and he doesn’t know if she’s going to be violent.   

“We’re not a normal gatdamn family.” – James T.

Well that much is true and there’s a lot more “not normal” coming up.

“‘shorts make me look fat?”  Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne shows up with a few nasty lawn chairs and wantin’ to know why no one’s been decoratin’.  It’s it a party, for GD sake, and there’s got to be decorations at least to fool the one who needs to be fooled!  

But, there’s no decorative ribbon, and it looks like no one has the will to decorate or even try.  All this for their sister, Barbara, a.k.a. Zippity Boom, who has major problems, including alcohol, drugs, mental illness, and prostitution just to name a few.   And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, or ice chest.

Adlean (Lisa Rothschiller) and Marie (Elyse Mirto) show up, two more sisters to Barbara, James T, and Lillie Anne.  (Two of their other siblings are dead and won’t be attending this gathering.) Adlean leaves her kids out in the burning hot car because she knows there’s more to this barbecue and they don’t need kids underfoot.

There’s nothing like watching trailer park trash at a barbecue.

Overweening big sister Lillie Anne says there's going to be an intervention. And as soon as that’s said there is a black out, or black in, depending on your perspective.

Cherise Boothe, Yvette Cason, Omar J. Dorsey, Kimberely Hébert Gregory and Heather Alicia Simms.

All the characters are now black: Lillie Anne (Yvette Cason), James T. (Omar J. Dorsey), Adlean (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), Marie (Heather Alicia Simms) and they don’t miss a beat continuing the same story and exposing everyone’s problems.

“You probably don’t even remember waking up this morning with all them damn pills you poppin.” – Marie

“Heifa, you wait till you get you a disease in yo’ t*tty.” – Adlean

“I was the one who told you not to go eating no damn corn out no damn can.  It’ them damn canned goods that gave you that damn cancer.” – Marie

Suddenly quiet, everyone wonders if, during the intervention, Barbara (Cherise Boothe) is gonna get violent. They talk about Barbara as though she was a legend and legend has it that after Barbara lost all her teeth, she’s been known to carry around razors in her gums, and they are worried something like that might happen during the intervention.

They are all terrified at what she might do.

James T, sitting on the lawn furniture, says he has a Taser should things get a little out of hand.

The whole family has got problems and it’s a back and forth blame game as to how they all got into this situation.

Marie, pointing fingers, gulping down a Jack Daniels, looks in Adlean’s bag for all types of pills she’s got. Adlean, despite the cancer, is puffing a cigarette, and doesn’t want Marie looking in her stuff.

“There’s a lot of shit in my purse that ain’t mine.” – Marie

Somebody’s looking to get tased.


White in.

“We love you even though you’re a crackhead.” – Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne has got a plan and it’s a plan about getting Barbara into rehab.  She’s serious and she asks everyone if they have written their letters?  No, they haven’t since they’re not one for doing homework.  Lillie Anne is the smartest of the bunch going back to school to get her G.E.D.

Anyway, Lillie Anne has got Barbara a plane ticket to Alaska for this rehab center that does hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and horses. She shows them the fold out pamphlet. To the others, it sounds like a bad idea, and maybe they can ask Siri if there is a rehab center nearby.

A car horn beeps and they all start dancing.

“Get ready, when I do the fish tale dance…” -  Lillie Anne

Unexpectedly Barbara is upon them.

One can’t go farther than this without giving too much away.

The splash of reality hits when one cast is replaced with the other.  It was at this moment the audience gasped, a great magnificent audible breath, in delight, or horror, I can’t say, but it sure is great to be in the theatre when that happens. Also, for me it is at this time when momentary confusion sets in and there is suddenly a grand visceral, emotional and cerebral engagement, one that locks characters in the respective roles and slowly eases me into another perspective.

Colman Domingo, the director, has a splendid understanding of the material and slips us in and out without missing a beat. The second act moves into material that gives us a sincere truth about who these people actually are and why they behave the way they do. It takes us away from the legends and into a demonstrative reality. There is a deep emotional connect with the characters in the second act.  Even reality is never the complete truth. Overall, the execution is superior.

Travis Johns (James T) gives an interesting and credible performance. There’s more to be had with the opening telephone conversation and his relationship with the other person on the phone. Also, strengthening the relationships with his siblings would add to an already fine performance.

Frances Fisher is superior as Lillie Anne and also very funny. Fisher’s craft is excellent especially her relationship with all four of her siblings which is commanding in a traditional big-sister way. She is the organizer who sees value in saving a life worth saving if only she could get the others on board. And getting them all on board is what is amazing about Fisher’s performance.

Lisa Rothschiller does justice to Adlean, the one with cancer who has a ravenous appetite for canned corn, cigarettes, and popping pills. This is a role where Rothschiller has multiple opportunities to define the relationship with each sibling showing us the similarities and the differences.

Elyse Mirto also does well as Marie.  Marie has a mean streak in her and has to be controlled in one fashion or another. Marie is an alcoholic and in taking part of the intervention, she knows that she has some hard choices to make starting with the bottle she carries around with her, if only she would listen to her inner voice.

Rebecca Wisocky has a powerful presence on stage as Barbara aka Zippity Boom. Barbara seems to be the sanest one of the bunch.  Wisocky brings an authoritative history of the character on stage and one that suggests a woman who is very worldly, a woman who has overcome great adversity to get where she is today. It is, at this point in her life, when she knows who she is, who she was, and what she wants to become.  Her craft is subtle and commanding all in the same breath and a privilege to watch.  

Cherise Boothe was also Barbara on the night I was there. Without giving too much away, Boothe was solid in her craft switching from one character to another, with a variety of accents, style and grace.  She is very funny and holds her own on stage.  She is a solid performer.

Yvette Carson as Lillie Anne has a quiet presence during her first moments on stage sometimes giving away what little power she has over to her siblings.  But during the course of the play, she manages to secure herself as the head of the family especially during the intervention scene where she is reading of the letter. A lot of love, hard love went into that scene and was very enjoyable.

Omar J. Dorsey was also James T and was wearing a wig, a small fro. Dorsey’s James T was a little low keyed but managed to make his voice heard in the simplest of ways. This James T was methodical on the grill, low keyed, mellowed by the stuff he was smoking in his pipe. And what is it that makes a man want to join another man when he’s grilling?  

Kimberly Hébert Gregory also plays Adlean and aside from all the bickering back and forth between her siblings there seemed to be a deeper understanding of her character, a quiet simplicity that struck a tremendous chord, a display that showed a willingness to love and create the best for her sister despite all of her own problems. Gregory’s work was fantastic.

Heather Alicia Simms shows us a strong resolve as Marie, a woman who will not let go of her bottle of Jack Daniels but will point out the fault of others, namely the sister with cancer. The aftermath of the zapping was about the funniest things I have seen in a long time.  Well done!  

Dale Dickey (Adlean) and Maya Lynne Robinson (Barbara) did not perform on the night I was there.

Robert O’Hara’s play rings in a solid truth in theatre.  It is honest in the way it finds a certain kind of family expressing a familiarity and using that expression to get to the meat of the matter, pun intended for this barbecue.  No beating around the bush for this family, they say what’s on their mind and they don’t care who they hurt.  You’ve got to wonder, if the drugs lessens the pain as siblings speak the truth. I’m not sure if I got the three million dollars and the sinisterness of Barbara splitting one million.  

The Geffen is a special place in Westwood, a wonderful space with generous parking, and plenty of places to dine all around. The Geffen also offers a magnificent space for theatre professionals to continue to work in their craft. Those crew-members that contributed to the magic are as follows:

Randall Arney – Artistic Director
Gil Cates, Jr. – Executive Director
Kara Harmon – Costume Designer
Lap Chi Chu – Lighting Designer
Lindsay Jones – Composer & Sound Designer
Anne L. Hitt – Production Stage Manager
Cate Cundiff – Assistant Stage Manager
Phyllis Schuringa, CSA – Casting Director
Regina Miller – Chief Development Officer
Rhonda Kohn – Assistant Director
Dave Bova – Hair and Makeup Designer
Heather Roach – Associate Wig Designer
Yuri Okahana – Assistant Scenic Designer
Kaitlyn Aylward – Assistant Costume Designer
Rose Malone – Assistant Lighting Designer
Corinne Carillo – Associate Sound Designer
Jenny Foldenauer – Wardrobe Supervisor
Bryce Potter and Danielle Richter – Wig Supervisors
Alex Norkus – Stage Crew
Ashley Nichole Henley – Production Assistant
Hazel Kuang – Properties Assistant
Cami Viand – Properties Artisan
Philip Rossi – Lead Carpenter
Bryce Gill – Lead Carpenter
Lael Osness – Draper

Run! Run! Run! And take your relative from Georgia.  You’ll love the GD heck out of this one.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up – by Carla Ching

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

By Joe Straw

The details on how I got here, to this theatre, on this night are very sketchy.  Someone invited me.  Who?  I’m not sure.  I had to go back in time, look back at my notes. And on this night everything looked dark, as it usually does, at night. 

Alas, it was a twitter invitation, a bird, and a chirp from a little blue bird. I responded.  Violà!  - Narrator.

Artists at Play presents the world premiere of The Two Kids that Blow Sh*t Up by Carla Ching, directed by Jeremy Lelliott and is now playing at the Lounge Theatre through September 04, 2016 in Hollywood.

The play is a remarkable achievement and an ostentatious work of art by Ms. Ching. It is a grand paean, a work in subtlety and nuance, of taking a moment, a cause, and tracing the cause to its brilliant roots. And, to top that off, it is written in a remarkable voice, one that is unpredictable, dramatic, and funny.   It is a story, albeit a non-linear gaposis, of love and hate between two best friends at various stages in their lives. One doesn’t get many opportunities to see an original work of art where the relationships are pristine and the dialogue laudable.   

Luminously directed by Jeremy Lelliott who manages to capture a significant through line through a very troubling relationship. This production is thoroughly enjoyable from top to bottom. 

Dare I say that there was only one thing missing.  (More on that later.)

What are the things that hold these two characters together?  What are the bonding elements, and the mechanism that keeps this relationship strong?  And, why haven’t they spoken in four years?

Age 38

“Hey, it’s me…” – Diana calling from a cell phone.

Diana (Julia Cho), 38 years old, who doesn’t have to say her name, waits at a bar near the Brooklyn Bridge for Max (Nelson Lee), also 38 years old.  When they finally see each other, both are wearing black, he wears a hoodie, to hide himself, apropos for the time and moment when the darkness covers most of his faults.   

They have things to talks about. 

The problem is that no one is speaking to the other, and they have not spoken to each other for the last four years.  Perhaps they are all talked out.   

Stilted in the moment Max finds it hard to make eye contact, or even express a fugitive grin. Max would just rather flip coasters like a deck of cards not admitting anything while Diana looks on. 

Diana takes her coasters and builds a mansion, (well better than his) proving a point about their relationship.  

“Why are we here?” – Max

Yes, why are we here?  Well to understand the now we have to go back to the past.

Julia Cho and Nelson Lee

Age 9

Maybe they were nine year old when they first met. Snowfall in New York makes for a pristine play space outside an apartment building.  And because they are kids their job is to stay away from under the parents and make a snowman.  

Diana would much rather build a snowwoman, but Max, head jogging like a bobble toy, snarls like that’s the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard. Still, they build together.

“Your name is kinda messed up, Di.” – Max

This doesn’t sit too well with Diana.  She is headstrong and has a mouth on her like a drunken sailor as she curses her parent’s frugality. Image of a ruffled chicken come to mind.  Just 9 years old.

Max says he takes judo.  He’s a yellow belt.  Diana in a game of one up man ship says she’s a green belt.

So now would be a good time for Max to go inside and get some juice. And as he leaves Diana puts breasts on the snowwoman. Max acts like he doesn’t care, or makes out that he doesn’t care when he comes out.  And maybe that’s what brings them together at first.

Diana asks Max why he didn’t bring her juice. (The personalities have made their mark.)

“Have you blown up anything today?” – Diana

Max has already gained a reputation as something else explodes around the house.  And that’s just the start of things blowing up.   

Age 24

“I want Gina.” – Max

Max has fallen in love.  Her name is Gina (not seen).  She is the main clown in a circus show in Atlantic City. Diana takes in this information in stride; his love for her, but one still sees a little disappointment in her eyes.  

Max, as usual, doesn’t have any money, but wants to take Gina out. So, guided by inspiration, Diana takes what few dollars there is between them for gambling money and says they will be having steak by midnight.

Age 15

Fifteen years old and they have a better idea about communicating with each other.  Liking each other a little more, expressing their feeling how they feel about their parents, and about themselves.

“You are crazy.” – Diana

“Is that a bad thing?” – Max

Age 28

“ Number 256.” – Announcer

That’s the number they started on.  Prenuptials arranged, the couples are now called by a numbering system to get married. A cold and heartless announcer counts up as each couple step up to the marriage plate.  Max and Diana are dressed but Max is not getting married on this day.   

Diana nervously wonders if she has got everything.  Her epilepsy medicine, Max gives that a “check”.  Maybe Max doesn’t think marriage, for her, is a good idea, and asks Diana why she loves him. Her response is not definitive,  “that he makes her safe.”

Max sees something in that statement. He knows her far better than she thinks.

“Good guys are not what you choose.” – Max

And while he’s on the subject Max tells Diana that he owes the groom $800.00 and would he do a favor and ask him to forgive the debt.

Diana is really not happy about having to do this on her wedding day.

Age 17

Max has got this harebrained idea of becoming an actor and Diana has all the answers because she’s smarter than him.  No truer words were spoken. Well, at least, that’s what she always thought.

Carla Ching’s play is a work of art, luxuriously fascinating in the manner in which it is presented moving back and forth in time.   In each scene, the audience collects significant bits of information, and then puts the pieces together.  No pun intended but the audience are like members of a bomb squad piecing together fragments of a crime scene, while the characters are blowing things up, mostly their relationship.

For example, after going back and forth in age, we think we know the characters. And, out of the blue, we get a piece of information, at the age of 28, that Diana has epilepsy.  It is said in a casual way, an intimate acknowledgement the characters know about each, and, in another flashback, we find out more how that became intimate.   There are a lot of these moments in this play.

To say more about the play would just be giving the pieces away. At this point you have one day to catch this production, September 4th 2016 being the last day.

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

Julia Cho (Diana) is excellent in her craft. Cho has a wonderful symmetry in her dramatic manner and style. Diana is a complicated character.  She is strong-willed, forceful, and very smart. Sometime her vocal predilection gets into the way of her intentions, what she really wants but is unable to articulate. She is in love with Max, but love always gets in the way in doing the right thing.  Cho is a marvelous actor with a unique and powerful presence.

Nelson Lee (Max) is solid in his craft. Max is a character who is not really reliable except where his friend is concerned but then again he only shows up when he wants something.  The kind of friend that most people keep at arms length. He does his best to cause havoc, whether it is subtle (the kiss) or instrumental (the theft).  Funny, but he never apologized or even admitted to his misdeeds. Lee has a strong and powerful manner on stage.

The moments in Jeremy Lelliott’s direction are very subtle but it is a solid outing.  One prefers a play with an emotional outpouring; a feeling that one will lose the other in what ever form that takes. It never goes that far, but it could.

The one missing thing on this night, especially after a very robust applause, was a second curtain call.  The work deserved it.  

I loved the Brooklyn Bridge painted on the upstage wall.  It was just the right touch provided by Se Oh, Scenic & Properties Design, to show that we were near Chinatown in New York.

Other members of this magnificent crew are as follows:

Emily Brown-Kucera & Rachel Stivers – Costume Design
Alexander Le Vaillant Freer – Lighting Design
Jesse Mandapat – Sound Design
Andrew Knight – Dramaturg
Donna Eshelman – Movement Specialist
Jonathan Castanien – Stage Manager

This show had a very short run and deserves a longer run.

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the Brooklyn Bridge!

The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, California