Thursday, April 17, 2014

Taste by Benjamin Brand

L - R Donal Thoms-Cappello, Chris L. McKenna - Photos:  Jessica Sherman Photography

By Joe Straw

Warning:  Due to strong sexual content and imagery, no one under the age of 18 will be admitted.

Terry (Donal Thoms-Cappello) stood at the kitchen island chopping a white onion meticulously, if not for a hell-bent purpose.  Slowly, he bows to capture the soupçon of the onion, letting the evaporated swirling scent lubricated his eyes if only to enjoy the painful irritation of the floating aroma. 

Finished, Terry takes his knife and forces the fragmented pieces into the frying pan, and as the onion aromatically sears in the heat, he dismisses the pieces, rather absent mindlessly, while he attends to the other matters at hand.

A seasoned professional, with epicurean tastes, Terry flits effortlessly like a dancer from one task to the next. Everything must be perfect, including having the proper red wine to accompany the red meat that will eventually find entrance into his sensitive somatosensory organ, the mouth. 

And in this atmosphere of wafting scents, Terry lights the candles in his upscale apartment.  He knows that candles will project that extra warm glow on scrumptious stark-naked skin.  And he sets up the video camera to capture that radiance for the events of the night, just for prosperity, and for his aberrant sexual gratification.

The appetizers have been prepared so delicately, next will be the embellishment for the crabcakes after the guest arrives, and voilá, on to the entrée.

The Sacred Fools Theater Company, The Schramm Group LLC, and Red Hen Production presents Taste a new play by Benjamin Brand and directed by Stuart Gordon.  This world premier plays through May 17, 2014.

Taste by Benjamin Brand is a carefully crafted and wonderfully executed play.  It is dramatically intense, delightfully horrific, and sometimes tongue in cheek recreation of actual events told by the master of the macabre storyteller Stuart Gordon.  Anyone who likes to eat and have physical relationships, not necessarily in that order, will enjoy this twistedly, intense, and horrific thrill ride.  

And in the same vein: I have never been to a live theatre attraction where the audience screamed in unison as we all watched the terror unfold on stage.  The shrieks were deafening, hands over the mouth, and heads turned uncomfortably in innumerable directions. If horror, blood, and intense sexual dramatic situations are your cup of tea, run, by all means, run to see this production!

“Sorry, I’m late.” – Vic

Listening to the timorous voice on the speaker, Terry buzzes his guest Vic (Chris L. McKenna) into his building.  Having only a few moments before Vic walks through the door, Terry turns off the haunting music, and adjusts the video camera to capture their first encounter.

Like cattle, before the slaughter, Vic enters with attenuated body and takes measured steps into Terry’s apartment.  Vic eyes the surroundings, the view of hundreds of apartments from the windows, and the slab-like concrete floor. (Blood won’t be much of a problem.)

Terry happily takes Vic’s coat, offers him vodka, and directs him into the living room near the coffee table with the photographs.  

“You don’t look like your photos.” – Terry

Vic, taking the vodka, grimaces as he gulps each drink.  He explains the difference saying he likes getting haircuts, and having the feel of someone else’s hands in his head. Hmm. At this point he takes another gulp to deaden his senses and moves uncomfortably close to Terry. 

Now each one is in each other’s space for different reasons.  And in that moment, nose to nose, it’s not really clear if Terry views Vic as a possible sexual conquest, or someone who is looking at a gorgeous piece of meat.  Still he thinks about the night and obliquely prowls his future meal until the onions, left on the stove, starts to caramelize.

“I can’t eat onions, garlic either.” – Vic

Another spoiler.  How can you devour a man on an empty stomach?  No matter Terry has more than enough food to feed this man until the job of the night is done.

But Vic is having problems with everything Terry has prepared.  Plans, carefully crafted, are not working out for either man. 

The solution?  Terry cuittles him to reaffirm what they are both here for, what they have already discussed.  Terry flutters over to the computer and asks Vic for a favor.

“Let’s read our chats.” – Terry

Vic sits but is very uncomfortable with his line readings.  No matter Terry says he has a gift and runs to the kitchen island to pull out a present, a large bottle of cough medicine that Vic opens and inhales in one lugubrious sickening slug.

All this to settle Vic’s nerves, to calm his craven terror, and to wait for the inevitable that must come this night. For this is the night, he has to “feel connected”, to be real, to feel the role.  But things on this night do not go as intended and events sway in other directions.  Which only makes for a glorious night of conflict.

This is only a small taste of the show and of my observations. Both actors are incredibly talented.  Each heart stopping moment is layered with so much life there is literally thousands of way to interpret a single theatrical moment.  

L - R Chris L. McKenna, Donal Thoms-Cappello - Photos:  Jessica Sherman Photography

Donal Thoms-Cappello is delightfully devilish as Terry.  Terry is so meticulous in his methodology of the night, he has everything planned out, and he hopes the night is laid as he has planned.  Unfortunately, things never go as prearranged which gives us a glimpse of the other man, the Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, who is much more aggressive and serious minded. But, is it love?  Thoms-Cappello physical appearance is of a character that stepped out of a ‘50’s horror film, and into this apartment, the saccharine smile used to calm things, when inside he is thinking other thoughts.  And although he smiles at giving a lesson at cutting parsley, inside he is being torn apart by his companion’s inadequacies, both mentally and physically. The fascinating part of the character, which thinks so highly of himself, is that he has “unique” bookmarked in his dictionary. Thoms-Capello is outstanding in the role and his performance is one not to miss!

Chis L. McKenna is marvelous as Vic, a man who is at the end of his rope.  His time is ending for reasons not entirely known (to the audience).  But, if he is going out, he wants to go out on his terms. McKenna brings a grand physical and emotional life to the character of Vic.  McKenna is extremely funny in a performance that one would think the opposite given the circumstances of his end, but the opposite hold true and it is a testament to his magnificently polished craft. There are no limitations to this role and this is a no-holds-bar performance for McKenna who puts everything out there, only a few feet in front of you, live on stage.

Pete Caslavka and Yuri Lowenthal are understudies for Terry and Vic respectively but did not perform on this night. 

Stuart Gordon, the director, does some amazing work.  Each moment is carefully laid out and it is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen next.  Every instant worked to near perfection. In his craft, Gordon gives us a delightful mixture of humor, horror, and sex as the events of the night play out to a wonderful dramatic conclusion. Gordon eases you into the horror. The moments are like a knife, entering bit by bit, until the time comes when the knife is forced in and suddenly twisted.  The thrill is the slow anticipation culminating into the ultimate unspeakable horrors.  And when that subsides he places the horror a few feet away from you. “Pokey” is the term someone describes it when it is right up in your face.  But in this case, (without giving this away) it is without the poke. I have two thoughts. The presentation of the knives could have been more elaborate.  And secondly the ending, taking that dramatic leap to blackout, ending on a very high note rather than one that plays to our sympathies.  

Benjamin Brand has fashioned his play on actual events and the events played, out on stage, worked dramatically.  Brand invites us into Terry’s home, gives us the full layout, and says little about the Vic (tim) his life, his work, and his relationships.  He is the meal. But, he is also a human with values and a heart who wants to know that Terry is being honest with him. All of this plays out wonderfully. Taste is an actor’s wonderland and logistically a director’s nightmare that somehow came together to give us a wonderful night of theatre.

This is a huge production Produced by Ben Rock, Jenelle Riley, Dean Schramm, Adam Goldworm & Stuart Gordon and with production values that you will not see in venues of the same size.

Set Designer DeAnne Millais did an extraordinary job on the set.

Matt Richter was the Lighting Designer worked effectively but didn’t see a lot of changes on the lighting of this stage, or ways in which the lighting changed the mood.

Jennifer Christina Smith was the Costume Designer.  

Tony Doublin was responsible for the Special Effects and Gabe Bartalos the Special Makeup Effects.  I’m not sure how they did it or where all the blood came from but it worked marvelously on stage.

Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Megan Crockett
Assistant Director – Ben Rock
Lead Scenic Painter – Maria Bjorkdahl
Prop Designer – Emily Donn
Fight Director – Mike Mahaffey
Marketing Associate – Bob DeRosa
Lead Builder – Dante Carr
Builders – Dominic Rains, Carlos Juarez, Colin Green, Andrew Ferrer, Luke Rhoades, Andrew Amani, Joshua Benton & Aaron Francis
Set Crew – Jaime Andrews, Zachary Bernstein, Corey Klemow, Will McMichael, Tifanie McQueen, Lisa Anne Nicolai, Bart Tangredi, Yonie Wela & Danny White
Laundry Crew – Trey Perkins (There’s a lot of blood to clean up.)
Sound, Video & Light Operator – Megan Crockett
Publicity Photographer – Jessica Sherman Photography
Graphic Designer – Johnny Mejia

The cleanup each night must be a monumental task and my hat off to all that participate.

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take someone you would like to have over for a meal.

Ninety minutes – No Intermission.

Reservations:  310-281-8337

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Altar Boyz book by Kevin Del Aguila, Music and Lyrics by Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker, Conceived by Marc Kessler & Kevin Davenport, Orchestrations by Doug Katsaros & Lynne Shankel

L - R Michael Michael Marchak, Jason Chacon, Tyler Vess, Craig McEldowney, Photo: James Esposito 

By Joe Straw

Altar Boyz book by Kevin Del Aguila, music and lyrics by Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker, conceived by Marc Kessler & Kevin Davenport and directed by Kristin Towers-Rowles is now playing at the Chromolume Theatre through May 11, 2014.

The Chromolume Theatre at the Attic sounds a bit confusing. The Attic is basically the same space at 5429 Washington Boulevard. And to reacquaint you, this space is a very small black box venue, approximately 69 seats.

You can compare The Altar Boyz to ‘N Sync, or an earlier version The Backstreet Boys and/or New Kids on the Block, but The Altar Boyz are fine standing on their own merits.  

So let’s not make that comparison. Because where Jesus is concerned, The Altar Boyz are the real deal, second to none in the life of Christian Boy Bands.   Word is that a higher up has got a special place for them when things come to a harmonious end and they enter the pearly gates.  And it’s right next to the van.  

Altar Boyz is a crowd pleaser and, on this particular night, the Christians were having the time of their lives, as are the others who ventured out to see this nocturnal boy band fest.  Anyone who enjoys a little religion, with his or her entertainment, will enjoy the boyz in this show.  

Only there’s a slight problem, these are not really boyz, they are men, well into their, well let’s not go there.  Suffice it to say, they are not teenagers, and life has added a few extra pounds to their teenage frames.  But what they lack in youth, they’ve gained in experience and the ability to control an audience in support their church. 

I didn’t quite get where the proceeds of their performance were going. To God? Or the van?

Truth be told, the boyz are down on their luck. Once they commanded spaces up to the hundreds and now its come to this, a small theatre on Washington.  But that’s a challenge they’ve come to accept, because when the night is done, they will blow the Christian roof off of this venue.

Kevin Del Aguila’s book tells us the Boyz have to convert their audience.  Because, let’s be frank, this group (yours included) ain’t feeling it, so says the Boyz’ soul sensor monitor which says that 69 people just ain’t gettin’ God’s groove.

So, if it’s the telling of their story to make you come over, then that’s what they got to do.

Be that as it may, Matthew (Craig McEldowney), Mark (Michael Marchak), Luke (Jason Chacon), and Juan (Joey Acuna), put on a hell of a show (maybe a bad choice of words given the theme) to convince their audience to believe.  And by the end, they make it their objective to convert all, even if it takes the last ounce of beaded sweat pouring off their bodies and souls, to prove their point.  

The Bible has a lot of stories and so do our boyz. Matthew is a virgin, and will remain a virgin until he is married.  Mark is gay and really wants Matthew to give up this virgin thing, with him. Luke has changed his life around but still carries his street thug mentality under his tight cap.    And Juan is an orphan who wants to find his mother and father.  Abraham (Tyler Vess) is a Jew just to add one more to their religious base.

Kristin Towers-Rowles, the director, does a tremendous job defining the objectives of the characters so the audience gets a clear understanding of this musical endeavor.  The Music and Lyrics by Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker are very clever with a slight bash on religious thought and fanaticism. There was a moment when we seemed to head into Billy Graham territory but suddenly the show comes back to good clean religious fun as it was meant to be. The choreography by Samantha Marie is fun and keeps thing moving in a delightful direction. All in all, this is a very good outing.

The Boyz lean in the direction that says that even though were a Christian Boy Band, we’re going to give it everything we got, until God is got.

And while we are on the subject of making life changes, I have some thoughts.

This is a small venue and the actors/singers had mics and even then the words did not overcome the volume of the four-piece band. Musical director Richard Berent hasn’t found the correct satisfying levels.  Not a big problem – fixed with only a minor adjustment. The other members of the band are Joe Lawrence, synthesizer, John Harvey on drums and George “Drew” DeRieux on guitar.

L - R Jason Chacon, Michael Marchak, Craig McEldowney, Tyler Vess, Joey Acuna Photo: James Esposito 

Craig McEldowney plays Matthew, a man who won’t give “it” up until he is married. He appears to be the leader of the group and has a very nice solo number with a woman from the audience that was a big Christian crowd pleaser.

Michael Marchak is Mark, the very openly gay character on stage who would love to privately pray with a member of the band.  Marchak fits the boy-band mold with a wide-eyed expression and the ability to sing and dance with finesse and grace.   

Jason Chacon is Luke, the tough guy in the group who wants you to believe even if he has to force the religion down your throat.  It’s something that the other members of the band don’t like, given their peaceful devotion. Chacon has a very nice speaking voice but loses a little when he sings.  He has a lot of very funny moments.

Joey Acuna plays Juan, a man who was left on someone’s doorsteps, when he was a tiny baby. His one dream is to find his parents, that they will come to one of his performances, and they will lovingly reunite.  So, his dream is to find his parents but when the plan doesn’t work out, his dream becomes a physical nightmare that he must overcome. He does this in grand style and wonderfully executed. 

Tyler Vess is Abraham and keeps the ball rolling, does a nice job, but we never really get a sense of his character, aside from the menorah here, and the Star of David there. Still he has a good look and a nice voice.

Other members of the cast who did not perform on this night were Holland Noel, Kyle Shepard, Justin P. James, Charles Martinez, and Charles Martinez.

Dance Music and Additional Arrangements by Lynne Shankel.

Other members of this crew are as follows:

Scenic Design - Daniel Ingram
Lighting Design – Craig Batory
Costume Design – Wes Jenkins
Sound Design – James Esposito
Stage Manager – Lauren J. Peters
Assistant Stage Manager – Alysha Bermudez
Press Representative – Ken Werther Publicity

Run! Run!  Don't think, take a Unitarian Universalist and let them do the religious thinking for the both of you. 



Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Memorandum by Václav Havel

L - R - Yael Berkovich, Bart Petty - Photos: Mitch Goldstrom

By Joe Straw

The Santa Monica Rep presents The Memorandum by Václav Havel, directed by Jen Bloom, and now playing at the Miles Memorial Playhouse through April 20th, 2014. 

This is small theatre at its best.  The acting is superb and the direction by Jen Bloom provides a glimpse into a style of acting that dares to takes us into the absurdist reality of Václav Havel’s farcical black comedy.  In short, the night was sublime and the concentration from the performers on this night was spot on.  


To:  Mr. Gross

From: The Chairman

Date:  Your very future

Subject Matter:  Confidential

Mr. Gross, the memorandum provided to you, sitting on your desk this morning, and on your personal tablet is a cruel but deliberate attempt to solidify your standing in the company.  Your objective is to translate the memo, written in another language, and take corrective action immediately upon the completion of the translation.   Your job depends on it.

We will be watching you today.

Watching and enjoying the endeavors of human beings necessitates providing you with my observations of existence in the office.  

Before anyone arrives, the work morning starts with music, a dedicated drumbeat followed by synthesized instruments providing more layers to a beat of a working environment.  

Workers enter, checking in one at a time, a “ping”, and entry. Automatic time clocks, in a futuristic setting, suggests, upon entry, an effective way to manage information. Well done.  Each worker has a prescribed plexi-glass pad, similar to the old fashion iPads used back in the twenty teens. Signatures require a thumbprint on the pad to authenticate.  

These workers are extremely hungry and have a negotiated and segregate time to eat, every 15 minutes or so, or until the needs arrive to have a food source that would increase productivity. A #hash tag projected on the office wall presents the quantity of food available in which a worker is instructed to buy all of those items except one. A slightly colored, off white, offensive looking milk in a bottle with a plastic cup is the preferred office drink of choice.

The boss enters last, Josef Gross (Bart Petty), carrying with him, something that looks like a fire extinguisher. It is this container for which he is recognized as the boss. Company policy.  The orange rectangle on his green fake tie would also appear to make him a negotiated hierarchy of the company and a person of recognition.

On Mr. Gross’s desk is a tablet, the memorandum, untranslatable because it is in another language.

Mr. Gross does his job effectively despite arrangements around the office, no rules, that prevents him from buying another “mail book” that his deputy Jan Ballas (Barbara Urich) desperately needs. She, cleverly disguised, appears at first glance to be a rules follower.   

But things have changed this morning. Unbeknownst to Mr. Gross, Jan, the deputy, has introduced a new office language to streamline the effectiveness of communications in the office.  That new language is Ptydepe pronounced, puh-TIE-duh-pee.

The new language has taken over, procedures are in place, classes have started, and everyone is eager to learn, but there is a slight problem. And we’ll let them sort it out.

This version of The Memorandum by writer Václav Havel is set sometime in the near future and wonderfully displayed in all its glory by director Jen Bloom. The play was written in 1965 by the former President of The Czech Republic with the help of his brother, Ivan M. Havel.

The futuristic setting by Sean T. Cawelti at Miles Memorial Playhouse gives us an elongated thrust stage that runs the length of the auditorium.  Each office is compartmentalized with a transparent strip indicating office separations. The audience is sitting on either side of the stage. At times the viewing can be cumbersome, when the actors are facing in the opposite direction, but those times are minimal.

Barbara Urich, Bart Petty 

Bart Petty paints a very disparaging picture of Josef Gross, a man running near the end of his employment at this company.  He either has to learn the language, get on board or face elimination.  Despite his intelligence, this humanist is running out of steam.  And in that final life grab, he must seize control of the company in the way life has taught him and then rejoice in his victories.  Petty paints a very nice portrait of a man loosing control.

Barbara Urich is the very conniving Jan Ballas and plays her perfectly.  Suited impeccably with grey bland office attire, garish accessories, black shoes, open toed, and bright red nail polish.  She walks demurely, catlike, sucking on a candy pop, waiting patiently to strike. Ballas lines up all her arguments effectively to control the office but lacks the experience to ultimately take control. Urich plays this character supremely and in the end it is a character one comes to loathe.  Still, it is a fascinating portrayal by an actor with unimpeachable skills.  

Yael Berkovich is exceptional as Ms. (Mary) Lear, the brilliant, savant, and nightmarish teacher of Ptydepe.  Waggling and gaggling on stage, scarf in hand, an introspective yet outgoing teacher, instructing the hand picked brilliant employees to a new language. Listening to Berkovich recite the inscrutable language of Ptydepe with the words projected on the screen behind her was quite amazing. On the other end of the scale Berkovick does a remarkable turn as Pillar, a silent sycophant waiting to strike at the most convenient moment, but it is a moment that costs her dearly.

Bill Charlton plays Otto Stroll, Head of the Translation Center. Stroll is impeccably garbed and appears to posses a tremendous amount of power. He uses that power, or language, to manipulate others around him.  By appearances he has a complete grasp of the language that was only implemented only a few short hours ago.  Nicely done.

Burl Moseley, Tania Getty

Burl Moseley plays Alex Savant a university professor and Ptydepist who thinks more of himself than the company he keeps. He appears to speak Ptydepe fluently and says that his knowledge of the language is like having a Ph.D. although no one calls him doctor. Moseley brings an English accent to the role to accentuate the characters’ self-importance.  Also, Moseley is an exceptional actor who listens and reacts with impeccable timing.  

Tania Getty is Helena a woman who is after her own heart. She is someone who seeks recognition but is socially inept in her endeavors. She appears to have things under control but lacks the ability to control down to the minute detail. She is that one staff person the other employees know but haven’t a clue as to what she does.  Getty brings a nice practicality to the character.

Sara Mayer plays Maria the secretary of the translation and has a very nice quality about her. The character is also a humanist and sympathizes with those around her.  Unfortunately, this leads to tragic results.  Mayer plays the character with an innocent charm and does well with the role.

Ewan Chung plays Hans a character that does his best to stay out of the way, gather food, and performs task that no one is wiling to do.  Chung's performance has charm and he is comfortable on stage.  But one suspects, in order to add to the role, he needs a stronger and creative objective so we know exactly his conflict and where he is going.

David Evan Stolworthy does an exceptional job as Thumb, the good student that is willing to please.  Thumb is an exceptional student of Ptydepe, a man who takes the language and understands and recognizes the meaning immediately.  Unfortunately he is not perfect and that leads to his shattered nerves and his demise in the eyes of the master. Stolworthy also plays George, a man hidden, below the office watching every move of the office workers.

Jen Bloom, the director, does an exceptional job with this play.  One item that caught my attention was the relationship of Maria, the secretary, to the various camps.  At some point she has to switch sides, knowing full well her actions will get her into trouble.  But once we see her betrayal there’s hardly an emotional reaction from the consequence of her action.   She slips away with a few words without even an emotional nod from her boss, Mr. Gross, who easily lets her go now that his job is secured.  Also, it would appear that someone else is controlling the strings of the company, someone we haven’t seen.  If the memorandum is authentic, that somebody is watching and having the time of his or her life.  

Others member of the delightful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Adrienne Johnson-Lister
Assistant Stage Manager – Princella Baker, Jr.
Production/Projection Design – Sean T. Cawelti
Costume Design – Maddie Keller
Lighting Design – Mike Stone
Assistant Costume – Princella Baker, Jr.
Assistant Lighting – Joh Mulhern
Props Mistresses – Ann Marie Tullo
Sound Design – Andy Mitton
Fight Choreography – Jesse Holland
Graphic Design – Brandon Roosa
Publicity – Phil Sokoloff
Tech Consultant & Production Photography – Mitch Goldstrom
Program Layout/Design – Yael Berkovich

Artistic Director/Producer – Eric Bloom
Producer – Bart Petty
Producer – Ann Marie Tullo
Producer – Sarah Gurfield

Santa Monica Rep is now a 501(c) (3) company.   All donations are tax deductible and welcomed.  

RESERVATIONS: (213) 268-1454.
FACEBOOK Santa Monica Rep
TWITTER @santamonicarep

Run! Run!  And take someone from Ernst & Young, LLC.  They will identify with this production.