Saturday, August 20, 2016

As Straw Before the Wind by Felix Racelis


By Joe Straw

My daughter named her teddy bear “Purple-Bear” because she was purple.  It was a bold inspirational choice for a two year old to make. 

Purple-Bear went everywhere she went, never left behind for too long, never forgotten on sleepovers and always on her bed when she visited dreamland.

And, at her side, Purple Bear was there through the raging fevers and a myriad of troubled dreams. She had a tender smile, a calming disposition, for those troubling times. But most of all she was there for all the quiet moments.  

And she was never forgotten, because we made special trips to go back and get her.

My daughter’s aunt, a costumer, dressed Purple Bear in the fanciest of clothes on the planet not wanting to see her so unkempt. But, that was long ago.  

Now Purple Bear is a shadow of her former self, her clothes are worn and tattered, her head slightly crooked and not sitting straight on her neck. 

That aside Purple Bear still holds a loving place on my daughter’s bed and a devoted place in all of our hearts. - Narrator

As Straw Before The Wind by Felix Racelis and Directed by Lesley Asistio is playing through September 4, 2016 at the Ruby Theatre, in The Complex, on theatre row in Hollywood.  

This is a play of a Filipina mother, Nene Santos (Tita Pambid) and her daughter, Pilita Santos (Sarnica Lim) who run a small convalescent home out of their home in the San Gabriel Valley. Right now there are only two patients living with them, an older man, Poncing Enrile, Ino (Muni Zano) and an older woman, Mildred Novak (Anita Borcia) in an assisted living situation.

When the play opens Nene is playing gin with the residents but is interrupted momentarily by a phone call from a potential customer.  She is not completely honest to the customer saying that she has plenty of room.  

Nene, a nurse, envisions the opportunities that awaits their business and wants to expand her home to care for more patients - providing the bank will give her a loan.

Unbeknownst to Nene, Pilita’s dreams of getting married are becoming a reality.  But, Pilita has problems getting through to her mother to tell her the simplest of wants, and her reason for being, like getting married.  Nene dismisses her daughter with the wave of her own self-importance.  

In another vein Nene has problems with the way her patients are behaving.  It seems that Poncing won’t keep his hands to himself and Mildred, who is slightly senile, is addicted to cigarettes and wants to smoke them in and around the house. 

There is something really wrong with Nene in the way she treats her clients.  It is sometimes cruel and heartless for psychological reasons which are later revealed in the play. The method she uses to restrain her clients causes her to flashback to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

As Straw Before the Wind is a world premier and really needs some constructive criticism to get it over the hump.  There’s no question that there is something here but moments and ideas need reorganization to move it into a position of a moving play that has more heart and staying power. So, with the idea that Felix Racelis’s play is all there, I will direct my comments mostly to the direction and the acting.

First of all, I’m not a fan of flashbacks in theatre – e.g. Bambi’s mom gets killed in the first few minutes and from then on we know all we need to know why Bambi does what he does – the same holds true for that Shirley Temple’s mom as she gets killed or has died in most of her films – run over by a car, falling out of a plane, you name it but we sympathize with that motherless orphan. – Let’s get the tragic stuff done in the beginning and everything will fall into place including the flashback feelings with the current day character, the banker, etc. 

Well then, do we have a play? 

Yes, and the doll must have a significant role. And the doll must be displayed throughout.

(Spoiler alert – I have to do this to get my point across.)

Desperation comes in many forms and Nene is on the verge of losing everything, her livelihood, and, most importantly, her daughter. She is haunted by the past, the trauma of losing her parents, and the one thing that connects her to them is the doll. The doll stays with her through the traumatic parts of her life.  She has it when the Japanese abuses her.  She brings it with her to the United States.  She still has it many years later.  (I might add, in mint condition.) She should run to that doll in the end, and embrace it from the smoldering ruins

The relationship between the mother and the daughter require strengthening. Each must be in a tug of war fighting for position.

A couple of things about the performance set in 1993, the mother is reaching retirement age and the daughter appears to be in her thirties. Having them closer in age could make them sisters and that might make for a better ending, given the circumstances of the ending.  The finale would be much more dramatic.  Actually, I would prefer the relationship to be one of sisters, until the ending. It makes dramatic sense and one that begs for an explosive ending.

In this kind of space Lesley Asistio, the director, should recognize the space for what it is, a black box.  So, symbolism goes a long way here.  The multiple scene changes to place the audience in a myriad of places works against the audience. So, here are a few suggestions.  One, leave the bed on stage the entire time as a symbolic reference to work, home, the bank, etc. Move the bed around the stage or move the actors around the bed.  Loan Officers often visits work places.  Patients play cards in their rooms and they smoke in their rooms as well. The bed is symbolic for all the play needs including the jungle scenes.

Secondly, the doll should play a major roll. It gives the audience a better understanding of what Nene is all about. (More on this later.)

And lastly, Asistio has the Loan Officer (Doan Nguyen) speaking upstage with his back to most of the audience.  When I see this happening on stage, my thoughts go into ideas that are better left unsaid.  

I got the impression watching Felix Racelis, the writer’s face, when leaving the theatre that things did not go well this night.  But, naytheless, this is a fascinating body of work that needs only a slight reworking of the play - to enhance the moments - to define the moments so they are met with a dramatic tone – and to clarify the structure of the play.  

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers” – Carl Jung

There is something morally wrong with Nene’s character.  You can see it, at first in small increments, and later it is slightly defined.

If it is necessary to do flashbacks, those moments are to be accentuated, symbolically with lighting, movement, and a creative finished.  The hand gripped tightly in the air, and the arms held back in prone position. However this is painted, the message should be ingrained into our collective consciousness, so that when it happens later we will get a better understanding of Nene’s character. And, do we really need to go back in time to understand this?

Tita Pambid is a fine actress.  Her Nene character is believable.  With minor changes this character could soar. Her objective to create a greater business for her and her daughter is fraught with many conflicts, the daughter, the banker, the patients, and most importantly her memories.  All these things must be negotiated so that, even in the end,  there’s hope. Also, the doll should be with Nene, if not physically, it should be with her mentally. My preference, at least in rehearsal is to have the doll with her physically, so that she knows what drives her objective. Also, she should run to the doll in the smoldering ruins, this is the one thing that connects her to her past.

Muni Zano does a fine job as Poncing Enrile, Ino. He is a man struggling for the finer things in life, like a good pinch. That aside, there is some really good work going on here.

Looking back at Sarnica Lim, I think the role would work better if she were the sister, Pilita Santos, rather than the daughter.  Pilita is rather weak, not forceful enough to get what she needs.  She whimpers to her mother rather than questioning her motives.  She cowers under the weight of a mother daughter relationship and you really can’t have that when you know, in your heart of hearts, that what your mother is doing is morally wrong.  One more thing, Pilita should give the patient a lip lock that immediately sends him into convulsions, without that, the guilty stuff does not work at all.

Rochelle Lozano does a fine job as the daughter, Maria Enrile. Maria is forceful in her ways but seems to be confused about the way her father is treated, practically bound and gagged, but has very little to say about it. There is possibly more layers to this character. Why hasn’t she call the authorities? Why doesn’t she pull her father out of that convalescent home? Why does she takes the information they give her and think it’s alright?  There is something more in her character that will not take action.  What could that be? Maybe she doesn’t have the money to move her father out.   

Anita Borcia does fine work as Mildred Novak, a senile octogenarian with a passion for nicotine.

Doan Nguyen plays the Loan Officer and other characters in the play.  One is not sure why, as the Loan Officer, he was speaking upstage. There is more work needs to be done on the Japanese language which was mostly unrecognizable for his role as the Second Japanese Soldier.  

The same holds true for Gabriel Garcia’s Japanese.  Still, and that aside, Garcia has a strong presence on stage, and his voice is commanding as the Fireman, the Doctor, and Charlie. This actor has strong possibilities.

I wouldn't give up on this production, but there is more to be had in the writing and direction should anyone care to move forward.

I wouldn't give up.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ajax in Iraq – by Ellen McLaughlin


Aaron Hendry - Photo Credits:  Sean Deckert
By Joe Straw

I lived in Clarksville, Tennessee back in the 1960s. My neighborhood friends and I were the diminutive sons of the 101st Airborne Division.

Summarily at various times, orders would thrust our fathers onto the Vietnam stage. And, at the time, it was better not to think about the “what if”.

Living in Clarksville, just across the border from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the seeds of a military vigor were ingrained in our very being.  When our fathers shipped out, we waited for a time, and then we moved on, left to our own devices.

We conducted ourselves as military.  We had rank, the oldest at 11 held the highest rank while the youngest served as buck privates.

I was the general. 

Protection of our home base was the order of the day. And my words were marked that “no one was taking our fort”.

And, moving through the creeks, the fields, and the woods, our scouts took notice of everything, of every opposing fort, of every opportunity to destroy. When we found a fort, we planned and then moved in because destroying their fort was our reason for being.

And in our subdivision that was our way of thinking.    

Born and bred, we were little warriors. – Narrator.

Greenway Court Theatre presents a revival of Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s Ajax in Iraq written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by John Farmaesh-Bocca through August 14, 2016 and nicely produced by Jason Bruffy, Laura Covelli, and Aaron Hendry.

McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq is a visceral experience, brutal at times, and quietly dramatic.  McLaughlin is forceful in her unyielding message to project culpability, and to recognize the ultimate failings of an unscrupulous political groundswell working hand in hand with their corporate cronies that in fact destroyed a social political order.   

And, trickling down, in the obnoxious swell are the boots on the ground, soldiers that are not immune to violence which projects the worst traits of humanity when one occupies another nation.  McLaughlin’s message fills the soul with a blood boiling rage, one that wants to join in the fury, and the other that wants to recognize the truth for what it is.  

I was suspicious that dramatic theatre could do this.  

For the sake of combining a figure in Greek Mythology and characters in the play, I present you with this backstory:

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) was a powerful dark killing machine, a man with muscular thighs, as wide as his torso, and thick powerful arms, which could swing a blade and cut a man in half before he could think.  His eyes painted black projected a warrior’s rage and at times presented a vacuous stare.  The ineloquent manner of speaking, his warrior grunts, were not enough to win him the armor of the now deceased Achilles.

Never injured in battle, Ajax killed every living foe. Mythology says he killed twenty-eight men in all, all in the taking of Troy.

But his battle was not just on opposing forces; Ajax oppressed women with an obscure ferocity behind the folding of his tent. A man with this much ferocity was not to be disturbed despite the screams heard from the encampment on the other side.  

Ajax was a warrior who operated in the darkness of bad thoughts, using his blade to end the light emanating from opposing beings, stopping briefly to witness the elegiac gurgling of his victims. Any opposing forces, anything that breath, or pumped blood, were fair game.

Inarticulate, his screams represented his intentions and the blade projected the means by which he carried out his objectives.  So powerful were his profound thrusts in battle that the wretchedness of that region lingers and the cradle of civilization carries on as though little has changed.

Little has changed in Iraq, swayed by the leaders of today, the troops amassed, looked for the weapons of mass destruction, found none, and now the battle is amongst us, within us, and beyond us with no end in sight.  

John Farmanesh-Bocca, the director and choreographer, provides us with a sweeping look of Iraq through the ages, tying the mythological figures to the real life soldiers of the day, while giving us a history lesson as well. How the choreography works to tie the present day soldiers to the past works to a lesser degree, push ups, rolling around on the floor, chest slapping, one is not completely sure. Fun to watch, and all part of the Not Man Apart Physical Theatre’s physicality, but how does that connect to the through line of the play?

Aaron Hendry projects Ajax as a warrior, through and through, mindless with the exceptions of his attention only to the destruction of things in his path.  A marvelous choice for Hendry that Ajax becomes disjointed and alive with warm blood on his being. How his fist managed to survive the ordeal of slamming against the hard stage is beyond my comprehension. Still Hendry does a wonderful job.  He is an amazing actor.

Courtney Munch portrays a woman with many layers and much strength as A.J.  Unfortunately A.J. is an abused soldier who is not able to find a solution to the abuse, and who also knows that approaching someone to help will jeopardize her career. It is a no win situation for this character and Munch does a fantastic job in this very dramatic turn.

Joanna Rose Bateman

Joanna Rose Bateman gives us a different flavor of Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration, in that she gives us a goddess as someone who is wry, sardonic and intelligent slightly mocking the misgivings of her human underlings.  It is a role Bateman really latches onto as she utilizes very strategic choices.  Her voice is flawless, her moments powerful, and her singing voice is formidable.  She is captivating.

Alina Bolshakova is Tecmessa, wife of Ajax, mother of Eurysaces. Knowing this provides a better understanding of the relationships than was performed this night. First a slave, later a wife, she is someone who tries desperately to save her husband. In the overall scheme of things, one wonders how this character fits in both Tecmessa’s time and present day.   

Laura Covelli gives us a better understanding of the region as Gertrude Bell, an English woman who helped shape British imperial policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Covelli’s manner is precise in her ability to convey the British policy and the idea of the play.  Bell shows us in a roundabout way that the educated and the mapmakers are the ones who control the world. Covelli gives a marvelous performance.  

Sydney A. Mason as Mangus does well.  She has a very nice natural presence, one suitable for not only theatre but for film as well and has a lovely voice.  

James Bane gives a very credible performance as Sergeant, possibly because of his military experience, and he also has a very believable presence on stage. This particular role has parallels to the character Ajax and Bane should provide a resemblance to that character in manner and deed so that the characters are tied together, repeating history.

Jason Barlaan also does some good work as Teucer.  Barlaan is a former marine and fits well with his role on stage.

Ronin Lee is exceptional as Captain, a man who has come to grips with his war effort, becoming much wiser only after losing his arm in the war. Lee’s voice is strong and his manner is incomparable.

Zach Davidson as Pisoni has a very good look on stage.  It was a very subtle performance but one that really rings true and manages to hit home.

Overall, the acting was superb, and the rest of the supporting cast played major roles.  Their voices were strong and they presented an incredible backstory. It is evident that a lot of work went into making this production.  Also this production was very successful, representing the diverse makeup of our military force.  The remaining supporting casts are Jessica Carlsen as Sickles, Kendall Johnson as Therapist, Jolene Kim as Abrams, Frederick Ramsel Jr. as Charles, and Olivia Trevino as Rebo.

Jones Welsh is the understudy for Ajax but did not perform on this night. Welsh is also the Co-Artistic Director of Not Man Apart and also one of the Producers.    

Other members of this wonderful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Niki Armato
Costume Design – Stephanie Dunbar
Stylist – Catherine Baumbardner
Map Design – Courtney Jordan Bindel
Graphic Design – Joel Piazza
Lighting Design – Joey Guthman
Sound Design – John Farmanesh-Bocca w/Adam Phalen

The show closes on the night I am posting.  If you get a chance to see it, in another carnation, run, run, run, and take a vet.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

This Evenings Scenes – Various Writers - Directed by Sal Landi

By Joe Straw

The Pan Andreas is a quaint little black box theatre that sits behind a restaurant in Hollywood.  The grit from the traffic on Melrose and Wilton lingers and the people on this particular night represented a large swath of theatregoers from the ever increasing cosmopolis of Hollywood and Los Angeles.

Outside on the patio, patrons waited in the humid air while sitting on park benches. An old motorcycle was for sale.  Three unruly types were conversing in a laden language filled with profanity, mostly about women who had done them wrong, guzzling one beer to the next, leaning back their heads to capture the full throttle of the bottle.  The cars in the parking lot were placed there just for leaning manly accouterment.  

On this hot night, women came dressed in slinky, theatre-going apparel, with long legs and high heels to match. Some came to meet others; hugs were exchanged, long laborious passionate hugs. This was about as diverse a group of patrons as I have ever seen, young, old, black, brown, poor and rich.  No, I take that back, all rich in humanity.

Five dollars a ticket was heavenly.

But this night longed for passion! Passion for the work, and passion in the observation. That’s what we came for and that’s what we got. – Narrator.

Actors should work on their craft in whatever venue possible.  For some, it’s almost impossible to land a role in a 99-seat theatre, given time constraints and the other intangibles. 

And Actors Equity Association is trying to do away with the 99 seat venue altogether. It might all come down to this.

So, the next best thing to do is perform a vignette with the idea of getting the work done, improving the craft, and getting the work seen.  The topping is having a live audience, the feedback that one gets with audience to test the art and the craft. The theatre was packed.

This Evenings Scenes directed by Sal Landi is a satisfying night of theatre at the Pan Andreas theatre in Hollywood Friday July 29th, 2016.  Theatre in Hollywood was well represented by this heterogeneous group of thespians.

The credits were sparse – budgetary constraints – allowing only the titles, and the actor’s names, but not their character’s name or even giving the writers credit.  Perhaps it is something they want in include the next go round. Also there was little to be had in the way of props and set design, a bar, a box, some glasses, rose color water, and your imagination.  

Seduced – by Sam Shepard

Jay Duncan plays Henry Hackamore, a Howard Hughes character that is dying, going over to the other side, but needing to accomplish one more thing before he shakes off his mortal coil.  One is convincing the ravishing Luna, Ashley Stiles, to give him sex before he drops dead. Right now he has one foot in the grave and is waiting for the final stimulus to pull or push him into heavenly pursuits.     

Luna, is more than willing to provide that service for the price.  She has taken Harry’s jet in.  Henry Hackamore asks if she wants the jet.  She doesn’t.  Scruples.

But there’s a problem with Henry Hackamore.  He hasn’t had sex, well, at least with a woman, in many years and this is something he has to experience once more before he departs these earthly plains.  

While the makeup and mannerism of old age worked well for Jay Duncan, one would have preferred a role nearer to his age to witness the scale or a scope of his acting abilities.  Funny thing though – an older man hitting the floor as he does would not have survived the fall.

Ashleys Stiles does a fine job and is very sexy on stage.  

Eskimo Girl – No author given.

Ashley Liai Coffee, woman, has just awakened after a brief roll in the hay with a soldier, Teroon Kibwe.  The soldier, with his bestial affinities, thinks too much of himself as he believes he has just laid a virgin. But she critiques him that he was too fast and gives the appearance that this was not her first time. I’m not sure how the soldier was mistaken, possibly one of those dark Alaskan nights.

The woman wants more and uses her knife to get it.

More time is needed to construct and define the characters, especially the soldier, the uniform, and also to define the relationship that keeps them together, in this time and space. That aside, both actors have a very nice look.  

Traces of Memory – No author given.

Laura Candioti and Gabriela Micalizaz star in this piece about two misfits, one more of a misfit than the other. The problem is defining who is the worse, the one with the knife or the one who has just killed her family.

“Nobody burns up their kids and dog.”

Credit must be given to Gaby Micalizzi and her use of a knife.  That aside, one would like to see Micalizzi performing scenes from the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Micalizzi has a terrific look for this type of work and is mesmerizing on stage.  

Laura Candioti has a few moments to shine in this scene.

The Crucible – by Arthur Miller

“I saw your face when she put me out, and you loved me then and you do now!” – Abigail

“Abby, that’s a wild thing to say.” – John Proctor

Yosi Barrigas (John Proctor) and Autumn Rush (Abigail) present impressive figure, complete with period costumes, in Arthur Miller’s play about burning witches in Massachusetts.

Barrigas has a commanding presence on stage, releasing his passion in small increments. Rush presents an interesting foil, slightly quirky and offbeat that given time and nuance would add an extra layer to the character. Rush is appealing – squared jaw – and resolved.

Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard

Kritanya Hartunian and Sara Drust tackle Sam Shepard in Lie of the Mind.  Southern accents were nice in this scene but the wig and the blackened teeth did not work effectively especially for a visually stunning Hartunian and an equally appealing Sara Drust.

Hartunian was wheeled on stage and the scene was about a mother and a daughter (in-law?) and a murder that took place. The conflict should be apparent the moment she is wheeled on stage; the relationship needed work and would probably worked better if a smaller part of the scene was defined and refined. In any case, one would love to see both of them again playing to their strengths.

The Dreamers Examines His Pillows – by John Patrick Shanley

“Jesus!  What a sh*t hole.”

Carlos Joseph Echeviarria looks nothing like his picture but he is completely commanding in the role of Dad.  Andre Matarazzo (Tommy) looks exactly like his picture and has a created a quirky character that sounds like he is from New York’s Lower Eastside despite being from Brazil.

Dad has lived this life and wants to get Tommy, his daughter’s lover, onto the right track.  Tommy, a woolgatherer, was dating Donna and now he is moving on to the 16-year-old sister, Mona (not seen).  One is not sure what the scene was about, other than an older man providing life lessons to a younger one but it has to be more than that, and must be filled with creative choices and nagging conflict.   Tommy is a thief and a liar and seems to be losing his mind; all things that Matarazzo can add to this scene.

Echeviarria has charisma and strength in this scene that carries the weight of an experienced actor. Terrific work.

Women in Manhattan – by John Patrick Shanley

“I flirt therefore I am.”

Billie (Veronica Ocasio) and Rhonda Louise (Elena Ghenoiu) are beautiful women who danced their way into this scene.  The actors bring a tremendous energy to the moments; still they need to find the conflict that defines the play. Not only that, Shanley provides information about the characters: “Gerry leaving”, “husband off building buildings somewhere”, “I’m dressed up because you wanted me dressed up”, but the women never catch on or come to the realization as to why they are there on this particular night. There’s more to be had than the elegiac gurgling of two lonely women sans men in Manhattan. Oh, but they were stunning.    

The Family of Mann – by Theresa Rebeck

Belinda (Sally Rae Hamer) and Ren (Bryan Zampella) play a hapless couple that is destroyed by a Hollywood television sitcom she wrote but has now been thrown off the show.  She sits on the couch drinking a bottle of champagne when Ren comes in, all smiles and giggles, because now he is the producer of the show.

Ren says he thinks he is falling in love with her and Belinda talks about going to the La Brea Tar Pits and feeling like the mother mastodon sinking into the pit.

“Clara said Ed asked for a blowjob.” - Belinda

Hollywood ain’t a pretty business. Hollywood is a high stakes game and characters need to take those characters to the extreme to get what they want, and they must want it badly.  There is more at stake here, more conflict to be realized.  

Betrayed by Everyone – by Kenneth Lonigan

Jaq Mackenzie and Evan Grayson play characters who are at the low points of their lives.  They are on drugs and living in a crack house.

“Where is everyone?” – Woman

“They went to get drugs.” – Man

The man, dazed and confused, listens to a woman’s story about a bus driver who waves at her and doesn’t notice the girl that he runs over because he was distracted, waving.  This was possibly the reason the woman is now in the crack house struggling how to forget and to move on with her life. Finding her answers to move on is what she needs from this character.

Death in Motel Rooms – by Daniel Reitz

Carl (John Reno), an aging independent movie star, makes a grand entrance into a hotel room, wearing a skimpy robe, sparsely tied, in blue briefs, pouring himself a drink and walking into the room where Nick Machado sits on a bed watching Carl’s movie, in a scene he’s seen hundreds of times because he wants to talk about it.

Carl has other things on his mind namely the young manly construction worker’s body in front of him.  But, the younger man seems oblivious to it all.  He sits and talks about the scene on the T.V. while Carl is chomping at the bit.

Carl, sensing his vacuous stare, moves on to another ploy – working on his movie scene. The one line the construction worker has that ends with a smirk.  

The younger man’s avoidance does not play too well in this scene when the inner emotional conflict could spear him on to bigger and better things.  We find out later that he has a wife and a little girl at home but somehow we should know that at the beginning, as part of his non-verbal historical backstory.  

Reno’s physical life is impressive as he moves into the direction of the conquest and is looking to add one more notch on his skimpy bathrobe tie.   

Conquistador – No Author Given

A woman (Kelly Park) has a fantasy about a conquistador (Koko Nollasco) and there she has a good physical life on stage.  But one has no clue as to what was happening. The woman has a fantasy life but there was little in the way of conflict or even a relationship with her partner, the conquistador, in his underwear, holding a sword and swinging it around. The scene should not be a matter of abstruse speculations but broken down to the simplest of forms for us to get a better understanding.

Overall I had a grand time and nothing but respect for Sal Landi’s directorial spirit - working with actors who are passionate about the craft. It is the passion for this type of work that eventually fulfills dreams big or small.  

But, and this is the last note I will give: On this particular night, for some actors, the low theatrical voices were drowned out by the sound of silence from this very receptive audience. 

If you want to be hired, you have to be heard.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

All the Best Killers are Librarians – by Bob DeRosa

L - R Mike Mahaffey, Jennifer C. DeRosa, Monica Greene, Pete Caslavka, Lauren Van Kurin, Eric Giancoli, Carrie Keranen - Photos Blake Gardner

By Joe Straw

“…and two, you dropped a 150 grand on a f*nkin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at a public library.” – Will in Good Will Hunting

In her mind, her story had the appearance of being preposterous.  She couldn’t believe it herself.  The questioner’s inquiries to the questioned, under the bright spotlight, received responses that were hardly acceptable.  Still, she had to be interrogated.

She was presumed to be the assassin, this librarian, and now was the time for answers.  But, in order to get to the now we must go back to the beginning.  

The Establishment presents All the Best Killers are Librarians by Bob DeRosa, directed by Alicia Conway Rock, and produced by Jennifer C. DeRosa at The Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, California as part of The Hollywood Fringe Friday July 1, 2015.

Margo (Lauren Van Kurin), a librarian, didn’t like working in the library.  It was better for her to stay in the back reading everything she could get her hands on.  Moving the books from the shelves required a lot of heavy lifting, and reading.  And placing the books back onto the shelves was a glute and quadriceps-tical experience - a little physical and disconcerting all in one fell exertion. Also, there was the mind over matter thing - reading, exercising the eyes and moving fingers like an Evelyn Wood speed-reader providing her with the learned fundamentals of whatever fundamentals she required in her next unknown big job.   

But there was this pesky head librarian, Eleanor (Jennifer C. DeRosa), with a strong north eastern accent, New Yawk, who was always on her about doing her job, collecting late fees, and working with ugly patrons of the library who, truth be said, were not the cleanest lot of a civilized society. Bottom line – Eleanor didn’t like it either.  

And because Eleanor was the head librarian she got more money than Margo, a dollar and some change more, ergo, she was the supervisor, and bossy too. Eleanor was the manager, and Margo was the complaining worker.

One is not completely sure how Lancaster (Eric Giancoli) knew Margo had the stuff.  I mean, how could he tell that she was a killer, and had the capacity?  It was probably a matter of his historical perspective.  One would imagine that Lancaster knew a killer librarian when he saw one and Margo looked like one, what with her arms, her legs, the killer stockings with the black stripes, and the way she blew at her tasseled hair when it fell onto her face - killer!   

So, Lancaster approached Margo, casually in the library, and said, ever so non-discreetly, that there were a couple of hired killers, behind her, staring blankly at the books.  And they were coming to get her.

Lancaster said that Margo needed to kill them before they killed her. There was no way out.

l - R Pete Caslavka, Lauren Van Kurin, Mike Mahaffey

Margo, in the most discreet way possible, flipped out. Seeing two assassins coming for her she prepared herself for the inevitable death – hers - either way it was going to be a tourbillion of physical activity for the next few moments.

And they came, the knives flew, and Margo was the last one standing.

Lancaster, the supposed genius of the bunch, and the leader of The Establishment, now convinces Margo to come to training camp and work out with people who have the capacity to take her out in a flash – kill her.  After a few setbacks Margo realizes there’s a lot of learning to be done.

“You kill when you are in mortal danger.” – Lancaster

“I want to build libraries.” Margo  

Margo wants to quit but instead is lifted onto a C-130 airplane, parachute attached.  This is something she’s not too thrill with, as she jumps into enemy territory and quickly dispatches three terrorists.  There, to clean up the bodies, is Henry (Pete Caslavka) with a gallon of acid to get rid of the fallen figures.  

Maybe it was the fumes from the acid, the chemical imbalance that affected their brains, but Henry and Margo suddenly fall madly in love even before they put on their gas masks.  

Pete Caslavka, Lauren Van Kurin

Meanwhile, off in a secure site, Lancaster believes that Margo is in love with him.  Who could resist someone as wonderful as him, but Margo has other ideas, she wants to leave her job to become a librarian, which eventually gets her into a lot of trouble.

There is a lot to like in Bob DeRosa fast moving play, which has a running time of just over 1 hour.  Despite all the killings, Killer Librarians is a comedy. The fight choreography by Mike Mahaffey was very inventive and kept knives flying into various body parts, and once the knives found their target the bodies flew in innumerable directions all night long.  

Alicia Conway Rock’s direction left no human carcass unturned as all bodies were discarded in very inventive ways. That said, Rock needs to find a way to turn Lancaster into a superhuman, in the way he thinks, and in the way he is persuasive.  Having Lancaster off stage on the phone could easily be done on stage under a spotlight without losing anything.  

Lauren Van Kurin plays Margo and is a wonderful actor with exceptional facial expressions that keep her in the moment. There is also a richness in her character, a flawless backstory, and uniqueness in her manner. Her craft is exceptional and the work is superb.

An interesting thing about Eric Giancoli as Lancaster is that he appears out of nowhere to give Margo the job of assassin.  Lancaster has thoughts that Margo is not going to make it as a killer and also has this weird idea that Margo has fallen in love with him. (This is possibly what all spies think.)  But Lancaster is no James Bond and one is not even sure if The Establishment is a legitimate spy organization judging by the ending. There is more for Giancoli to add to the character of Lancaster and his way of the world.

Pete Caslavka plays the love interest Henry.  Henry is one of identical triplets, two of which no longer reside on this earthly plain, and that is also part of the conflict in his relationship with Margo. That aside, Henry has little to do, sweep up and look adoringly at his mate, not much there, which is why there may be more to add to the character to give him flavor, to give the relationship a nicer touch, a deeper meaning.  

Jennifer C. DeRosa has a nice role as Eleanor, the head librarian.  There is more to this character that we find out later, something about the nature of true killer librarians, but I will not give the secret away. The fight scenes were amazing and DeRosa mixes it up with the best of them.

Carrie Keranen plays Crane and Mrs. White and provides character for those two roles. Crane’s relationships work well when the characters are nearer rather than across a long table. Naytheless, Keranen does a good job and presents solid, powerful, and amusing characters.  

Mike Mahaffey plays a number of Killers and Belinda, who is a cold war outcast, a ne’er to well from Moscow, or a miscreant from the Kremlin, and beautifully disguised with a babushka over his/her head.  

Monica Green rounds out the cast as Sally and another Killer. Greene is petite and does a lot of physical and magnificent work on stage.

The killers come and they go, well, actually they are killed.  They must have been a killer on another night, but on this night they were all killed. Oh, but they all died so magnificently.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Matthew Richter – Lighting Design
Ben Rock – Sound Design
Rachel Manheimer – Stage Manager
Blake Gardner – Photographer

The next time it is around Run! Run! And take a ninja, or two.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger

Bert Emmett and Jennifer Laks - Photos by Doug Engalla

By Joe Straw

“A man must identify himself with something more tangible than his own personality…” – Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent


a greedy caliginous want

Turn, turn, turn
The impious partakers
into poetic figures
because you hunger for an elegiac truth

the consequence from war is not poetic
nor is death poetic in nature

Military occupation
is offensive

If you are out of sight  
we are out of mind

Out of mind 
out of sight




 – Narrator

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger is a poetic wonderfully absurd examination of military occupation and is also wonderfully directed by Drina Durazo who gives us an exquisite madness from the desert.

Sorry, I have to stop.

The Group Rep presents The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger, directed by Drina Durazo, and produced by Troy Whitaker – June 17, 2016 through July 31, 2016 at The Lonny Chapman Theatre.

Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway), an African American soldier with no apparent military rank, probably a grunt, wheels in a prisoner whose arms and legs are strapped to a chair.  

A burlap bag is over the detainee’s face like that of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. But, this is not Abu Ghraib, this place is different – “somewhere between Khanaquin and Mandali” near where, in 1980s, Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons to be fired on opposing forces.  (Which might explain the behavior of those living in the region.)

But now, Dunham needs to get information, from this prisoner, and by any means necessary. So, ever so sweetly, out comes the box with the battery and the cables.  Dunham attaches the cable to the battery, walks over the cable, and then touches the jumper cable clamps to create sparks much to the muffled cries of the person gaged under the mask.

Dunham disconnects the jumper cables from the battery.

The phone rings.

“What’s up mother f**ker?... chillin’…occupyin’…talked to my little…nuts to the car battery…no you my nigga….peace out Senator.” – Dunham

Duhnam takes off the prisoner’s hood, and lo and behold, it’s Bruce Walker (Morgan Lauff), who definitely is not Middle Eastern.

“I’m not a mercenary. I am a cameraman!” – Walker

A likely story as Duhnam scoffs at his insincerity, walks over with the instrument, undoes his belt, and then attaches the jumper cable clamps to Walker’s scrotum.

“Buckley needs to zap your nuts.” – Dunham

Dunham accuses Walker of being a mercenary and demands information. Dunham had earlier heard about a mercenary heading his way. And he wants answers from Walker.

Walker, in pain from the attached clamps, doesn’t know what he is talking about.  

Suddenly, there’s a knock at the steel door. It’s Madeline Sainz (Jennifer Laks), a NY Times reporter.  After peeking through the window, Dunham brings her in and frisks her.  When she sees Walker, she is horrified at his condition, battered and bruised with cables attached to his genitals.

“Boss man does not want to see untouched nuts.” – Dunham

Madeline demands to see the commanding officer and, as Dunham goes to fetch his boss, Walker confesses to Sainz that he is a mercenary sent to kill. Sainz realizes that she is a part of something for which she wants no part.

Suddenly, Dunham introduces the man of the hour, Ulysses S. Armadillo (Bert Emmett).  He is an indecorous spectacle, wearing a tee, with a robe open in the front, blue jockey shorts, white socks with a red stripe, dog tags, earing in the left ear, and an army belt wrapped around his waist to make his appearance official.

Dunham wheels Walker out of the room so that Armadillo and Sainz can speak.

Armadillo offers Sainz coffee and toast, and tells her to go ahead with the interview. But as the interview begins, Sainz believes Armadillo is off his rocker.

“Vietnam ended 6 months before we invaded Iraq.” “Whales started the revolutionary war.” – Armadillo

“None of this makes any sense.” – Sainz

“I don’t give a f*ck.” – Armadillo

Sainz wants to know why Armadillo is still there since everyone knows he’s not supposed to be there.

“Conviction is 9/10th of the law.” – Armadillo

Moments later, Aminah Abdul-Haleem Ali (Shanti Ashanti), a local Iraqi woman, enters the enclosure wanting help from Armadillo. Someone has taken her brother and they are the same people who are responsible for killing Armadillo’s wife.

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger has to be seen to be believed. The writing is superb and the acting mesmerizing. Drina Durazo, the director, keeps the action moving at a wonderful pace.

But, I have some thoughts that should help tie up loose ends and connect to the historical background.   

Armadillo Necktie refers to a process whereby one is disembowel, cut from belly button to breastplate, and then hung by the neck with his own steaming entrails.  Ultimately, it is a charming finish for one who is guilty of behaving badly.

L - R Morgan Lauff, Matt Calloway, Jennifer Laks, Shanti Ashanti, and Bert Emmett

First of all, Bert Emmett, Ulysses S. Armadillo, gave a commanding performance with as much emotional depth and layers as you will find in Los Angeles.  This is definitely a tour de force performance that cements his acting persona in Los Angeles. Armadillo is an interesting character in that he believes the impossible is possible, right or wrong, they are his convictions. But, he has some problems.  Number one, he is Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and everyone is coming for him because he just won’t leave. His objective is to destroy the men who killed his wife no matter what it takes and to keep an eye on his distractors before going completely mad.  Everyone should run to see this brilliant performance.

Jennifer Laks is exceptional as Madeline Sainz.  Laks is a stunning woman that lets the words play out in the comedy. She is an actress that provides many layers and also projects a rugged sense of her athletic self. Sainz, although appearing grounded, is conflicted and in an emotional mess as she overcomes betrayal on many ends. But where is that emotional moment where she decides to give herself?  How does that work out?

Matt Calloway is also terrific as crudely jocular Buckley Dunham.  Torture is not his thing.  That’s the stuff white people do to each other.  But Dunham was sent there on a mission and it is not complete.  Someone appears to be pushing his buttons from the outside to get the job done and I think that should be added in his initial conversation with the Senator (not seen).  It’s part of the conflict he must add.  Also, there must be a reason why he so ingratiates himself to Armadillo.  What keeps him hanging on?  And why is he on Armadillo’s side? After all, he has young kids and needs to get back home. He needs to work on both his “attention” and “at ease” – gotta get that right baby, gotta get that right. That aside, Calloway has a terrific way on stage.  His voice is strong and his movements are specific.

Morgan Lauff as Bruce Walker made a bomb and set the timer on infinity, at least it is not set to go off in the near future. Walker is a mercenary, and not a good one at that.  He is lost and confused and those are his good qualities. How could the suits have sent such a bungler? That aside, he has to figure out how to get out of the predicament that he is in.  First, he must convince his torturer that he is not a mercenary.  Secondly, he must convince the reporter, that he is the mercenary, and that he is going to do in Armadillo. Quick, clean kills, and then out.  But that doesn’t happen, because of his bungling personality, which gets into the way of his objective. To add that into his body of work would help make his objective stronger – without the absurd comic facial expression – that should also add to the character.   

Shanti Ashanti is a stunning creature as Aminah Abdul-Haleem Ali.  Ashanti’s voice is clear and her movements are exact. But, Ali is a devious character who tries to get Armadillo to kill her brother’s attackers by accusing them of killing Armadillo’s wife. But that puts her in a various perilous situation, not only with the occupiers but also, with her countrymen. Whose side is she on? This may be something she wants to add to her already marvelous performance.

Larry Eisenberg understudies Ulysses S. Armadillo but did not perform the night I was there.

One can only fall in love with Gus Kreiger’s words in this marvelous play, a remontant rose that has no end, stuck in a time that repeats itself with minor variations.   The play also touches on a number of subjects, war, time, and impotent despair. But, not everything works; one could go with one or two less, “I’m just joking with ya.” This is a strong relationship play, so the relationships must play to perfection.  One character, for reasons unknown, was sent up the river to get “Kurtz” – that didn’t work.  The second man is sent but bungles with each attempt.  Also, it is unclear if the bomb was attached correctly, timed correctly, etc.; Armadillo looks at it as though it were a joke. And no one is concerned that it will go off at any time, which if it were would demand a greater sense of urgency in the characters.  It is as if no one cares about the ticking time bomb.  (Just throw it into the cabinet, hope for the best). Also, time passes oddly in this play, it rounds to the nearest 5th year, Armadillo claims he is 85, then 105, and then again 135, and when Sainz checks her watch, it sends her into her future.  At times, Armadillo speaks in the third person, describing moments that work marvelously.   That said, despite the nefarious nature of war, this is a beautifully written work of art.

Drina Durazo, the director, does some fantastic work. It was an amazing opening that will only get better as time passes and actors get more performances under their belt. There is more to add, and moments to clarify. Certainly some characters require a deeper historical backstory, something that moves with their objectives. But overall, the play is an emotional rollercoaster; a play that digs deep and that touches a deep emotional button in me on the futility of war.

J. Kent Inasy, Scenic & Light Designs, has created a marvelous set; a trailer on wheels, armored and elevated, a great place for actors to do their magic.

Other members of this marvelous crew are as follows:

William Hickman – Fight Choreographer
Lauren Peterson – Assistant Director
Chris Winfield – Assistant Scenic Design
Angela M. Eads – Costume Design
Gabrielle Sciabbarrasi – Costume Assistant
Todd Andrew Ball & Hisato Masuyama – Prop Design
Drina Durazo – Sound Design
Alicia Patterson – Stage Manager
Nora Feldman – Public Relations
Joe Chang – Original Art Work
Dough Haverty + Art & Soul Design – Graphic Design
Drina Durazo - Program

Run! Run! Run! And take a veteran.

Reservations: 818-763-5990