Friday, October 24, 2014

Affluence by Steven Peterson



By Joe Straw

I’m sorry if this offends.  I had to do it this way. After all, this is a blog, and you know it’s all about growing.   – Narrator

“Robert Woodley, Jr. (Lloyd Pedersen) and Jean Woodley (Rhonda Lord) have been residing there since God knows when.  No, well, since they got married, twenty somethin’ years ago.  He didn’t make his money, the way his father did, and they were given the house by his father and his mother, Namoo (Nan Tepper) - funny name.

“And, funny, I can’t remember the father’s name.  He was about a decent as a fellow could be though.   

“Robert Jr.’s folks moved down the road a piece, as they say in the south, into a little poke of a place, a little poke filled with money.   And Robert, Jr., with his job at the bank, made waves wanting to establish the family as someone with affluence.

 Affluence – Noun - abundance of money, property, and other material goods; riches; wealth – Dictionary.com

“Things were going fine until they had their son, Arthird (Justin Huff), well that’s what everyone called him.  His real name is Robert III, carrying down the legacy, if there was one to carry down, ‘cause, truth be told, I doubt there’s going to be a IV. He’s kind of slow, and there’s no female prospects on any kind of horizon you can think of, land, sea or air, if you cared to think about it, which I don’t. About the only thing he can do is play with them video games.  He hardly looks up to talk to you when you pass him on the street.

“Arthird is only there to annoy his sister, Beanie (Ilona Kulinska). They call her Beanie because one, no one remembers her name, folks included, and b, that’s what Arthird called her when she came home from the hospital: ‘She looks like a bean.’ Cute.

“But I know it’s really Barbara.

“In any case, Beanie is graduating high school and wants to go to a very nice college and waiting for that very letter of acceptance on this Boxing Day.  That’s the day after Christmas, in case you didn’t know. She’s kind of stuck up and never says hi to you at Starbucks, especially when she’s with her stuck up friends. That’s what money ‘ill do to you.

“I’ve smelled trouble in that house for some time now. Robert, Jr. lost his job, no wait a minute; I think the Feds came in and took his bank away, is what I think.  

“Namoo moved back in after her husband died.  I’ll still can’t remember his name. She’s been feeling ill for some time now and just got out of rehab or assisted living where I heard Jean, her daughter-in-law, got in trouble stealing her pain medication, or the medication that was in the assisted living space.  In fact, there’s a lawsuit against Jean and I don’t know but I hear they will settle or she will go to jail.  But you know, white folks don’t go to jail.  Ha, ha, ha.

“Would you push up the glasses on my nose?  My hands are all tied up. Scratch, right there. Thanks.

“Jean claims she’s all innocent and Robert, Jr. says their legal bills will be astronomical. They may have to sell the house, lose their affluence, and live like normal people, like you and me.  Ha. Ha. Ha.

“In the meantime Jean, who suffers from severe migraines, has to stay out of drug trouble. Lawsuit.  I seen her with a frozen bag of corn slapped to the side of her head from the window.  That’s the funniest looking thing but, bless her heart, she can’t help it she’s in so much pain.

“Because of the lawsuit, Jean cannot help her mother-in-law with her pain medications.  For that, they have hired Inez (Christine Uhebe) who lives with them taking care of Namoo and other things around the house. Probably folding laundry like I’m doing now.

“And one other thing, Inez takes care of is that big lug, Arthird. There’s something about love being said there but I don’t believe it.  She’s one of them “illegals”.   And I don’t see anything good coming out of that.  Scandalous.

“One last thing, I don’t know if this is true or not, because of the change in the tax law, Namoo has to die before New Years Day if they are to save the inheritance tax money they would otherwise pay out, and she ain’t looking too healthy right now.  It wouldn’t surprise me if something terrible would befall on her, by accident, before the year’s up.

“That’s about all I know.”

“ I’ll give you my card.  If you have more information please don’t hesitate to call.”

“Hmmm, what do I call you? Agent, detective, Mr.?”

“Any title will do.”

Affluence by Steven Peterson is/was extremely tantalizing.  This wonderful new comedy, winner of The Beverly Hills Theatre Guild’s 2013 Julie Harris Playwrighting Award, is a fantastic play that has unfortunately closed October 20, 2014 at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.   

Larry Eisenberg, the director, has gathered one of the finest ensembles of the year. One can only marvel at listening to the private conversations of characters, the day after Christmas, mind you, who whisper and conspire to dastardly deeds?  The superior actors leave you breathless as you move from one intense moment to the next.  This is a testament to the Eisenberg’s skillful direction in one of his finest works to date – one in which intimacy, from this venue, plays an important role.    

This show was wonderfully Produced by David Hunt Stafford.  And the celebration begins when one enters the theatre and appreciates Jeff G. Rack’s Set Design, which is marvelous and sets the tone for this particular point in time – Boxing Day 2010.  



Lloyd Pedersen plays Robert, Jr. and is wonderful in the role.  Robert has lost his job and has little prospect of getting another because of his age. He hopes someone dies before midnight so there will not be huge lost in estate taxes, which kick in after midnight.  Ultimately, the character is a scoundrel – only hoping for the best, meaning the best for him, including having his sights on the help.  It is because of his seditious wants that he incites the members of the household to do his bidding.

Rhonda Lord is brilliant as Jean.  Jean has a lot of problems and one of them is her addiction to pain medication, which has gotten her into a lot of trouble, as well as her family.  Jean is ruthless, kind, despicable, loving, and in a lot of pain.  She stops at nothing to get what she wants.  Lord is an actress with impeccable skills and truth on stage.  There is a supreme naturalism to her work as she glides effortlessly from one moment to the next for which you cannot take your eyes off her for one single moment.  

Justin Huff is exceptional as Arthird. There is more to this character than meets the eye. Arthird still lives at home and has no job prospects. He is a sad lot. Despite the fact he has his head in video games, things in life come naturally to him, like the help.  He keeps that relationship under wraps until he is caught.  And when he is caught, he tries to hide the relationship until he feels the time is right to release the information, what with grandma dying upstairs, and the lawsuit, and the people who are in pain throughout the house. Huff’s relationships with his sister and grandmother are impeccable but one hopes for a stronger bond with his mother and father. Still it is a fantastic role and one in which Huff fills with exceptional viva.

Ilona Kulinska, who plays Beanie, is an exceptional actress. She has a natural charm that translates well to the stage.  Beanie hopes to get into the college of her choice and because of her family’s influence, she believes she is entitled.  She is the smartest sibling and the hopes of her family rides on her getting into a reputable school.  Also, Beanie is a bit of a pest about getting things the way she wants while there are other pressing family problems that need to be addressed. This is a wonderful role for Kulinska who excels in dramatic fashion.



Nan Tepper has a wonderful role in Namoo and does a great job with the role.  She is perfect for this role and one hopes that, in the theatrical sense, she “breaks a leg” during the course of the run.  One hopes that after the run she is still in one piece.  But kidding aside, she was marvelous.

Christine Uhebe is Inez and is perfect for the role.  There is a lot going on with Inez.  She has to fight off the dad, fight off the mother, take care of the grandmother, and please the son, and then keep it all under her hat. That’s a heavy load to carry but Uhebe carries the roll in remarkable style. The scene with the “patches”, done with so much sincerity and naturalism had me on the edge of my seat.

Richard Garner as plays Arthird but did not perform on the night I was there.

Larry Eisenberg, the director, does an excellent job.  This is the finest work I have seen from him to date. There is a moment, near the end, where a voice calls down from upstairs, which requires impeccable timing and was probably missed on this night and maybe requires a little misdirection so that we are absolutely not sure who is calling from upstairs.    

Steven Peterson, the writer, has written a magnificent play with the grand theme of affluence, caring for the aging, and of the unparalleled perfidy of those left in charge all in the name of keeping a certain lifestyle.

Instead of a “Who done it?” it’s more like a who’s going to do it?”  As all of the characters have a steak in the game of affluence. 

While the characters in this play are all part of the fait accompli, they are just not all moving in that direction or at the same pace.  This makes the play all the more enjoyable.  Not on the surface, but underneath, each person is striving for a favorable resolution to their own personal problems caring little for how that gets resolved.  Some characters are more despicable than the others.  Robert Jr. pleasantly throws out the ideas without having the audacity to be a physical partner to his thoughts of crime.   The others are silent but secretly willing to physically implement his ideas into action. At the end of the first act, they watch silently as Jean slowly dials 911. And one can only look to see if the children are really innocent bystanders.  Arthrid dancing with the grandmother seems like an innocent thing, at first glance. But, looking back, maybe that act was helping things along.

One of the interesting things about the ending is that the children don’t come to a resolution.  They are missing from the final conclusion from a reaction we desperately need  (I need.)  Certainly one needs a reaction of how things fell in their favor, or did not fall in their favor at all. That’s just me.  I need a little more closure.

But this takes nothing away from the show, which I thought was marvelous.

Michele Young did a marvelous job as the Costume Designer.   

Ric Zimmerman Lighting Design cast a very somber mood for this comedy but one which worked tragically well, all things considered. 

Other members of this marvelous crew are as follows:

Vesna Tolomanoska – Assistant Director

Don Solosan – Stage Manager

Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Design

Michele Bernath – Dance Choreographer

Tanya Wilkins – Fight Choreographer

If you ever get a chance to see a production of this play – Run! Run! Run! – And take someone nearer to God than thee.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown - Based on the Comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz – Book, Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lipps

Holland Noel

(Charlie Brown sat in a director’s chair in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I will do the same here, as a particular character, a reviewer.)

The actors were great, all had powerful voices, the characterizations were spot on, and the musical numbers were fantastic.

But I sat there, in the chair, in the empty theatre, feeling empty. I know, I shouldn’t feel like that, but I did.  Empty.

I had trouble sitting quietly, during the performance, a few feet away, as a former director, feeling a little helpless. But didn’t anyone get the visual cues from me?  The fact that I was writing feverishly in the front row, taking notes, didn’t resonate with the actors playing the characters on stage.  

That the actors should have been more stage left? Rather than stage right? Downstage, when matters were best settled upstage?   That the kite would have been better blue, than red? 

Didn’t anyone see how alone I felt?  Wasn’t pulling my hair out enough of a visual cue?  Was I the only one seeing it the way it should have been?

Why, in a world of incredible actors, was I the only one feeling that it needed focus? 

(And one last thing, I don’t identify with Charlie Brown, I don’t.  I said it and I’m not ashamed.) - Narrator

I’ve heard about You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown The Musical over the years from people who made polite remarks about the show and never saying a bad thing about it.

“Snoopy was great!”

“You have to go for Snoopy alone.”

“And the best part was Snoopy! “

“Snoopy cracked me up!”

“Snoopy is as funny as all get out.”

Snoopy was probably the best thing about the cartoons I saw on TV growing up and watched during the holiday seasons, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. 

As a child, I poured over Peanuts comic books, and the daily comic strips. I noticed that in the earlier version of the comic strip the characters were badly drawn. There wasn’t a lot of character development in those cells but they were funny.     

And in all these years, I had never seen the musical about Charlie Brown and wasn’t it about time I got over to the theatre to see it?   For gosh sakes!

Later, after seeing it, my daughter asked me if kids or adults played the characters. 

“Adults.  Why?” 

“Why?  Cause it’s better with kids.” 

Kids know everything and I see her point.  The kids in the comic strip are speaking and acting like adults, even Snoopy, which, makes it comical.   But in this case it was the adults acting as kids, acting like adults.

Sustaining Sound Theatre Company and Chromolume Theatre present You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Revised 1999) based on the comic strip, Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, Book, Music and Lyrics by Clark Gesner, additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa through November 2, 2014.   

The cast of characters were there: Charlie (Holland Noel), Lucy (Dorothy Blue), Sally (Kristin Towers-Rowles), Linus (Richie Ferris), Schroeder (John Deveraux), and Snoopy (Matt Steele).  All were superior in voice and skills.  

The great musical numbers in this show are Choreographed by Samantha Whidbey.  The Kite by Charlie Brown was one of my favorites because there is so much emotional life in that song.  Rabbit Chasing with Sally and Snoopy, and My New Philosophy with Sally and Schroeder. The Doctor Is In with Lucy and Charlie gives us the true sense of what Charlie Brown and Lucy are all about.

This production is a scaled down version of the show, in a very small intimate theatre, and one that is good for kids as well as adults, but in truth, this is a grand experience for young adults.  

This particular version of the show directed by Cate Caplin came off, not as a comic strip with songs but rather, as vignettes (in the same vein of “Laugh In” for those who remember back in the day). Actors would come in, say their piece, or sing a song, and then leave.  Continuity, or a strong through line, was difficult to discern during the course of this show. 

We have come to know the relationships between characters over the years and those relationships could have been better, and strongly defined.  This is a call for a minor adjustment for my own idiosyncratic reasons.  Learn the songs, the movements, remember and define the relationships, and how it all fits to arrive to the pièce de résistance.

L - R Front: Dorothy Blue, Kristin Towers-Rowles
Second Row: Richie Ferris, John Deveraux
Third Row:  Holland Noel, Matt Steele
Holland Noel, as Charlie Brown has a great presence on stage and some wonderful moments. But we never really get a sense that he’s a blockhead, whether he thinks that or the others do. Even in this musical, we need the sense that he has overcome his adversities in the end and is thought of as a good man, because that is what the show is about.  

Dorothy Blue is wonderful to watch as Lucy van Pelt, has a very nice voice, and I love the blue dress. Lucy is worldly; at least that’s what she thinks of her self. A little more development of that character trait and purpose would go a long way. She doesn’t want anyone smarter than she is and she will go out of her way to confuse people like her brother Linus in the song Little Know Facts.  Also Lucy has a crush on Schroeder but we don’t see that at all.

John Deveraux as Schroeder has an excellent voice and a marvelous way on stage. But there is more to be had in this character and his mannerisms as he moves about on stage. There must be a stronger relationship to Charlie Brown and also his muse, Lucy van Pelt, to give the character a little more humph. 

Richie Ferris plays Linus van Pelt.  This tall statuesque actor has a powerful voice and does well on stage. So tall that he whips his security blanket on to the lights high above him. In this musical review, Ferris should strengthen his relationship with Charlie Brown, his best friend, and Sally so that we know where he stands with both of those characters. And I always thought that Linus was the smartest one of the group, if so I did not see this in Ferris’ performance.

Matt Steele plays Snoopy and does so marvelously as he moans, slithers, slides, and dances all around the stage. And yes, “Snoopy cracked me up.”

Kristin Towers-Rowles plays Sally Brown and has a lovely voice.  Also, this Sally Brown is an interesting characterization of pushing her chest out, trying to find answers to her questions, and wondering why the world is conspiring against her.  (Art never deserves a “C”, from any teacher, any time.)  Finding ways to make Sally’s relationship with Linus stronger would be a good thing—she does love him and defining that physical relationship would add to an already remarkable performance.

Other members of the cast who serve as understudies that did not perform on stage the night I was there were Trevor Coran, Rachel Geis, Carly Linehan, Andreas Pantazis, and Michael Uribes

Robert Towers & Ryan Rowles produced the show.

Colorful Scenic Design was by Erik Austin.  The Lighting Designer was Will North Cleckler.

Costumes by Shon LeBlanc & Melissa Pritchell helped with the characterization and was nicely done.

I was particularly impressed by the sound coming from Charlie Brown’s empty mailbox, Sound Design by Kenny Leforte.

The Choreographer/Stage Manager was Samantha Whidby.

And making the songs sound so delightful was by Musical Director Jeff Bonhiver, who was also on the keyboard, while Tyler Smith played the drums.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Publicity – Mike Abramson
House Manager – Elliott J. Lawrence
Co-Artistic Directors – Kristin Towers-Rowles & Rebekah Hellerman

Run!  And take some kids that love free expression and speak their minds.   

The Chromolume Theatre @ The Attic
5429 West Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
(Between Carmona Ave & Hauser Blvd.)

Reservations:  323-205-1617 or purchasing online.



“You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” is presented through special arrangement with Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc., and proceeds from this production will be sent to Free Arts For Abused Children, a Los Angeles based non-profit organization whose mission is to provide healing and empowerment to victims of child abuse and neglect through creative and innovative arts programming. More information may be found at www.freearts.org.





Sunday, October 5, 2014

Low Hanging Fruit by Robin Bradford



By Joe Straw

Our land is littered with our own homegrown “Green Zones”.  These zones are inhabited with our nation’s forgotten veterans, living homeless, and in squalid conditions.  

I’m not sure what it was.  “It” being this sudden release of feelings, the tears streaming down my cheeks during the dance number at the beginning of the second act.  Maybe, it was the joy of life that people experience, in a place, where moments before, the thought of happiness was impossible to imagine. 

Or maybe it was that wonderful feeling one gets when watching human beings having a magnificent time, knowing that their life will not get any better than this moment.   – Narrator

Low Hanging Fruit by Robin Bradford and directed by Lee Sankowich is a very satisfying night of theatre.   On the surface, this may sound like faint praise but I enjoyed every minute of this show.  The writing, the acting, and the direction worked on many levels.

Aside from a great night of theatre, there’s more work to be done, not a lot, but more. I’ll have some notes later.

Zephyr Theatre presents the World Premiere of Low Hanging Fruit written by Robin Bradford, directed and produced by Lee Sankowich through October 26, 2014.

Canyon (Christina Wren) has a very lovely voice as she plucks the guitar, an amateur busker looking for change.  Don’t ask questions, if you like the music, just toss the money in the case, and leave.  

But Tito (Ben Cain) is not the kind of man that she wants throwing money into her case one bill at a time.  He stares looking at her nubile body extrapolating the earning dollars of her flesh. Good-looking Tito is worldly, a pimp who operates on the sleazy side, a licentious doctrine embossed on his business card if you will, and not someone this 14-year-old can trust.  And, he ain’t leaving. So Canyon throws her guitar into the case and moves on.

Maya (Lola Anthony) has a voice, wants a voice, a loud whispering Latina (Puerto Rican?) voice from Brooklyn that wants the world to know that she is back, tears flowing, that she is struggling, and is fighting to climb out of the mental hole that was the war, struggling hard, fighting the good fight that her father was never able to overcome.

“Daddy killed himself in Vietnam
 - the last shot, in his mouth -
31 years after he came home.” - Maya

Alice (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel) is contently sitting in her ratty old chair, knitting, and just watching over things. In her chair, she is a queen - something about her – watching over her subjects and being very motherly in this queendom of a homeless encampment called the Taj Mahal in downtown Los Angeles.    She takes pride in handling the money, which is in a roll, hidden away in her bag.  

Maya, through with poetry for now, walks in, dressed in military fatigues, and for the moment looking every bit the strong military woman, the boot steps give it away, the khakis a further explanation of where she has been, and where she is going. Muscles bulging in places she didn’t know she had.   

But in walks Cory (Terasa Sciortino), long stringing hair covered by a cap, with her new found friend Canyon, the 14-year-old transient that Cory has taken a liking to.  Cory leans a certain way and Canyon is way too cute to let her go.  Aware of her age, Cory sees her as someone from the streets to protect. The trouble is that she is fourteen years old, living on the streets, and has a questionable runaway story.  

But Alice doesn’t like Canyon’s story and wants her out especially after she learns her age.  Police don’t mind this camp now for the time being but Canyon brings too many problems into their lives and Alice doesn’t want any part of that mess.  

Yolanda (Chanda Hartman), finally waking from a night of who knows what, crawls out of the tent by the fence wearing a bright red dress as if ready to party.  Straightening out her blond wig just to get herself in some kind of order, she doesn’t give a fig about Canyon, but she is looking for some extra money, selling herself to keep the girls fed around this camp and a little something extra for her drug habit.  

And that’s when Tito comes to get her.  It’s business as usual when he comes for Yolanda, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees Canyon and wants her to come his way. The women run Tito out of the camp because they are all they got.  

The question for the time being is: “Does Canyon stay or go?” Alice sends Cory off to get a burger while the rest vote.  

Robin Bradford, the writer, has written an exquisite play that tells us a lot about what is going on with the women that we send to war.  And these women fight a battle on two fronts, the enemy and with our very own.   Coming home after being discharged, they have very little to show for it, except for those big emotional scars of war, harassment, and rape.  

The characters in this play provide each other with a base of support because they are all stuck.  They are not able to find the answers to their feelings, which are:  I can’t get better and I don’t know where to begin. We get the message, loud and clear.  

The minor issue with this play is that we see the support they provide each other but do not see how they move in a direction to get out. Defining the characters’ objectives, and their dreams in the context of the play would help to iron out those few problems.  And after defining the path of the characters, we need to see if they get there or not. That path needs clarity and strength.

Also, as a practical concern, the social order of the camp is not reminiscent of any military order I’ve witnessed during my lifetime (growing up in military family) and one would hope that would be better defined in future rewrites.

Still this is a wonderful play that I hope that Ms Bradford would continue to work on.

Lee Sankowich, the director and producer, does an excellent job of putting this all together. There is an undeniable truth to his direction, the uncluttered naturalism, all that all are guided in creating multidimensional characters, with all of this managing to convey a convincing truth.   The aesthetic impression of the night rings an important truth that carries one well into the darkened night.  

Christina Wren is fantastic as Canyon. Wren is perfectly suited for the 14-year-old role because of her diminutive size and youthful appearance. There is an underlying strength that could be added to this character. That the character is not fully developed is evident as she changes suddenly, without warning, and without the backstory needed. Little hints would help so that we know where the character is going.

Ben Cain does a respectable job as Tito. But there’s more to this character, another level, possibly three. Is he there to annoy the ladies and be a pimp?  There’s not much there. This works fine for television but a greater sense of self and character development would only add to a performance that was good, but could have been better. Tito operates like the men in the military and I think the women see this.



Lola Anthony plays Maya with an inherent strength in her character. Maya is the one character with dreams enough get out of this place.  Her Latina roots give her a focus and it’s a wonder that she is in this camp because she clearly is the one with a sharp head on her shoulders. But why does she stay? Is she getting material for her writing?  She is obviously looking, trying to find a way, to get out. Anthony does an exceptional job, finding the core of the character, and taking that character home. It is a marvelous performance.

Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel (that’s a long name) fits comfortably with the role of Alice, a wily, feisty; take no prisoner type of character.  She obviously wants to lead but finds it depressing that none of the other girls want to follow.  She is in fact a sergeant with no privates. This is a character that lacks a strong objective and one is not sure where this character is going.   Could self-doubt about leading effectively be one of the reasons she remains in the camp?

Terasa Sciortino as Cory has the look of someone who has been living in the camp for sometime. With her hair, the cap, and the overall look, she has the appearance of someone who has lived in her clothes for the duration of her time there.  This character carries more baggage but can’t find a way to get her being out of this situation. She is the most conflicted character on stage but really needs to search for a way out whether she gets there or not.  There’s more to be had from this character, the necklace she wears, the garden she keeps, and the demons that come to her in the night - that strangles her like the macabre necklace around her throat.   

Chanda Hartman is exceptional as Yolanda.  Hartman has a very nice presence on stage.  The question for me was:  Why is this character there?  Aside from getting money for the group, she doesn’t have a purpose. She is the Yin to the Yang, the opposite extreme to what these ladies are not but part of the collective.   Prostitution, drugs, drink, and any other vice - you name it, she does it.  But she plays an important part in the service of the group and should find physical ways to get the group to move on.  

Heather Taylor also plays Canyon as well but did not perform the night I was there.  

Margie Mintz served as Co-Producer of this lovely production.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Giulio Perrone – Set Designer
Rebecca Raines – Lighting Designer
Wendell C. Carmichael – Costume Designer
Norman Kern – Sound Designer
Katherine S. Hunt – Prop Designer
Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners – Marketing Manager
Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners – Assoc. Marketing Manager
Nora Feldman – Publicist
Lupe Lucero – Stage Manager

As a side note, the Veterans Administration is able to help women who were honorably discharged from the service.  But women, like the ones in the play, are afraid to go because of the services are not specific to their needs.  The VA is slowly making inroads with outreach programs to contact women, and to provide housing and support services through social workers and peer support.

Run!  Run!  And take a military woman who has served this country with honor and dignity.  

Buy Tickets/Info:  Please visit www.plays411.com/low  or 323-960-7788
Where:  The Zephyr Theatre is located at 7456 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood 90046


Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? – Edward Albee


L - R Paul Witten and Ann Noble - Photos by Michael Lamont


By Joe Straw

Beneath Michael Shurtleff’s soft exterior was a hard-as-nails teacher.  Little shocked him as he sat through the litanies of actor’s scenes. In the early 1980’s one scene that just got to him was Edward Albee’s A Zoo Story with a little known, but magnificent actor, John Reno.  At the end of the play, Shurtleff cried like a baby, multiple tissues, blowing, and what not, for reasons not entirely explained. - Narrator  

Is he the hero or the goat?

Watching Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? audience members reacted differently. Having repeatedly heard the phrase: “He was not the hero but the goat” in the past, I came away with a different take altogether than my partner who is unfamiliar with the phrase. A figurative statement to be sure but surprisingly suited to all of the characters that lose a great deal by the end.  And I’ll get to that later.  

Theatre gives and you take what you will.

Could Albee have written a multivocal play that is this literal, or is it all symbolic of an innate gist? Certainly, Albee could not have come this far (2002) without providing us with some metaphorical amusement at this point in his illustrious career.  This play might be considered theatre of the absurd, mortified by the fact that one character has a brazen affection for a goat, a discreet and non-communicative farm animal. But in the end, the play is all too real.     

From the hero to the goat.

Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center Presents Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Directed by Ken Sawyer and Produced by Jon Imparato through November 23, 2014 at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre.

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is a wonderful night of uneasy entertainment, as uncomfortable squirming and twisting are the high order of the night.  The subject matter, of moral incongruity, reinforces a sense of humanistic awareness, and that in itself is a grand testament to this wonderful night. The sublime execution, in a very small theatre space, comes along so rarely that one is astounded by the superior performances, the direction, and the overall production values from this ostentatious theatrical event.

Martin (Paul Witten) has just turned fifty and has the world is at his grassy feet. He has just won The Pritzker Architecture Prize, for “significant contributions to humanity…through the art of architecture”.  Oddly enough, this brass-like metal prize is strangely adorned with exotic leafy symbols one might think would be suitable as goat fodder.   

Martin shares his opulent living space with his wife Stevie (Ann Noble), who at the moment is busy preparing for a visitor, and their son Billy (Spencer Morrissey).  It is odd that Stevie and Billy are names that are common for pet goats.  Subconsciously, Martin may have planned this all along.  

Stevie call him into the living room and Martin stands passively on top of the grassy like pasture carpeting, unyielding to his present situation.  His eyes are deep and dark, an unreadable stare. And although he says he’s looking for a razor he likes the look of his goat-like pillared face, as he focuses to another time, another pasture.   

In reality, there’s not much there, in his stare. Preoccupied, Martin may be looking at the ranunculus flower Stevie prepared for the guest as a food source, and nothing else, unaware, or maybe aware, this particular flower is staple for goats and sheep.

In any case, Martin and Stevie, married for 22 years, have a terrific relationship, filled with urbane playfulness.  But Martin is deep in thought and can’t remember anything, including the two business cards that he absent-mindedly wrenches from his jacket.

More urbane playfulness and, after a forehead kiss, Stevie smells a peculiar odor on Martin’s jacket.

“Where have you been?” – Stevie

Martin feigns for a moment but then gets himself into more trouble by reading the two mysterious business cards.  And for the next few moments the game becomes one of cat and goat. (I couldn’t resist.)

“Clarissa Atherton, basic services.  Does she smell funny?” – Stevie

“ I don’t know.  I don’t know who she is, as far as I know.  Where were we this week?” – Martin

“Oh, it doesn’t matter sweetie.  If you’re seeing this Atherton woman, this.. dominatrix.. who smells funny…” – Stevie

Odd, that Stevie takes it to this extreme, that Martin might possibly be thinking in this realm.  She is so far out of this ballpark, but to go there suggests a suspicion that all is not right with their relationship.  

“If you are seeing that woman.  I think we’d better talk about it.” – Stevie

Martin, feeling so guilty, wants to let the goat out of the pen, so to speak, and he does so in the slyest of increments. (I really don’t want to give this away.)

Later Ross Tuttle (Matt Kirkwood), a family friend, arrives to interview Martin for his show People Who Matter.  Today’s topic is Martin turning fifty and winning the Pritzker prize.  He arrives without a crew.  Certainly Ross makes this an inauspicious occasion (no crew) for a matter of such importance in Martin’s life.  

“Tell us about The World City.” – Ross

“Well, you just did:  two hundred billion dollars, and all, the wheatfields of Kansas…” – Martin

Wheatfields!  Ahhh!  

But Martin is still preoccupied with serious matters at hand and Ross catches wind of Martin’s uneasiness, cuts the camera he is holding, and wants to know what’s going on.  

Knowing Martin since they were ten, Ross is sensing an affair, and moves in for the details, and in particular, the gory details.  Martin calls him a proletarian and a snob, a very insulting choice of words for someone who has been his best friend for forty years.  One would question their friendship, at this point, as being very suspect for reasons not entirely understood.  

But Martin has to tell the story at his own pace, bringing up events, from their past, including Ross’s relationship to “The Ladies Aid Society” and “April” who he had sex with even though he was married.

With that safety net exposed, Martin lets the goat out of the bag.


L to R — Spencer Morrissey, Paul Witten, Ann Noble, Matt Kirkwood


Paul Witten gives an exceptional performance as Martin. The audience howled when he demonstrated to Ross “…and she came toward me and…”  Martin searches and asks for forgiveness from all he has hurt, mostly his son and wife. What could possibly be the reason for Martin, who by all appearances is on top of the world, to get involved with a goat, when he risks losing everything? Witten gives a subtle and understated approach to the character, which works very well. But I’m wondering if there is another edge to this character, a reason why he reminds his friend about the party and then destroys him before confessing to his love affair.  He also appears to be a man who is not apologetic for what he has done.  Despite his degree of expostulating with his wife, and being humble, he is not getting out of this predicament. Altogether, Witten's performance is wonderful.

Ann Noble, as Stevie, does a remarkable job.  There is something wrong with Stevie’s relationship with her husband, which is slightly hinted, a hidden secret, not divulged in this play that could have added a nice touch to their relationship. Stevie has a strong persona, with flaming red hair, and will stop at nothing to get the truth and if it means tearing up the living room, so be it. And more than anything she is angry that she has to play second fiddle to a goat.   Oh, the humiliation! This marriage is by all accounts over and the information she gets during the course of understanding the why would just be fodder for divorce court. Her execrated announcement “I’ll bring you down with me!” suggests not a happy ending.

Spencer Morrissey plays their son Billy and he is on his mother’s side throughout.  He is slight but stands strong when he thinks his father is beating up on his mother.  About the only thing, this slight seventeen-year-old kid can do, is save a vase he likes, as his mother tears up in the living room.  Morrissey does a fine job with his relationships, the need to protect his mother, and figuring out what went wrong with his father, but needs work strengthening his voice as a matter of practical concern.

Matt Kirkwood does a fine job as Ross. Overall it was an exceptional job but some moments were lost on this night – mostly timing issues –, which should be corrected by the time you see it. Also, the relationships between his best friend and his best friend’s wife would do well to be better defined. Treating them both like casual friends does not serve this character’s purpose. There are infinite possibilities for this jealous, conniving, wife cheating, snitching, proletariat.  Ross is part of this iniquitous show. Kirkwood may have made grand inroads into this character but there’s more to be had from this Machiavellian persona who rides in with his malignancy disguised as a friend.  

Ken Sawyer, the director, does a fantastic job with this show, with the actors, the look, and the overall production values.  It is a night where one waits for that moment when the event, told with extreme caution, tragically destroy the lives of this family. The question for me is: Why? Why would the character risk everything to destroy his life? I’m not sure we got the definitive answer from this production, but it is fun to speculate on the whys. The Goat is a tragedy in the end because, by all means, everyone in this relationship winds up being “the goat”. They all lose, various things, for various reasons. Martin has lost his wife, the son has lost his family, and Ross has lost his relationship with his friends.  One might ask what Ross gains from writing the letter, an act that places him in an invidious position, when it appears that he loses everything. And it is not only Ross, each of the characters, with their moral imperfections; go to an extreme measure to destroy their relationships.

Jon Imparato, the Producer, did a marvelous job down to the smallest detail.  This is a wonderful production.

The exquisite set by Robert Selander plays every inch of this fine production including the painting destroyed which appears to have a goat in it in the lower left hand corner.

Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:

Assistant Director – Shaunessy Quinn
Lighting Designer – Matt Richter
Costume Designer – Paula Higins
Sound Designer – Ken Sawyer
Press Representative – Ken Werther Publicity
Stage Manager – Kathleen Jaffe
Fight Director – Edgar Landa
Property Master – Bethany Tucker
Set Construction – Allison Hill, Peter Sauber

Run!  Run!  Run!   And take a friend that likes big surprises.



FOR TICKETS:


DAVIDSON/VALENTINI THEATRE
AT THE LOS ANGELES LGBT CENTER'S VILLAGE AT ED GOULD PLAZA
1125 N. McCADDEN PLACE
HOLLYWOOD