Friday, July 14, 2017

PALM CANYON THEATRE SOARS TO THE MUSIC OF “IN THE HEIGHTS”

Matt Zambrano and the ensemble of "In the Heights" - Photos by Paul Hayashi

When the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) of Palm Springs, CA opened its doors twenty years ago it made a promise to the community to bring professional-quality, theatrical entertainment to the Coachella Valley. Thanks to the efforts, dedication and vision of the Layne family of theatre professionals – a family rich in producers, actors, directors, designers, and choreographers – PCT has not broken that promise.

I’ve been reviewing their productions for the same twenty years beginning with the opening musical production “The Desert Song”, to their current musical “In the Heights” that opened to standing ovations last Friday, July 7th.

Mind you, there have bumps along the rocky road of producing top theatre entertainment over the years, however, their quality track record is long in Desert Theatre League (DTL) award-winning and praise-worthy productions. Who can forget such wonderful past musicals as: “Man of La Mancha”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Cats”, “My Fair Lady”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Les Miserable” “A Chorus Line” and many, more.  My apologies if I left off one of your favorites. But these come quickly to mind, and I didn’t even mention the dramas and comedies.

Meagan Van Dyke, Adina Lawson
and Benjamin Perez. 
PCT can now add “In the Heights” to its roll call of fabulous musical productions.  With music and lyrics, by double Tony-award winning playwright, actor and director Lin Manuel Miranda (he of “Hamilton” fame) along with a poignant libretto by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this high energy musical, terrifically and seamlessly directed by Shafik Wahhab, is a true ensemble effort both on stage (there are twenty performers) and backstage, with another three-stage crew and production ‘techies’ that help make the onstage magic happen. One can only imagine the traffic-management issues taking place backstage that make the onstage action look so smooth and effortless. It’s one of PCT’s best, dynamic and germane technical efforts and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

The scenic design by Shafik Wahhab and Ross Hawkins and the lighting design by resident theatre design wizard J.W. Layne, and sound design by Lyla Cordova, make sure their talented singers and dancers have the space and lights to perform the high-octane dance routines created by Jacqueline Le Blanc. The musical score that features 23 musical numbers in the capable hands of musical director Scott Smith is both infectious and compelling with sizzling Latin rhythms like Salsa and Merengue performed in costumes either selected by or created by designer Derik Shopinski and his assistants Virginia Sulick and Delinda Angelo.

Haley Izurieta, Allegra Angelo,
Meagan Van Dyke and Megan Ramirez. 
There will no doubt be audience members who feel they have seen this story before; echoes of “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” story points do jump out. But hey, that’s pretty heady company to be in. If you’re a fan of classic plays or modern America musicals about immigrant population issues and the role they play in our 21st century society and audiences, then you will love what the creative team does with “In the Heights”.

The story, in short, explores three blistering hot summer days in a neighborhood in NYC known as Washington Heights on the upper west side, overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. It’s a neighborhood that has been going through changes and is now a neighborhood of mostly Latino residents.

Allegra Angelo, Matt Zambrano
Heading a cast of twenty characters is first generation Dominican-American entrepreneur Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega. He is thinking about returning to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his family and friends following the death of his parents.  Usnavi, is winningly played and sung by Matt Zambrano. Support of ‘family’ and family related emotional issues have always been extremely important to the Latino community.

“In the Heights”, also chronicles the daily struggles of the neighborhood in its day to day existence of raising families, paying the rent and trying keep one’s business from going bankrupt, along with the age-old frustration of the younger residents in not being able to make their own choices in their searches for love, romance, and marriage.

Ian Tang
With a cast as large as this one, it’s always a challenge to list everyone due to space limitations; however there are always standout performances. Heading a cast of twenty performers, including Zambrano’s lead character of Usnavi, is lovely Meagan Van Dyke as Nina, a university student in love with Benny (Joey Wahhab) an employee in her father’s business. Van Dyke, the possessor of a sweet soprano voice is very compelling as a conflicted young woman in love and at odds with her parent’s decisions when it comes to her future.

Nina’s father and mother are solidly played and sung by Benjamin Perez and Adina Lawson. Allegra Angelo, as Vanessa, the love interest of Usnavi, once again turns in another stellar dance and acting turn. Her Mimi performance in the College of the Desert production of “Rent” two seasons ago still resonates. Suzie Wourms, multiple Desert Theatre League award winner, also scores, in a little gem of a performance as Abuela Claudia, in her numbers with Zambrano and the company.

Matt Zambrano and Suzie Wourms.
The principal dancers in this outstanding production are technically and visually stunning in their execution and deserve a mention of their own despite space restrictions. The men are Vertarias Black, who floats in the air in his numbers, Ian Tang, Mat Tucker, Adrian Fernando Vera, Daniel Zepeda, Scott Clinkscales, and Jacob Samples as Piragua Guy deliver the testosterone at all the right moments.The ladies are Marella Sabio as Graffiti Street, who is mesmerizing in her explosive and high energy routines, Haley Izurieta, Megan Ramirez, Ileana Mendoza, Kate Antonov, and Maglia Sabio all provide the sizzling sensuality required in their performances.

The beauty of “In the Heights” lies in the ensemble performances of the entire company where everyone is unselfish, fully engaged, in the moment, committed and dedicated. When performing companies get into this ‘zone’, as they say, it’s a joy to behold and the audience knows it and feels it as well.

This splendid production performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre, in Palm Springs through July 16, 2017.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123.  Don’t Miss It!

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

THE POWER OF QUANTUM PHYSICS AND LOVE ON STAGE AT LA’S GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin star in the Los Angeles premiere of “Constellations” at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Chris Whitaker

What are the odds of a play, whose premise is underpinned with quantum physics, bees, and the seductive power of love that brings two disparate souls together,turning into a riveting evening of intellectual theatre?  Pretty slim, I’d say. And then I saw the play.

“Constellations”, a poignant drama written by British playwright Nick Payne, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, is deftly staged by award-winning director Giovanna Sardelli and validates the acting gifts of its two stars: pixie-like Ginnifer Goodwin and handsome leading man Allen Leech (best known for his six-year run in the TV blockbuster series “Downton Abbey” as the family chauffeur).

Two-handers – plays that have just two characters – are becoming more popular these days in the age of budget restrictions, except for musicals. These production caveats now place the burden of entertaining the audience squarely on the talent of playwrights, performers and directors, without the benefits of all the bells and whistles of money infused and promotion-driven productions. Most of the time bold, creative, artists pull off the delicate balance of engaging and entertaining the audience at the same time (last year I reviewed the winning two-hander “Heisenberg”, in New York, which opened today with the original NY cast at the Mark Taper Forum).

“Constellations” is another good example of insightful writing in the hands of a stellar director and her two star performers. The compelling story of Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin), a quirky, Cambridge University academic who specializes in in Quantum Physics, and Roland (Allen Leech), a non-college educated bee keeper, who meet at a BBQ party at the home of friends would seem implausible in a traditional play. In this dramedy of sorts, both are shy guests and tend to stay in the background to observe the other guests.

From the moment the stage lights come up, the opening dialogue is repeated several times.The same words, only with different emphasis and timing, leading one to think that a stage glitch had just occurred. No; the repetitive dialogue is intentional. Marianne, we discover, lives in several alternate parallel universes. If the play was meant to be read not performed, the dialogue would come across as a classic quantum physics theoretical essay, except that it’s being performed by live actors on a stage. The obscure world of quantum physics is the world that Marianne inhabits. Roland is a creature of the outdoors and nature, and he is clueless as to quantum physics, but nevertheless he is strangely drawn into this odd coupling and relationship. As Marianne and Roland are two lonely people, could love be in the air? You bet it is. Remember, it’s the most powerful force on our planet.

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin in
“Constellations”. Photo by Chris Whitaker.
The set design by Takeshi Kata envelops the actors in a way that lends credence to the parallel universe concept. Goodwin and Leech perform in front of a huge ‘cyc’ that displays the cosmos with twinkling stars and planets, and their parallel universe moments are cued by the dialogue. With so many stars and planets, each possibly with a story of their own to tell, there are as many choices in life as there stars is in our universe is the message that playwright Payne is selling. Who knows? Our life journeys are all about making multiple choices. The “what if” factor is a real constant that has to be considered. Director Sardelli skillfully and seamlessly navigates some tricky waters in doing justice to playwright Payne’s murky but compelling tale of love of among the mismatched quirky set as viewed through the lens of quantum physics.

The real beauty to this intriguing and poignant production lies in the hands of its two stars, their onstage chemistry and in their stunning ‘in-the-moment’ performances. There are some spoiler alert moments, but you will not get them from me. You will just have to come to the Geffen Playhouse and see for yourself. Enough cannot be said about Goodwin and her tic-filled, intense portrayal of Marianne. Leech is her equal when it comes to the heart-rending twists that fate has handed these two lovers. Three hankies for the women, one for the gentlemen – yes if you have hearts, that is.

Director Sardelli leads the technical team of scenic designer Takeshi Kata, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova, and original music & sound designer Lindsay Jones.

“Constellations”, performs at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through to July 23, 2017. Don’t Miss It!
-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A SOARING MUSICAL DRAMEDY REVIVAL OF “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” AT NCRT

The cast of "The Spitfire Grill" at North Coast Repertory
Theater. Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The world of today appears to be in constant turmoil. Culture wars and shooting wars abound here in America as well as on every continent on our fragile planet. Everyone stares too long and makes judgments far too quickly when it comes to the strangers we find in our midst.

We rely on our tribal or family loyalties, the cornerstones and touchstones of a civilized society that at times is necessary but in so doing robs us of enlightenment and the pleasures that comes when societies reach out culturally to one another. Take the metaphor of food, as one example of how we have expanded our gustatory experiences and horizons over the years. Our American melting pot society is filled with success stories where one can see the advantages and possibilities that a diverse society provides.

The current North Coast Repertory Theatre revival production of “The Spitfire Grill”, a musical dramedy written by James Valq and Fred Alley, with music by Valcq and lyrics by Alley, is a shining example of the power some ‘outsiders’ can bring to the table or to a community if just given a chance.

Intelligently, sensitively and seamlessly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, with an inspired ensemble cast of actors who can sing (and boy, do they sing) this uplifting and warmhearted musical is just what American theatre audiences need right about now.

Aurora Florence is Percy in "The Spitfire
Grill". Photo by Aaron Rumley.
The story in short, centers around fiercely independent Percy Talbott (a terrific Aurora Florence), a young, Applachian-accented woman who has just been released from prison. Percy is looking to find a place for a fresh start in life. While in prison she read a travel magazine about the idyllic, small, rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin which sounded like a good place to begin her new life journey.

The local Sheriff, young Joe Sutter (Kevin Earley) who is also Percy’s parole officer, finds her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill, owned by and operated by a force-of-nature earth mother solidly played by actress Devlin. It’s the only eatery in the town and is frequented daily by loyal residents. The Spitfire Grill has been up for sale for ten years, but has never had any interested buyers. Times have been tough for America’s Midwest economy and Gilead is barely hanging on.

Kevin Bailey and Meghan Andrews in
"The Spitfire Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Shelby Thorpe, the wife of the out-of-work local stone quarry foreman Caleb (Kevin Bailey) is a caring, young woman played by soprano Meghan Andrews, who gently tries to make a home life while at the same time occasionally helping Hannah at the diner. She endures the frustration of her proud husband who resents her time spent at the Grill and her association with Percy. To further complicate matters, Shelby and Percy have become friends.

Post Mistress Effy Krayneck, who never misses a chance to open the mail before the addressees, is nicely played and sung by Maggie Carney who makes the most of her comic relief role as Gilead’s leading gossip and busybody.

Devlin and Matt Thompson in "The Spitfire
Grill." Photo by Aaron Rumley.
Also, there is a character called The Visitor who never speaks, but whose haunted eyes speak volumes, well-played by Matt Thompson. And, that’s about as far as I’ll go with spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this splendid musical for yourself.

The real beauty of this production lies in the multi-talented ensemble cast with a director who understands how to craft and shape compelling, poignant, comedic, and dramatic moments and performances from pros who are a joy to watch. Everyone is constantly in the moment. On-stage chemistry electrifies the entire cast from the minute that Percy comes on stage and sets the tone for all the magic that follows with her song “A Ring Around the Moon”.

The story of “The Spitfire Grill” unfolds over fifteen haunting and poetic songs that conjure up echoes and aural memories of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road” along with Valcq and Alley’s original country/folk musical score that features such numbers as: ‘The Colors of Paradise’ sung by Percy and Shelby, ‘Forgotten Lullaby’ lovingly rendered by Hannah, and the rousing “Shoot the Moon” by the company that ends act one.

In act two, the numbers ‘Wild Bird’ by Shelby, ‘Shine’ by Percy, and a poignant ‘Way Back Home’ by Hannah, bring the entire company back on-stage for another rousing Finale. The nicest part, at least for me, is that this highly entertaining musical is performed without one f-bomb being hurled from the stage. The musical’s creators substituted soaring music, soulful country lyrics, and sheer talent instead of relying on attention-grabbing street language pyrotechnics to win over its audience. However, in the name of transparency, this musical was written seventeen years ago in 2000. My, how we’ve changed.

The production is designed by Marty Burnett, lighted by Matt Novotny, with costumes by Elisa Benzoni, and sound design, by Chad Lee Thymes. The excellent musical accompaniment is headed by musical director Alby Potts on keyboard, guitar/mandolin by Nikko Nobleza, violin by Catherine Gray, and cello by George Spelvin (that great old theatrical name). In the new and emerging discipline of projection design, Aaron Rumley is right on the money; not too many just the right amount to set the tone and enhance the moods. If I were to mention that some of the song lyrics were a wee bit too repetitious and went on too long, it would probably give my age away. So I won’t. But the soaring voices of the company made me forget all that repetition.

“The Spitfire Grill” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach, through June 25. Don't miss it!

--Jack Lyons



























"HOLD THESE TRUTHS" AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE RECALLS JAPANESE INTERNMENT THROUGH ONE MAN'S EYES



“The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…”

Ryun Yu stars as civil rights activist
Gordon 
Hirabayashi in the solo show
"Hold These 
Truths". All photos by Jim Cox.
So says young Gordon Hirabayashi’s father to his eldest son, whose outgoing and curious disposition is being tested by the increased discrimination in Washington state against Asian Americans; with the escalation of the war and the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbor, the discrimination increased until it culminated in executive orders to intern all persons of Asian descent in prison camps with no regard to their constitutional rights.

Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths” is inspired by the true story of civil rights pioneer Hirabayashi. The 90-minute solo show presents Hirabayashi’s fight to reconcile his country’s betrayal while maintaining his passionate belief in the U.S. Constitution. Despite President Obama posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2012 to him, his story is mostly unfamiliar to many Americans.

In 1942, the University of Washington student defied the U.S. government, and his worried parents, by refusing to register and be interned in the desert with tens of thousands of fellow Japanese American citizens who were viewed as a potential threat to national security after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.

Hirabayashi, a Quaker pacifist, also rejected signing a loyalty oath and doing military service. For his acts of resistance, he served time in prison. His unrelenting efforts to reverse the unconstitutional internment of any persons of Japanese ancestry ended up with a case at the Supreme Court - where he lost in a unanimous decision upholding the government’s actions based on “military necessity.”

Paving the way to Hirabayashi's ultimate victory, legal historian Peter Irons discovered lost military documents, letters and memos admitting that confining Japanese Americans to camps had not been a necessary security measure: The camps, they implied, were created out of hysteria and racism. This new evidence led to the case being reheard by the Supreme Court in 1987 and this time, justice prevailed.

The timeliness and irony of the situation is not lost on the audience who chuckled and sighed at various incidents portrayed on stage that sadly echo what is happening now due to the current administration’s policies and fears of terrorist threats in the US and the world.

Actor Ryan Yu portrays Hirabayashi from his teens to middle age also playing all other parts of the protagonists and heroes of his life - including his mother and father, fraternity brothers at UW, law enforcement officials, his Quaker girlfriend and even Supreme Court Justice Patrick Murphy - and does it all seamlessly. His energy is heavily taxed during his 90-minute tour de force, but despite a slight cold, he kept the audience in thrall until the final moments.

Kudos to director Jessica Kubzansky (the original director at East/West Players) as well as the excellent technical team of scenic and lighting designing Ben Zamora who does a lot with simplicity, and sound designer John Zalewski whose subtle use of themes and natural sounds adds depth to the production.

Playwright Sakata, a successful actor herself, premiered the play in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles. It made its off-Broadway debut in 2012 with the Epic Theatre Ensemble, and has since been performed at numerous regional theatres including Portland Center Stage, the Guthrie Theater, Seattle’s ACT Theatre, and locally by Coachella Valley Rep in Palm Springs.

Says Sakata, “When I discovered Gordon’s story in the late 1990s, so full of heartbreak but also his irrepressible humor and zest for life...I knew I had to bring his story to the American stage.” She’s done a masterful job in showing the intimate view of one of our country’s shameful periods through the eyes of one eloquent and unrelenting man.

In a coda to his father’s early admonition, Hirabayashi shares that what he didn’t say back then was the full Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit…Unless the nail is bigger than the hammer!” That earned well-deserved kudos from the opening night audience followed by a spontaneous standing ovation. Let’s hear it for more ‘bigly’ nails and less hammers!

“Hold These Truths” is at the Pasadena Playhouse until June 25th. Tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

-- Lisa Lyons



Thursday, May 11, 2017

MARK TAPER FORUM DELIVERS A DARK POTENT COMEDY IN “ARCHDUKE”


Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah 
Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
All photos by Craig Schwartz.
Playwrights can generally get away with a lot when dealing with subject matter that is uncomfortable to some, and fraught with danger to others, but nonetheless, need to be discussed in a public forum format.

The only vehicle for the exploration of odious and repellent subject matter often comes via the clarity that the genre of comedy provides. Satires or farces are the favorite choices of playwrights that want to get a ‘tough sell’ message across. The great French, 17th century playwright Moliere employed the genre in order to have his head remain firmly attached to his shoulders during his lengthy writing career during the Divine Right of Kings era in Europe.

Cleveland-born playwright Rajiv Joseph, a journeyman writer, really had his breakthrough theatrical moment with his highly successful play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, when it premiered at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, CA. in 2009. “Bengal Tiger” was then performed at the Mark Taper Forum (MTF) in 2010 before moving to Broadway where it became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Mr. Joseph hit his stride with “Guards at the Taj” in 2016, again premiering at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, establishing him as a major American playwright. “Archduke”, his current dark comedy, had its world premiere Sunday, May 7th on the MTF stage in Los Angeles.

Ramiz Monsef, Josiah Bania and Stephen Stocking
in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke."
It’s the story of three dim, hapless and hungry young men suffering from tuberculosis who fumble their way through history as they take on a mission of martyrdom on the eve of World War I. They are wonderfully played by Stephen Stocking as Gavrilo, the lead assassin, Ramiz Monsef as Trifko, the enforcer, and Josiah Bania as Nedeljko, the most gullible of the three. Todd Weeks does a nice turn as Dr. Leko, the only sane grown-up in the room who attempts to keep Gavrilo from throwing away his life for a useless gesture of faux patriotism, and Sladjana played by JoAnne McGee, Dr. Leko’s cook and housekeeper, manages to get in a few zingers of her own.

The gallows humor comedy is set in 1914 in the Balkan cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. The question playwright Joseph explores is: are these three, uneducated, rural, village youths capable of becoming human bombs and martyrs? Those choices are still resonating with individuals fighting in many Middle East war zones today. It appears that the suicide bombers in “Archduke” have become the template for recruiting zealots and followers today.

Stephen Stocking and Todd Weeks 
in Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke."
The young men have been radicalized, recruited, and trained by the cynical, sly, and duplicitous Serbian Army Captain Dimitrijevic (a mesmerizing Patrick Page in a staggering performance), who is in need of naïve and gullible civilians; these three young men are easy marks who willingly sign up for the mission to assassinate the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie, striking a blow, they believe, for an independent greater Serbia for the price of new clothes and a few meals along the way. Results of that mission have since been attributed as the event that set in motion WW I, ‘the war to end all wars’...which, of course, it didn’t. War is far too profitable an industry to be totally done away with.

“Archduke” is skillfully staged by long time Joseph collaborator and award-winning director Giovanna Sardelli, and features a fabulous Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee, whose unique, creatively designed, on-stage replica of the Orient Express train earned a round of applause to open the second act. Also visually eye-catching is a huge map of the Balkan countries that subliminally keeps the focus on the narrative of the story, as well as on the talents of the gifted ensemble cast.

Stephen Stocking is the would-be assassin 
Gavrilo in Rajiv Joseph's"Archduke."
Despite mentioning all of its pluses above, one gets the feeling that this fine production will undergo more tweaking, pruning and rewrites. Broadway is a demanding mistress constantly in search of perfection. The first act is a tad long and a bit talky, but the second act is worth the wait. Thanks to Sardelli’s direction and Joseph’s dialogue, the production seamlessly flows along bridging its 103-year history arc. Bittersweet comedy indeed, takes the sting out of ignored history lessons, easing the pain, the loss and the folly of war. Or at least that’s the hope.

“Archduke” performs at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through June 4, 2017.
--Jack Lyons

Thursday, April 20, 2017

PASADENA PLAYHOUSE’S “THE ORIGINALIST” BRINGS THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE TO LIFE

Edward Gero stars as Justice Antonin Scalia 
in "The Originalist"- Photos by Jim Cox Photography 
Whether you loved him or hated him, no one could deny the powerful influence that Justice Antonin Scalia held over the Supreme Court since his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Always a polarizing figure with an incisive mind, savage wit and superlative writing skills, Scalia delivered many dissents that will be remembered for generations to come.

Before Scalia’s unexpected death in February 2016, playwright John Strand had written “The Originalist,” a one act that paid tribute to the legendary jurist and his dedication to interpreting the Constitution of the United States as the Founding Fathers wrote it, not open to modern re-interpretation. The “dead” versus “living” document status of the Constitution has been debated for decades, but never so passionately proclaimed as in those scathing dissents by Scalia.

Set against the backdrop of the 2012-13 Supreme Court session, the play focuses on the esteemed jurist (magnificently portrayed by Edward Gero) and his brash and brainy social-leaning law clerk Cat (Jade Wheeler), who relishes playing devil’s advocate to the Justice – and Brad (Bret Mack), another clerk with decidedly Federalist Society leanings who seeks to impress the Justice with his own originalist ideas.

The show opens with an operatic aria playing as Scalia addresses a law school graduate class and answers questions from the audience. His scripted remarks are interrupted not once but several times by a young woman who will not be silenced: it is Cat, who informs him that she has just applied to be his summer law clerk. Egad!

Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler in
"The Originalist"
Their subsequent interview for the clerkship doesn’t go well, with the combative tone being set from the start but, despite his irritation, one can see something in this young black woman’s grasp of facts and assertive tone has resonated with him. He hires her as his new “sparring partner” and sounding board, while Cat is seeking both insight into the man she calls a “monster” as well as a potential mentor.

Jade Wheeler and Bret Mack in "The Originalist"
The crux of the play’s plot – whether Cat will be able to insert her own personal beliefs into the opinions that Scalia permits her to draft for a controversial case – comes to a head when jealous Brad “outs” Cat as a lesbian and raises the possibility that her sexual orientation will prove an embarrassment to the Justice in the aforementioned action.

That is because the dissent is a landmark case, United States v. Windsor which aimed to overturn the federal ban on same sex marriage. As a devout Catholic and constitutional purist, Scalia’s antipathy toward gay marriage and refusal to acknowledge homosexuality as a legitimate identity, was well documented.

The personal pasts of both Scalia and Cat are introduced in separate vignettes, designed to show perhaps the areas in which they are very much alike; but since the play is based on a real person who was notorious for protecting his privacy, it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that these conversations would have occurred. However, if you can suspend your disbelief and just let yourself get lost in the glorious world of words, you will be treated to an evening of superlative theater.

Director Molly Smith orchestrates this 95-minute chamber piece, ably balancing the operatic crescendos of Scalia’s personality with the counterpoint of the two clerks, one strident, the other thoughtful. She is helped by her talented cast, particularly Edward Gero who not only resembles Scalia, but has captured his overlooked charm that was obscured by his often acerbic personality. Gero had the good fortune to observe Scalia in the court as well as at dinner and was able to slip into many of his mannerisms and expressions. He never makes a mockery of the man who described himself as a “monster” in the eyes of the liberal left and a hero to the conservative right.

Bret Mack, Edward Gero and Jade
Wheeler in "The Originalist"
The character of Cat is tricky to pull off as she is an obvious device to raise the important questions that drive the play forward. It takes a subtle and intense performer to make it work and while Jade Wheeler’s projection and intent was fine, she didn’t seem truly comfortable in Cat’s skin. Some line deliveries and body positions seemed awkward and unsure, which I don’t think was Smith or Wheeler’s intent. Bret Mack has a thankless role of the smarmy Brad, but he does his best to make him more than a comic book baddie.

Kudos to the simple, classic stage design by Misha Kachman; it evokes the operatic motif of red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, creating both the solemnity of the judicial chambers and the awe-inspiring expanse of a Catholic cathedral. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills, costume design by Joseph P. Salasovich, and sound design of Eric Shimelonis completes the technically-excellent creative team.

According to sources, Justice Scalia never did see the original 2015 Arena Stage production in Washington DC, due to his concern that an appearance at the event might be construed as an endorsement of the portrayed incidents or a potential conflict of interest. Shame, because I think he would have been pleased with Gero’s respectful homage to him. However, I think he would be indignant at Strand’s suggestion that he lusted after the Chief Justice position (eventually filled by John Roberts); his guilt and remorse over his role in that drama was Shakespearean according to the play, but we’ll never know the truth of that. “The Originalist” does however show us that he was a brilliant man who was a true original to the end of his life.

“The Originalist” runs through May 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive in Old Town Pasadena. More information and tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

--Lisa Lyons


Monday, April 10, 2017

SAN DIEGO’S OLD GLOBE EXPLORES THE BEAUTY OF 'THE OUTSIDER' IN LOLITA CHAKRABARTI'S "RED VELVET "

The cast of RED VELVET at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre
In the history of theatre, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary multi-casting, the idea of casting a black actor to play “Othello” has been seen as earth-shaking in its audacity. Why that should be so and what black actors had to endure to make it an accepted custom is the basis of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet”, now playing at San Diego’s Old Globe on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.

The show tells the story of Ira Aldridge (Albert Jones), a classically trained American actor who was the first black actor to play Othello at London’s prestigious Covent Garden in 1833. The renowned tragedian Edward Kean had been stricken and hospitalized, and rather than go dark (unheard of in the Garden’s history), the company’s French manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan) makes a unilateral decision to hire Aldridge as Kean’s replacement.

John Lavelle and Allison Mack
This doesn’t go down well with Kean’s petulant son Charles (a scene-stealing John Lavelle) who feels he should rightly step into his father’s shoes despite his obvious lack of talent. Charles’s fiancée and leading lady Ellen Tree (a sparkling Allison Mack) is at first shocked, then intrigued and eventually won over by the larger-than-life Aldridge. The other players seem divided over the appropriateness of the casting, especially older, more staid members like Bernard Warde (Mark Pinter) who cautions that “The British are open - to a point…We like what we know, and we know what we like!” he states firmly.

All of this is set against the British Abolition Movement which was causing rioting in the streets along with calls for the abolition of slavery. The fear that such a provocative move may further inflame London society is dismissed by Laporte who has more faith in the broad-mindedness of the theatre-going public. It will be up to the talent and sheer bombast of Aldridge to pull off the role he has most longed to play.

Allison Mack and Albert Jones
The thought of a large black man grabbing the wrist of the lily-white Desdemona is deemed inappropriate and offensive by the press. But Ellen is fascinated by Aldridge’s idea that, rather than declaiming lines to the audience, that Othello and Desdemona should look at each other, truly feeling the emotions of this tragically mismatched couple; shades of early “method acting” which seems obvious now, but was groundbreaking in 19th century British theatre.

She eagerly embraces the new intimacy and power she feels onstage; but sadly, the reception to the performance is not what any of them (save Charles Kean) expected and desired. The critics are brutal in their reviews of Aldridge’s performance (which playwright Chakrabarti takes from the actual newspaper texts of the time), stating “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English” and labeling him “an unseemly n*gg*r”.

The fallout from Laporte’s brave casting had a toxic effect on not only the actors but on the casting of ethnic actors in major roles for many years to follow. Aldridge was a ground-breaker on many levels and it’s sad that apart from theatre historians, his contributions are mostly unknown to current generations.

Albert Jones and Sean Dugan
As portrayed by Albert Jones, Aldridge is much like the tragic figures he portrays – Othello, Lear, Richard III – a man full of talent, anger, longing, imagination and audacity. He is, as most flawed heroes, his own worst enemy. He will not be swayed by logic or reason, only carried aloft on his aspirations and belief in his own talent. He ignores Laporte’s subtle advice to “move gently” into the intensity of Othello’s emotions that the conservative audiences may recoil from initially; he believes fervently in the truth of drama and his right to portray this most ego-maniacal of Shakespeare’s leading men. Jones has the physical presence and vocal power to inhabit Aldridge’s persona yet to make you feel some pity towards him when the world turns against him.

Mark Pinter, Amelia Pedlow and Albert Jones
The supporting actors are outstanding and imbue their characters with real distinction. There is a star turn by Amelia Pedlow, who brilliantly portrays three separate characters: a persistent Polish journalist, a ditsy ingénue and a warm and loving first wife to Aldridge. Monique Gaffney brings her usual depth of character to the role of Connie, the company’s servant, and Michael Aurelio is a dashing Henry Forrester, the young actor playing Cassio who is delighted at Aldridge’s casting as he is in support of the abolitionist movement. Mark Pinter plays both Aldridge’s dresser Terrence and the charmingly fusty Bernard Warde, never drifting into parody in either role. As previously noted, John Lavelle has a scene-stealing turn as the arrogant and delusional Charles Kean. His fabulous “hair toss” had the audience laughing aloud on opening night. Sean Dugan brings a boyish enthusiasm and simmering anger to the complex Laporte who is forced to betray his old friend for the sake of business.

Director Stafford Arima, who previously helmed “Allegiance” and “Ace” for the Globe, has a sure hand with this material, finding the oh-so-relevant references to race and nationalism in the material. He keeps things moving forward, although I had a problem with the decision to have the show open with two characters speaking in Polish for several minutes.

As usual at the Globe, the scenic design, costumes and lighting are perfection. Jason Sherwood’s rotating, cathedral-like proscenium arch is both beautiful and grotesque with macabre touches hidden in its skeletal frame. The lighting design of Jason Lyons captures how theatre must have looked to the audiences in the 1800s with flickering footlights and stately chandeliers casting long shadows. The costumes by David Israel Reynoso are richly elegant, especially Aldridge’s robes as Othello. Kudos to the dressers who make some remarkably speedy changes for Pinter and Pedlow in their multiple roles.

In a climate that is full of uncertainty, with politics, art and race relations under siege, “Red Velvet” seems profoundly prescient despite its being written in 2011. Could Chakrabarti have had a premonition of “Brexit” and “Black Lives Matter”? Finding the universal truths in life is the hallmark of a talented writer, and she is deserving of the many awards the play has received.

If you love theatre go see “Red Velvet” and discover the story of the actor who has a memorial plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in honor of his contributions to the performing arts and another in Lodz, Poland where he was buried after dying while on tour at age 60 in August 1867.

The show plays until April 30, and tickets can be purchased at the Box Office, by calling 619-23-GLOBE or online at www.TheOldGlobe.org.

-- Lisa Lyons