Friday, December 1, 2017

Lyons' Views, News and Reviews: HILARIOUS COMIC FARCE “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG” W...

Lyons' Views, News and Reviews: HILARIOUS COMIC FARCE “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG” at NYC's Lyceum Theatre.
                                                                  - Jack Lyons, ATCA_member #NYC 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

HILARIOUS COMIC FARCE “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG” WOWS NYC AUDIENCES

Members of the cast of "The Play That Goes Wrong"
Front (L to R) Jonathan Fielding, Amelia McClain
Rear (L to R) Harrison Unger, Clifton Duncan, Alex Mandell
Production photos by Jeremy Daniel
 
Most older theatre mavens and fans of a certain age will probably remember playwright George Kelly and his 1936 satire/spoof "The Torch-Bearers", a play about amateurs producing and performing in what we now call community theatre.

Fifty-six years later, British playwright Michael Frayn struck gold with his hilarious and highly entertaining farce "Noises Off"; the play-within-a-play format, also set in the world of theatre, went on to become a huge hit and the gold standard in comedy/farce in London's West End, and on Broadway.

Now, arguably the wildest and wackiest comedy/farce of them all is, once again, about 'the world of theatre' arriving in America in 2016 following a two year run in London's West End where it won Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards.

"The Play That Goes Wrong" is written by three talented British playwright/actors: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, who are members of the London-based Mischief Theatre Company. The current production, now wowing New York audiences at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, features an all American cast determined to solve "The Murder at Haversham Manor". It is set in England on a dark and stormy night (is there any other kind night for a British mystery farce?), and once again this play also just happens to be a-play-within-a-play format. The whodunit mystery presented by the faux "Cornley University Drama Society" is now the comedy hit of the 2017 Broadway season.

Clifton Duncan, Mark Evans, Harrison Unger
Inventively directed by Mark Bell, this classic-style British farce must have auditioned every American actor in New York City who could muster a veddy British accent, and also understands the wild and frenetic farce genre that is so prevalent in many British comedies. Peter Sellers, Scottish actor Alastar Sim, and Monty Python's John Cleese were all masters of the genre. It should be noted that director Bell hit the jackpot with his American cast as well.

The Ensemble of "The Play That Goes Wrong"
The two level set designed by Nigel Hook is a deceptive and harmless looking creature that a first glance has all the visual trappings of an Agatha Christie play: an opulent manor house drawing room, large fireplace, tapestries, the family Coat of Arms, along with the obligatory painting of the family patriarch over the fireplace. In reality, the set becomes another character in the production, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Once the onstage slapstick mayhem begins, the laughs are infectious and nonstop. "The Play That Goes Wrong" unfolds in a series of comedy scenes performed by the amateur actors of the University's Drama Society as they struggle do their best to 'remain in character' despite loads of unexpected physical comedy sight gags, along with uncooperative props such as sticky doors that won't open, pictures that fall from the walls, and a host of miscues and delayed entrances - the whole ball of wax! It's right out of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton playbooks and it's hilarious.

Mark Evans
The story, such as it is, follows the earnest but bumbling British police Detective Chris Bean (Mark Evans) in the play who is desperately trying to solve the murder of Jonathan (Jonathan Fielding as a corpse whose movements belies the designation 'corpse').

The relatives and friends of Jonathan try to help Detective Bean solve this dastardly deed, but to no avail. Instead, the group of clumsy but well-intentioned relatives, including Akron Watson as Trevor, Preston Truman Boyd as Robert, Harrison Unger as Dennis, Amelia McClain as Sandra, Alex Mandell as Max, and Ashley Bryant as Annie, are priceless in their attempts to 'normalize' the on-stage zaniness.

As a side note: I had the good fortune at ATCA's annual luncheon with Broadway actors at Sardi's famous NYC restaurant two days later, to find myself being seated next to actor Ashley Bryant, who plays Annie. I politely leaned over and asked her if during the run have any of the cast sustained any injuries as a result of all the physical comedy taking place on stage? Ms. Bryant replied "Not any serious injuries like broken bones, but we've all had our bruises, and a few aches and pains from doing a physical show like this eight performances a week for almost six months." But it's labor of love for the actors. The production is just too funny and entertaining to spoil the experience for those who want to see it, so no spoiler alerts from me.

Alex Mandell, Amelia McClain
In the technical department, the award-winning set design by Nigel Hook is a work of mechanical miracles that allow the actors to perform in his topsy-turvy world of Haversham Manor without missing a beat. The lighting design by Ric Mountjoy, neatly compliments the costumes by Robert Surace. Sound design by Andrew Johnson, and original music by Rob Falconer, complete the creative team.

"The Play That Goes Wrong" is the perfect gift for Anglophiles and theatre-goers. It's at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in an open-ended run,  however, I wouldn't wait. I would buy my tickets right now if you're planning on being in New York over the Holidays.

-- Jack Lyons


 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

ENGLAND’S ROYALS SCRUTINIZED AGAIN IN "KING CHARLES III" AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

Jim Abele as Prince Charles in
"King Charles III"
All photos by Jenny Graham

Patience, it is said, is a virtue. If that is true, then Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II, must be a saint. Charles, Prince of Wales, has been first in line to become England’s King for sixty-five years - longer than any other heir in United Kingdom history - which goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror in 1066.

But all that changed in 2014 when British playwright Mike Bartlett penned his controversial, fantasy/fictional play “King Charles III”, which Bartlett labeled as a “future history play”. After all, Queen Elizabeth II at age 91 is still firmly ensconced on the throne.

“King Charles III, is currently on-stage at the venerable 100-year-old Pasadena Playhouse as of Sunday, November 12th. Some of the Shakespeare-like quality of the text that combines verse and modern vernacular, make this intriguing production (directed by Michael Michetti) a provocative evening in the theatre that is resonating with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

NY Times senior theatre critic Ben Brantley put his stamp of approval on the New York production going onto say “…the play is a dazzling presumptuous drama … a flat-out brilliant portrait of a monarchy in crisis.” After seven seasons of the blockbuster TV series “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS, there are a lot of Anglophiles in America and a sizeable number of them live in Southern California. The Pasadena Playhouse production company features sixteen actors: eight principals and eight supporting actors plus a dedicated ensemble punctuated with glorious original music composed by Peter Bayne and recorded by the Pasadena Master Chorale.


Jim Abele, Mark Capri,
Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner
The play begins with a procession of mourners/singers coming down the playhouse aisles on their way to Buckingham Palace following the funeral services of Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is one of muted pomp and circumstance.

Prince Charles (Jim Abele) is now technically the King, but is yet to be crowned in ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. The story explores the events that confront the new King, and the Royal family: Duchess Camilla (Laura Gardner), Prince William (Adam Haas Hunter), Duchess Katherine (Meghan Andrews), Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders) who wait to see what the new king and his advisor Reiss (Mark Capri) and Prime Minister (J. Paul Boehmer) and Parliament have planned for the country and its subjects.

Adam Haas Hunter and
Meghan Andrews
Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, have plans to ‘assist’ King Charles in his quest to insure that most of the old laws are observed and not modernized too much. The king’s enemies consider him to possess the brain of a Brussel sprout, and believe him to be incapable of being the monarch. His prime minister and his cabinet ministers will not support him or his ideas; instead they plan on installing Prince William as a Regent-King.

Charles resists his ministers by refusing to sign the “Ascendency Act” that would transfer some powers away from the monarchy to Parliament, along with restricting the freedom of the Press. His continuing refusal to sign raises the issue of a constitutional crisis under English law. All of the events unfolding in this fictional tale, has a familiar ring to it for Americans. The opening night audience seemed to get this ‘ripped from the headlines story’ right from the get-go, laughing at some of the dialogue in places where laughter wasn’t exactly the appropriate response – it felt like I was listening to nervous gallows humor.

Jim Abele and
Laura Gardner
Jim Abele delivers a solid performance as the flawed, moody, misunderstood Charles. Laura Gardner’s Camilla has the right amount of pathetic, ditzy behavior along with her tossing non-sequiturs to amuse everyone – the characters as well as the audience. Adam Haas Hunter’s Prince William, at first appears to be a bored player merely waiting for the appropriate moment to embrace the plan hatched by the Prime Minister and Parliament to make him Regent-King. It’s a nicely nuanced performance, and along with wife Kate, the young Royal pair begin to relish the thought of becoming King and Queen of England. There’s enough palace and parliamentary intrigue taking place in this production to satisfy all fans of such storylines.

Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders), is the outlier in this Royal family. He’s independent, lives by his own rules and is harboring the thought of becoming a commoner in order live with his cockney-accented political activist girlfriend Jess (Sarah Hollis).

The staging of the production by director Michetti gets static at times with characters standing in a line. Also, the didactic approach in Act I of setting the characters in motion seemed a little unnecessary. American theatre-going audiences are pretty savvy when it comes to appreciating British history and the execution of its theatrical stage craft production excellence.

The real beauty of this production lies, not only in the ensemble cast’s talent, but also in the expertise of the creative team. The wide expansive playing area provided by Scenic Designer David Meyer allows Michetti to stage scenes on more than one level. The Lighting design by Elizabeth Harper creates the mood moments required by the narrative and the text especially in the Coronation scenes.

The costumes, wonderfully designed by Alex Jaeger, are visually stunning. It would take an experienced eye to determine that the ermine-robed, onstage characters with their crowns and tiaras and jewels aren’t the real deal. Everything just sparkles with authenticity. No one does English period pieces better than the Brits.

“King Charles III” performs at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 3, 2017. Don't miss it!

-- Jack Lyons

WALL STREET WHEELER-DEALERS ON STAGE AT NEW YORK'S LINCOLN CENTER IN "JUNK"

Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale star in JUNK. All photos by T. Charles Erickson
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”) highlights in his fictional play, set in 1985, what our current President claims he is doing or going to do when it comes to draining the Washington D.C. ‘swamp’ of insider trading, manipulators and financial sharks and lobbyists who roam the halls of Wall Street and Capitol Hill.

The ‘it’ is this case has a familiar ring to it.  In 2008, it was the crash of Wall Street that brought our economy to a near-paralyzing standstill. There was then, as now, plenty of blame to go around.
 
Akhtar’s play, crisply directed by Doug Hughes, is a searing indictment of financial perfidy and recklessness and its seeming disdain for the rule of law when ‘it’ comes too close to getting in the way of the art of the all-important deal.  There are many echoes of both the 1987 Michael Douglas film “Wall Street”, whose mantra that ‘greed is good’, along with Martin Scorsese’s 2013 take on “The Wolf of Wall Street”,where sharks and corporate raiders are seen behaving badly, is chillingly still alive and well.
 
The story, in short, revolves around a high-flying, risk-taking corporate raider Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale in a potent performance).  Merkin is known as the King of junk bonds, and the author of the financial term “debt is an asset” concept which is always a key component in fashioning his multi-million deals.  He will do anything; sell out his partners, his life-long friends and colleagues, and even his family in his quest to become top-dog on Wall Street.

Teresa Avia Lim and Michael Siberry.

These top denizens who live in the shark tank have no loyalties or scruples. They are only interested in the pursuit of money. Lots of it. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. If the truth be known, these players don’t really need the money. They have plenty. It’s the adrenaline rush that comes from deals dreamed up by these driven, craven, men and women in an effort to become the top dog that obsesses them. It boggles the mind of those of us who know very little about how the world of finance works and the numbers generated.  In the words of some “it’s complicated”… who knew?
 
The set design by John Lee Beatty is eye-catching, in that the ‘cyc’ becomes a gigantic replica of the stocks and bonds read-out board at NYSE.  The set is a series of all glass doors and a set of sliding platforms that neatly allow the cast of twenty-three talented performers to move in and out their various character locations that switch from Merkin’s office, home, and those of his team members, to his undercover/mole associates, to the offices and homes of his corporate take-over opponents. Each group has a place to discuss (for the audience) the tactics of deal-making and betrayal when it comes to one another in their quest for Wall Street domination.
Joey Slotnick (center) and the company of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of JUNK.
According to playwright Akhtar, it’s not easy being a wheeler-dealer living in the pressure cooker environment that is Wall Street.  Not only is “JUNK” a hotbed of money-making, it’s also a place where sexual favors are exchanged for information and advantage, and again we’re ‘shocked to find out that gambling is going on’ at Wall Street and in broker offices. Ahh, but there is always a price to be paid for the lack of honesty, decorum and marital infidelity, but no more spoiler alerts here.
 
Akhtar’s plot is intriguing, and the dialogue for his cast of solid actors has the ring of authenticity.  In large casts, there are always standouts. “JUNK” is no exception.  Sharp, solid performances are rendered by Ito Aghayere as Jacqueline Blount, Michael Siberry, as Leo Tresler, Miriam Silverman as Amy Merkin, Joey Slotnick as Boris Pronsky, Rick Holmes as Thomas Everson, Jr., Teresa Avia Lim as Judy Chen, and Matthew Rauch as Israel Peterman.

The creative team led by director Hughes includes mood lighting by designer Ben Stanton that allows the audiences to see the costumes designed by Catherine Zuber and the on-stage projections of 59 Productions. If you are planning to be in NYC over the holidays, consider catching a performance of this potent production.

“JUNK”, is a slick production loaded with terrific performances. The show performs at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, New York City, through January 7, 2018.

-- Jack Lyons

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A FLAWLESS, RIVETING “VENUS IN FUR” ONSTAGE AT CV REP IN RANCHO MIRAGE

Patrick Zeller as Thomas and Angela Sauer as Vanda in "Venus in Fur"
All photos by Jim Cox.

Great acting is often accompanied by great writing. The inspired playwright writes and talented actors breathe life into the characters. Then it falls to the gifted directors to infuse their expertise and personal visions into the process, much like a symphony conductor choreographs and leads the orchestra. When the stars in the heavens are properly aligned and the theatre gods shine down, the result is often a flawless, magical evening in the theatre.

In the case of CV REP Theatre’s current production of “Venus in Fur”, the gods have, indeed, given their approval. The dramedy, written by award-winning and Tony-nominated playwright David Ives, is brilliantly directed by CV REP’s founder and Artistic Director Ron Celona. The sexy and sizzling play knocked the socks off the opening night audience thanks to the performances of its two stars Angela Sauer and Patrick Zeller.  More about them later.

Playwright Ives is somewhat of a non-traditional theatre creature in that he is a screenwriter and a novelist known for his many short one-acts – he’s considered the master of the short form – which culminated in a full-length play, “All in the Timing”, which was the most produced play in America (after Shakespeare) in 1996.

Actors love his work because he writes about subjects and themes that allow them to stretch beyond their traditional creative boundaries. Fellow playwrights Christopher Durang (comedy) and Sam Shepard (drama) also fall into this category. They’re quirky and brilliant as well. Ives’ play dialogue incorporates a lot of street vernacular, which at times can be jolting but he never talks down to his audience. For my money “Venus in Fur” is his best short piece to date, and it’s a timeless play that never goes out of style or loses its relevance.

It’s an actor’s play, written for them and appreciated by them.  In this CV REP production, the audience is treated to two intelligent, high-octane, energetic performances.  This is the third “Venus in Fur” production that I’ve seen.  I reviewed the original Broadway show in New York in 2011 starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, with Arianda winning the Best Actress Tony.  San Diego Rep Company then produced an excellent production in 2013, with Caroline Kinsolving and Thomas Meeks as a formidable pair of dramatic performers.  Comparisons are odious at best, but I wouldn’t exchange this talented pair for any who have performed the play. Angela Sauer as Vanda and Patrick Zeller as Thomas, are, simply put, sublime.

Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in "Venus in Fur"
The play is a play within a play that is set in an audition studio in the Lower East side of New York City in the present. Thomas (Patrick Zeller) an intelligent, intense, erudite young playwright is getting ready to close the auditions he has been conducting all day in search of a perfect leading lady for his upcoming play that he has adapted from an obscure novel by a 19th-century author.

When the play begins, Thomas is on his cell phone speaking to his wife when Vanda, a ‘theatrical force of nature’ in the form of a very-late-for-her-audition-appointment actor, breezes into the room and immediately begins to audition for Thomas.  With the apologies and pleading by all, Vanda being late, and Thomas having closed the auditions for the night, Vanda says ” … as long as I’m here can’t you just conduct a short audition?”  That pleading ‘fatal line’ being crossed by one making a power bid, and the other acquiescing, sets in motion a fascinating story of the feminine mystique vs. the dominating male ego.

The following 95 minutes become a delicious, sexy, sizzling verbal dance of mutual seduction that keeps the audience riveted to the onstage action and the emotions between Vanda and Thomas, two formidable individuals that are superbly played Angela Sauer and Patrick Zeller.

Ms. Sauer attacks the role of Vanda in a bravura performance of an actor who knows all of the tricks of the acting trade. She uses them as weapons trained on the ego of playwright Thomas who now warms to the idea suggested by Vanda of him playing the part of the playwright-director during the audition.  At Vanda’s urging, Thomas is now intrigued by her suggestion that he direct his own provocative and potent play.  Ahh, the lure and the temptation proves too irresistible and Thomas willingly and eagerly succumbs, accepting the challenge of Vanda’s rules of engagement for the audition, as well as her pitch to just cast her now.

Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in
"Venus in Fur"
The on-stage chemistry between Ms. Sauer and Mr. Zeller is literally palpable. Their performances fully engage the audience who become fascinated by the push and pull of playwright Ives’ characters.  References to the origin of the title “Venus in Fur” also enliven the audiences’ fascination with the story.  But no more spoiler alerts; one must come and see this potent production for oneself.

As wonderful and mesmerizing as Sauer and Keller are, they don’t do it all by themselves. The safe harbor created by director Celona plays a key role in the overall success of this production. Celona’s seamless direction encourages the actors to stretch their creative muscles, which then takes the audience along on this intriguing and highly entertaining journey skirting around the kinky edges of bondage and domination.

The creative team led by director Celona includes the always inventive set designs of Emmy-winning scenic designer Jimmy Cuomo and the award-winning lighting designs of Moira Wilkie Whitaker. The costume designs of Julie Onken fit perfectly for the whirling dervish-like Ms. Sauer. Sound Designer Randy Hansen creates soundtracks that not only require precision but also a sensitive touch from technical board operator Karen Goodwin; Wigs, Hair, and Makeup designs by Desert Theatre League (DTL) multi-award-winner Lynda Shaeps are spot-on for Ms. Sauer and Mr. Zeller.

This splendid production performs at the CV REP Theatre in Rancho Mirage, CA through November 19, 2017, and runs 95 minutes without an intermission.  Don’t miss it!

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

PALM CANYON THEATRE STAGES A GLITTERING DISCO BEAT "PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (THE MUSICAL)"

The Divas (Allegra Angelo, Sarah Hagar-Cox, Amber Morado) in
"Priscilla Queen of the Desert (The Musical). All photos by Paul Hayashi
The Palm Canyon Theatre of Palm Springs hit a home run Friday, October 27th, on opening night, with a glittering, kaleidoscopic stage full of twenty-five actors, dancers, and singers plus eye-popping costumes, and special effects with their current musical production “Priscilla Queen of the Desert (The Musical)".

Musicals are the specialty of the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) where they are sensationally produced and performed. PCT is now in its twenty-first year of providing quality entertainment to the Coachella Valley, presenting thirteen productions a year that include comedies, dramas, and special events as well as their signature musicals.

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (The Musical), has a libretto written by Australian film director Stephan Elliott and writer Allan Scott. The music and lyrics for this stage show is based on the 1994 Australian movie of the same name by Elliott and Scott. When “Priscilla” became a stage musical in 2006, original writers Elliott and Scott teamed up again and are credited with the libretto, but the music and lyrics sung by the twenty-five cast members are the courtesy of various pop song composers and lyricists. The sparkling production at PCT is directed by Scott Smith.

The libretto centers around two ‘drag queens’ (the talented actor/choreographer Anthony Nannini as Adan Whitely, and Nicholas Sloan as Tick Belrose), and Bernadette Bassenger, their transgender woman friend (played by Ron Coronado) who decide to take their ‘drag show act’ on the road to help out their friend Tick, who is seeking to reunite with his estranged son. It’s a heart-warming, uplifting road trip adventure into Australia’s Outback country in search for love and friendship, where all end up finding more than they ever could dream.

Tick has separated from his wife Marion (Chandra Smith) and has not seen his 12-year-old son Benji (nicely played by Ben Van Dijk) in eight years. Road trip adventures, be they movies or stage musicals, are always entertaining and are filled with twist and turns of the core story. “Priscilla”, is a search for understanding. For redemption, where families and friends come together to celebrate life in all its human dimensions.

PCT’s lavish production of “Priscilla” is an early Christmas gift for those who enjoy colorful, toe-tapping, eye appealing, theatrical entertainment fueled by an off-stage, driving Disco-beat orchestra, led Piano/Musical Director Steven Smith, and his talented, four-man orchestra of Dave Bronson on Guitar, Larry Holloway on Bass, John Pagels, on Drums, and Bob Scarano on Guitar who deliver the pulsating rhythmic sounds, that put the audience in the mood right from the get-go. The production features twenty-two songs and surprises that are cleverly folded into the musical numbers by director Scott Smith. The cast has lots of fun performing these moments. My favorite moment comes with the “MacArthur Park” number.

It’s always difficult to list all of the names of large cast productions. “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” has twenty-five members that make up this excellent ensemble cast, however, there always standouts in every show and they include: Anthony Nannini, who once again sets his professional, musical talent bar very high indeed; Ron Coronado, Nicholas Sloan, Larry Martin as Miss Understanding, the Divas: Allegra Angelo, Sarah Hagar-Cox, Amber Mora, young Ben Van Dyjk, and Luke Rainey as Bob. All offer solid support.

In the technical credits department led by director Smith, “Priscilla”, features a huge functional set designed by resident design wizard J.W. Layne that allows the 25-member cast to quickly and smoothly make their entrances and exits. And features the bus that plays a major role in the musical.

The Lighting design by J.W. Layne and Kay Van Zandt floods the stage with their clever designs in order to let the audience see and appreciate the more than 40 + amazing and colorful costume designs by Resident Designer Derik Shopinski and his army of assistants. Shopinski is also in charge of the wig designs (where does he get all that energy?). Props are the province of Gaige Griffin and staff, and this list completes the creative team. It takes a lot of creative artists to mount a production of this size, but the payoff is definitely worth the effort.

The production “Priscilla Queen of the Desert (the musical) is being performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, in Palm Springs and has already been extended one week and will now end its popular run on November 19, 2017. For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123. They sell out quickly, so don’t wait!
 
-- Jack Lyons
 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A POWERFUL AND RIVETING “OF MICE AND MEN” AT NORTH COAST REP

Front: Wallace Bruce, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper;
Back: John Greenleaf, Justin Lang, Max Macke, J. Stephen Brantley,
Jacob Sidney. All photos by Aaron Rumley.

John Steinbeck became the voice of America’s common folks.  He understood the hard-scrabble life and day-to-day existence of poor, uneducated, itinerant farmers and day laborers.  He worked the ranches and farms himself as a young man in California’s ‘salad bowl’ area of the Salinas Valley, growing up where he was born.

He also understood the plight of the 1930s dust bowl survivors: The “Okies” from Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Great Plains; men and women who lost their farms during the Great Depression, destined to become homeless and unwelcome once reaching the California border.  All these folks were doing was just trying to seek a better life for their families in the ‘golden state’ of California.

He knew them so well, that he received a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1940 for his poignant and powerful novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 for his award winning novel and play “Of Mice and Men”.

“Of Mice and Men”, now on the stage of North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, is sensitively and intelligently directed by Richard Baird, who masterfully orchestrates his cast of eleven talented actors as they weave a mesmerizing obligato of lives seeking to escape from the desperation for some and an acceptance of situation by others, but never abandoning each character’s hope of achieving a small piece of the American Dream – a place of one’s own.

Jacob Sidney and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper 
The story, in short, is set in the fertile fields and ranches of Salinas California in 1937. Two day laborers/drifters, George Milton (a wonderful Jacob Sidney) and his friend, powerfully built, mentally-challenged, gentle giant of a man, Lennie Small (a terrific Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) have been hired to help harvest the crops on a ranch run by a man called The Boss (Ted Barton). George is the brains of the two; he is quick-witted, sharp and very protective of Lennie who has a fatal flaw in his DNA – an obsessive fascination with anything soft and cuddly like small puppies and rabbits, or anything that feels soft to his powerful touch. Both Jacob Sidney and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper deliver very potent performances.

The life of itinerant laborers is a series of constant moves from one farm or ranch to the next; there is no sense of permanence. Each job and location presents challenges with the current workforce as new men arrive to work. New pecking order rules must be learned quickly, along with the dos and donts while working at the ranch. In this case, the word is don’t mess with the Boss’s son Curley (Wallace Bruce), a bullying, jealous, insecure, little rooster of a man who does very little work but is always giving orders to others. And especially avoid Curley’s young, pretty, new wife (Sierra Jolene).  She’s lonely and she flirts with the men as a way of being connected to the world and is saddled with an unhappy marriage to the jealous Curley. It’s not what she expected her new life to become. Ms. Jolene brings a fresh interpretation to her portrayal that is spot-on.

Laurence Brown, John Greenleaf, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper,
Candy, an aging old ranch hand who lost his left hand in a ranch accident, is wonderfully played by journeyman actor John Greenleaf.  Candy worries that he will be cast off once the Boss considers him a liability because he can’t pull a full day’s work in the fields. J. Stephen Brantley as Slim, the lead ranch hand, delivers a solid performance as the man the ranch hands look to as the voice of common sense and reason in the bunkhouse.

Justin Lang as ranch hand Whit and Max Macke as Carlson, the dour, unfeeling, pragmatic ranch hand who shoots Candy’s ailing old dog Sonny, are all wonderfully in the moment in their on-stage appearances.

Laurence Brown as Crooks, the African-American stable hand who sleeps in the barn, turns in an absolute gem of a performance. He’s the crusty, bitter, philosopher of the play.  He explains to Lennie how life takes many twists and turns and how everyone has to learn to navigate their fraught journeys. Lennie doesn’t understand what Crooks is telling him, but as long as Lennie is with George,” … everything will be okay.”

Laurence Brooks, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
Remember, the play is set in 1937 America. Some of the dialogue and situations ‘offended’ some people at the time, causing “Of Mice and Men” to be labeled a “problem play”. America has come a long way in societal relationships since 1937, however, there is still a lot of work left to do in the 21st century.

John Greenleaf, Jacob Sidney, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
and Sierra Jolene.
There are so many creative and inventive directorial touches in this powerful production. The beauty of this splendid production lies in its ensemble actors and their pacing and their impeccable timing, which has been choreographed by director Baird, that keeps the audience riveted to the on-stage action. Baird has created a safe harbor for his actors that allows them to stretch beyond their normal creative boundaries.  No matter how many times you’ve seen a production “Of Mice and Men”, you will be blown away by this cast who deliver achingly sublime performances. One will be thinking about and this show and its message long after everyone has left the theatre.

The technical team led by director Baird at NCRT are always first rate, thanks to the imagination and skills sets of resident Set Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting Designer Matt Novotny. The costumes of Elisa Benzoni reek with authenticity including the dust and look of Salinas Valley ranch hands who are not fashion plates. One can almost smell the hay and the pungent odors of the stable where Crooks is relegated. The props design by Andrea Gutierrez nicely finishes the virtual total immersion feeling that the audience gets, which is almost like being in the bunkhouse along with the actors. The sound design of Aaron Rumley, and the hair and wigs design by Peter Herman, complete the technical team.

“Of Mice and Men” is another stellar production under the stewardship of artistic director David Ellenstein. The production performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 12th.  Don’t miss it!

-- Jack Lyons