Friday, April 6, 2018

DEZART PERFORMS THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS POIGNANT COMEDY “MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD”

Desireé Clarke, Theresa Jewett and Melanie Blue perform in the Off-Broadway
comedy MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD,  Photo credit: Clark Dugger

Where would any of us be today without the mothers of the world?  Everyone has had one or better yet, it is hoped, still has one.  They are so necessary to life on this crazy planet.  We honor them with their own special day every May, and rightly so!

What a fabulous production Dezart Performs chooses to end their 10th Season. It’s been a stellar season of outstanding entertainment for the Palm Springs-based theatre company beginning with “The Legend of Georgia McBride”, followed by the powerful drama “Rabbit Hole”, to Dezart’s annual tribute/fundraiser to old-time radio, with their hilarious production “On the Air”, performed by Hollywood actor/celebrities., of radio, TV, Film, and the New York stage.  Which brings us to their current production “Motherhood Out Loud”, now gracing the boards of the Pearl McManus Theatre, in the historic downtown Palm Springs, Woman’s Club, is performed without an intermission.

This fun-filled production is comprised of a series of thirteen vignettes, sketches, and monologues written by some of America’s finest comedy and drama female playwrights.  The ‘community of women’ is like a secret society to men who don’t have a clue when it comes to child-birthing and raising a family, or understanding why the shoes and purse have to match, let alone, grasp the delicious feeling of a hot bath and soak as a restorative, with a glass of chardonnay nearby at the end of a full day as a stressed out, new Mom, or as a mother again; accompanied now with double the stress of parenting chores.

Under the smart and crisp direction of Artistic Director/Actor Michael Shaw, “Motherhood Out Loud” brings insights and revelations to the males in the audience and smiles and a multitude of laugh-out-loud- moments from the ladies in the audiences; be they mothers or not.  Don’t be misled by preconceived ideas drawn from TV sitcoms.  The shock of recognition of life as it’s lived in 21st century America – and probably most everywhere else – resonates with both male and female audiences when it comes to married life.

Theresa Jewett, Leanna Rodgers, James Owens and Desiree Clarke
Shaw cleverly arranges the sequencing, selection, and order in the telling of the story, much as a symphony conductor orchestrates his or her musicians. Dezart Performs, superbly gets their job done with just five talented cast members who deliver terrific poignant and nuanced individual moments on stage and display great comedy timing in the ensemble format.

The creative magic taking place on the stage comes from five fine actors whose roles fit them like expensive patent leather gloves. There are no spoiler alerts by me because they’re all self-contained, linear-styled vignettes, broken into five chapters. The audience is here to observe and be entertained in the process.  And, boy are they entertained. The company features the talents of:  Melanie Blue, Desiree Clarke, Theresa Jewett, Leanna Rodgers, and James Owens.

Chapter One: introduces us to a sketch concerning “Fast Births”.  Men, here’s where you need to pay attention and learn why very few new fathers are allowed to watch the berthing process at hospitals. The ladies know all about this section.  Leanna Rogers hilariously performs playwright Brooke Berman’s piece entitled “Next to the Crib.”

Theresa Jewett in Motherhood Out Loud
Chapter Two: ‘First Day’, is about the learning curves in the lives of young children. Theresa Jewett, delivers a tender and insightful portrayal as a young mother explaining to her gender-conflicted son why he probably shouldn’t attend the Purim party at school dressed as Queen Esther. Her rationale and her ultimate decision brings a lump to one’s throat.

Chapter Three: ‘Sex Talk’.  The children in this piece entitled Sex Talk Fugue’ are now approaching, or, are in their teens.  The pieces by playwright Michele Loew, Lameece Issaq, Luanne Rice, Clair LaZebnik and director Shaw give his entire cast of four ladies and one man the okay for a full speed ahead to review their various family observations concerning the subject of sexual awakening issues in their families when they come up.  They’re hilarious and enlightening thanks to the performances of Melanie Blue, who is fabulous as a hip, up to date, Muslim mom with daughter Leanna Rodgers,  Desiree Clarke, Theresa Jewett, and James Owens commiserate about their various teenagers.  Owens especially delivers a wonderfully droll, comical monologue about the Christmas Holidays from the perspective of a gay man.

Chapter Four: ‘Stepping Out’ covers the children getting married and leaving the nest.  In ‘Bridal Shop’ by Michele Loew, Desiree Clarke, and Melanie Blue discuss their future daughter and son’s new relatives. It’s bittersweet but funny and hilarious.  This Chapter also features terrific singer/actor Teresa Jewett, as the mother of a son in the Army recalling the day he decided to enlist, saying he finally found out what he wanted to do with his life. Her achingly poignant performance was one of the most powerful and stunningly rendered soliloquies in recent memory; bringing tears to many eyes in the audience.  The audience was so fully engaged and so quiet, one could hear a pin drop. It was as if everyone just stopped breathing.  It’s a sublime theatrical moment not be missed.

In Chapter Five: ‘Coming Home’, Ms. Jewett has another evocative, poignantly delivered monologue in a piece by playwright Annie Weisman, entitled ‘My Baby’. Keep a couple of Kleenex handy for this one too.  Now you know why we celebrate Mother’s Day in America.

The technical credits that enhance this splendid production belong to Set Designer Thomas L. Valach, Lighting Designer Phil Murphy Costumes Designed by Frank Cazares, Sound Design by Clark Dugger and Prop Master Cecilia Orosco. The production is stage managed by Diane McLure.  The technical crew of Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty, and Sierra Johnson are Interns under the direction of co-producer Clark Duggar.

“Motherhood Out Loud” is a stellar production that performs on the Pearl McManus stage in the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, produced by Dezart Performs, and runs through April 8, 2018.  For tickets and reservations, call 760-322-0179.

Jack Lyons

Monday, March 26, 2018

CHEKHOV’S MASTERPIECE “UNCLE VANYA” SHINES AT SAN DIEGO's OLD GLOBE

(from left) Celeste Arias as Eléna, Yvonne Woods as Sónya,
Jay O. Sanders as Ványa, and Roberta Maxwell as Márya
Photos by Jim Cox

Let me say at the outset, that in literature, no one suffers more than characters in Russian novels and plays except, possibly, JOB and perhaps Oedipus Rex. That being said, San Diego’s The Old Globe Theatre is presenting a new translation and a new way of staging Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece dramedy “Uncle Vanya”.

Renowned Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky along with Chekhov scholar/director Richard Nelson, put their collective heads together coming up with, not only, a new translation of ‘Vanya’, but a unique presentation style that director Nelson calls “conversation voiced dialogue”.

The Old Globe’s White Stage is a performing space in the round, which presents a challenge for directors in solving vexing blocking and traffic issues. At some time during the performance actors will obscure the view of some audience members, causing them to strain to clearly hear the dialogue.

The actors, in the White Theatre production, for all intents and purposes speak to one another, in character, as if they are at an intimate gathering of family members in a kitchen room setting.  According to Erna Finci Viterbi Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, Richard Nelson’s directing requirements for staging the production at the intimate 250 seat White Stage called for 14 strategically placed microphones to be installed over the heads of the on-stage actors in order to capture the conversational dialogue, along with special speakers that are aimed at all rows; enhancing the audiences’ relationship to the on-stage action.  It’s as if we’ve become flies on the wall; not missing even the smallest facial expression, raised eyebrow, or important nuanced character dialogue.  It’s a fascinating and innovative theatrical convention and it works.

The  ”Uncle Vanya” production that fans of Chekhov expect to see will be familiar.  It’s still a wonderful family story of relatives kvetching about the weather, the lack of money, their aches and pains, and the give and take of characters who still struggle in seeking love and small rewards of country life in Russia during the late 19th century.

Director Nelson describes his approach in staging ‘Vanya’, in an interview with James Hebert, senior theatre critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who says In keeping with the intimacy of “Vanya”, which is a family play, a very complicated family play, but it’s a family play. “You have Sonya and then you have her uncle, Vanya, and you have a father and a grandmother and a nanny and a stepmother. And the person she loves. It’s a very tight-knit group of a very complicated family, adding, “it also has the smallest cast of any of the Chekhov plays.  It’s a play that is in essence is a series of conversations.”

Actor Jay O. Sanders is charged with the heavy lifting in this splendid production as Vanya. Mr. Sanders,  a seasoned New York-based actor, with over 40 years of experience, delivers a stunning and powerful performance as Vanya. It’s a highly nuanced effort that displays a more assertive Vanya than we are used to seeing.  His scenes with the young and beautiful Elena (Celeste Arias) in Act I are achingly poignant as he declares his feelings for her.  Vanya’s protective side in Act II in his scenes with his niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods) are also poignant and deeply affecting. She admits that she is in love with Dr. Astrov, the tired and world-weary local doctor who has no romantic feels for Sonya, and, will no doubt, die of alcoholism, due to his depression as a failure in life, is nicely played by Jesse Pennington.

The conversational style of the play is jolted out of its rhythm momentarily, in Act II when an explosive verbal exchange between Vanya and his self-absorbed and irritating, brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov (solidly acted by Jon Devries) berate and demean each other over the fate of the family estate.

The story may remind some of Horton Foote’s family comedy “Dividing the Estate”, however, that is an American southern setting, and “Uncle Vanya”, is a study in 19th century Russian rural life. Generally speaking, however, human emotions are universal, it’s just the cultures and the time periods that are different.  Universal truths come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  It’s just a matter of how we display and/or accept those truths.  Dedicated performances also come from Roberta Maxwell as Marya (Vanya’s mother) and Kate Kearney-Patch as a former house nanny. It’s a compelling ensemble cast of pros who know their way around a Chekhov masterpiece when they find themselves in one.

Director Nelson shines a light on small cast, intimate productions, giving directors an alternative when staging in the round becomes an issue.  Perhaps ,”conversation  voiced dialogue” productions, when appropriate, will become more acceptable to both directors and audiences.  However, it works for me.

In the technical department led by director Nelson, the single set designed by Jason Ardizzone works for both actors, and the audience. The costumes designed by Susan Hilferty and Mark Kloss are period appropriate under the lights designed by Jennifer Tipton.  The Sound Design by Will Pickens and Alex Heath, deftly blend the sounds of the countryside; enriching the overall visual experience.

If I had to be picky with this otherwise stellar production, it would merely be for a lack of “feeling” that hot, enervating, oppressive, heat that drives the characters ennui, which is a hallmark of Chekhov plays that are set in the summertime.

“Uncle Vanya” performs at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage and runs through March 11, 2018.

Monday, March 19, 2018

ALBEE'S TRAGI-COMEDY "THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA" AT CV REP RANCHO MIRAGE

Sharon Sharth and Sean Smith
Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre (CV REP) of Rancho Mirage, CA, goes where few regional theatres have dared to go over the years; producing one of America’s renowned playwright Edward Albee’s most controversial plays: “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”.

Edward Albee is arguably one of the five most influential American playwrights of the 20th century,  the other four being Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams.  His canon runs the gamut from one acts to three acts, with the 1962 iconic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as the jewel in his crown.

Albee, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, debuted his highly controversial play “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway in 2002.  It went on to garner a Tony Award for Best Play, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Seventy years ago America lost its innocence. WW II ended.  Societal norms were morphing from conservative values into individual values and new paradigms.  American writers and playwrights delved into these new mores and explored those new territorial freedoms via the theatre. Albee was a new voice who dared to create characters and situations that challenged his audiences to question the nature and meaning of love. In his tragicomedy “Sylvia”, he raises the question whether love and shame can coexist After all, who defines normal?  Who decides which behaviors are acceptable?  Is dysfunctionality the new normal?  These are large and complex issues to ponder in a changing 21st century America.

CV REP Artistic Director Ron Celona selected “Romance: Real or Imagined” as the theatre’s 2017/2018 season theme.  “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?”, falls enigmatically into both categories.  Joanne Gordon, who directed CV REP’s stunning production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” last season, returns to helm Albee’s most controversial play.  40 years after his huge success with “Virginia Woolf”. He still delivers the goods.  Echoes of “Virginia Woolf” abound in “Sylvia”. But if Shakespeare could steal from the Greeks, then it’s okay for Albee to steal from himself.

The emotionally-charged story in short focuses on happily married, 50 year-old famed architect Martin Gray (a sensational Sean Smith in an understated, riveting performance) who reveal’s to his best friend of 40 years, Ross Tuttle (Arthur Hanket) that he has recently fallen in love … with a goat!  Martin’s wife, Stevie Gray, played by Sharon Sharth in an astonishing performance, and Billy Gray, their seventeen-year-old Gay son played, perhaps, a little too earnestly by Ian M. White, make up this terrific ensemble of professional Actors’ Equity performers.

Sharon Shart, Ian M. White, Sean Smith
Bestiality, is not normally a subject of discussion outside or inside one’s home, perhaps, with the exception of a licensed Veterinarian.  Ross, however, feels compelled to inform Stevie, via letter, of Martin’s sick, unacceptable, sexual fixation on a goat, setting off a volatile confrontation between Martin and Stevie that draws Billy into their now deeply fraught and damaged marriage.

Albee, in 2013 said to his critics of “Sylvia”, that his intent of the play was to make people “think afresh about whether or not all the values they hold are valid”.  When one views the breaking apart of this family, it’s a little like watching a train-wreck.  We’re fascinated yet horrified at the carnage at the same time.  Having said that, just as in real life there are indeed, comedy moments in this production too.  It took about 10 minutes for the opening night audience to realize that it’s okay to laugh sort of like gallows humor. When an audience becomes fully engaged, that’s when a cast begins to really ‘cook’ on stage.

Sean Smith
There are four terrific, finely-judged performances in this play.  But, the performances of Sharon Sharth as Stevie and Sean Smith as Martin, are true tour de force star turns.  The play is performed without an intermission.  These two actors are on stage for almost the entire evening.  They’re emotionally ‘naked’ out there.  Their high-octane, intense, and highly nuanced performances drain them and the audience as well.  It’s a mesmerizing evening of theatre.  However, a note of caution at this point: This a powerful play about adult behavior and language for adults.  So, leave the kiddies at home.

Director Gordon leads the creative team of Emmy Award-winning Set Designer Jimmy Cuomo who cleverly makes excellent use of employing three levels to give the actors the feel of a real home and more space to create their magic.  Lighting design by Moira Wilkie Whitaker, allows lots of light source to appreciate the costumes designed by Julie Onken.  I especially liked the sound design by Kate Fechtig, and her creative use of music that plays under selective scenes to heighten or enhance the mood.  It’s a film convention alas, and rarely employed in stage dramas.  Pity, it really works in the skilled hands of a creative designer, especially in a venue the size of CV REP and their cozy 88 seats.

“The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?” performs at CV REP, in Rancho Mirage, CA through April 1, 2018.

Jack Lyons

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

TERRIFIC “SISTER ACT” MUSICAL ON STAGE AT PALM CANYON THEATRE

All photos by Paul Hayashi
When it comes to big, glamorous, gorgeously costumed, musical productions in the Coachella Valley, then we’re definitely talking about the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) of Palm Springs. They have more than twenty years of experience and know-how in producing all forms of theatre, but specialize in Musical Theatre productions.

Depending on how long you’ve been a patron of the theatre there have been many memorable productions over the years.   Beginning with their first production “The Desert Song”, 21 years ago, to their current production “Sister Act” the musical, there have been many audience favorites such as:  “Man of La Mancha”, “Jekyll and Hyde”, “Cats”, “Les Miz”, “In the Heights”, “Evita”, “West Side Story”, “Hello Dolly” and “Young Frankenstein”.  My apologies to all if I’ve omitted your favorite Palm Canyon musical. I left out quite a few of my favorites as well.

Which brings us to the current PCT production “Sister Act” the Musical that owes its theatrical existence  to the movie “Sister Act”, starring Whoopy Goldberg. Popularity begets popularity.  The movie was then turned into a musical written by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, from a libretto by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. The result is a musical Blockbuster which I believe is one of the best musicals ever produced by the Palm Canyon Theatre.

Wonderfully staged by Robbie Wayne, who also choreographs and performs as an actor in this high energy musical production that features a cast of thirty performers led by a theatrical force of nature – actor, singer, performer, and star – Nicole Tillman. And, boy can she sing and belt her numbers. Ms Tillman was last seen at PCT in “Avenue Q”; we hope it won’t be her last production at PCT.

She brings to her performance of disco diva Deloris Van Cartier, such energy and talent; including the sass and self-assurance that’s required to fuel and drive this disco beat production.  Despite her brassy, breezy, ‘take charge’ way, we see her vulnerability and her softer, empathetic, side as well.  She’s a character we care about and actively root for. If an audience fails to root for the protagonist, or even the anti-hero, in a stage or movie, then that’s a ‘problem’ production. Audiences need to pull for someone, if not there will be disconnect and a less satisfied patron.

Ben Reece and Nicole Tillman in "Sister Act"
Thanks to a magnificent set design by resident design wizard J.W. Layne and Kay Van Zandt (who also is the Lighting Designer) along with director Robbie Wayne allows 30 actors, singers, and dancers, the space to perform their musical magic.  Director Wayne neatly solves the stage traffic management issues for scenes in front of the curtain as well as the mayhem taking place behind it. It must be bedlam backstage as the actors prepare to make quick entrances and exits, but everyone is kept on their toes thanks to stage manager Rob Weidert, where if glitches occur the audience will be none the wiser.
Enough cannot be said about the gorgeous costume designs of resident designer Derik Shopinski, and his costume design assistants: Kathy Ferguson, Virginia Sulick, Colleen Walker, Mat Tucker, Katie Fleishman, and Lisa Goldberg. All of the costumes glitter and sparkle.  And the nuns’ costumes are primly appropriate for a group of singing and dancing nuns.

Musical plot lines are usually simple with some stretching plausibility a bit, but in general, the music and lyrics, usually smooth over any bumps in the story plotline.  In “Sister Act”, the comedy story and plot can be boiled down to a case of a disco diva (Ms. Tillman) on the run from her gangster boyfriend and his thugs, finds herself in a police witness protection program in a convent… don’t rationalize, just go with flow and enjoy.  The characters and the performers in this splendid musical certainly are.

It’s a hilarious, entertaining ride courtesy of a group of committed and dedicated performers.  There isn’t space to list all of the cast, however, there are always standouts and this stellar production is no exception.   Amanda Burr as Mother Superior, Elizabeth Schmelling as Sister Mary Robert, Morgana Corelli as Sister Mary Lazarus, and Jasmine Shaffer as Sister Mary Patrick, score vocally as well as in their acting scenes. The convent scenes are highly entertaining. Who knew nuns could be so entertaining and funny?

Not to be outdone by the ladies in the production, fine performance come from Tenor Ben Reece as a helpful Police Officer Eddie Souther,  Anthony Nannini, a wonderful dancer and comedian, plays TJ one of Curtis Jackson’s thugs, and Terry Huber as Monsignor O’Hara, perform the heavy comedy lifting on the Men’s side.

In the music department, “Sister Act” benefits from the talents of the accompanying orchestra led by music director Jaci Davis on piano, David Bronson, on drums, Daniel Gutierrez, 2nd Keyboard, and Larry Holloway on Bass.

“Sister Act”, the musical, performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre Thursdays through Sundays through March 25, 2018.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123.

Jack Lyons

Thursday, March 8, 2018

COYOTE STAGEWORKS PRESENTS A.R. GURNEY’S “THE COCKTAIL HOUR” AT THE ANNENBERG

Yo Younger, Lee Bryant and Chuck Yates in A.R. Gurney's THE COCKTAIL HOUR
A.R. Gurney is one America’s most prolific playwrights. His canon boasts more than fifty plays that explore the machinations, the philosophies, and the lifestyles of America’s New England upper-class families over the last thirty years. And he ought to know; he’s a Buffalo, NY-born son, of a  privileged American family, and a graduate of Williams College, Massachusetts and Ivy League Yale School of Drama.

“The Cocktail Hour”, is a semi-autobiographical comedy that offers a peek into the world of one upper-crust waspish family as they engage in their nightly ritual – the cocktail get together before dinner.  After all, doesn’t everyone practice this ritual in their own home?  Of course not. Ninety-five percent of us don’t employ servants to cook and then serve our meals.  We have Mom and other family homegrown talent to perform those chores, which, I dare say, they enjoy doing.

One of the spectacular features of this insightful, biting, comedy-satire, is the splendid set design by Josh Claybaugh.  From the moment the curtain goes up, we are smack dab in the middle of a the drawing room, in a home of privilege. Everything we see drips with the lifestyle of ‘old school’ New England.  Conservative politics, and family values, the Steinway grand piano, and the obligatory Portrait of the family Patriarch over the fireplace, the works!

“The Cocktail Hour”, directed by David Youse, is produced at the Annenberg Theatre by Coyote StageWorks founding artistic director Chuck Yates with the following cast:  Lee Bryant as the gin-loving mother Ann, who at times plays the role of family peacemaker, but dearly loves her cocktails; Jeffrey Jones as Bradley the irascible, hypochondriac father  who claims he’s dying and that the world has gone to rot; Chuck Yates as book editor and playwright son John, who has come home to ask permission from Bradley if he can publish his latest play which is about the family, and Yo Younger as his spoiled, needy, sister Nina, who is upset with John for not writing a larger role for the character that plays her.   It’s imagined ‘slights’ like this that partially fuels her ennui and her denial that her lifestyle,of doing nothing with her life, is self-inflicted.

Jeffrey Jones and Lee Bryant
Needless to say, the characters in this family are self-absorbed and don’t have a clue as how ‘traditional’ families function, and worse yet, show no inclination to look inward for solutions.  It’s a little bit reminiscent of what is happening economically and socially to America today. Those who have a history  of not dealing with their problems and issues, and who are oblivious or satisfied with the status quo, usually discover that a bumpy road lies ahead.  In this play there is a lot comedy situations to ease the pain with laughs.  Cocktail parties fueled by nature’s truth serum – alcohol  –  produce loose lips that aren’t always  filtered by empathetic or correct behavior.

John has gone down that bumpy road with a past playwriting effort that was too close to the family bone for Bradley.   Children of successful parents usually seek their approval.  John’s gaffe of wanting to surprise his father with hit play that instead fizzled, resulted in the estrangement of Bradley and John for a period of time.

Now, John turns up with a new manuscript in hand, asking for his father to read it and give his permission to publish it.  Bradley refuses, saying the last family-based play John wrote embarrassed the entire Buffalo business community, to say nothing of their socially prominent friends. Nina, however, jumps at the chance for a preview peek.

Yo Younger as Nina
To those of us outside that august circle of families with pedigrees, it seems to be a lot fuss and much ado about nothing. It’s the witty dialogue and skilled delivery of zingers that propel this comedy of manners American-style, snappily along.   It’s a sharp ensemble cast where each actor has moments in which to shine, and there are many of them.  Lee Bryant, is a scene stealer with her fey style as Ann.  Yo Younger makes the most of her shallow character Nina, Jeffrey Jones as Bradley, soldiers on despite his cold and his script crutch  Chuck Yates, has the unenviable plot-part character of John to play, which he does with understated style.

As a side bar note: the audience on opening night was informed that one of actors has been nursing a cold for two weeks.  As a way of honoring the theatrical tradition of ‘the show must go on’, said he will rely on a carry-on script as a backup.   Audiences are incredibly empathetic and supportive individuals at times like this.  God love em!  However, a few more rehearsals should do the trick for Mr. Jones and cast to all be on the same page for the upcoming last three performances.

In the technical department the creative team led by director Youse, includes the aforementioned set designer Josh Claybaugh, along with lighting designer David Simpson, and costume designer Frank Cazares who create the mood and appropriate costumes, respectively. Phil Gold, stage manages the production.

“The Cocktail Hour”, performs at the Annenberg Theatre inside the Palm Springs Art Museum and runs through April 1, 2018.

Jack Lyons

Sunday, March 4, 2018

THE POWER OF SERENDIPITY FUELS NORTH COAST REPERTORY'S COMEDY "THIS RANDOM WORLD"

The cast of North Coast Rep's "This Random World"
L-R Yolanda Franklin, Lisel Gorell-Getz, Ava Hill,
Kevin Hafso Koppman & Anne Gee Byrd.. 
Photos by Aaron Rumley
Beauty, it is often said, is in the eye of the beholder. Serendipity, however, is often just being in the right place at the right time. So there’s a definite correlation when it comes to the North Coast Repertory’s (NCRT) current heartwarming comedy production about truth, misinformation, and understanding.

“This Random World”, written by prolific playwright Steven Dietz, draws from the idiosyncrasies of American Millennials and ‘GenX-ers on how they process information, situations, and unexpected opportunities in our digital age.

Directed with an assured hand by NCRT’s artistic director, David Ellenstein, the cast of “This Random World” – most of whom have San Diego connections either educationally from USD/ Old Globe MFA programs or from other regional southern California theatres – are a cast of skilled ensemble veterans. Ellenstein, has a penchant for selecting interesting, bold and thought-provoking plays and playwrights to fill slots in his season line-ups at NCRT.

Ava Hill, Ann Gee Byrd in "This Random World"
The story in short, follows, each character’s journey in this sometime biting, but always, insightful, intimate, non-linear comedy of serendipitous intersects and connections. Whether, it’s Scottie Ward an older, ailing lady (Ann Gee Byrd) who is making plans to take one last journey abroad with her paid travel companion Bernadette (Volanda Franklin), while her daughter Beth Ward (Lisel Gorell-Getz), who is unhappy in her present situation, flees to Nepal via a get-away trip as way of escaping her shallow domestic life,. There she meets Gary (Patrick Zeller), a fellow American also traveling in Nepal who briefly connect and then go their own separate ways.  Then there is her brother Tim Ward (Kevin Hafso Koppman), who carries his laptop everywhere he goes, who decides, as a joke, to post his own obituary on his website.  Not a very adult thing to do, however, digitally-saturated Gen-Xers and Millennials often do a lot of strange and unusual things when hunched over a keyboard.

Kevin Hafso Koppman, Diana Irvine
in "This Random World
Tim’s post sets in motion the thrust of this tale of misunderstood messages (a favorite ploy of many Shakespearean comedies as well) only to discover it’s not that easy to debunk a post on the internet. Once messages are launched, truth and understanding take on a life of their own.  When Claire (Diana Irvine), an ex-girlfriend of Tim’s learns about the post, she gets all sentimental over his “death” and tries contacting his family.   When Tim tries to tell everyone that was just a joke, no one believes him.  They think they’re dealing with a ghost or an imposter.  Yep, some of us live in the Hollywood-created reality zone of Zombie Apocalypse, the Walking Dead, and such.

When Tim actually confronts Rhonda (Ava Hill) the staff employee at the mortuary she thinks Tim is an apparition. After all she read his obituary on the internet.  Truth dies quickly on the internet but fake news thrives and spreads like the plague, even on our stages, silver screens and on TV.

Despite all of the implausibility of the plot, I remember the sage words of my grad school professor Charles Champlin, the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Los Angeles Times, back in the 60’s who said, “if an audience accepts the original premise of the story, then they will buy the ‘bits’ that go along with overall narrative.”  He also cautioned, “I don’t want any of you to become verbal vaudevillian style writers either. Always respect the efforts of your fellow creative artists.  Be critical but fair.”  Words to live by for a critic.

Lisel Gorell-Getz, Patrick Zeller
in "This Random World"
The combination of a talented cast of pros, under the creative direction of David Ellenstein, delivers a first-rate evening of sharp comedy, punctuated with moments of poignancy, with which all audiences can relate. To really enjoy this production just let the skills of the actors work their on-stage magic while you review some of your own life’s serendipitous moments.  It’s cathartic.

As usual the technical credits at NCRT are always top drawer.  When Set Designer Marty Burnett, Lighting Designer Matt Novotny, Costume Designer Elisa Benzoni, Sound Designer Melanie Chen Cole, and Prop Designer Holly Gillard, are on the job, one can rely that a stellar production will be the result. Christopher M. Williams stage manages.

“This Random World” performs at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, in Solana Beach, CA through March 18, 2018.

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“DIRTY BLONDE” THE STORY OF MAE WEST IN HER HEYDAY FROM 1930’S TO 1980 AT THE ANNENBERG


Steve Gunderson, Bets Malone and Larry Raben star in "Dirty Blonde". All photos by David A. Lee
“Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” is an oft-misquoted line from the 1933 film “She Done Him Wrong,” where Mae West utters that now famous line to Cary Grant. However, 85 years ago, it was considered a scandalous exchange for movie audiences to hear. Over her career, Mae West uttered many a sexually code-worded dialogue to the delight of her fans and audiences. No so, however, to the censors of the day.

Some of her funnier quotable quotes were: “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better” or “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.” Mae was Queen of the double entendre when it came to sexual situations.

She was a sensuous, sexy, bawdy, smart and funny performer who was an accomplished singer, actor, playwright, and screenwriter; and a genius at self-promotion; generating and capitalizing on sex-related controversy. Now, where have we heard and seen that type of behavior before? In the interest of full transparency, I saw Mae West perform in “Diamond Lil” at the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago, in 1948. Needless to say, I became an instant fan of the flamboyant and outrageous Miss West, and No, I’m not a relative of Dorian Gray, just a longtime theatre aficionado who is still passionate and still writes about theatre and film.

Which brings us to the highly entertaining Coyote StageWorks production of “Dirty Blonde”, written by Claudia Shear, from an idea conceived by Shear and James Lapine that is cleverly and crisply staged by professional director James Gruessing,Jr.

The story set in Los Angeles in 2015 centers around the memory of Mae West in a series of vignettes which flash backward, and forward again as we meet new characters who inhabit the world of Mae West. Setting the play in motion are two adoring fans of Mae, Jo (Bets Malone) and Charlie (Steve Gunderson) who meet at the gravesite of Mae West to pay homage to their idol.

Bets Malone as Mae West in "Dirty Blonde"
The brilliant cast of three professional/Equity actors performs 18 characters on the stage of the Annenberg Theatre, located inside the Palm Springs Art Museum. Bets Malone renders a star turn as Mae West and as Jo, a young office temp worker, and aspiring actor who idolizes West. Ms. Malone flawlessly captures the personality, sass, and brassy traits of the legendary Mae West even to that sultry voice that seduced many men over the years.

Assisting in this transformational production is the wonderful Steve Gunderson as Charlie, a film archivist so addicted to Mae West that he is a walking, talking, Mae West fan that has a collection of lookalike clothes in his closet, and lots of studio pictures and posters, and playbills from Mae’s long career. The talented playwright/director/actor Gunderson plays nine different characters in “Dirty Blonde”: Harry, Timothy, Lt. Gregg, The Judge, Duchess, Kid Moreno, W.C. Fields, and a muscleman.

Bets Malone and Larry Raben in "Dirty Blonde"
The incomparable Larry Raben, actor, director, and dancer plays seven parts: Man, Armando, Joe Frisco, Frank Wallace, Edward Eisnor, Ed Hearn, and a muscleman.

Mr. Raben is an acting company in himself. He does it all. Impeccable comedy timing and an instinct for inventiveness, – the works! Just four words sum up his performance. He’s simply the best.

Director Gruessing knows how to orchestrate the talents of his superb cast that result in a winning production. The technical components, led by Gruessing, also shine in their various disciplines. The Set Design by Josh Claybaugh is clean and sophisticated. The lighting Design by the redoubtable Ms. Moira Wilke, and the stunning costumes by Bonnie Nipar, along with Sound and Projection Design by David Engle compliment this stellar production by Producer Chuck Yates.

“Dirty Blonde” is a splendid evening of theatre that performs at CoyoteStageWorks, located inside the Palm Springs Art Museum, and runs through February 11th, 2018. For tickets go online to www.CoyoteStageWorks.org or call 760-325-4490.