Friday, March 10, 2017

North Coast Repertory's "The Illusion" Offers Romance, Intrigue and Magic

John Herzog and Kandis Chappell in
"The Illusion". All photos by Aaron Rumley
Tony Kushner, one of the country’s premiere intellectual playwrights is an award-winning dramatist who is best known for his monumental Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning, two-part epic “Angels in America”. In that play, he tackled the worldwide Aids epidemic.

In the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production he switches 180 degrees to translate and adapt 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille’s “L’IIlusion Comique” into a delicious and superbly acted French soufflĂ© of a comedy/farce called “The Illusion”.

French comedy/farces have not fared well with American audiences over the years. Even the great comedy playwright Moliere couldn’t win over American audiences. European society with its rigid rules of the ‘master-servant relationship’, a key component in French comedy and farce, never resonated with the independent, rugged, ‘self-made man’ image that is the hallmark of American society.

North Coast Repertory Theatre Artistic Director David Ellenstein, however, does indeed understand the rules of French farce; having acted in ‘The Illusion” himself some twenty years ago. He has orchestrated his flawless cast of comedy farceurs in a way that plays to their strengths. All the elements of theatre that deal with romance, intrigue, love, yearning, insight, and magic, plus a little sword play thrown in for good measure, are embodied in this splendidly performed production.

The tale in short, follows a clueless but contrite father, Pridamant, a lawyer of Avignon, nicely played by John Herzog, who is seeking news of his prodigal son from the sorceress Alcandre (wryly and cleverly played by Kandis Chappell). In her cave setting (wonderfully realized by resident set design wizard - no pun intended) Marty Burnett, Alcandre conjures three episodes for Pridamant from his young son’s life. Inexplicably, each scene finds the son in a slightly different world where names change and allegiances shift. Pridamant watches, sometime confused and sometime aware, but only when the strange tale reaches its conclusion does he learn the ultimate truth about his son. Sorry, but no more spoiler alerts here. You’ll just have to come and see for yourself.

In comedy/farce, there are always pretty girls who tempt the men and then immediately fall in love in their search for excitement and romance. “The Illusion” is no exception. Two women play three different characters in the three conjured scenes. Sharon Rietkert, portrays upper-class Meliba, Isabelle, and Hippolyta. I have fond memories of her sultry femme fatale role in “Gun Metal Blues” at NCRT and her memorable portrayal of Elinor Dashwood, in “Sense and Sensibility” at The Old Globe in 2015.

Christina L. Flynn, Michael Polak, and
Sharon Reitkerk in "The Illusion"
The servant/companion roles in the conjured scenes of Elicia, Lyse, and Clarina, are winningly played by a pert Christina L. Flynn, along with a twinkling smile that also displays her classic training, timing, and delivery in comedy/farce. Ms. Rietkerk and Ms. Flynn are easy on the eyes and a delight to watch as they work their magic on the audience.

The gentlemen in the production also get to strut their stuff. Michael Polak, as Clindor, the son of Pridamant in scene one, and Calisto, in scene two, and Theogenes, in scene three, plays a suitor who gets the girl in all three scenes. Lucky fella.

The bumbling buffoon character Matamore who is decked out in a costume fit for a Cardinal Richelieu guardsman is wittily played by energetic farceur Andrew Ableson. Every 17th century comedy/farce has to have one character who is the comedy relief. Fortunately, for us, Mr. Ableson is that character.

John Greenleaf as The Amanuensis, the mute servant to the sorceress Alcandre in scene one, also portrays Geronte, the unsympathetic and harsh father of Isabelle in scene two and as an actor, Mr. Greenleaf could easily draw boos from any audience for his cruel treatment of his daughter if this play were an old fashion melodrama. Ah, the world so dearly loves theatrical villains, and so do the actors portraying them. Paul Turbiak, also plays the characters of Pleribo, Adraste, and Prince Florilame, a rival of Clindor, Calista, and Theogenes. It may sound confusing in words, but it makes perfect sense when viewed by an audience.

John Greenleaf, Kandis Chappell
and John Herzog in "The Illusion"
In the technical department, Marty Burnett’s production design that is set in a cave and other locations, is up to his usual high standards, along with Matthew Novotny’s lighting design that lend both a properly eerie mood when called for by the action in each of the play’s various locations. These two creative professionals continue to amaze me as to how cleverly they solve the challenges that “Illusion” director Ellenstein and visiting directors require when staging a production at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The sleek, and at times, rich costume designs by Elisa Benzoni are eye catching and pitch-perfect for the time period. The costume for the character of Matamore, for example, looks as if it just came from the MGM costume department. Melanie Chen is the sound designer, and the realistic sword fighting scene is courtesy of actor Michael Polak.

“The Illusion” is a highly entertaining production which performs at North Coast Rep Theatre, Solana Beach, and runs through March 19, 2017.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TECHNOLOGY’S ANSWER TO AGING IS ON STAGE AT NORTH COAST REPERTORY THEATRE

Steve Froelich, Dee Maaske, Elaine Rivkin and
Greg North star in North Coast Rep's "Marjorie Prime"

The power that are in words are the keys to understanding​;​ ​w​ith clarity comes hope, and a great many more feelings, all merging into a larger​,​ life-affirming force ​that becomes the tools of writers, playwrights, actors, technicians, and the creative artisans who move us to feel human.

When we’re in their thrall, these creative artists motivate us to be more introspective​,​ to sooth​e​ and comfort those grieving souls around us​,​ and to assist those less fortunate. They heighten our memories that are so essential to life. These are but a few of the gifts that the live theatre experience celebrates. Here’s another… we’re the only species that has the ability to smile, which then leads to laughter​,​ a staple of most theatrical experiences.

North Coast Repertory Theatre’s San Diego Premiere production of “Marjorie Prime” by playwright Jordan Harrison is deftly directed by Matthew Wiener. The drama incorporates all of the necessary components that ‘words and technology’ can muster and then transforms the totality into a superb, satisfying futuristic look at the technologically robotic​-​driven world of tomorrow that is actually here today.

The story playwright Harrison presents is a tale set in the not-to​o​-distant future in which artificial intelligence is used to treat dementia and depression in the forms of “primes”- ‘humanoid’ lifelike robots that speak with patients in the form of lost loved ones and provide companionship for the lonely. They are basically programmed as memory machines to sell to the elderly as a way of easing the frustration of elderly people fighting the effects of dementia. Marjorie’s prime is modeled to look and talk like her dead husband Walter, at age thirty. I know, but the idea is not as disquieting as it sounds. It’s actually fascinating when seen on a stage.

Marjorie, who is 85 in the play, is winningly played by Dee Maaske, who brings the ​perfect ​quality of a bored, tough, old woman who still has issues to discuss with her daughter Tess (played by Elaine Rivkin). Marjorie’s decided she’s not quite ready to join her husband Walter just yet.  It’s a wonderfully focused performance by Ms. Maaske.


Dee Maaske and Elaine Rivkin play mother and daughter
in North Coast Rep's "Marjorie Prime"
Ms. Rivkin’s Tess is a bit of a Freudian delight when it comes to the love-hate, mother-daughter relationship.  At times, Tess feels guilty, yet irritated​;​ then she’s concerned and caring ​about Marjorie​'​s ​condition​. ​S​he feels her husband Jon​,​ (nicely portrayed by Greg North) as the peacemaker​,​ always seems to side with Marjorie. Ms. Rivkin turns in a nicely nuanced performance.

Jon is the glue that keeps the entire family together. He’s the son-in-law that delights every mother.  He’s kind, caring, understanding, and he really listens to both his wife and his mother-in-law. Mr. North has stage presence, and although a big man, he brings a warm quality with energy to his character​. I​t too is a winning performance.

Dee Maaske and Steve Froelich in North
Coast Rep's "Marjorie Prime"
Walter the Prime, as played by Steve Froelich, is a study in discipline and stamina.  He portrays Walter at age 30. He must be always be engaged with the onstage action but must be presented to the audience, not as a robotic, monotone voiced machine, but a warm, smiling, pleasant, engaging memory of Walter.  He sits, he stands and walks like a perfect facsimile of Walter. Like his fellow actors​,​ Mr. Froelich also delivers a fine performance.

Greg North, Steve Froelich, Elaine Rivkin and
Dee Maaske in North Coast Rep's "Marjorie Prime"
The real beauty of this highly skilled production lies in the fabulous ensemble performances of the cast.

In the technical department​,​ led by director Wiener, Set Designer Marty Burnett has created a slick-looking, futuristic set with cleans lines and a muted color palette. The projection designs on each side of the set give the scene changes an ethereal look and is an inspired touch. Matt Novotny’s light design compliments the set and the costumes of Elisa Benzoni. Melanie Chen’s sound design and Andrea Gutierrez’s props and Peter Herman’s Wig designs complete the technical team.

North Coast Repertory Theatre has another triumph on its hands with its sublime production of “Marjorie Prime”.  The stellar production runs through February 5, 2017.
-- Jack Lyons

SEDUCTION, REVENGE, BETRAYAL ON STAGE AT SAN DIEGO'S NEW FORTUNE THEATRE

Jessica John Gerke and Richard Baird star as the
sexual gameplayers in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
at San Diego Rep. All photos by Daren Scott. 

Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton struck gold with his cleverly re-imagined 1988 movie (based on his hugely successful 1985 play) sex-fueled adaptation of the 1782 novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, It’s been a popular and a favorite play for regional and community theatres ever since.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” which opened last Friday, January 13th, at San Diego Rep Theatre’s Lyceum Space stage, is the third production from the young New Fortune Theatre Company co-founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar.

It’s a gorgeously costumed, engaging romp in sexual intrigues that caused scandals when performed in 18th and 19th century France and raised eyebrows in randy Restoration England as well.

The play centers around two ex-lovers: Le Vicomte de Valmont (Richard Baird) and La Marquise de Merteuil (Jessica John Gerke) who scheme to ruin the reputation of an innocent young aristocrat Cecile de Volanges (Gentry Roth). The Marquise is seeking revenge for a betrayal by a former lover. Valmont, king of the libertines, goes along with the scheme because he’s in love with himself as a stud and lives to bed any and all attractive woman within his reach.

Gentry Roth and Richard Baird in
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
Together they devise a series of seductions and manipulations but soon realize that their intricate plan for each to seduce a victim is more than they bargained for, and this latest game plan and their targets may be their most dangerous by far. There are twists and turns by all of the players in this game of passion, emotion and consequences, which in Act One, “almost plays like a Restoration comedy”, according to director/actor Baird. In Act Two, however, the dangerous game of love gets more serious.

Conor Sullivan and Jessica John Gerke in
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
Mr. Baird scores in a wonderfully nuanced performance balancing Valmont’s predatory tendencies while at same time bringing a lightness and a debonair approach of supreme confidence that is entertaining and less off-putting. Ms. Gerke as the Marquise Merteuil has the stunning polished look of a woman who understands the power of her beauty and experience, and knows how use it to dazzle and lure men to her bed. Both Valmont and the Marquise are formidable players in the game of seduction.

Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar in
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
Amanda Schaar as Madame de Tourvel delivers a finely judged performance that begins as a pawn in the seduction scheme, but becomes the true love of Valmont at the play’s end. Their scenes together are both sexy and poignant, underscoring the redemptive power of true love.

The supporting cast is a director’s dream, a true ensemble cast who stay in the moment and who are fully engaged include Connor Sullivan as Le Chevalier Danceny, the young boy toy of the Marquise, Gentry Roth as Cecile de Volanges, the young and virginal daughter of the clueless Madame Volanges, played by Terril Miller. Dagmar Fields as Valmont’s Aunt, Taylor Henderson as Emilie, Justin Lang as Azolan, Valmont’s valet, and Neil McDonald as the Major Domo. Crystal Brandan and Christopher Torborg complete the cast.

Dagmar Fields, Jessica John Gerke and
Richard Baird in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a splendid production chock full of terrific performances, where smart and clever directorial touches abounded at the opening preview that I attended.

The cast members who are charged with striking of the set pieces and props at each performance accomplish it in a measured manner to the accompaniment of French drawing room music; a nice touch that has the creative fingerprints of co-directors Kaitlin O’Neal and Richard Baird all over it.

Richard Baird and Conor Sullivan in
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
The gorgeous costume designs of Howard Schmitt sparkle in the lighting design of A.J. Paulin. The clever Set Design by Guillo Perrone is not only functional for the actors, it allows for the large expanse required for the dueling scene in Act Two. Thanks to Fight Choreographer J. Tyler Jones, a believable tense sequence of the duelists is nicely accomplished.

The New Fortune Theatre has a first rate, stellar production on its hands that you won’t want to miss. For reservations and ticket information call Lyceum Events at 619-544-1000, or go online for tickets at www.lyceumevents.org.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” runs through January 28, 2017.

-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, December 31, 2016

AMALIE – LIGHT AS A SOUFFLE MUSICAL VISITS LA PRE-BROADWAY

Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo star in "Amelie"
"Amalie", the new musical based on the film of the same name, is like a French macaron – deliciously light with a sweet filling. When the show premiered last year at Berkeley Rep, it was still finding its soft center. The book is by Craig Lucas, award-winning playwright (Prelude to a Kiss) with music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messe. But with the addition of “Hamilton” leading lady Philippa Soo as the gamine star, along with a strong ensemble cast directed by Pam McKinnon, this current production at the Ahmanson is now heading for a Broadway engagement in Spring 2017.

Will audiences there be as taken with this whimsical tale of a shy girl who discovers her path in life is to lead others to happiness? If the opening night audience at the Ahmanson is any indication, the show should charm the pantalons off Broadway theatre-goers.

The show calls to mind the musical “Matilda” in its use of colorful sets, eccentric costumes and exaggerated characters, and also includes a delightfully sassy little girl (Savvy Crawford) as the young Amelie who re-appears to converse with her older self at key moments in the show.

Phillipa Soo, Savvy Crawford in "Amelie"
For those who may have forgotten the plot of the 2001 film, which made a star of Audrey Tatou, Amelie is an only child born to a detached physician father (played by Manoel Felciano) and a schoolteacher mother (played by Alison Cimmet) who are unprepared to deal with this imaginative and gifted daughter.

Papa only touches Amelie during her annual physical exam and, when her heart races with excitement, he concludes she has a heart condition and must be closely monitored. They are so protective that she ends up home schooled and grows up unable to form deep emotional connections to others. Even her pet goldfish Fluffy (Paul Whitty) must be given up for her health’s sake.

Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat in "Amelie"
After her devout mother’s untimely and ironic death, and her father’s retreat to the serenity of his garden and its denizens, Amelie learns to take care of herself and eventually moves to the big city: Paris. She finds a small apartment with an eccentric retired painter (Tony Sheldon) and soon finds work at a local cafĂ© owned by ex-circus artist Suzanne (Harriet D. Foy), where she listens and learns about the longings of her co-workers and others; it is also there she discovers her true calling in life – to bring happy endings to the people she meets.

A chance encounter with Nino (an appealing Adam Chanler-Berat) at a metro station photo booth affects her in a most personal way - she is instantly smitten with this young man whose hobby is collecting discarded photos from the booth and turning them into collages. Despite the meet cute, the path to love is not smooth; it takes the good part of the 90-minute show to finally give these two soul mates their own happy ending.

The hardworking ensemble of "Amelie"
The talented supporting actors play multiple roles and kudos to each of them for creating unforgettable characters. The ensemble is completed by David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, and Maria-Christina Oliveras.

The technical wizardry involved is so inventive that it almost proved distracting to some audience members, who spent so much time trying to figure out “how they did that”, often missing the action on stage.

Bringing the magic to glorious Technicolor life are scenic and costume designer David Zinn, co-lighting design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, sound design by Kai Harada, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe and production design by Peter Nigrini.

The live orchestra sounds great under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby and the fast-paced and amusing musical numbers are staged and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.

One inherent problem with the show is that the main character of Amelie is somewhat of a cipher. Things happen to her but we never really understand her deeper motivations, as she is always the instigator of cascading events. Perhaps one more solo number where Amelie can reveal what lives in the depth of her heart would flesh her out more. Philippa Soo has a lovely soprano voice and a bubbly energy in this star turn; with a little extra push, she could erase all memories of Audrey Tatou’s portrayal and make this Amelie her own.

Amelie is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until January 15. Come and wish the production “Bon Voyage” on its trip to Broadway.

-- Lisa Lyons

Friday, December 23, 2016

CLOSING OUT 2016 WITH THREE MOVIE – MINI REVIEWS

As the year 2016 comes closer to becoming the year 2017, it may be a good time to sample three genres that that hopefully scored with its fan base, perhaps luring new fans that the writers, producers, and directors have been trying to reach and seduce.

America’s movie going public has definitely undergone changing demographics over the last ten years to a point where films and their stories are less linear and less narrative-driven.  Now more emphasis is placed on warp-speed visuals, CGI actions sequences, along with ear-splitting sound tracks and dialogue delivered in mumbled, whispered tones by the actors, and I’m guessing here, in order to give the impression of danger, urgency, or menace, that is, if we’re talking thriller, drama, mystery, or action genres.

A great number of films released today are apparently not being produced as a way of enlightening their viewers through understanding the spoken dialogue, or the clarity of story points, or communicating to the viewers in general. They’re meant to be merely chewing gum for the eyes and ears.  And people wonder why no one reads books or newspapers anymore.  We’ve been dumbing down our society for years to the point that critical thinking and challenging the status quo is for fuddy-duddies, and bygone generations.  Which brings us to the three films I’ve seen this week.  All three films are in general release. In no particular order they are: “Allied”, “Arrival” and “The Accountant”.

“Allied” is an old fashion WW II espionage thriller starring Hollywood power actors Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Pitt plays Canadian RAF Wing Commander and Intelligence Officer Max Vatan who has been sent to Casablanca, French Morocco on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Once there he meets up with French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard, and the two spies plan their mission to assassinate the German Ambassador. Max and Marianne grow closer to one another as they plot the details of their mission and end up falling for each other.

Successfully accomplishing their mission and their escape, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him so they can marry and have a life after the war living in England. After a year they have a daughter Anna, and then, one morning Max is ordered to report to his superiors where he is confronted with the knowledge that Marianne may be a German double agent. If true, he must execute her himself or face the gallows as a traitor.Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma.

“Allied”, written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis has two huge stars in Pitt and Cotillard who heat up the screen in their love scenes, but director Zemeckis, despite some wonderful camera magic by cinematographer Don Burgess, fails to breathe any life into his film. It lacks energy and pacing, which is not only glacial, at times, it also fails to engage from the get-go. However, the special effects are first rate. This is definitely not a remake of the 1943 Bogart/Bergman classic romantic drama “Casablanca”. That story written by the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch in 1943, hit the Oscar jackpot when it came to WW II romantic movie dramas, and it is still considered the gold standard of WW II romantic dramas. “Allied”, as a wartime espionage story however, is a different kettle of fish.
Rating:  Two and a half stars out of five.

“Arrival”, the 2016 Sci-Fi film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is an intelligent, sophisticated, film and story premise about aliens visiting planet Earth. Instead of a film about alien abduction, “Arrival” is a film about alien visitation and the attempt to communicate with one another that is front and center in Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s intriguing film. Some viewers probably will compare it as a sort of a modern take on “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”, without the music and harmonic clues being offered by the extraterrestrials in an effort to communicate with humans. But “Arrival” is more than just that. It’s a thinking person’s sci-fi movie that leaves its viewers musing about the ‘what if’ factors.

When a movie’s premise is strong and plausible, no matter the time period or setting in which it’s placed, the more universally accepted it becomes by the viewers. The story of “Arrival” revolves around linguistics professor Louise Banks, wonderfully and sensitively played by Amy Adams who is called upon by the U.S. Government to assist in translating alien communications from 12 spaceships that have simultaneously landed in 12 countries around the globe. (Adams is being touted as a short-list candidate for 2016’s Best Lead Female nomination and a possible win at the upcoming 89th Oscar ceremony to be held on February 26, 2017).

Adams is believable and tender in the home and family sequences, yet firm, level-headed, and strong in the sequences when dealing with the military and the politicians who are very quick to jump to conclusions about the 12 alien space ships that have simultaneously landed in their various countries.

Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a military theoretical physicist whom the government has assigned to assist Louise in her urgent pursuit to communicate with the aliens before the other 12 nations decide to attack their space ships. It’s a bit of a thankless role because of Adams’ potent performance, but Renner solidly soldiers on and, in the end, marries the beautiful redheaded Adams to then raise their own family.

Forest Whitaker as Colonel G.T. Weber, the senior military officer in charge of the assignment, delivers a nice performance as the harried, sympathetic, but dedicated military officer who must carry out his orders.

My suggestion to potential viewers is to pay attention to the story for the answers to the questions you are thinking about while viewing it. The movie is non-linear. It goes back and forth, but the underlying message of hope and shared understanding that one gleans from the movie are well worth the effort.

“Arrival”, written by Eric Heissere, is auteur director Villeneuve’s baby, and like any father, he makes sure that you like his family. The technical credits shine, especially the camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young. This film will definitely be part of the Oscar mix come February 2017.
Rating: Four stars out of five.

“The Accountant”  a 2016 action thriller directed by Gavin O’Connor and written by Bill Debuque, stars Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simons, John Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffery Tambor and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The film is a typical martial arts, high body-count popcorn flick that has more than enough blood and collateral damage to satisfy even the most jaded of millennials who attend movies today.

The story is not only simplistic, but really strains one’s credulity. We’re expected to buy into a film about one Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a high-functioning autistic mathematics savant, and an accountant to shady corporate clients who need Christian to ‘uncook’ their books to fend off the U.S. Treasury Department from performing those pesky tax audits. In between clients, Christian gets to reduce the bad guy population via AK-14 weapons that appear to shoot thousands of rounds of ammo in a few seconds. It’s like thumbing through a comic book in order to follow the story line with such obvious cardboard characters.

Like most of these action films, the story gets overly complicated in making sure the viewers get lots of narrative threads and action scenes in the hope that we don’t realize how weak and thin the story really is.“The Accountant” is a formulaic plot film with few surprises that waste the talents of Affleck, who is a fine actor that deserves better material. Simmons, an Oscar winner for his riveting performance in 2015's “Whiplash”, also deserves better. Kendrick plays a character who wouldn’t be missed if she wasn’t in the script. The film also gives the appearance of solid actors, like Lithgow and Tambor, performing as a favor to the producers. However, the villain (as usual) gets the-over-the-top plum role; in this case, that plum falls to John Bernthal as Brax, Christian’s young brother who gets to chew the scenery.

All action movies need the services of many creative people. One creative professional that all action films definitely require, beside the director, is a cinematographer who knows how to deliver the magic to the screen. Seamus Mc Garvey is that man for “The Accountant”. Rating: Two stars out of five.

All three films can be seen in a movie Cineplex near you. Happy Holidays!
-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, November 26, 2016

ICEBERGS, A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE INDUSTRY COMEDY AT GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

Nate Corddry, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Keith Powell
in "Icebergs" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photos by Jeff Lorsch.

Hollywood is a magical word in the world of show business. It conjures up feelings of glamour, celebrity, and money…tons of it. And of course, when money enters the picture (pun definitely intended), powerful men and women cannot be far behind; and the gold mine at the end of the rainbow is Television.

Ask any budding writer in Los Angeles what his or her choice of a dream job in the industry would be, and nine times out of ten, the savvy ones will say ‘show runner’. If you’re the show runner, you’re the creative executive writer and the producer with immense influence and power that controls the syndicated/re-run market where the really big money gathers in piles in every room in your home or bank. Yes, the stage is the touchstone of the performing arts, and movies once were kings of the box office, but the mother lode now is television and everyone wants a piece of the action.

“Icebergs” is a Geffen Playhouse world premiere production written by Alena Smith, herself a TV writer, and smartly directed by Geffen Artistic Director Randall Arney. The Geffen has been the venue of choice for many of Los Angeles’ emerging playwrights due to the proximity to Hollywood and a steady stream of available quality actors thanks to nearby TV and movie production companies. LA is an ‘industry town’ and many Geffen productions are sprinkled with familiar faces from TV, stage and movies.

Nate Corddry and Jennifer Mudge in "Icebergs"
“Icebergs”, in short, tells the story of a millennial married couple who both work in the industry. Calder is an up and coming movie writer/director nicely played by Nate Corddry, and Jennifer Mudge is Abigail, his beautiful but neurotic actor wife.

Abigail is an established leading lady who is beginning to be aware that her biological clock is ticking away and that she and Calder must make some life altering choices. A career or children? They have been trying to get pregnant but without luck. Besides, they reason, with all the talk these days about “climate change”, maybe kids should be not on their radar screens just now.

Keith Powell in "Icebergs"
Into this flux-filled weekend comes Calder’s old college roommate Reed (Keith Powell), a paleontologist and science professor who is attending a conference this weekend on the subject of - you guessed it - climate change.


Rebecca Henderson in "Icebergs"
In addition to Reed, Abigail’s unpredictable, wisecracking tarot card-reading friend Molly (hilariously played by Rebecca Henderson) unexpectedly drops in. Abigail and Calder’s agent Nicky, played by Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, is spot-on as a schmoozing Hollywood agent looking out for his clients.

Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and
Lucas-Near Verbrugghe in "Icebergs"
In one scene, the issue of whether Abigail should be given the lead role in Calder’s screenplay, which has not yet been cast, comes up. Nicky diplomatically says he thinks the studio may not green light it with Abigail in the part. Calder loyally tells Nicky it’s his movie and either Abby plays the lead or it’s no deal. That scene becomes a bit of a stretch in order to believe that this type of dialogue rings true in an industry where hard-nose executives wear flak-jackets under their business suits for safety and eat noble and loyal writers for breakfast.

“Icebergs” is a light, nice, TV sitcom-like play with plenty of laughs. The actors are solid, in their verisimilitude performances, but it’s not like they’re splitting the atom or solving world hunger during this weekend in LA’s Silver Lake district setting. It’s just a-slice-of-life peek into the up and down machinations of the television/movie industry, along with the decision of whether two millennial Hollywood professionals should plan to have children or not.

Anthony T. Fanning’s functional set design gives the actors plenty of space to roam, and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes have the proper Southern California industry look. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi, and composer and sound designer Richard Woodbury, complete the creative team led by director Arney. The play is performed without an intermission and runs approximately 95 minutes.

“Icebergs” performs at the Geffen Playhouse on the Gil Cates stage and runs through December 18, 2016.
                                         -- Jack Lyons


Friday, November 25, 2016

IRISH PLAYWRIGHT MARTIN MCDONAGH BRINGS HIS "BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE" BACK TO MARK TAPER FORUM

Aisling O'Sullivan and Marie Mullen star as mother and
daughter in the Mark Taper Forum's "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane". All photos by Craig Schwartz

The Irish have the gift of the gab to be sure. In America, up until the 21st Century, the general image of Ireland and its people was mainlyshaped by Hollywood. Actors like John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, Maureen O’Hara, and director John Ford, plus many more over the years, were responsible for setting the tone and image of the Emerald Isle.

As a result, we tend to view the Irish as charmin’, whimsical folk with a twinkle in their eyes and a ready smile and a quick wit with which to enliven social gatherings. Well, there’s more to the Irish than George Bernard Shaw, Irish whisky, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and a somewhat publicly held image concerning their rowdy, pugnacious nature along with the lilt of Irish laughter.

British-born Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has a much darker view of his heritage and their behavior (the IRA notwithstanding). McDonagh has said, “Theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be”. Which, for those who have not viewed his plays before, is a clue as to what one can expect to see in his dramady of rural, bleak, West Ireland existence.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”, a black comedy written by McDonagh in 1996 and staged on Broadway in 1998, returns in a riveting revival production at the Mark Taper Forum, solidly directed by longtime McDonagh associate Garry Hynes; both are veterans of the Druid Theatre in Galway, Ireland, as is the entire cast.

Marie Mullen in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
The story revolves around Mag Folan, an elderly mother brilliantly played by Marie Mullen, who is one of those maddeningly dependent and demanding women of a certain age who love to manipulate those about them under the guise of helplessness. Mother-daughter love/hate relationships are timeless and are always relevant for audiences.

Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
Mag’s actions guarantee a miserable existence for her never-married 40 year-old daughter Maureen, sensationally performed by Aisling O’Sullivan, who grudgingly responds to her mother’s constant demand for attention. “Where’s me porridge bowl Maureen?” “Could I have another cuppa of tea dear?” In addition, Mag is nosy, a gossip, and self-centered. Maureen is Cinderella without any wicked step-sisters. She cleans, cooks, does the bills, and is expected to be on call 24/7. Not a recipe for a happy home life; however, Maureen is quite capable of living on her own if she has to and she’s a ‘looker’ too.

Marie Mullen and Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at the
Mark Taper Forum
A respite from her hell arrives in the form of her 40-something unemployed neighbor Pato Dooley, terrifically played by Marty Rea. Pato has had a yen for Maureen for some time but doesn’t quite know to how to broach the subject of dating. He is shy and careful not to offend or appear overeager, being almost obsequious in his moments with her. Pato’s letter in Act Two to Maureen from London where he is temporarily working, is a comedy monologue masterpiece. His plea for commitment to continue the relationship is a sublime comedy moment that is met with rousing audience applause at its conclusion.

Aisling O'Sullivan and
Marty Ray in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
When the moment of their dating/mating dance finally does begin, along with too many drinks, Pato becomes Maureen’s sleepover bedmate as Mag discovers in the morning while getting her own breakfast for a change. No Maureen to wait on her and then Pato comes down stairs zipping up his trousers. The comedy exchanges and sly dialogue throughout the two act play speaks comedy, but those who are familiar with McDonagh's plays know he trends toward grisly denouements. He’s a fan of movie director Quentin Tarantino. Need I say more? However, no spoiler alerts here.

Aaron Monaghan and Marie
Mullen in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
The brilliance of “Beauty Queen” lies in the performances of its actors: Ms Mullen, Ms. O’Sullivan, Mr. Rea, and Mr. Aaron Monaghan, who plays Ray Dooley, Pato’s young brother. Monaghan is the comic relief in the play, but I had a devil of a time understanding his heavy brogue, spoken at warp speed.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is definitely a Druid company family affair. Set Designer/Costume designer Francis O’Connor renders a home that is bleak and dingy, with costumes to match the mood lighting of Designer James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer Greg Clarke and Composer Paddy Cunneen are also Druid associates of long standing.

The riveting comedy/drama revival performs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 18, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons