Thursday, October 5, 2017

INSPIRATIONAL "OUR TOWN" SPEAKS (AND SIGNS) VOLUMES AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

Jane Kaczmarek as the Stage Manager and
Alexandra Wailes as
Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town by DWT/Pasadena Playhouse.
All photos by Jenny Graham.
Playwright Thornton Wilder’s arguably quintessential philosophical play, “Our Town”, is a snapshot study of 20th-century American small town life. Written in 1938, the play presented a view of a society that was kinder, gentler, and less chaotic than our 21st century life in America. The messages from that seminal play are sorely needed today.

The current production of “Our Town”, now on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse, is performed by Deaf/West Theatre (DWT), one of America’s finest production companies that present theatre for the hearing impaired.

Russell Harvard, Alexandria Wailes
and Troy Kotsur in Our Town 
The production, deftly directed by Sheryl Kaller, delivers the play’s dialogue in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with hearing actors. The unique format was a huge hit on Broadway and regional theatres with the musicals “Big River”, and “Spring Awakening”a few years ago with both earning Tony Nominations. Now the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, joins the ranks of DWT productions.

“Our Town” tells the story of one American small town between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its residents. To help the audience become engaged, Wilder uses the character of the Stage Manager, played by Jane Kaczmarek, as our guide, as a way of introducing the other characters and how they interact with the rest of the outstanding eighteen member cast. Kaczmarek talks to the audience and the actors during the play, intentionally breaking the fourth wall.

Deric Augustine and Sandra
Mae Frank in Our Town
Director Kaller stages her production in the traditional sparse bare stage concept, along with a couple of ladders that will become the homes of the Webb and the Gibbs families (where all the home life actions are mimed).  And of course there is always a boy/girl story element. The boy is George Webb, sensitively played by Deric Augustine, who will finally discover the girl next door; Emily Webb (wonderfully played by Sandra Mae Frank).  They are high school students as well as neighbors; Emily is an innocent, and George is a little shy and a somewhat callow.  Wilder was a keen observer of 20th century American life and remember, it’s 1901 America and it’s refreshingly charming.

Mrs. Gibbs is lovingly played by Alexandria Wailes, and Doc Gibbs, the weary town physician, is nicely played by Jud Williford. While all of the actors either perform their roles using ASL or their own voices, the roles of Emily, Editor Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and Howie Newsome are brilliantly voiced by Sharon Pierre-Louis, Leonard Kelly-Young, Marie-France Arcilla, and David Gautreaux respectively. Troy Kotsur, Annika Marks, Russell Harvard, Harold Foxx, Amanda McDonough, On Shiu, Natasha Ofili, Dot-Marie-Jones, and Marco Gutierrez also offer solid support.

Sandra Mae Frank, Annika Marks
and Deric Augustine in Our Town
Director Kaller nicely solves the daunting undertaking of this production – the melding of Deaf/West Theatre company members with speaking actors.  The traffic management issues on a bare stage leave little margin for error.  Kaller and the entire company of Grover’s Corners carry off the effort with aplomb. And the audience on opening night just ate it up.

There is a lot of magic taking place on the stage throughout, but for me, Act III is one act that tears your heart out.  If it doesn’t, then you need to visit your cardiologist right away.  There is so much wisdom being spoken in the cemetery scene and still we haven’t learned our lessons about life, and alas, it’s 2017.  Puck and the Bard were correct: “What fools these mortals be...”

The Cemetary scene of Act Three of Our Town
In the technical department, the sparse scenic design by David Meyer works for a busy stage full of actors. The costumes designed by Ann Closs Farley, are spot-on and period appropriate, and the lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg deliver mood-inducing moments, of which there are many.  The sound design by Leon Rothenberg and Jonathan Burke complete the creative team.  Specials kudos go to ASL Masters Joshua Castille and Charles Katz for their assistance in presenting “Our Town” as an American experience that can be enjoyed by all.

This inspired production of “Our Town” performs at the Pasadena Playhouse, and runs through to October 22nd.  Don’t Miss It!.
-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

CENTER THEATER GROUP’S “BIG NIGHT” HAS A BIG MESSAGE BUT ARE WE READY TO HEAR IT?

Tom Phelan, Kecia Lewis, Wendie Malick, Bruce Hutchison, Max Jenkins and Luke Macfarlane star in Paul Rudnick's "Big Night", a world premiere now playing at the Center Theater Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. All photos by Craig Schwartz.

Award-winning playwright Paul Rudnick is known for his comic takes on gay culture set against the backdrop of everyday life - his hit play/film “Jeffrey” examined the modern day dating dilemma of its protagonist; but his latest effort “Big Night”, now having its world premiere at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, tries to step up a level. This time Rudnick sets the personal travails against the larger global issue of gay genocide. It is an often uncomfortable mix of humor and horror, but if anyone can carry it off, it is CTG and the talented cast.
 
Journeyman actor Michael (an engaging Bruce Hutchison) is pacing like a caged tiger in his luxury suite in Beverly Hills prior to the Oscar telecast, so full of conflicting emotions at his Best Supporting Actor nomination, he can barely contain himself.

Bruce Hutchison and Max Jenkins
His new, ambitious young agent Cary (played to perfection by Max Jenkins) tries to calm his thoroughbred down by confiding his latest coup for Michael: a featured role in the next four “Star Wars” films. (Hey, even gay men have Jedi knight obsessions.)

While Michael nervously awaits the arrival of his partner, social activist Austin ( the charming Luke Macfarlane) who is delayed on business at the Hollywood LGBTQ Center, family members begin to arrive for the pre-show festivities.

Kecia Lewis, Wendie Malick
and Tom Phelan
First is Michael’s transgender nephew Eddie (a winsome Tom Phelan) who wants Uncle Mike to use his acceptance speech as a platform to blast the Hollywood community for their deplorable treatment of gay actors and characters. Cary nervously points out to Michael that tonight’s NOT the right moment to bite the hands feeding him.

Bruce Hutchison and
Wendie Malick
The next arrival comes in the fabulous form of Esther, Michael’s oh-so-glamorous mother who wants to make tonight all about her talented son, but can’t stop herself from turning the spotlight on herself and her new relationship. The divine Wendie Malick plays the hell out of Esther, floating around the suite in a sparkling backless gown, aphorisms dripping from her lips while passing the appetizers; my only quibble is that Malick is waaaay too young to play Hutchison’s mother.

Esther has brought along Eleanor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet (a sassy Kecia Lewis channeling her best Maya Angelou persona), who has captured Esther’s admiration and more. Her own experiences dealing with discrimination make an impact on the group, especially her handling of the loss of her daughter in a drive-by shooting.

Luke Macfarlane and Bruce Hutchison
The plot takes an abrupt swing, however, as a chilling act of brutality occurs at the LGBTQ Center just as the ceremony begins. The shock and horror unfolds on live television and casts a pall over what should be the ultimate celebration. Austin has been caught in the crossfire at the youth center but stays to help survivors, arriving finally at the hotel suite disheveled, in shock and grateful/guilty to be alive. Luke Macfarlane hits all the notes of Austin's character and you are grateful that Michael has such a solid love in his life on this particular big night.

Director Walter Bobbie orchestrates the highs and lows of this wild evening, but there are moments that jar: some audience members caught themselves when they laughed at a witty zinger just seconds after a horrifying recollection of the massacre by Austin. It’s always a risk pairing comedy and violence, but that is the society we inhabit these days and one must always applaud any worthwhile effort to make it work onstage and off.

A veritable All Star team of Broadway designers support Bobbie’s production - namely multiple Tony Award-winners John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design) and William Ivey Long (Costume Design). Beatty conceived a fabulous, glittery suite set that had me wanting to move in immediately; the colors, the subtle backdrop of the lights of Hollywood, the oversized furniture pieces, all create the feeling of luxury. Ivey’s costumes are spot on, particularly Malick’s slinky sequined number. Legendary Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington creates a glorious glow on the stage, remembering that stars always need that flattering key light.

Perhaps it is too soon after Orlando to begin dramatizing the tragic loss of life in the name of religious beliefs. But anything that makes the audience question what they know and what they feel  is 90 minutes well spent.

“Big Night” plays through October 8th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Catch it while you can.

-- Lisa Lyons









Friday, September 15, 2017

NORTH COAST REP PRESENTS NEIL SIMON'S GROWN-UP COMEDY "LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS"


Katie Karel, Noelle Marion, Phil Johnson and Sandy Campbell headline "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. All photos by Aaron Rumley.

If only it were possible to roll back time to the 1960’s, 1970’s and 80’s when America’s favorite and funniest playwright Neil Simon was knocking them dead with his prodigious string of winning comedies.

No one had his gift and talent for writing gut-busting, laugh-out-loud comedy plays. He was simply the best! Simon was referred to as the ‘King of Comedy’ and deservedly so. Not before nor since has a playwright had three smash hit plays running simultaneously in the same season on Broadway.

He caught the mood of the country at just the right time creating characters that the average person could relate to, laugh with, and enjoy the plot situations he created. In short, he became the people’s comedy playwright despite the fact that his plays were very New York-centric. Simon connected with both working and middle class families and individuals across America and beyond. His success grew because he understood the American Dream, its quirks, warts and all, plus the vicissitudes of our journey through the Alpha and the Omega that all human beings share. Simon leavened those rides by employing comedy, the one element that takes the sting out of life’s heartaches and loves lost.

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) artistic director David Ellenstein’s selection of “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers”, is a definite winner in kicking off its 36th season. It’s one of Simon’s best comedies. Deftly directed by Christopher Williams, the four person cast takes to this play like ducks to water.

Katie Karel, Phil Johnson
Assisting him in his hilarious ill-fated comedy quest are: Katie Karel as Elaine Navazio, a sexpot who likes cigarettes, whiskey, and other women’s husbands in that order. When Karel turns those seductive eyes and that smoldering stare in Barney’s direction, we all know he’s in big trouble. And so does Barney. Elaine is way out of his marital infidelity league.The story in short, centers on nebbish-like, twenty-three year married middle-age seafood restauranteur Barney Cashman (a terrific Phil Johnson) who is worried that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s is passing him by before he can join its ranks. In trying to understand the Barney’s of this world, perhaps, a little Yiddish humor will help. Do you know the difference between a Schlemazel and a Schlemiel? The answer is, if a waiter in a restaurant when serving a bowl of soup accidentally spills the soup onto his customer’s lap, the waiter is the Schlemazel and the unfortunate customer is the Schlemiel. Our Barney Cashman has been a Schlemiel most his life. Johnson’s impeccable timing in executing his double-takes throughout the play is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a star turn worth catching.

Noelle Marion and Phil Johnson
Noelle Marion as youthful, bubble-headed Bobbi Michele, is an actress friend who Barney later discovers is a pot-smoking, scatterbrained flower child. Although she would be a tasty morsel for his dalliance, Barney feels Bobbi may be living just a tad too far in outer space for him to handle.

Sandy Campbell as Jeannette Fisher, his wife’s best friend and a strong moralist, is a formidable and reluctant candidate for an affair. But, to Barney hope springs eternal. The Jeannette character serves as Neil Simon seeking moral equivalence for placing his characters in questionable situations, but they’re all so darn appealing and funny in their moments that it’s difficult to cast aspersions. Remember the play takes place in the 60’s. Our society has changed big time over 48 years when it comes to illicit affairs of the heart.

Phil Johnson and Sandy Campbell
The technical team elements are always first-rate at NCRT and this production is no exception. The ‘dynamic duo’ of Scenic Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting Designer Matthew Novotny deliver a set that any audience member could easily move right into and feel at home.Director Chris Williams is the person responsible for sorting out of all this on stage sexual innuendo interplay, and he does it with style, and elan. The comedy just flows along and is seamless in its execution and is chock full of nice directorial touches. Of course, the cast and director Williams can thank the brilliance of playwright Neil Simon and his scintillating dialogue and zingers that allow for all the comedy magic and insights that takes place right from the get-go.

The costumes designed by Elisa Benzoni fit the characters to a tee. From Barney’s suits that give him the harried look of an unmade bed to the femme-fatale look of Elaine’s predatory character, to Bobbi’s youthful mini-skirts, to the ‘sensible’ Jeannette, a middle-age woman dressed in a tailored outfit sporting a pill-box hat, who clutches onto her purse as if was a life preserver; are all spot-on. Peter Herman’s wig designs are a plus, as are the sound designs of Aaron Rumley, along with the props design of Andrea Gutierrez. Cindy Rumley is the Stage Manager making sure that everything goes as it should.

“The Last of the Red Hot Lovers”, is a delightful comedy that should not be missed by audiences of North Coast Rep Theatre. The production has already been extended one week to accommodate the demand for tickets. The play now runs through October 8, 2017, in Solana Beach, CA.

-- Jack Lyons


.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"HAMLET" ARRIVES AT SAN DIEGO'S OLD GLOBE WITH ENERGY AND FLAIR

Grantham Coleman in the title role of Hamlet. All photos by Jim Cox
Hamlet has to be the most ‘traveled’ character in all of theatrical performed history. The play has been around for over 400 hundred years and still has the power to draw actors and audiences together in celebration of Shakespeare’s, arguably, most fascinating and enigmatic character.

The richness and poetry of Shakespeare’s text in spinning a multifaceted tale of tragedy, revenge, duplicity, and death are the elements that have seduced actors as well as audiences around the world, and its been performed in all languages.

“Hamlet” once again graces the Lowell Davies Outdoor Festival stage as part of the Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival. The ‘melancholy Dane’ and his travails is crisply directed by the Old Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi artistic director Barry Edelstein, who caps off another winning season of plays and musicals selected and produced under his stewardship.

The cast of Hamlet at The Old Globe
This “Hamlet” production boasts a cast of twenty talented, dedicated and committed performers, who despite a slight technical glitch as the play began on opening night, then settled in, found its light-comedy as well as its drama footings and delivered solid and nuanced performances by all.

Edelstein’s personal vision for this production sees the characters not as British or American accented performers, but as ‘people’ speaking as characters caught up in the time period of the play. His decision to eschew accents is a bit of a boon for American audience ears, in that most are not finely tuned to the sounds of Shakespearean iambic pentameter dialogue. However, the cast of Old Globe-trained classic actors nicely bridge the accent gaps that other theatre productions employed, and this standard American/English speaking version of “Hamlet” is all the better for it.

Twenty performers on stage can be a challenge for directors, scenic, and lighting designers. However, the creative talent of Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee (who brilliantly designed the world premiere production of “Robin Hood” currently playing in the Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White venue), gives the actors a generous space staging area for the castle battlements, for banquets, for the-play-within-the play requirements, for duels, all accomplished with clever platforms and different levels. Lighting director Stephen Strawbridge insures that we will able to see the gorgeous costumes designed by Cait O’Connor with his mood-inducing lighting plot.

Talley Beth Gale as Ophelia, Grantham 
Coleman as Hamlet, Michael Genet as 
Player King, and Christina A. Okolo as 
Player Queen in Hamlet
The story of “Hamlet” deals with a young Danish prince who is summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father’s funeral. He is shocked to learn that his mother Queen Gertrude has already remarried. The Queen is now wed to Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, the dead King’s brother. Hamlet is disgusted by the marriage calling it ‘foul incest’.

When a ghost-like apparition of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet and his friend Horatio, Hamlet is told by the spirit that Claudius, his brother, murdered him by pouring poison into his ear; stealing his life, his kingdom, and his wife. The ghost tells Hamlet that he must avenge his murder.

The revenge plan that Hamlet hatches will impact all those around him. His mother, his step-father Claudius, Ophelia his love interest, his friends, and his sanity. There is always a price to pay, however, when the revenge is fueled by hate, which in turn, drives hasty and ill thought-out decisions. Shakespeare did not call his play the “Tragedy of Hamlet” for nothing. As we watch in awe the machinations of the characters, one gets to step back for a moment to appreciate how sublime is the playwright’s construction and how meaty the roles that are available in Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s also a treasure trove of quotable sayings that are still in use in everyday 21st century life.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet Patrick Kerr as
Polonius, Kevin Hafso-Koppman as Rosencrantz
and Nora Carroll as Guildenstern in Hamlet
The upside to some of the downside text, however, lies in the performances of the players. Some purists may be disappointed with director Edelstein’s decision to embrace diversity in the casting of actors of color. But stories of yesteryear, even when it comes to the Bard, have been known to break with tradition. Hamlet, for example, has been played by many women over the years; Diane Venora, in 1983 performed as Hamlet in New York’s famous “Public Theatre” venue run by Joe Papp.


Last year the great British actress Dame Glenda Jackson, at 80 years of age, took on the herculean role of King Lear, and received stellar reviews in the process. But then, Dame Glenda is a wonder. In Shakespeare’s day all the women’s parts were played by men. It was English theatre law. We’re now in the 21st century. Just as the English language is constantly evolving, so too is the manner and fashion of how we stage and mount our productions. “Hamilton”, the 2017 Tony Winning musical is a case in point as to diversity casting and its acceptance by audiences who have seen and raved about the show.

Opal Alladin as Queen Gertrude and
Grantham Coleman as Hamlet
The company of players assembled by director Edelstein is first rate, and the performance of Hamlet played by rising star Grantham Coleman is an actor to watch. He is handsome, has charisma, on stage presence and power and is blessed with an abundance of talent that Noel Coward called ‘star quality’. His range runs the gamut from the giddy to a controlled, almost reckless madness in his scenes with Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia. It’s riveting stuff to watch.

Complementing Coleman’s performance in this “Hamlet” production, is the potent performance of Cornell Womack as King Claudius. It’s a tough, under-appreciated, role by the audience, and he does it without going over the top. Womack neatly threads that tiny needle opening with style and assurance. Opal Alladin as Queen Gertrude, a mother who serves two masters: her son Hamlet, and her own earthly ambitions makes the most of her family situation until fate steps in.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet and Michael
Genet as The Ghost of Hamlet's Father
Solid support comes from Michael Genet as The Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the role of the Player King and as the gravedigger. All three portrayals are stellar winning performances. Talley Beth Gale’s Ophelia, is properly youthful in act one and her meltdown into madness in act two is strangely compelling to watch. Patrick Kerr’s Polonius is weasel-like and whinny, but he gets to utter some of Shakespeare’s best quoted lines, like the advice “… Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” that he gives to his son Laertes who is planning a trip to Paris. Laertes, in act two is fiercely played by Jonny Orsini, as a man on a revenge mission. Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend, also is nicely played by Lorenzo Landini.

Grantham Coleman as Hamlet and
Talley Beth Gale as Ophelia
The ensemble actors who portray multiple characters also are always in their on stage moments. Kudos to stage manager Pamela Salling and her crew who keep the on stage and back stage personnel on their cues and on their toes. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, in order to make everything seamlessly flow for the audience.


“Hamlet” is a potently acted production that will win over audiences if embraced by Old Globe audiences who may still be yearning for the good old days of the twentieth century. But, times and theatre productions and their styles; they are a ‘changin’. We all need to get on board.

“Hamlet” now performing in the Lowell Davies Outdoor Festival Theatre is an impressive and entertaining evening of theatre that runs through September 10, 2017.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME UNCOVERS THE MYSTERIES OF THE MIND AND HEART

Adam Langdon and the Ensemble of THE CURIOUS
INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. All photos by Joan Marcus.


The Tony Award-winning play THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME has landed at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles in all it's digitized, breathtaking splendor and it's quite an illuminating trip. Director Marianne Elliot, award-winning director of WAR HORSE, and the original London and Broadway productions, propels the audience into the mind of Christopher, an autistic teenager (Adam Langdon) who is definitely on the autism spectrum, although his diagnosis is never directly identified in the play. It was based on the book by Mark Haddon and was adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens.

In the opening scene we are greeted with the moonlit figure of a large dog impaled with a pitchfork and a shaken Christopher standing over the animal, overcome with emotion. It is soon revealed that someone killed Wellington the dog who belongs to a neighbor and by virtue of proximity Christopher is the prime suspect. But as the arriving police officer discovers, things are not always what they seem; an attempt to handle Christopher results in a terrifying outburst of pain and fear that he experiences by being touched by another person. 


We get to see the narrow emotional world that Christopher inhabits, one that he has adjusted to and thrived within. He is a mathematical savant, an admirer of Sherlock Holmes who uses his prodigious mental gifts to solve the mysteries of life in a most precise and often endearing manner. But it is his emotional gifts that need tending.

Christopher is enrolled at a special needs school where his counselor Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) encourages him to channel his energy and creativity into writing a journal of his efforts to solve the murder of the dog Wellington. Christopher is being raised by his hardworking handyman father Ed (Gene Gillette) with enormous patience and protectiveness. 

Adam Langdon and Maria Elena
Ramirez in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME.
Ed fights for his son to have as normal a life as possible, battling with school administrators who want to deny Christopher an opportunity to sit for his A Level maths exams (the UK equivalent of advanced AP courses/PSAT exams) at the age of only 15 years. With a visible mixture of guilt and melancholy, Ed does the best he can for the son who he cannot hold.
Gene Gillette and Adam Langdon in
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG
IN THE NIGHTTIME.
As with most young geniuses, Christopher is single-minded in his belief that his superior logic skills will help him uncover Wellington's murderer, despite his father's warnings to leave things alone and not go poking his nose into other people's business. But do kids ever listen? No. That's lucky for the audience who follow down the rabbit hole of Christopher's racing mind.

The show hurtles along at breakneck speed, beautifully creating the sights and sounds of London as perceived by Christopher - flashing lights, ambient sounds, a parkour-like movement scheme that had the audience cheering (wonderfully choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett), executed by a hardworking ensemble who play multiple roles throughout the play.


Adam Langdon as Christopher in THE
CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME.
Along the way to solving Wellington's murder, Christopher makes a startling personal discovery that leads him to run away from home and venture alone on the London Underground to seek out his missing mother whom he thought dead. His bravery is tested by difficult, unknown circumstances; things that would be commonplace to most of us, like finding a railway station, buying a ticket and learning how to jump onto a train and read a subway map are daunting. But he is truly on a quest and, like most questers, his determination will carry the day.

The Ensemble in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Fully bringing the world view of autism to life is not easy, but this talented, versatile cast handles it masterfully. Playing a Rain Man-type character can be tricky, so it is to the credit of actor Langdon that we are not put off by his quirks and intense, gangly physicality that is a grueling nightly ordeal (another talented actor Benjamin Wheelwright performs the Saturday and Sunday matinees). Actors Gillette, Ramirez and particularly Felicity Jones Latta as Christopher's errant mother are able to create and sustain an empathetic, emotional climate throughout.

The ensemble gets a nod here: Amelia White as a compassionate neighbor; Kathy McCafferty as the school principal and Brian Robert Burns, John Hemphill, Geoffrey Wade, Francesca Choy-Kee, Robyn Kerr and J. Paul Nicholas all contribute multiple portrayals to support the action.

Amelia White and Adam Langdon in
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG
IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Most of the technical team are from the original British production and their work adds to the emotional weight of the piece. They include Bunny Christie (Scenic & Costume Design), Paule Constable (Lighting Design), Finn Ross (Video Design), Adrian Sutton (Music), and Ian Dickinson (Sound Design).

The production has some slight problems mostly due to the flashy visuals and thundering sound (off-putting to many elderly patrons), and quite honestly the Ahmanson seems a bit too large of a house for this tale. Maybe the venerable Mark Taper Forum would have been a better fit? 

I found the themes that underlie the play to have great resonance - perhaps many in the audience felt the same. The desperate need to make sense of a universe that often seems unknowable and a society that at times is insane, is something we all share in the current state of the world. To the authors of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, it seems logic - and love - might just be the answer to our eternal quest for the meaning of life on Earth.

Adam Langdon stars as Christopher in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. 
Note: Be sure to stay for the post-curtain call scene with Christopher which brought the opening night audience to its collective feet.

The production runs through September 10th at the Ahmanson and tickets can be purchased through the Center Theatre Group box office or online.

-- Lisa Lyons

Monday, August 7, 2017

KEN LUDWIG’S WORLD PREMIERE COMEDY “ROBIN HOOD!” SCORES A BULLSEYE AT OLD GLOBE


Meredith Garretson as Maid Marian, Daniel Reece as Robin Hood, Andy Grotelueschen as Friar Tuck, and Paul Whitty as Little John in the Globe-commissioned world premiere of Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood! All photos by Jim Cox.
The great Neil Simon deservedly earned his sobriquet as the ‘king of comedy’ with sheer brilliance and longevity, two components that assure one a place in the pantheon of American comedy playwrights. Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn, earns his pantheon honor for his prodigious comedy output and brilliance in England.

American playwright Ken Ludwig is currently the America’s reigning genius of comedy/farce, a specific form of comedy that requires practitioners that are equal to its source material. Theatre audiences are most familiar with Ludwig’s two hilarious Tony Award-winning farce productions: “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You”, the latter running for five years on Broadway.

Meredith Garretson appears as Maid Marian
in Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood!
His canon of comedies and plays include: “Moon Over Buffalo”, “Falsettos”, “The Game's Afoot”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”,  and “Twentieth Century”, among some twenty other plays. There is usually a Ken Ludwig play being performed every night of the year throughout the world, according to Samuel French, Inc. who represents him in the world of theatre. San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre has the honor of mounting the World Premiere of Ludwig’s newest comedy/farce “Robin Hood”, deftly directed by longtime stage and TV veteran Jessica Stone.

The character of Robin Hood embodies all that appeals to the romantic notion that the world loves a hero and his struggle to win his young maiden. It also celebrates those waging the good fight in the battle to right the wrongs that take place in all societies. In Robin Hood, the stories of heroic figures emerged from the troubadours and story tellers of 600 years ago. The quixotic knight errant Don Quixote, created by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605, is cut from the same cloth as Robin Hood. Both characters, one young and one old, are righting the wrongs as they find them.

Ludwig gathers all the Robin Hood stories, myths, and legends, and lovingly and absurdly fashions them into a production that honors the original intention of those unknown writers and their quests for better life for all by delivering a hilarious and entertaining evening in the theatre via the vehicle of comedy/farce. If you don’t know the story and legend of Robin Hood then you must have grown up living in a cave. Google it!

When I read that the production would be mounted in the Sheryl and Harvey White venue, my first reaction was how will that iconic adventure story fit into the ‘round confines’ of the White Theatre? Puck was right when he stated ‘what fools these mortals be’ (Me). Director Stone leads the skillful creative team of: Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee, who brilliantly solves the space staging issues of recreating Sherwood Forest with its trees and streams, the castle of Prince John, and all the other locations so well remembered by the 1938 movie starring Errol Flynn. I didn’t need to worry; Mackabee’s creative and terrific design works.

Andy Grotelueschen, Michael Boatman, Suzelle Palacios, and
Kevin Cahoon in Ken Ludwig's "Robin Hood!"
And so do the costumes created by Gregg Barnes. His Medieval period designs are colorful on the nobles and appropriate for the archer/soldiers, and rough-looking for Robin’s cohorts. The lighting design by Jason Lyons (no relation) enhances the moods and the action (yes, there are action scenes, but it helps to have a vivid imagination – remember, it’s a comedy/farce performed by a cast of eight talented actors). Fitz Patton is responsible for the original music and sound design, and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum nicely stages the sword-fighting sequences.

And, now for the actors who bring Ludwig’s ‘Robin Hood’ yarn to life. This audience-pleasing production is a true ensemble effort by a cast of professional comedy/farceurs who know their way around funny material and how to perform it to the hilt. Everyone is always in the moment, strutting their stuff with flair and a sense of sincerity, It’s a pleasure to watch them create their magic under the direction and vision of the innovative Ms. Stone.

The cast of stars includes Andy Groteleuschen as Friar Tuck, who also is the play’s narrator of the story for those that didn’t google the Robin Hood legend. In the title role, Daniel Reece makes Robin Hood a somewhat less roguish, but nonetheless dashing and earnest Robin who always rises to the occasion. Meredith Garretson as Maid Marian is more like a take charge, refreshing Joan of Arc Marion, as opposed to Olivia de Havilland’s shy and compliant Lady Marian. A cautionary tip: never underestimate the power of a redheaded Maid Marian. Reece and Garretson make a wonderful on-stage pair.

Paul Whitty as Little John, the steadfast and loyal follower of Robin, is a guy I would want on my side when it comes down to the hand to hand combat stuff, and Suzelle Palacio as Doerwynn, the love interest of Little John, adds comedy insight to the proceedings.

The cast of Ken Ludwig's "Robin Hood!"
at the Old Globe Theatre.
The two baddies of the evening’s comedy hi-jinks are Sir Guy of Gisbourne and The Sheriff of Nottingham, deliciously played by Manoel Felciano and Kevin Cahoon, respectively. These two gentlemen are certified scene-stealers with impeccable comedy timing. Veteran actor Michael Boatman plays the duplicitous Prince John. All of these skillful actors play multiple roles in this fast paced and energetic ensemble production.


Ken Ludwig’s “Robin Hood” performs in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White theatre through September 10, 2017.

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

“DUNKIRK" A POWERFUL AND VISCERAL MOTION PICTURE EXPERIENCE



Movies being shown today are surgically produced for specific audiences. Whether its millennials, baby-boomers, or seniors, producers have resorted to targeting audiences by their age demographic as a way of capturing more box office dollars.

Millennials are apparently are drawn to stories set in the dystopian future, loaded with visual pyrotechnics of super-human heroes, aliens, and end-of-world scenarios (matching the images they see 24/7 on their iPhones and home videos). Perhaps escapism is their way of expressing their displeasure with their lives in the 21st century.

The Baby-Boomers have territorial and film interests that live in two age demographics. Heavily influenced by the 60’s and 70’s that include the unpopular Viet Nam war and its aftermath, and the guilt over the success of consumerism at the expense of the American dream and its growing social and economic disparity, are just two issues that shaped the boomers’ stories, novels, and screenplays.

In the senior category age demographic, there is a bygone element when it comes to describing the interests of seniors  The popularity of “Turner Classic Movies” on television underscores their penchant for looking backward to a time when the world was less chaotic  A time when life moved at a pace that allowed society to adjust and better prepare for the inevitable Alpha and Omega ‘bell jar curve’ for the journey we all call life.

The epic British film “Dunkirk”, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, boldly incorporates its powerful text, photography, sound effects, and editing in its effort to cross age demographic lines to tell a human story of heroism that helped change the face of Europe and the world during those early and very dark days of World War II.

“Dunkirk”, opened nationwide on July 21, 2017. Obviously it’s too early to say how box office receipts will reflect the movie-going public’s interest concerning the plight of some 400,000 British, French, and allied soldiers trapped and facing annihilation by German troops on a slender stretch of a French beach in the city of Dunkirk during 1940. Only time, will tell us that.

America was not officially involved in “Europe’s War” with Hitler. Not until December 7, 1941 following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Empire of Japan, did America declare war on Germany and the Axis powers.

Photo by Anders Rosqvist, Rosqvist Photography
I apologize for the didactic mini history lesson, but faced with the fact that very few American public schools no longer teach history, civics, geography, or even cursive writing, I feel a factual, historical backstory might prove helpful in putting the film in its proper perspective and provide better understanding of the events that took place 77 years ago.

Relatively speaking, there are no ‘star turns’ from “Dunkirk’s” actors that propel the movie forward. Nolan has decided that a non-linear ensemble approach works best for his film.  There are no “The Longest Day” sequences with stars recreating the effects that combat does to human beings.

In Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, the audience was given glimpses, both physically and emotionally, of war’s capriciousness when it comes to who lives and who dies. One of the most powerful and devastating scenes in that movie, for me, was the scene where an American military vehicle is seen approaching a rural Midwest home as seen from the inside looking out the front door. As the American officer gets out with an envelope in hand and approaches the front porch, a middle age woman watching him approach slowly begins to slump, to melt, as it were. As each footstep gets closer and closer to the front door, she quietly begins to sob, while crawling toward the front door. The scene has no dialogue. It is one of the ‘purest’ cinematic moments in film history. No dialogue was necessary to convey the obvious message that war is the scourge of civilization.

Director Nolan films the events of the evacuation operation from Dunkirk back to England and temporary safety, by dividing those events into three segments. The ‘the land’ or beach sequences, the at sea sequences, and the aerial combat sequences. All three components were filmed in the actual locations, wherever possible. Everyone seen by the camera is fully engaged and in their on-screen moments reminding me of the verisimilitude of the great French film classic “The Battle for Algiers” that was shot documentary style, blurring the lines for the audience between scripted scenes and actual combat footage. It was all scripted.

“Dunkirk” also is a taut, riveting and immersive film experience, thanks to the herculean effort on the part of Nolan’s immensely talented technical team. Led by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cameras capture the smallest of details in the tiniest of spaces, as well as the sweeping shots of the action and mayhem taking place in all sequences. These scenes are not only intense but Hitchcock-ian in their use of the suspense aspect, especially while filming both above and below the water. The combat aerial photography also is spot-on and nail-biting. “Dunkirk”, like “The Battle for Algiers”, was totally scripted.

Nolan has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast of principal actors to tell the “Dunkirk” story led by Kenneth Branagh, as Naval Commander Bolton, who must make the critical decisions involved in the evacuation. The cast also includes: Academy Award winner Mark Rylance, as civilian flotilla boat owner Mr. Dawson, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as RAF pilots, James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant, Harry Styles as soldier Alex, Fionn Whitehead as soldier Tommy, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, and Cillian Murphy as a battle-fatigued soldier.

Director Christopher Nolan, production designer Nathan Crowley, film editor Lee Smith, and an army of sound editors and technicians should all be on the 90th Oscar’s nominations list come March 4, 2018.  These people created the designs for all the grittiness, grime, and realism seen and heard on the screen. A clever directorial touch by Nolan is the continuous sound track of either airplane engines, music or sound effects of bullets or bombs thudding into bodies on the ground or piercing the fuselages of the airplanes. That creative input originally came from “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” with the continuous sound of airplane engines droning throughout all the air sequences to heighten the tension and keep the viewers focused on the visuals and the bombing mission at hand.

If I had any misgivings or disappointment with the production, it would come in the form of the music and sound effects, great as they are, being played too loud; drowning out some of the dialogue. Dialogue is usually the best way to communicate and thanks to NPR, the BBC, and Masterpiece Theatre, we Yanks are getting better at understanding those unfamiliar and challenging, accents of Northern England, London, the southern coast and the west-country.

The thrust and premise of Nolan’s movie, none the less, is magnificently produced and stirringly summed up at the conclusion by English Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous and inspiring words of his “we will never surrender” speech to his countrymen and the free world, which still resonate today.

“Dunkirk” is now in general release in a theatre or a multiplex near you.  Don’t Miss It.