Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Michael Urie ~ Photo by Joan Marcus
Michael Urie - Photo by Joan Marcus
Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum’s current West Coast premiere production of “Buyer & Cellar” is just a few miles from Dodger Stadium, home to those lovable lugs and ex-pats from Brooklyn who are now in their fifty-fifth year of being the LA Dodgers. It just seems appropriate to stretch the baseball metaphor of hitting one out of the park when it comes to presenting a solid, smash-hit, one-man production cleverly written by Jonathan Tolins, crisply directed by Stephen Brackett, and sensationally performed by stage and television actor Michel Urie of “Ugly Betty” fame.

The wacky 90-minute satire is pure fiction when it comes to the narrative, however celebrity super-stars like Barbra Streisand often become the subjects of faux stories, books and plays. Also, female super-stars like Garland,Midler and Streisand have always had a love affair following within the gay community. The sly, tongue-in-cheek and, at times, touching “Buyer and Cellar” comedy is careful to avoid having Jonathan Tolins become the playwright who exposes the heretofore unknown idiosyncrasies of “Babs” in a mean-spirited way. Quite the contrary, but I doubt that many non-Hollywood people knew of her Malibu basement personal shopping mall, complete with a frozen yogurt machine.

Tolins pays his homage to Streisand throughout in a tender way but doesn’t let her off the hook completely. Yes, I know Tolins’ basic premise is far-fetched, as if we are staring through Alice’s looking glass, but it does allow us to peek into the lifestyle, however briefly, of one of America’s truly “rich and famous” people. “Remember, this is the part that’s real,” Urie says with an insouciant wink to the audience before he slips into character.

Actor Urie is charged with the tricky job of juggling the publicly known facts about Ms. Streisand, and the made up stuff that he and playwright Tolins, along with director Brackett, display on the Taper’s stage. Tolins creates the character of Alex More, a gay unemployed actor, who in an effort to just pay his rent accepts a job as caretaker of Barbra’s underground mall where the customer is always right. As its only customer Ms. Streisand is usually right, but not always. Alex and Ms. Streisand have a quite a gabfest covering a variety of subjects.

Urie is out there all alone for ninety laugh-filled minutes talking to Barry, his gay screenwriter boyfriend, to staff members of the Streisand household, including James Brolin and La Streisand herself. It’s a nimble, true tour-de-force performance by a very talented actor.

Director Brackett and his creative team have focused the on-stage action to take place on a spare stage and set designed by Andrew Boyce, with lighting by designer Eric Southern. The video projection design by Alex Koch, and sound design by Stowe Nelson, plus the single costume (jeans, shirt and Reeboks worn by Urie) is designed Jessica Pabst. All are solid efforts.

“Buyer and Cellar” plays at The Mark Taper Forum through August 17, 2014.

Monday, July 28, 2014

2400 Year-Old Chinese Drama is Reimagined for the Stage at La Jolla Playhouse

BD Wong - Photo by Kevin Berne
Some stories are timeless.  The Chinese discovered the secret of telling good stories 2000 years before the Bard was born and both cultures are still thriving when it comes to telling and re-telling stories.

“The Orphan of Zhao”, at La Jolla Playhouse, is receiving an intelligent and intense revival of the classic Chinese legend that has roots in the fourth century BC.  The production is sensitively and deftly directed by Carey Perloff, and boasts onstage musical accompaniment in the form of a sensuously played cello by Jessica Ivry, and a series of violin interludes, performed by cast member Philip Estrera, that lends a nice ancient Chinese theatre quality to the overall production.

The legend/story is as old as mankind itself. It’s an epic tale of self-sacrifice and revenge. In one of China’s many political coups over the centuries, a country doctor is forced to sacrifice his own son in order to save the last heir of a noble and massacred clan. Program notes allude to the story being Hamlet-like in its telling. It reminded me more of the Abraham-Isaac biblical passage Genesis 22.5 where God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son as a way of testing his love and devotion.

Regardless of its origin, “Zhao” was the first Chinese play to be translated in the western world nearly 300 years ago and has inspired countless operas, plays, and movies. This production introduces a new adaptation from the pen of writer-author James Fenton.

One can only imagine the thoughts, fears, and decisions that must have gone racing through the corridors of the mind of country doctor Chen Ying, a retainer to the Royal family, when he is informed that he must sacrifice his own newborn son in order to save the Princess’s son.

Like all theatre, the dark side of human nature within its various cultures hold the most audience fascination when it comes to dramatic moments and Chinese history is no exception. The play is replete with enough murders, suicides and mayhem to satisfy even the darkest of hearts and “Zhao” definitely has its share.

Director Perloff is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated cast to deliver her vision of the ancient legend/story with style and clarity. The anchor of the company is the acclaimed stage, TV and movie actor BD Wong (who can forget his Tony winning performance in ‘M. Butterfly’). His poignant and insightful portrayal as Chen Ying is the glue that holds the rest of the company to his high professional standards.  Stan Egi as Tu’an Gu; Orville Mendoza as Wei Jiang; Brian Rivera as Han Jue; Julyana Soelistyo as Chen Ying’s wife; and Sab Shimono as Gongsun Chujiu also standout in solid support.

The creative team led by director Carey Perloff – the Artistic Director of San Francisco’s acclaimed American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) for twenty years – features a dominating 30-foot high, “Jungle-Gym”-like scaffolding set piece designed by Daniel Ostling that some of the actors must navigate during the performance.  Lighting director Lap Chi Chu provides many mood enhancing shadows and shafts of light necessary to heighten the on-stage tension.  I still remember how he successfully met the challenge of lighting an all glass- walled set at the Geffen’s “Death of the Author” production earlier this year.  The costumes designed by Lind Cho are spot-on, and sound by Jake Rodriguez, with original music by Musical Director Byron Au Yong are also first rate.

“The Orphan of Zhao” runs through August 3, 2014, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Monday, July 21, 2014

La Jolla Playhouse Presents West Coast Premiere of “Ether Dome”

When a new medical treatment promises to eradicate pain, a doctor and his student play out an epic battle between altruism and ambition (think big bucks). Based on the true story of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846, “Ether Dome” written by Elizabeth Egloff, and directed by Michael Wilson, is a fascinating subject for exploration regarding the subject of pain and the quest of medicine to conquer a condition that has afflicted human beings since the dawn of time.

The premise of the play sounded quite intriguing. I have often wondered how patients of dentists and surgeons tolerated the pain and the infections over the centuries especially in the case of wartime amputations of limbs. The truth is they didn't tolerate the pain or infections. Mainly they died. If one wanted to live a long life in those days, one gave surgeons and dentists a wide berth, and avoided serving in the military, and hoped for the best. Medicine, thankfully, has come a long way in the last 150 years or so.

Playwright Egloff’s thrust of the story she wants to tell, however, comes across as more didactic than theatrical in its execution. As the story unfolds one gets a sense that the plotline and narrative components would be better served as a movie rather than as a play.

The play opens in 1846 Hartford, Connecticut, in the dental surgery of Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) where a tooth extraction procedure is taking place. Watching scenes of actors performing grisly medical operations and crude procedures, and all that goes with it – reacting to pain and trauma – in the 19th century was existentially disturbing for some in the 21st century audience (gasps punctuated theses scenes depending on one’s tolerance for witnessing pain, blood and gore).

Apparently, entrepreneurs are immune to such vicissitudes of life. When William Morton (Tom Patterson), a former student of Dr. Wells learn about out the strange power and effect of nitrous oxide – laughing gas – at a sideshow event they both attended, each reach a conclusion but not the same one. Wells is altruistic in his quest to relieve pain for society. Morton sees a commercial application to the medical breakthrough (the seeds and beginning of the healthcare industry are thus born).

Then, as now, money and security are foremost. Any new business needs capital to begin and to grow. The staid and stuffy cream of Boston’s medical community are skeptical to all new medical discoveries unless it comes with a Bostonian accent. With such high stake ventures, come patent protections, trust and ownership issues that vie with fame and future riches.

“Boston Brahmin”, Dr. John Collins Warren (Richard Hoxie) founder and Head of Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Professor of Anatomy and Surgery is cautious about new miracle treatments. Dr. Charles Jackson (William Youmans) is a bright chemist and a former student of Warren’s who is secretly working on a new compound to suppress pain later to become known as ether. These four characters become the focus of Egloff’s play; and how each clash in egos and goals as they interact with one another in their day to day professional worlds.

Compelling as the subject matter may be, the action of the piece comes off as sluggish, periodically engaging the audience, only later to “anesthetize” them (pun intended) by having the story wander to Paris, France, New York City, and then back to Boston.

The stealing of ideas, patents, business betrayals of one another’s trust, and behaving badly in general on the part of business is certainly not new material for examination by playwrights.One will never run out material of this type as long as there is one breath left in commerce and banking.This time it’s Big Pharma, next time it will be Big Finance and the beat goes on.

Speaking technically, director Wilson’s creative team provides first rate support.The costumes designed by David C. Woolard are spot on for the period, and lighting by David Lander, and sound design by John Gromada and Alex Neuman also make solid contributions.

“Ether Dome” runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, Weiss Forum, through August 10, 2014.