Tuesday, December 22, 2015


As the old saying goes, two subjects considered to be off-limits for discussion by polite society at social gatherings or at dinner parties, are the prickly subjects of religion and politics.

Andrew Garman stars in
"The Christians" at Mark Taper Forum
Photo by Craig Schwartz
But what if the highly-charged subject of religious beliefs and tenets is introduced by none other than the founding pastor of a highly visible mega-church during Sunday services, who claims to have experienced a religious epiphany when it comes to certain passages in Biblical scripture?

If that’s the case, then you must have been sitting in the audience watching a performance of the Mark Taper Forum’s provocative, new, religious shout-out play “The Christians”, smartly written by Lucas Hnath and deftly staged by award-winning director Les Waters.  Waters also staged two earlier productions for Center Theatre Group: “Marjorie Prime” at the Taper in 2014 and “Girlfriend” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in July of this year.
Larry Powell (L) and Andrew
Garman (R) in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
“The Christians” revolves around the charismatic and highly successful Pastor Paul (an absolutely mesmerizing Andrew Garman) of a Christian congregation who suddenly announces during his Sunday homily that he has had a change of heart concerning the Bible’s representation of the place known as “Hell”. In fact, he claims there is no such place.

This stunning declaration throws the church and its followers into a tizzy. Sides are taken. Should the church elders, led by Elder Jay (Philip Kerr) ask Pastor Paul to leave? What for instance, is the position of the associate pastor Joshua (sensitively and intelligently played by Larry Powell)? Joshua sadly disagrees with Pastor Paul’s position.

Linda Powell and Andrew
Garman in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Even Pastor Paul’s loyal wife Elizabeth (nicely underplayed by Linda Powell) waivers on which side of this explosive and divisive religious issue she will come down on.  Will she support her husband’s new position? Or will she stand with the majority of the congregants?  Everyone is faced with being on the horns of a dilemma. Hobson’s choices are rampant in the church.
Emily Donahoe in "The Christians"
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Choir congregant Jenny (earnestly played by Emily Donahoe) is a young divorced mother who is searching for guidance and answers from Pastor Paul on how to explain to her young son all this turmoil voiced by the congregation. Her character acts as sort of a Greek chorus where every question that Jenny asks, is followed by a response from Paul, which then leads to new and more probing question from Jenny.

When Paul realizes he cannot give her definitive answers to her questions anymore, their discussion may be over but the basic core issue still remains unresolved. At this point Jenny silently leaves the stage, signaling the exit of congregants leaving Pastor Paul’s church to join Pastor Joshua in his new church.

The play, as written by Hnath, is a serious investigation into the nature of faith. It’s also clever in how it challenges some Protestant core beliefs in the Bible without offending too many believers.  Any kind of change is always troubling, even disturbing, when deviations occur that threaten the status quo. Just ask Martin Luther and Pope Leo X about change and its aftershocks. Their little ecclesiastical ‘dust-up’ produced the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The staging of the play itself by Waters becomes a ‘character’ in the production, thanks to Scenic Designer Dane Lafferty’s creation of an onstage church complete with singers drawn from local Los Angeles churches and choirs. They begin each performance with rousing gospel music conducted by Scott Anthony, which lends an air of authenticity to the story and the action that takes place on stage.

Scott Anthony leads the onstage choir in
"The Christians" - Photo by Craig Schwartz
If one wants to know how convincing the setting is and the services being conducted in the faux onstage church, when Paul says to the congregants “Let us pray”, heads in the audience lowered as if to join in the prayers with the actors. Now that’s really being caught up in the moment with the onstage performers.

All of the verisimilitude of “The Christians” is accomplished without any of the actors raising their voices when stating their feelings or positions, except for a two minute scene between Pastor Paul and his wife Elizabeth near the end of the play. This is just good, old-fashioned, inspired direction on the part of director Waters who wonderfully orchestrates all the voices and their pacing.  The power of the play comes from the writing and the actors. It’s an interesting intellectual think piece that explores the complexities of religion, performed by a stellar cast of six actors and a choir of twenty on-stage singers that are drawn from a pool of forty-four who rotate their performances.

Playwright Hnath explains in program notes what he’s getting at in the play. “It’s true that there is no resolution in the play,” he says, adding “Here’s something I believe: a church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see.” It’s a place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible.”  I would categorize that play synopsis in one word - faith.

Hnath asks true believers to process this intellectual religious dichotomy of information without waiting for the ‘Godot moment’, so to speak, saying that this is why there is no resolution to his play. That may be the case but it sure is a provocative and entertaining journey while we’re observing everything from the audience’s point of view.

This splendid production is performed without an intermission and runs at the Mark Taper Forum through January 10, 2016.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


When it comes time to pen the ubiquitous Top Ten Lists at year's end, it's tough limiting theatre venues to just ten best productions of the year, especially when this critic is covering Los Angeles, San Diego, La Jolla, and Pasadena theatres.

But this intrepid writer will attempt to do just that. The following shows, in no particular order, are my selections for Best Productions of 2015.

The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles had two such outstanding productions : 

"Bent", the poignant and compelling story of German Jews being sent to concentration camps in 1936 Germany, teaches one about the transformative power of love.
"The Price", Arthur Miller's classic play about the choices one New York family makes in the highly charged emotional barter and life assessments, is Miller at his outstanding best.
"Come from Away" at the La Jolla Playhouse was the uplifting musical written by a Canadian husband and wife team about the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania and the impact 4000 unexpected passengers had on the tiny community of Gander, Newfoundland.

"Baskerville: A Sherlock Homes Mystery", at San Diego's Old Globe. An energetic highly creative, and entertaining mystery/farce production where five performers play over 45 roles at breakneck speed.

"Chapatti", at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, was a delightful and charming tale of love finding two senior citizens in the Emerald Isle.

"Happy Hour" at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre was a world premiere comedy/drama about an aging father and his son coming to grips with the reality that Dad can't live on his own anymore.

"Bad Jews" at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The biting comedy of a dysfunctional family squabbling with their cousin over family heirlooms, and who should get what, featured delicious confrontational dialogue and theatrical craftsmanship at its finest. 

"Real Women Have Curves" at the Pasadena Playhouse was a comedic and poignant exploration of the vexing issue of illegal Latina women working in Los Angeles' garment industry. Not only do they worry about deportation, they would like be appreciated for their individuality at work and at home by their families and spouses.

San Diego Rep Theatre, now in their 40th season, also had two stellar productions in the Top Ten for 2015.

"Oedipus El Rey" was a powerful adaptation of Sophocles' tragic tale of murder, ambition, and incest. Only this time the characters are Hispanics living in a Los Angeles 'barrio' instead of in the city-state of Athens some 2400 years ago.

"Uncanny Valley" was a provocative drama about the relationships between creators of robots and their avatar creations. Will science ever be able to give robots the power to think independently? The premise of such exploration may be further along than we think.

Southern California theatrical venues have sent many productions to Broadway and to regional theatres everywhere including London's West End.

If you see any of the above 2015 plays upcoming in your area, by all means, attend. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, December 7, 2015


A fresh and a creative wind has blown into the Great White Way in game-changing fashion, potentially altering the way some American musicals will be staged and produced in the future.

“Hamilton”, the captivating musical/opera with a book, music and lyrics by MacArthur Genius Award recipient Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a breathtaking historical ride back to our nation’s Revolutionary War roots. Miranda also stars in the title role of Alexander Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton
This time, the story is fueled by the drive, energy, and beat of Hip-Hop and Rap music, performed by a superb multi-racial cast directed by the uncommonly talented and gifted director Thomas Kail. Miranda and Kail are the same creative team that garnered four 2008 Tony Award trophies for their ground-breaking musical juggernaut “In the Heights” which ran for over 1000 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre – the same theatre where “Hamilton” is performing.  Can lightning strike twice at the same theatre venue for the same team?  You bet it can and it is.

“Hamilton” had been percolating in Miranda’s creative brain for more than six years before finally debuting off-Broadway and selling out performances at The Public Theatre earlier this year. Theatrical ventures – musicals in particular – have a gestation period far longer than elephants (two years for them), which most normal people would consider a long time before giving birth to anything. Not, however, in the world of theatre and Broadway.

It’s the hottest ticket in New York City, boasting $ 27 million advance ticket sales in just the first few weeks since opening. Rumors have it that orchestra tickets are selling on the street in excess of $1300 a piece for a weekend performance. The average theatre-goer can’t even imagine tickets commanding prices like that.  It’s a sea-change show that will run for several years on Broadway, to say nothing of a national tour and then onto the major Regional Theatre circuit.

What makes this musical so successful?  For starters, I believe it’s a production where the critical mass of creativity meets an abundance of talent. The result of that marriage becomes a confluence; a coming together at just the right time in America where a savvy theatrical team produces a musical that appeals to the new emerging American theatre-going demographic. “Hamilton” is not your father’s remembrance of 20th century American musicals.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and the cast of Hamilton.
All photos by Joan Marcus
The thirty-two cast members that breathe life into this highly entertaining history lesson with a beat on the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, move as one, never out of step, never out of the moment. It’s a visual feast both for the eyes and the ears of the audience. It also introduces Hip-Hop with a blending of Rap as the platform of preference in entertaining its audience. We’re not talking ‘gangsta’ rap’ here. We’re witnessing the birth of a new communication/entertainment platform for future musical productions. Hip-hop style, with its rhyming and propulsive lyrics and dance movements, more and more reflects the society in which millions live.

Before the over-fifty set dismiss the phenomenon of “Hamilton” as not an entertaining style for a musical, one should see the new face of the American musical, and then make a decision as to its relevance in our changing society.

Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, 
Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler
and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in Hamilton
The story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the brightest and best of our founding fathers, resonates with young people. One, he was an immigrant and an orphan; two, he was a man of color – it’s rumored that he was an Octaroon; three, he was an ambitious self-made man who attended a prestigious university, becoming a successful lawyer, and an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He was also a handsome ladies man who married well into New York political and social circles. With a resume like that it’s no wonder that he’s a historical character who appeals to young people, who are apparently making up half of the show's audiences.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and the cast of Hamilton
The tale of two powerful and ambitious men of American history is the story that playwright Miranda wants us to explore; two men whose paths are destined to cross with deadly results. Alexander Hamilton is wonderfully played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. As Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom, Jr. delivers a finely judged and nuanced performance as Hamilton’s political rival that sets in motion their tragic political arc ending with the death of Hamilton in a duel by the hand of Burr. Their story is as compelling and dramatic as it gets.

As my colleague Charles Giuliano mentions in his review of “Hamilton”, the two roles written by Miranda are of equal heft and importance, much like Shakespeare’s Othello and Iago pairing, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised to see both actors nominated for Tony Awards come this April 26th when award nominations are announced. I couldn’t agree more.

Gifted as those two lead actors are, however, this splendid production boasts many talented performers in this opera-like musical who sing and dance the story of “Hamilton” as there is no narrative text employed as a way of moving the story forward.

Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette, Okieriete Onaodowan as
Hercules Mulligan, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens
and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton
All the major supporting actors are outstanding and they include: Daveed Diggs who plays both the flashy Marquis de Lafayette and our third President Thomas Jefferson; Sydney James Harcourt as George Washington is a commanding presence; Okieriete Onaodowan plays Hercules Mulligan and James Madison; a stunning Renee Elise Goldsberry with a wonderful singing voice plays Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, whom some have said was his first choice for a wife. But Anjelica was already married making the younger Schuyler sister Eliza, played by lovely Phillipa Soo, eligible to become Eliza Hamilton. Jasmine Cephas Jones portrays both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds; and Andrew Rannells ("The Book of Mormon") renders a fresh, comical, turn as King George III.

This splendid production is blessed with a committed and dedicated ensemble cast that crisply executes the remarkable choreography created by the fabulous Andy Blankenbuehler, and the equally gifted Music Director/Orchestrations/Co-Arranger Alex Lacamoire, and Lighting designer Howell Binkley, all of whom are returning creative team artists from “In the Heights”. Why break up a winning team when everyone is on a roll? Why, indeed.

David Korins’ spacious two-level scenic design gives the entire company plenty of space to perform their magic in the colorful and elegant Revolutionary period costumes designed by Paul Tazewell.

If you find yourself in New York City next year with some discretionary income in your pocket, I strongly suggest you catch a performance of “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.  The good news is, you won’t be disappointed. The bad news is, the box office is only taking reservations for performances after October 2016.  That’s what happens when a phenomenon arrives on Broadway.


Kirk Douglas Theatre Premieres New Comedy with an Agenda

Plays can have hidden agendas,veiled or guarded plot points, and various twists on the endings. Usually, it’s a device to keep the narrative text from tipping off the audience before the playwright has made his or her case as to how the play will end.

Tradition has followed the linear format – beginning, middle, and end – for a couple of hundred years. Audiences long ago embraced this format. It’s familiar, comfortable and satisfying.

Richard Riehle, Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd
and Brian Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
However, when a play comes along by a playwright with a purposeful agenda to test and challenge audience perceptions, almost daring them figure out what is taking place on-stage well then, you must be watching a play by Korean-born but American raised and educated New York City-based Young Jean Lee, a veteran playwright with an east coast following. This is her first linear written play, and it’s one with lots to think about when it comes to a family of four straight white men living in the Midwest.

As Ms. Lee explained to a group of theatre-goers prior to the performance, she wanted to shake up and force the audience out of its comfort zone with this play. During the previews of “Straight White Men”, a comedy with deceptive dramatic undertones, audience feedback revealed that audiences had a difficult time understanding what the play was about even though they had just witnessed it.

Most playwrights and directors would be worried as to the longevity of a production after hearing such comments. For Ms. Lee who is both the playwright and the director it was music to her ears. Part of her plan for the play is to deconstruct whiteness in America and have the privileged ‘white class’ perform a mental self-awareness test. Changes are coming in 21st century American society as rainbow coalitions and multi-racial and multi-culturalism become the norm rather than the exception.

Ms. Lee’s story is set in the Midwest at Christmas and revolves around retired, loving, and non-judgmental father Ed (Richard Riehle) and his three 30-something adult sons. Matt (Brian Slaten) is an introspective, PhD dropout who has been forced to move back and live with his father. Jake (Gary Wilmes) is the middle son and a successful banker, now divorced. Drew (Frank Boyd) is the youngest son and an earnest writer/academic professor who has gone through therapy and is now a champion of its precepts. There is nothing more zealous than a convert to anything, and Drew is determined to help Matt overcome whatever it is that’s troubling him regardless of whether he wants the help or not. He doesn’t.

Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd and
Brian Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
The boys always gather at Christmas time to be with their widowed father where all get to ham it up, tease one another and play the games of their youth as a way of diverting the boredom of the three day holiday. Matt is having the hardest time coming to grips in understanding his depression and who he is and how he fits in with society. How the four family members respond to these events is the guts of the story.

Plays may be ‘the thing’, however, it’s the players that bring order and clarity to the psychodrama unfolding on stage. As an ensemble piece, we are treated to four finely judged and nuanced performances by four talented actors, making it an exhilarating display of individual brilliance within a team format.

In the third act, the story takes a more somber and highly emotional turn when Matt and Ed have a powerful and poignant scene between father and son that is so simple and yet so heart-wrenching, one feels this must be the cathartic moment the audience has been waiting for. But wait… (no spoiler alert here) there’s more great stuff to come.
Richard Riele and Matt Slaten. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Even after seeing the play performed, it’s still too early to tell whether Ms. Lee will succeed in getting her coded message about the ‘real story’ of “Straight White Men” being accepted by mainstream audiences. Only time will tell.

In the technical department, director Lee heads the creative team of scenic designer David Evans Morris, lighting designer Christopher Kuhl, costume designer Enver Chakartash, and sound design by Chris Giarmo and Jaime McElhinney.

The intriguing play is performed without an intermission.

“Straight White Men” performs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, and runs through December 20, 2015.