Thursday, March 12, 2015


“La Gringa” is the third play in a series of four that has been labeled "The American Melting Pot” as its theme for the 2014–2015 CV REP season. It’s an exploration of four distinct cultures from the pens of four critically-acclaimed playwrights. The first two plays dealt with Jewish culture in America, and then African-American culture. Now comes Hispanic-American culture.

La Gringa cast 4This charming comedy-drama, written by Carmen Rivera and insightfully directed by CV REP founding artistic director Ron Celona, explores the vexing Puerto Rican-American experience and the feeling of not belonging in one’s own country. It’s frustrating and alienating to be labeled an “outsider when in reality you’re an “insider.” This is the situation and dilemma that American-born Maria Elena Garcia, a vivacious, high-energy, up beat dreamer, (wonderfully played by Ayanery Reyes) finds herself in when she visits Puerto Rico over the Christmas holidays. She even has thoughts of not only of reconnecting with her mother’s relatives but is toying with the idea of staying. With Reyes’ 5000-watt smile and winning onstage manner, whatever decision she makes regarding Maria will be the right one.

The play centers on the relatives and how each one interacts with Maria, trying hard not to let those pesky venal sins of envy and pride get in the way of their relationships. Her no-nonsense Aunt Norma Burgos, (an excellent Marina Re) has been estranged from Maria’s mother over the ownership of the family home. Norma’s husband Victor (nicely played by Robert Almodovar) is a sensible man who understands his wife’s moods and plays the role of family peacemaker. Iris Burgos (a lovely Kyla Garcia), Maria’s cousin, is at a loss as to why Maria is so enamored of Puerto Rico. “There are no jobs available here only tropical heat and mosquitos. Why would you want to move here?” In addition, Maria is considered an American in Puerto Rico – a Gringa. After a while Maria realizes that if she’s a Puerto Rican in the United States and an American in Puerto Rico, she must be nobody everywhere else.

LG 5

This flawed thinking is dispelled when her Uncle Manolo (charmingly played by Peter Mins) takes charge. When she arrives he has been bedridden for five years, claiming to Norma that he is dying. Once Maria settles in, however, he appears to experience a “medical epiphany” of sorts and begins to show her the real beauty of Puerto Rico and the lessons of life lived by its people. Local farmer Ramon “Monchi” Reyes (Eliezer Ortiz), Manolo’s young friend, becomes smitten with Maria during the time that he and the wise and colorful Manolo tour her around the island.

The characters all have their moments to shine in this tender ensemble story. Reyes, Re, and Mins, in particular, have powerful onstage memorable moments. Thanks to the technical team at CV REP, the Puerto Rico set design by Jimmy Cuomo, and lighting design by Eddie Cancel, is nicely realized.  The wonderfully colorful costumes of Aasla Lee are spot-on, along with the sound from top-tier designer Cricket S. Meyers. An extra kudo goes to Eliezer Ortiz for his dialect coaching.

Family and love of their language runs deep in the DNA of Latinos and Hispanics. The power of family is transformative in their culture. Puerto Rico may be 3300 miles from California, but audiences here can definitely relate to the issues and the characters in Rivera’s poignant play.

“La Gringa” performs at CV REP Theatre in Rancho Mirage and runs through March 22, 2015.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


America has produced many talented playwrights over the decades. But the names of three play writing giants continually jump to the head of the line: America’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, the champion of Southern women and the culture of the south, and Arthur Miller, the chronicler of the common man in the country’s largest city, New York. There’s rarely been a playwright with a better ear for dialogue of New York’s hustle and bustle urban lifestyle than Miller with Paddy Chayefsky coming in a close second.

“The Price”, masterfully directed by Garry Hynes, and magnificently performed by an inspired quartet of some of the theatre’s finest journeyman actors, makes for a riveting evening of thought-provoking and insightful explorations of Miller’s most mature work of barter and life assessment.
Kate Burton and Sam Robards. Photo by Craig Schwartz. 

Director Hynes has her cast, which includes Kate Burton, John Bedford Lloyd, Alan Mandell, and Sam Robards, performing on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum with everyone at the top of their games. Miller’s engrossing story about the choices we all make while traveling on the road of life is set in New York City in the 1960’s.

Victor Franz (a terrific Sam Robards) is a 50 year-old, twenty-eight year veteran New York City police sergeant; contemplating retirement. He is also looking backward and inward, assessing the efficacy of decisions and choices which he and his wife Esther (Kate Burton in a winning turn) made back when Victor’s family was comfortable and upper class. First, Victor’s mother dies sending his father into a depressive state, then the collapse of Wall Street, and the banking failures and disasters of 1929 drove the final nail into the elder Franz’s coffin. The building where the Franz family lived is being demolished. The furniture that has been stored in the attic for years must be either sold at an estate sale or thrown away. Once again “choices” have to be made.

Victor and his brother Walter a conflicted, but highly successful New York surgeon (slickly played by John Bedford Lloyd) haven’t seen or talked to each other in sixteen years. Victor makes another choice: that of selling off the collection of lives lived in his family’s apartment and splitting the sale money with his estranged brother.

Into this intense and electrically charge situation comes Gregory Solomon a pixie-ish, savvy and wise 89 year-old licensed Estate broker, who will determine “the price” of what the heirs – Victor and Walter – will receive as the vestiges of the Franz family. Solomon, a charming philosopher-broker is played by real-life 87 year-old, scene-stealing actor Alan Mandell who, with a twinkle in his eye and a Yiddish-inflected accent, is a formidable customer when it comes to bargaining. He relishes the moments between Victor and himself when determining a price for the furniture. Where Solomon is garrulous. Victor is impatient to close the deal. Walter evidently, has decided not to attend the sale meeting and Victor is anxious to settle this part of the estate issues and move on. And then Walter shows up.

“The Price” which debuted in 1968 received both praise and criticism. As a result it’s not produced very often which is a shame. The criticism is undeserved in my opinion. Perhaps, different productions or directors saw the text through different lenses. I’ve seen five different productions, and for me the current show now on the boards of the Mark Taper Forum is a production that best brings clarity and resonance to Miller’s study of one American family’s problems and issues during the 60’s.

John Bedford Lloyd and Alan Mandel. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Kate Burton as Esther Franz carefully walks the fine line between portraying Esther as a money grabbing shrew, or a long suffering wife drifting away from her husband. It’s a nicely nuanced performance. Bedford Lloyd’s Walter has the just the right amount of smugness and superiority required by all self-absorbed entitlement-oriented people. Robards’s Victor shines and solidly holds his own in his highly charged scenes with Walter. Mandell as Solomon, the wily estate broker is an actor who knows how to pause, enthrall, and capture an audience with skill and charm. It’s an exquisite gem of a performance. The entire production is an exhilarating display of individual brilliance within an ensemble setting, which now, in 2015, soundly resonates as performed under the gifted direction of Garry Hynes.

The technical credits at the Taper are always first rate. The creative team led by director Hynes, delivers an apartment full of odd mementos, old furniture, relics of items that the younger Victor and Walter once used, various books lamps, and bric-a-brac plus a splendid looking harp (that has a cracked sounding board according to Gregory Solomon), all courtesy of Set Designer Matt Saunders and the Taper prop shop. The Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls, produces the right amount of lighting to create the various moods and just the right amount of light to appreciate the costume designs of Terese Wadden. The sound design is by the ever reliable Cricket S. Myers.

“The Price” is an impressive production performing at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through March 22, 2015.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Lakin Valdez and Leandro Cano
All photo credits by Daren Scott
It’s a twenty-four hundred-year leap forward in time from the ancient Greek city of Thebes, to the barrios and prisons of 2015 Los Angeles But that is the leap in time that playwright Luis Alfaro is asking the audience to make in his new play “Oedipus El Rey”, now onstage at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage.

It’s not unusual for plays to be updated to fit various historical periods and incidents over the years. That’s how new material is created. When it comes to Western culture and theatre, the stories and myths begin with the Greek poets and writers. They were good; so good that Shakespeare shamelessly stole from them. In borrowing from the Greeks Shakespeare added his own story points, plot lines and style in order to make his plays and characters more relevant for his audiences. Some scholars claim Hamlet and Oedipus are distantly, theatrically-related.

Playwright Alfaro follows Shakespeare’s lead in transforming Sophocles’ great star-crossed, tragedy character of Oedipus into a 21st century Chicano cholo of one of LA’s fictional barrios. Alfaro brilliantly reduces the original poetry/play of 1800 lines into a potent and powerful 90 minute, gut-wrenching, emotional roller coaster ride. The play masterfully directed by artistic director and co-founder Sam Woodhouse, begins in a California prison in the present.

The story centers on six Chicano prisoners (the Greek Chorus who play other speaking characters) who deliver the back-story; preparing the audience for what is to follow. There are chunks of dialogue in Spanish sprinkled throughout that lends verisimilitude to the contemporary story, and a nice touch. In ancient Greece, one didn’t mess with the Gods who ruled man’s fate. In today’s society one doesn’t mess with barrio life and the social rules that govern that community.

Matt Orduna and Lakin Valdez

When Chicano Oedipus, once out of prison, challenges the barrio order and sets himself above the rules, we follow the arc of his fall, and we see him accept his fate. In between his fated birth and his tragic downfall, issues of murder – he unknowingly kills his birth-father, marries his mother, and sires four unnatural children which become the literary epitaph of Oedipus El Rey/Oedipus Rex.

The wonderful ensemble/coro is portrayed by: Spencer Smith, Dave Rivas, Jorge Rodriguez, Leandro Cano, Matt Orduna, and Lakin Valdez, who also plays Oedipus. Valdez delivers a stunningly nuanced performance as Oedipus; one full of bravado, ambition, and power, yet astonishingly tender and loving. It’s a riveting tour de force.

Monica Sanchez is equally compelling as Jocasta, the birth-mother of Oedipus, who later becomes his unwitting wife and mother of their four children. On stage, make-believe incest can produce a lot audience seat-squirming. In the extended scene where Oedipus and Jocasta’s sexual attractions boil over, one could hear a pin drop. No exhaling breaths were heard from the audience until the scene ended. Director Woodhouse choreographed that seven minute intrinsic scene with great skill and good taste, and was always sensitive and caring to the feelings of his audience, as well as to his two star actors performing totally in the nude.

The creative team led by Woodhouse, renders a spare but functional set design by Yoon Bae, which is complemented by a lighting design by Lonnie Alcaraz that tastefully lights the nude scene. The sound design of prison regimen is by Larry Stein. The costumes of Jennifer Brawn Gittings are appropriate and are visually eye catching. The action and fight scenes by Fight Choreographer George Ye are especially effective and convincing.

The combination of an accomplished playwright like Luis Alfaro, who knows his milieu, and a creative and inventive director like Sam Woodhouse, who brings his personal vision to each project he directs, is a winning formula. It’s no wonder that San Diego Rep Theatre is entering its 40th year as one of Southern California’s leading urban theatres where their mission statement says they produce intimate, exotic, provocative theatre that nourishes and feeds the curious soul. Indeed they do.

“Oedipus El Rey” is a very impressive production that performs on San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum stage and runs through March 29, 2015.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Neil Simon, one of America’s most prolific and successful playwrights, has all but disappeared from the radar screens of patrons and from the stages of professional and regional theatres across the country. Simon, like other playwrights of his generation over the last fifteen years, has been caught in the crossfire of changing audience demographics. The Millennial Generation, roughly individuals 18 and 29 and those 30 to 40, are now the ages producers hope to woo into becoming regular theatre-goers. So far, that age demographic has resisted the siren call. They’re too busy staring into their hands and the screens of their ubiquitous IPhones. It’s a bit of a pity too, because they’re missing out on some pretty relevant and entertaining live theatre performances. The last time I checked “love” was still the key word that motivates all human behavior – and that would include the raging hormones, culture-resistant, younger set.

David Ellenstein and Jacquelyn Ritz
All images courtesy of Aaron Rumley 

The North Coast Repertory Theatre is doing its part in getting the message out to their subscribers and patrons in general, that Neil Simon is not only alive and doing well, but is still very relevant to audiences of all ages. “Chapter Two,” Simon’s autobiographical play is based on events from his own life journey. The charming story set in New York City, revolves around the recently widowed George Schneider (warmly and winningly played by playhouse Artistic Director David Ellenstein and his cross-town neighbor, the recently divorced Jennie MacLaine (a lovely Jacquelyn Ritz). Neither of these bruised souls is eager to enter the dating wars that are being cooked up and choreographed by others who think they’re doing the right thing being matchmakers.

With George, it’s his brother Leo (terrifically played Louis Lotorto), and with Jennie, it’s her Texas-accented, ditzy friend Faye (played by (Mhari Sandoval). Their journey of meeting, dating and forming a relationship is chock full of, now classic, Neil Simon dialogue and comedy situations. Simon is a master of the plot and sentence-ending zinger. He sends his comedic dialogue probes into the heart of the harried lives of middle-class urban America, and like Rumplestiltskin spins those narrative threads into gold. Very few actors can direct themselves – the job is way too difficult and complicated just directing others – so it’s a wise choice by actor Ellenstein to share co-directorship of this wonderfully entertaining play with Christopher Williams.

Mhari Sandoval and Jacquelyn Ritz 
All images courtesy of Aaron Rumley 

What makes this Simon gem so winning is the splendid ensemble performers. Ritz as Jennie, is very fetching and appealing as George’s new, about-to-become the second love of his life. She is one very cool lady who knows how to control her emotions in those give and takes scenes with Ellenstein (her NFL-playing ex-husband Gus, must have been a real jerk to let her get away). Lotorto’s libidinous Leo, is a study on how to play an unfaithful husband and loyal wisecracking brother, yet still have the audience love you as a character. And the same goes for Jennie’s kooky friend Faye as played by Sandoval. She may like her cocktails a lot, but her loyalty to Jennie is never in question. It’s a charming comedy for grown-ups that will resonate with many in the audience. The clever and creative directorial touches of co-director Williams – during all of George’s scenes – allows Ellenstein to deliver a winning and finely nuanced performance as George. The on-stage chemistry between George and Jennie becomes just the icing on this snappy comedy cake. 

In the technical department, it’s difficult to find a better set designer and lighting designer team that go together like ham and eggs, than Marty Burnett and Matt Novotny, respectively. Burnett’s set features two apartments side by side, precisely lighted, so no light bleeds into the other apartment, yet gives all the light needed to see and appreciate the playing areas, as well as the costumes of Alina Bokovikova.

“Chapter Two” is a delightful production that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, CA, through March 29, 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky, Ron Orbach as Moishe Bretzky, Hal Linden as Yevgeny Zunser, and Eli Gelb as Pinchas Pelovits
Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky, Ron Orbach as Moishe Bretzky,
Hal Linden as Yevgeny Zunser, and Eli Gelb as Pinchas Pelovits. Photo by Jim Cox.
One doesn’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand the opening passages of the Book of Genesis. It informs the reader that in the beginning was the Word. From that moment on the power words was upon everyone. Words have the power to influence, to inspire, to destroy, to do many things, both good and bad. The theatre is the medium that grabs and clutches to the heart the words written by others but spoken by actors, becoming transformative in the process.

The Old Globe production of “The Twenty-Seventh Man” written by novelist and first-time playwright Nathan Englander, has the very good fortune to be directed by Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein. Edelstein’s easy manner belies the intellectual rigor he applies to all of the productions he directs.

Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky and James Shanklin as Agent in Charge Photo by Jim Cox.
Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky and James Shanklin as Agent in Charge Photo by Jim Cox.

In 2012, he directed the world premiere production of Englander’s play at New York’s The Public Theatre. This time, however, he has crafted a production that has been re-imagined to be staged in the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage – in the round. No walls. The six actors are out there all alone (theatrically ‘naked’, except for each other). Focus is the key element that grounds this splendid ensemble cast in powerful, poignant, and yes, at times, even humorous moments albeit, in a grim tale of artistic and Yiddish intelligentsia repression in the Soviet Union during the 1950’s

The story in short is set in a Soviet prison and revolves around the fate of twenty-six writers, the crème de la crème of Yiddish literature in Russia. Four actors become surrogates for the other twenty-two prisoners who are unseen and housed in other off-stage cells. Suddenly, a twenty-seventh prisoner Pinchas Pelovits (Eli Gelb) appears. He’s a teenager, unpublished and unknown. Baffled by his arrest, he and his cellmates wonder at what has brought them together and begin discussing what it means to be a writer in troubled times in a society run by the brutal dictator Josef Stalin.

Leading the cast of players is Broadway and television star Hal Linden as Yevgeny Zunser, a sardonic leading writer of his time. Linden’s dialogue from time to time, requires chunks of Yiddish when speaking to the others. In real-life Linden, although raised in a Yiddish-speaking home, is a non-speaker, but like most good actors he has a working acquaintance with all languages. Linden’s performance would bring a smile to the face of humorist Leo Rosten, the author of the book: The Joys of Yiddish.
Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky, portrays a Yiddish poet who believes his fame and acquaintance with Stalin will be his ticket out of prison, telling the others that this incident has all been a misunderstanding and a huge mistake. Dorfman’s demand to see the Agent in Charge (James Shaklin) a bureaucratic functionary, fall on the deaf ears of their guard (Lowell Byers). When Shanklin and Dorfman finally do meet, Dorfman caves under the sly interrogation by Shanklin and meekly returns to his cell to commiserate with his fellow cellmates.
Ron Orbach playing Moishe Bretzky, delivers several telling and passionate speeches concerning their plight, reminding them that “…Hitler only wanted to kill our bodies. Stalin wants to destroy our souls.” Orbach is big man with a large on-stage presence. His insightful speeches foretell the fate of all four prisoners. And when he speaks, the others listen.
The subject matter of the play is based on a little known 1952 event referred to as “the night of the murdered poets”. Playwright Englander has taken some literary license for theatrical effect, but in so doing, he doesn’t diminish the impact and overall veracity of the actual events.
The real power of the production lies in the wonderfully compelling ensemble performances and the deft direction of Edelstein. There are moments of aching poignancy and moments where universal truths cannot be denied. It’s potent theatre at its best.
In the technical department, the stark and forbidding prison cell set is creatively designed by Michael McGarty. Lighting Designer Russell H. Champa nicely complements both McGarty’s design and the spot-on period costumes of Katherine Roth. The ominous sound design by Darron L. West adds the proper chilling effect and overall tone to the production.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” is an impressive production now playing on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage at The Old Globe theatre complex. The drama runs through March 15, 2015. Don’t miss it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


It’s been said that the Irish are great storytellers and spinners of mystical tales and yarns. And this is very true. It’s also been said that the Irishman’s voice comes bottled and is readily available at every pub in the Emerald Isle, which also may be true depending on who is doing the talking.

Paul Vincent O’Connor and Denis Arndt in The Night Alive. All photos by Michael Lamont. 

Their literary history is rich with the boldness of Joyce, the realism of Millington-Synge, the biting comedy of Shaw, the poetry of Yeats, the daring of Wilde, the absurdist movement of Beckett, the comedy-whimsy of O’Casey, and the blood and gore style of McDonagh and I’m sure I have offended many by omitting their favorites.

Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest play “The Night Alive” is having its West Coast Premiere at The Geffen Playhouse, directed by Randall Arney. McPherson is famed for infusing elements of the supernatural and its subject matter into his plays. In his award-winning 2008 play “The Seafarer,” a poker game becomes the allegorical battleground of a Faustian bargain between the protagonist and the devilishly clever antagonist.

McPherson’s “The Night Alive”, is a tale of what happens when the “biblical good Samaritan” (Tommy) takes on the seamier side of Dublin’s night people. In short, the play is set in a rundown Edwardian house in Dublin, where 50-ish Tommy (Paul Vincent O'Connor) is renting a room from his Uncle Maurice (Denis Arndt) who lives upstairs. Tommy’s buddy Doc (Dan Donohue) a slightly dimwitted younger man also sleeps in the room and helps Tommy doing odd jobs and hauling things around Dublin in Tommy’s old van. None of the men are in any kind of relationship, and they all just sit around, living from day to day, discussing their dreams amid the squalor and mess that bachelors put up with. One night Tommy rescues a young prostitute Aimee (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) from a beating on the street. He brings her home to get her cleaned up and she ends up staying.

Beware the aphorism ‘No good deed goes unrewarded’. A tentative friendship develops between Tommy and Aimee, as well as with the other men over several weeks. Trouble wanders into the house one day in the form of Kenneth (Peter O’Meara), Aimee’s ex-boyfriend/pimp when he comes looking for her.

It’s hard to root for anyone in this house of losers. McPherson’s character-study of the unlucky and the marginalized tries hard to win our sympathy and understanding but instead of engaging me in the hoped for transformative moments concerning the characters and their plight; unfortunately, ennui won the day. Having said that, however, it’s not the fault of the talented actors caught in McPherson’s net of allegory. However, it does make the audience listen more carefully when the idiomatic Irish brogue of Dublin is spoken on stage. But, alas…

O’Connor, Donohue, O’Shaughnessy, Arndt and O’Meara make a wonderful ensemble unit with each having their moment to shine as individuals. The creative team led by director Arney once again lets the talented Set Designer Takeshi Kata provide the messiest and seediest of a one set production. Costumes designed by David Kay Mickelsen are spot-on grungy and appropriate. Lighting Designer Daniel Ionazzi sets the mood with shadowy light and effective night scenes.

As my theatre companion mentioned as we left the theatre, “It’s an Irish David Mamet play; including all the f-bombs.” Indeed it is.

“The Night Alive” performs at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through March 15, 2015.