Monday, June 27, 2016

AYAD AKHTAR’ POWERFUL/FUNNY/ANGRY PLAY ON SOCIAL DISCOURSE

L-R: Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman and J Anthony Crane-photos Craig Schwartz
L-R: Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman
and J Anthony Crane-Photos by Craig Schwartz
One can get away with a lot when the weapon of biting social discourse is comedy. Remember, ‘God of Carnage’? Yazmina Reza’s four seemingly-intelligent adults meet to sort out a schoolyard incident involving their young sons, only to have the meeting explode into hand-hand combat when a casual remark sets off a firestorm of recriminations.

In playwright Ayad Akhtar’s blistering comedy, “Disgraced” the playwright explores the dark underbelly of the politically correct subject matter of anti-semitism and Islamophobia that is simmering just beneath the surface at first only to boil over later on, dragging its five characters into open verbal warfare. “Disgraced”, directed by journeywoman (see; politically correct) director Kimberly Senior, first premiered in 2011 in Chicago, then transferred to New York’s Lincoln Center, then onto Broadway capturing a Pulitzer Prize for Akhtar and a Tony nomination for director Senior in the process.

The play written in 2012 is eerily prescient for events unfolding in 2016. The action is set in New York City during 2011 and 2012 takes place over a nine month period.

Hari Dhillon and Emily Swallow
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Pakistani-American lawyer Amir (Hari Dhillon) at the urging of his American painter wife Emily (Emily Swallow) reluctantly agrees to offer ‘assistance’ to a local Imam who has run afoul of the law for comments he made about the “9/11” attacks. Emily has come to know the Imam while gathering research into Islamic art for a series of her paintings she will be showing at a fashionable art gallery.

At a hosted dinner party for friends Issac (J. Anthony Crane) a curator friend of Emily and Amir – has more than a business interest in Emily – and his wife Jory (Karen Pittman) who works at the same law firm as Amir settle in for an evening of cocktails, pleasantries and a delicious dinner prepared by Emily. After consuming too much alcohol the conversation turns to office business talk and then to the hot button issues of the day: politics, religion, and whatever other alcohol-fueled deep feelings held by all, begin to surface during the inevitable moments of truth.

Amir, a self-proclaimed apostate from Islam makes a case for secularism saying” The Koran is like one long hate-mail letter to humanity”. Which prompts Isaac to calm the waters with a sincere assessment saying “Islam is rich and universal (as viewed through his curator lenses), part of a spiritual heritage we can all draw from.” Amir then admits “… to having felt some pride on September 11th.” Which produces gasps from the audience. Now the stage is set for the infidelity slings and arrows when Amir and Jory returning from an errand, find Isaac and Emily in a close encounter.

The play may be full of predictable clich├ęs and the direction of the story, but no one can deny the talent and solid performances of the actors working on the stage. Sometimes the situations get overcooked with everyone yelling. But, after all there are a lot of truths being hurled all about, with each character making a case for his or her position.
Behzad Dabu-photos Craig Schwartz
Behzad Dabu- Photo by Craig Schwartz
There is one last character that demands our attention. Abe Jensen played by Behzad Dabu, is an angry young man. Abe is Amir’s nephew who in an effort to assimilate, changes his name from Muslim to Anglo. Further frustration and disappointments prompt him, however, to change it back again at the end of the play. He gets to summarize, at least for me, the driving ideology and role Islam plays in the overall scheme of things on this planet. The ending of the play is deliberately left ambiguous, however, I felt an uneasy, gnawing feeling that there is more in store for the characters and for a secular society as we know it.

In the technical department, director Senior leads her creative team headed by Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty who fashions an attractive one-set New York City apartment, with costumes designed by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, Light Design by Christine A. Binder, and Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. The Fight Direction choreographed by Unkledave’s Fight House, is one of the best fight design efforts is so authentically executed, I had some concern for Ms. Swallow’s safety. But, of course, I shouldn’t have worried.

“Disgraced” is a powerful play that delivers a potent message, yet is funny and enjoyable at the same time. It is performed without an intermission at the Mark Taper Forum through July 17, 2016.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

NORTH COAST REP PRESENTS WORLD PREMIERE TRANSLATION OF HENRIK IBSEN’S POWERFUL "HEDDA GABLER"


Mhari Sandoval stars as Hedda in "Hedda Gabler at
North Coast Repertory Theatre. All photos by Aaron Rumley
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler may be a 19th century gal but she could easily fit into the machinations of any 21st century society with a tweak here and a left turn there.Then as now, Hedda Gabler-wannabes show up with regularity.Take any Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movie, or Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Little Foxes’ Regina character - all alpha females, all with their agendas.

The difference between the plight of 19th-century European women then is they didn’t have the law on their side, but they do now. Patriarchal society rules have always been rigged in favor of men who like it that way. No changes are required or need fixing, thank you.The fair sex doesn’t see it that way, never has and never will.They look upon it as payback for all those centuries of indentured service to men and rightly so.

Ibsen, considered by many to be the father of modern dramatic realism, was a man who wrote plays often deemed scandalous by his peers and society in general. But he created wonderful roles for women (much like Tennessee Williams) such as Nora in “A Doll’s House” and Hedda Gabler. Next to Shakespeare, Ibsen is the most produced playwright in the world.

Bruce Turk and Cristina Soria in
NCRT's "Hedda Gabler"
David Ellenstein, the artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT), has a keen eye and ear for the classics and for plays that explore the human condition. “Hedda Gabler was on his radar screen for selection in their 34th season after an acclaimed production of the Ibsen play “Ghosts” with a new translation by Professor Hanes Harvey back in 2010 received strong audience praise.

Ellenstein then sought out, once again, the translation gifts of dramaturg and playwright Professor Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, a recognized Ibsen and Strindberg scholar and translator, with a request to produce a new translation of "Hedda Gabler"for North Coast Rep. The new translation can now lay claim that this production is a bona fide world premiere event. Another unique aspect of the production is that the actors had input into the script as to character traits, motivations and dialogue suggestions, making the production a true collaboration by all of the creative artists involved in the production.

Mel House and Richard Baird in
NCRT's "Hedda Gabler"
The cast assembled by director Ellenstein is a who’s who of award-winning San Diego-based and award-winning regional actors that include NCRT favorites: Bruce Turk as Jorgen Tesman, Hedda’s husband; Mhari Sandoval, as the scheming, headstrong Hedda; the elegant Cristina Soria as Aunt Juliane Tesman; Richard Baird as former hell-raiser Eilert Lovborg, a writer and former lover of Hedda who now claims he has been re-born; Ray Chambers as Judge Brack, a roue, blackmailer and seducer of women. New York based-actor Mel House makes her NCRT debut as Mrs. Thea Elvsted, the lover of Eilert Lovborg, and Rhona Gold as Berte the maid.

Long before TV soaps made their debut in America, Henrik Ibsen was scandalizing the patrons of Europe’s theatrical stages with similar themed plays.There’s no doubt about it. We human beings are a complicated, conflicted and a fascinating lot.

Mhari Sandoval and Bruce Turk in
NCRT's "Hedda Gabler"
Ellenstein’s smooth and seamless direction keeps everything moving with first rate technical credits from master set designer Marty Burnett and his lighting designer and creative side-kick Matthew Novotny. They never disappoint.The costumes of Elisa Benzoni are gorgeous and the sound design by Melanie Chen is pitch-perfect.

Ray Chambers and Mhari Sandoval in
NCRT's "Hedda Gabler"
With regard to Hedda’s black outfit in Act II: Perhaps a trim of Hedda’s train might be in order. She looks as if she’s struggling to avoid falling when she moves. When this occurs the audiences focus then shifts from the action within the scene to where we are concerned for the actor’s safety. Thus we are visually and mentally distracted by something that can easily be fixed before it occurs. We want the audience to be fully engaged during the entire play. Just a suggestion…

“Hedda Gabler” is a splendid production with a stellar cast that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through June 26, 2016. Don’t miss it!

Monday, June 6, 2016

OLD GLOBE STAGES A DELICIOUS COMEDY ABOUT THE ART OF SUSHI

Tim Chiou as Takashi and James Saito as Koji
in "tokyo fish story" at the Old Globe
All photos by Jim Cox
Japan as an island country had been insulated, by choice, from outside influences for centuries. Its culture and customs were relatively unknown to Westerners until the 16th Century.

The Japanese people have always taken pride in their more measured lifestyle with its appreciation for patience, regimentation, introspection, and discipline along with a respect for periods of silence and reflection both at work and at home.

When it became time for East to meet West in the modern era, food as usual was the vehicle that crossed the cultural bridge bringing people closer together. Which brings us to the just opened Old Globe production of “tokyo fish story”, insightfully written by Kimber Lee, and creatively staged by May Adrales.

James Saito as Koji
in "tokyo fish story"
The story is set in present day Tokyo and centers around Master Sushi Chef Koji who carefully and methodically built his successful career on respect for tradition, fine ingredients, and the legends of master sushi chefs who came before him. But now his once famous restaurant is losing its customers to newer and glitzier sushi eateries. Here as everywhere, it’s time for the new and younger generation of restaurateurs to take over. But tradition in Japan dies hard.

Koji (stoically but solidly played by James Saito) is having a crisis of aging in a modern society that seems indifferent to his personal business philosophy and work ethic. He misses the respect and the attention to detail required that present day sushi chefs cavalierly fail to bring to their profession. The pursuit of money, not deserved at the expense of his customers, is not a factor that consumes Koji’s days and nights. Now if only his small staff could embrace that philosophy.

Takashi, his assistant sushi chef (wonderfully played by Tim Chiou) has been a sushi chef-in-training, mentored by Koji for years. However, he has not been allowed to create his own sushi delicacies. Koji feels the time isn’t quite right (even after 20 years of loyal service).

Tim Chiou as Takashi
in "tokyo fish story"
Takashi, however, knows he is ready to step up but doesn’t quite know how to broach the delicate subject with his mentor/boss. It’s a familiar problem in small or family owned businesses worldwide.

Raymond Lee as Nobu
in "tokyo fish story"
Pecking order for employees in restaurants everywhere are rigid and fixed; in Japan even more so. Just as Takashi must wait, so must Nobu, a hip-hop-talking assistant, winningly played by Raymond Lee.




According to the director’s program notes, Ms. Adrales’ vision for the comedy/drama has staged the action of the play into areas: The restaurant where the chefs prepare and serve food and the fish market where owners and chefs come every morning to inspect and test the fish for quality, freshness and taste before purchasing what will become that evening’s sushi entrees.

Raymond Lee as Nobu and
Tina Chilip as Ama Miyuk in
"tokyo fish story
Tina Chilip, portrays two roles: Ama Miyuki, an experienced sushi kitchen staff employee, and a mysterious female sea siren seen only by Koji. As a female, she is subject to deferring to less skilled male employees when opportunities for promotions come along.


Jon Norman Schneider
as Daisuke in
"tokyo fish story"
Jon Norman Schneider plays six roles performing yeoman duty in all six. As the clutzy busboy-dishwasher comic relief on Koji’s staff, Schneider’s character is like a fish out of water. Woe betide the restaurant that hires this eager but clumsy server.

The beauty and enjoyment of this richly and inventively staged production lies in the supremacy of style over the prosaic substance of narrative. Ms. Adrales’ decision to have 99 percent of the action in the restaurant, when it comes to food preparation and clean-up duties, mimed by the actors in sync with a technically-pure sound design by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, is touch of genius.

James Saito as Koji with Tina Chillip as
The Woman in "tokyo fish story"
The audience becomes not only fully engaged in the story but is also fascinated and mesmerized by what takes place in a sushi kitchen, further enriching the visual experience (at least for this audience member).

There is nothing better than watching talented actors working with an experienced director who brings his or her personal vision to the production, and then allows the talent of the actors to take flight. “tokyo fish story” is a ‘small’ story beautifully realized with tender loving care.

Raymond Lee as Nobu, Tim Chiou as Takashi and
James Saito as Koji in "tokyo fish story"
The technical and creative team, led by director Adrales, features an eye-catching glistening kitchen set design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, along with spot-on, authentic, costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso that shine under a lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. The terrific sound design team of Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, was highlighted above earlier.

Artistic Director Barry Edelstein’s program notes stating he guarantees that after you see the ninety-minute show you’re going to want eat sushi is prophetic.

“tokyo fish story” is a splendid production that performs without an intermission on the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre Stage and runs through June 26, 2016.