Kirsten Potter, Ali Ahn, Bo Foxworth, and Mark Bramhall in As You Like It at A Noise Within / Craig Schwartz
Liked as it is
There is order to the universe, director Michael Michetti assures us in the beautiful As You Like It that marks his debut at Glendale’s A Noise Within (continuing in repertory through December 2). Setting his production in impressionist France, where art and nature were finding new relationships, Michetti shows evidence of the unseen hands that guide us. While present, if not predominant in the people’s court, as evidenced by the fallen apples that have rolled into arrangement along an invisible grid, they rule the natural world. Here, those who enter willing to follow their hearts, will wind up in the arrangement of marriage, thanks to Hymen, the acrobatic Andy Butterfield. Though employed by Shakespeare only to handle the play’s final matchmaking, in Michetti’s production this god of marriage is ever present, effecting human and natural unity well beyond matrimony.
Michetti has a real ringer in Kirsten Potter, also making her ANW debut, as fair Rosalind. Potter is a gifted stage actress. Her every utterance is articulated like a linguist yet sounds spontaneous. She has the internal chemistry from which stars are formed. Complementing this superior sense of language is great physical control and comic instincts. That said, she employs a piercing laugh intended to show Rosalind’s immaturity in love, or perhaps sourced in the line: "I will laugh like a Hyen(a)," that seems more likely to paint Rosalind as bi-polar. This can’t take away from her top-notch performance, but it seems a choice worth revisiting. She also seems more than capable, while posing as a male advising Orlando (Mark Deakins) on love, of hinting at the battle raging between her mind and her heart, that her overwhelming attraction towards him makes this a bit of a challenge.
Other standouts in this production are Mark Bramhall, who transforms from a French fop in court to a bedraggled farmer in the fields, Andrew Ross Wynn as an appropriately hulking Charles the Wrestler and a sensitive singer-songwriter in Arden, and, certainly Robertson Dean in a great role for him. He gives the dour Jacques the proper aloofness and renders a Seven Ages speech with care, yet casualness, in keeping with his pervasive disinterest. Bo Foxworth, who, like Bramhall, works hard at creating a caricatured character from the period, works too hard in his opening scenes, but settles in once we hit Arden.
A Noise Within’s designers again do more with less. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set transforms simply from court to forest: lanterns in the trees glow orange with the appearance of candlelight and gobos dapple the stage with tiny circles of light in an impressionistic indication of the forest’s canopy of trees. Angela Calin’s beautiful costumes are regal in court, but indicate Duke Frederick’s exiled band have not resigned their taste of urban outfitting. Robert Oriol’s music, which turns text into song and provides underscoring, is beautiful and beautifully performed. And the uncredited sound design, which includes subtle touches like a hand breaking the surface of a stream and arms stirring the air, is cued perfectly by operator Paula Eagleman and stage manager Liza Tognazzini.
A Noise Within again gives Los Angeles audiences another entry point for classic theater. And, It’s satisfying to see their outreach is successfully putting students in seats and holding them there in rapt attention. Thanks to the work of Potter and Michetti, it’s not only an As You Like It they will like, but one we'll all remember well.
Nikkole Salter in In the Continuum / Craig Schwartz
Before and after a recent performance of In the Continuum – continuing through December 10 at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre – TV news carried stories that sounded as if they had been lifted from the play. Preceding the performance, CBS covered Bill Clinton’s trip to India to announce grants to lower the cost of AIDS medicine. In the play, a nurse in Zimbabwe scoffs when a newly infected expectant woman asks about the availability of HIV drugs. On December 1, the evening after our performance, BBC carried a World AIDS Day story in which an African doctor reported that her countrymen continue to abstain from condom use but not from extramarital sex, routinely infecting wives and future babies as a result. In the play, a woman in Africa and one in the American inner city, struggle to make choices in a male society further complicated by denial over AIDS.
The fact that these news stories parallel the parallel stories within the play charges the stage with rare political immediacy. But the triumph of Continuum is that this achievement is a by-product of the play's dramatic intimacy. Danai Gurira and Nikkkole Salter, who wrote the script, have been its only interpreters since its premiere at New York’s Primary Stages in 2005 and subsequent mounting in Harare earlier this year. After Los Angeles they will move it to three more U.S. cities.
It is beautifully written, with plot points and exposition allowed to occasionally fall from the dialogue like items from an open purse. The acting is brutally honest and emotionally raw, yet never overplayed.
Each actor portrays a central, point-of-view character – Gurira’s Abigail is in Zimbabwe; Salter’s Nia is in L.A. – and the half-dozen characters they meet over the course of their mirror-image day. Despite the availability of a second actor, there is no dialogue and the two strictly maintain their U.S.-Africa division. Like girls on a teeter totter, they balance each other by keeping their distance. The play resembles a pair of one-woman shows, coiling around one another like a double-helix, sometimes crossing over on an intersecting word or phrase. This two-solos architecture means that all the characters Abigail and Nia meet will be alone onstage. When those characters address the protagonists, they do it by speaking out towards the audience. As a result, we temporarily are Nia or Abigail, and for that moment are harboring their secrets with them. We know the temptation to leave the speakers in their innocence, and feel Nia and Abigail wrestle with when - if ever - to disclose about "our" predicament.
One continuum is this need to internalize and deny painful reality for the sake of the family's cohesion or one's personal safety. The more positive reference is the unseen bond, like the river's strong submerged current, that links "sisters" half a world apart. The battle to break out of one and embrace the better shifts back and forth throughout the play. Which will prevail, and whether the men in these stories will appear to redeem themselves, are questions expertly suspended until the final black-out.
Robert O’Hara’s unobtrusive direction is enhanced by a simple yet evocative design. Two beautifully painted walls – one with a cut-out doorway – angle towards upstage center at ninety degrees, kept apart by the gap around a similarly painted pillar. A trunk, two stools, an end table of stacked crates and some miscellaneous items are the show’s only props. The costumes are black slacks and tops. No shoes. Colin Young’s lights, Lindsay Jones’ sound cues, and two scarves – a bright red African print for Gurira and a blue bandana for Salter – are all the women need to divide themselves into a catalogue of distinct and unforgettable characters.
One character says, "I gave them a show and they gave me money." The show Gurira and Salter have created has value far beyond the monitary. But readers in the Midwest and Northeast will be well served to dig into their pockets in anticipation of the upcoming 2007 performances. 'In the Continuum' moves intact to Yale Repertory in New Haven, CT, January 12-February 10; the Philadelphia Theatre Company, March 16–April 15; and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, May 25–June 24.
Russell Andrews and Alex Morris in Jitney at the Lillian Theatre / Stephen Simon
The ten-play cycle August Wilson created to represent each decade of the 20th Century is the most significant theatricalizing of African-American life. Yet despite its complexity it is remarkably accessible. Despite the sometimes mythic obstacles they face, his characters retain the down-to-earth, life-beyond-the-play fullness of people who wandered onstage off the street. This palpable sense of a world both familiar and allegorical is currently filling Hollywood’s Lillian Theater, with the Stagewalkers’ production Wilson’s Jitney, through November 19.
This engaging staging owes much of its heart to a director who had a hand in helping Wilson's world begin to form.
In 1978, Wilson was in St. Paul visiting his friend Claude Purdy when Purdy convinced him to move from Pittsburgh to Minnesota. There, Purdy encouraged Wilson, a poet, to try playwriting. As Wilson later told 'The New York Times,' "Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately." The writer found a fish-and-chips restaurant where he could sit and work and in less than two weeks he produced a draft of his first play. Set in a Pittsburgh office where men ran gypsy cabs, called “jitneys,” the play earned Wilson a $200-a-month fellowship with the Minneapolis Playwrights Center.'Jitney' made a non-professional run at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre before being put up on blocks for 15 years. Wilson rode a second play, 'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,' through the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and all the way to Broadway, where it won critical acclaim and set the stage for 'Fences,' 'Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,' 'The Piano Lesson,' 'Two Trains Running' and 'Seven Guitars' – two of which earned Pulitzer Prizes. In 1996, Wilson revised 'Jitney' for a professional premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.As the first story Wilson chose to tell, back in the Minnesota days with Purdy, and about people who at the time were his 1970s contemporaries, 'Jitney' has a special place in the cycle's evolution. As a new production staged by Mr. Purdy himself, the Stagewalkers' run is an historic event. Seeing a great cast fill the 99-seat Lillian Theater is a slice of heaven – or Hill District.Against the backdrop of the 1970s, that decade between the explosive, redefining ‘60s and the reactionary ‘80s, the characters in 'Jitney' focus on their individual stories. Nevertheless, their actions are inseparable from what’s going on in the society around them. Purdy's direction brings out the significance of both the personal and the socio-political.The jitney station is a loose confederation of men overseen by Becker (the imposing James Avery). It is a man’s world of mostly older characters. The exceptions are Youngblood (an impressive Russell Andrews), a driver who wants to get ahead and support his family, and Becker’s son, “Booster” (Richard Brooks), trying to reconcile with his father after a lengthy prison term. Becker is a strict but caring father figure for his workers, but unforgiving of his son. It’s hard to empathize with Becker, whose son seems not to bear the scars of incarceration -- other than the subtle way Brooks' arms hang when he walks, still in front so as not to pull against phantom handcuffs. Ultimately, the man who holds both the key to the station’s future and his son’s redemption will pass away in the play, leaving a fatherless void like the one Wilson grew up in. Interestingly, when Wilson began 'Jitney,' he was months away from meeting Lloyd Richards at the O’Neill Center. When he sat down to revise the play, Richards had become Wilson’s father figure.Among the rest of the cast, John Toles-Bey provides a bravura performance as Turnbo, a driver who can’t stay out of other people’s business. As Fielding, Mel Winkler creates another vivid character, and one scene that is an acting clinic on the secret to playing drunk -- don't play the inebriation, play the hiding of it. Alex Morris is solid as Doub and Bill Lee Brown, as the numbers-running Shealy, seems worth breaking off into his own story. Daryl Alan Reed gives Philmore, a sometime customer with the least stage time, a good run, too.Wilson did create one female character for 'Jitney,' Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena, and Lizette Diaz Carion shows it is one of his more potent female characters, despite its limited stage time.Between the older and younger generations in 'Jitney,' the concepts of friendship and family relations are in transition. It is the passing of the central character, with so much unresolved, that is the catalyst for the friends and the relatives to step in to carry on. Wilson, whose life ended in 2005, just months after he finished his tenth play, left us a theatrical world that, while beautifully ordered,will always warrant exploration. And, for a few more weeks, theatergoers in Los Angeles have a hansom production through which to explore one unique corner of that world, with a friend of the family at the wheel.
Elizabeth Ward Land and Dawnn Lewis in Sister Act, the Musical / Craig Schwartz
There’s salvation in music. That’s the message in – and of – Sister Act, the Musical, now in the Pasadena Playhouse-leg of a co-premiere with the Alliance Theatre. It closes here December 17, picking up in Atlanta after the holidays with hopes of an eventual Broadway run. Based on the 1992 Touchstone film starring Whoopi Goldberg, the tired story at the core – an independent spirit awakening ordered conformists – is refreshed with a stylistic hybrid of soul music and showtunes: a kind of Sound of Music meets Sound of Philadelphia.
The culture clash is between the lead singer of a floundering trio (Dawnn Lewis) and the Mother Superior of a foundering convent (Elizabeth Ward Land). Despite the story’s lack of originality or drama, a winning cast and a new Broadway score that sounds like ‘70s r&b hits promise to keep the box office collection plate brimming.
At the mix is composer Alan Menkin (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). He is joined by lyricist Glenn Slater, his third collaborator since the death in 1991 of the brilliant Howard Ashman. This is not an evening of "disco" music - which would be a very tough sit. The source sound here is the soulful raw material that went into that dance craze: ballads from power singers like Pendergrass and Vandross (David Jennings’ CD-ready "I Could Be That Guy" and Harrison White’s Shaft-leaning "Dress to Kill" – the latter echoing Gap Band’s "Burn Rubber" hook); the great choreographed guy groups like the Spinners and Temps (Melvin Abston, Danny Stiles and Dan Domenech put some bad steps to "Lady in the Long Black Dress," after a seeds-of-rap intro ala The Floaters’ "Float On"); and the obvious homage by Lewis and her back-up singers to Donna, Chaka and Patty, and such girl groups as The Emotions and Three Degrees.
That great tradition, however, is reserved for the secular sets. Once we get to the nunnery, it's show tunes, with "The Life I Never Led" coming the closest to a showstopper. This soaring ballad is delivered by Beth Malone, and made more powerful by the fact that Malone’s character, a diminutive novice with Audrey Tautou eyes, has the only subplot that comes close to grabbing our interest. "How I Got the Calling," an ensemble piece for all the nuns, lets Slater show off his word play, creating another highlight that is the descendent of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," sprinkled with "A Little Priest." The music climaxes with "Mirror Ball," a happy-ending production number that Slater uses to spin some nice metaphoric imagery.
The downside is that, except for Ms. Malone and to a lesser degree Mr. Jennings, there really is zero drama or suspense or interest in what will happen to these characters. Ms. Lewis may be partly to blame, sometimes playing the caricature more than the character. More responsible, though, is Cheri and Bill Steinkellner’s Evelyn Wood-paced book. Or, more accurately, the economy that requires we not slow down to win hearts when it’s booty we’re after. One way to gain back a few of the show's 160-something minutes, however, would be to jettison the evening’s only musical sour note, a big bar scene number that doesn’t seem to realize whatever goals its creators had for it.
The show might also gain some depth if Shank were more menacing, towering over his goofy henchmen rather than getting lost amongst them. Imagine Shaft's Isaac Hayes, or even Richard Roundtree, for that matter. Such a presence would not create an ominous counter-balance to the dour Reverend Mother.
The eventual unity of the sister with the sisters is foreshadowed in David Potts' beautifully efficient set. Stage rigging girders form the wishbone beams of this sanctuary’s capsized boat metaphor. Donald Holder’s lighting is heavenly, coming through the high upstage church windows without over-powering the front light. It also effectively finds the differences and similarities that let the minimalist stage shift quickly between nightclub and nave. It’s clearly Garry Lennon, however, who has the most fun. As outlandish as they look, his costumes aren’t that exaggerated. He also gets a tip of the hat for facilitating an onstage quick-change that would make David Copperfield envious. As expected from a pit full of ace musicians, the music is flawless, as is the evening’s evenly distributed sound.
While the final number is enough to leave the audience in a forgivingly funky state of mind, the thinness of the story makes one imagine it, in the way sequels of Menkin’s Mermaid and Aladdin went straight to dvd, taking the sisters straight to Vegas.
Geoff Elliott is 'Con' Melody in Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet / Craig Schwartz
Late O’Neill, Early American
American capacity for tremendous achievement or tremendous despair were subjects that intrigued playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose own life encompassed both extremes. By elevating 20th Century drama out of vaudeville and melodrama, he earned unprecedented respect: three Pulitzer Prizes (a feat not equaled until Edward Albee’s third in 1994) and a Nobel Prize (still unequaled).
On the other hand, he was the son of an alcoholic stage star, trapped in a profitable albeit one-role career, and a mother who vanished into a drug haze while he was still young. His brother died after being admitted to a sanatorium with delirium tremens. And of his three marriages, the final one to Carlotta Monterey was the least miserable, lasting through estrangement, her addiction, and his final debilitating illness. His three children continued the cycle. Eugene Jr. killed himself in 1950 and James was disowned after being imprisoned for heroin possession. Oona, the lone survivor, was disowned at 19 for marrying Charlie Chaplin when he was 54. (The same age as O’Neill.)
This backstory is to illuminate the life that O’Neill simultaneously sought to comprehend, distance from, and vindicate in his work. And, how virtually impossible that task was. A Touch of the Poet, now in repertory at A Noise Within through December 3, was intended to solve these riddles once and for all. O’Neill envisioned a massive play cycle, originally called Calms of Capricorn with Poet, set in 1828, as the first of nine plays. But he soon inserted two earlier plays to afford a broader portrait of America from the mid-1700s to the 1930s - coincidentally spanning the nation’s birth to its depression. Briefly renamed the A Touch of the Poet Series, it was finally named A Tale of Possessors Self-Disposed. It would investigate our country's character by following the Harford family through the generations.
All this was nearly moot. O’Neill instructed Carlotta to burn the entire project: outlines, notes, drafts and plays. A Touch of the Poet, which had been finished in 1939 and tinkered with until 1942, and an unfinished fourth play, More Stately Mansions, are all that survived. It did not premiere until 1958, five years after his death.
As it turns out, more than delving into America's psyche, Poet merely pokes at the embers of O'Neill's own family’s burn-out. This play about the Harfords is in fact about the Melodys, who, like the O’Neills, were headed for self-destruction, making a multi-generational saga unlikely until daughter Sara Melody marries. As Poet begins, she has fallen in love with Simon Harford, a writer staying at the Melodys' Inn. Harford is recovering from illness contracted while living at a nearby lake to write poetry and journal entries ala Thoreau - indicating a more hopeful storyline in the cycle ahead. Though he is never on stage, we learn that he wants to be near Sara and away from his father. His mother arrives to check him out - as well as the family he has taken interest in.
To this enterprise director Michael Murray and A Noise Within have a solid response, with Artistic co-Director Geoff Elliott as Major Cornelius (Con) Melody and Brigetta Kelly as Sara. Con is a pompous, alcoholic father who lords over his family with a ridiculous self-importance based in long-past glories. After brow-beating his passive wife (Deborah Strang) stoop-shouldered, he has now set to his child, as she has reached a marriageable age. In an echo of O’Neill’s father, Con recites lines from a single poem by Byron, wears his military uniform at important performances like a costume and is hopelessly dependent upon and transformed by alcohol.
Elliott builds his bravura performance on Con’s actor qualities, employing a stagy delivery that ultimately limits what he does. Despite its power there is a sameness to the portrayal - often bearing the comic tone of "Seinfeld’s" Mr. Peterman - that acts to reduce his anger to bluster. This is a performance that will earn Elliott new fans, but for this reviewer there is too much affect to be effective. As Sarah, Kelly can’t be faulted for her effort, but it remains a role that still has depth to be discovered. In the key supporting roles of Mrs. Melody and Mrs. Harford, Strang and Jill Hill are excellent, especially Strang, who despite an utterly passive role has more ground to cover. So effectively has Strang created a woman treated like a dog that her hair and clothing look matted. Hill keeps her character properly eccentric and yet knowing. In a fine example her Mrs. Harford silently assesses Nora upon their meeting and, in a glance, understands the full dynamics of this embattled house.
Whether the Melodys and Harfords will intermarry is now conjecture. Understanding the big picture, we assume they must. Seeing this play, we have to wonder. Con does go through the kind of transformation O’Neill could only have dreamed of in his own family. At the end, he has been stripped of his artifice and tyranny. It’s a glimmer of hope for O’Neill’s America, and a hint of forgiveness for his family.
Carrie Fisher explains it all for us in Wishful Drinking / Michael Lamont
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher’s new Carrie Fisher seminar at L.A.’s Geffen Theatre(through December 23), is a non-fiction take on the life that inspired her roman à clefPostcards from the Edge. But whereas Fisher’s Postcards' screenplay became a textured Mike Nichols comedy starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, Wishful is a celebrity Evening With... that belongs in the Guest Lecture series at nearby Royce Hall.
By now stories about Fisher’s star "descendancy" and drug dependency have attained shaggy dog status. It’s doubtful the tabloids will be scanning transcripts of these shows for revelations. Instead, the news out of Westwood concerns the Geffen. Regional theaters in contagion range of Hollywood are constantly resisting the temptation to cast actors for box office potential rather than stage worthiness. When they yield, the occasional sell-out to sell out is forgivable. But what to call the theater that hands a celebrity writer an entire production slot to perform what feels like it was put together over a long weekend? After attending Wishful Drinking, we know what the former Princess Leia would call them: "Star Whores."
Which brings up what redeems the evening. If theatergoers can get past the fact that Wishful Drinking is not theater, they should enjoy the turn-the-tables-on-the-tabloids zeal with which Fisher tells her story. As her growing list of novels attests, Fisher is a talented writer without a shred of self-protection. Combine that with her insider perspective on Hollywood, and you have the makings of a very funny evening. When she reads a particularly literate diary entry from her teens, we see that her dedication to writing is what likely has pulled her through. Here, her celebrated predisposition for abusing is trumped by her showbiz gene for amusing. She's the entertaining patient who can bill the shrink for her time.
Those in Fisher’s generation will enjoy the gossipy details about her parents – singer Eddie Fisher and singer-actress Debbie Reynolds – and all their famous friends. This is not a spoiled brat denying her privilege. To this day, she clearly loves these people – especially her still-living folks. But she's happy to poke fun at them. Constantly interacting with the audience, she sprinkles her story with sarcastic zingers as if we’re watching her E! biography in her living room, listening to belittle everybody, especially herself. Fisher’s own story is traced from Beverly Hills childhood to film debut in Shampoo, to rocketing fame in Star Wars, and on through her long courtship and short marriage to Paul Simon. (An opening reference to a friend who died in her home, is a teasing bit about her current life, but it remains an unsettling red herring.) The throughline for it all is getting high. But like the patient out to charm her therapist, any real insights remain buried beneath the jokes.
Beyond the prop lecture items of blackboard, clipboard, and water bottle are some theater trappings. Daniel Ionazzi’s stage design is simple: A large glass-leafed tree right out of Cliftons looms stage right while Gerald Sterbach's grand piano is stage left. A small projection screen, for historic clips and photos, is frequently revealed in the middle of enough pin lights to indicate the stars of Hollywood and the galaxies far away.
The quickest way to claim theater credentials is to stitch a couple Sondheim tunes into a show, and to the accompaniment of recent Ovation Award-winner Sternbach, Fisher dishes the appropriate "Losing My Mind" and "Anyone Can Whistle." The opening and closing number is "Happy Days are Here Again," a bittersweet acknowledgment of the up and down rhythms of celebrity. This celebrity, who introduces herself as an alcoholic and her story as "true," knows the fickleness of fame. And, like the Democrats who likely control this house as they now do the house in Washngton, FDR's theme song is a celebration of returning – however briefly – on top. While the aesthetics of Wishful Drinking may be in question, the economics are unimpeachable. The Geffen had to add a week of performances to Wishful's run before it opened. Now they can get back to theater, and bashing Hollywood, with Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in January.