MARCH 2014

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BILL AND JOAN by Jon Bastian | Sacred Fools Theater Company
CINNAMON GIRL by Second Author | Playwrights Arena
L.A. DELI by Third Author | Marilyn Monroe Theatre
PAUL ROBESON by Fourth Author | Ebony Repertory Theatre
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE by Fifth Author | Geffen Playhouse
REUNION by Sixth Author | South Coast Repertory
TARTUFFE by Moliére | A Noise Within
TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill | Antaeus Theatre Company



Byron Arreola, Anne Yatco, Jaime Barcelon, Jennifer Hubilla, Kerry K. Carnahan, Ren Hanami, Michael Hagiwara in Cinnamon Girl

Spice of strife

Oppressed workers on a Ceylon cinnamon plantation in 1938 suffer the brutal exploitation of colonialism by day and, for women, more brutal sexual violence by night. These monstrous and worthy targets take a backseat to an unlikely and counterintuitive love story in Cinnamon Girl, a new musical by librettist-lyricist Velina Hasu Houston and composer Nathan Wang, now in an extended run (through April 13) at West Hollywood's Greenway Court Theatre.

Two of Houston's previous plays, with women at their core, displayed her power as a storyteller. Calling Aphrodite (reviewed) approached the devastation of the nuclear bombing of Japan through the post-war dispair of two disfigured survivors, while Tea looked at the isolation of immigrants in America, in this case, war brides returning with their still-serving husbands to a base in Kansas.

In November 2012, Houston collaborated with Wang on Tea, with music (reviewed), which, due to the strength of the material, was a successful adaptation. Here, despite the direction of the dependable Jon Lawrence Rivera, the many issues it flirts with pull the story in different directions that spread it too thin. A unifying sameness to the music, with occasional turns to pop or swing, only diluties it further.

The central character of Salani (Jennifer Hubilla) has so many functions – as survivng daughter of a wronged woman, as instructional confidant to both plantation owners and workers, as romantic guide to an awakening adolescent, and as the main sexual prey of the overseer, Ranil (Dom Magwili), a local man who is the sole dispenser of cruelty. Ranil, on the other side, because the master of the house is far away, serves as the sole embodiment all the evils of colonialism and sexual domination. Left behind is his wife, "Empress" (Leslie Stevens) and her less-than-committed son, Wendell (Peter Mitchell), who also emerge as victims of what the absent owner represents – both passive and aggressive. An interesting addition is Tourmaline (Byron Arreola), a man disguised as a woman, who emerges to take his true role as the coming war requires his service, would be of greater value if the thematic balances within the play weren't so lopsided.

While the artificiality of a musical, the unbelievable conceit of people joining together in song, relieves some pressure on realism, there are dramatic demands that the music, lyrics, and even the dialogue here fail to establish. There is a narrative blandness, despite all the threats, that leaves the actors fighting for dramatic meat. The big themes seem to lose perspective behind the romance novel plot that has Salani and Wendell fall in love. The inherent grit this should add, with the hurdles for this nearly impossible relationship, is washed away by an easy inevitability more suited to Jasmine and Aladdin in the animated family film.

This world premiere,of Cinnamon Girl gives its creators a great production in which to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Rivera and cast, in a handsome production in the comfortable Greenway Theatre, have provided a solid staging. Hubilla is consistently engaging in a very taxing role. She does her best to make her character rise above he convoluted turns she must navigate. Stevens is a standout, despite the fact that her victimhood seems like the most extraneous element of the story. And Magwili does what he can to humanize the evil Ranil, even committing to an isolated moment of self-loathing that is a pale reminder of Judge Turpin's "Mea Culpa" number in Sweeney.

Cinnamon Girl has been invited to perform in Peking in August, and despite our feelings that there is more work – and less story elements – ahead, we congratulate the cast and creators on an historic achievement.

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CINNAMON GIRL

book and lyrics by VELINA HASU HOUSTON
music by NATHAN WANG
directed by JON LAWRENCE RIVERA

GREENWAY COURT THEATRE

March 15-April 6, 2014
(Opened 3/15, Rev’d 3/15e)

CAST Byron Arreola, Jaime Barcelon, Kerry K. Carnahan, Mike Hagiwara, Ren Hanami, Jennifer Hubilla, Dom Magwili, Peter Mitchell, Leslie Stevens, Anne Yatco

PRODUCTION Christopher Scott Murillo, set; Mylette Nora, costumes; Christopher Stokes, lights; Howard Ho, sound; Heno Fernandez/Janette Jara, stage management


HISTORY Produced by Winship Cook World Premiere


Byron Arreola, Anne Yatco, Jaime Barcelon, Jennifer Hubilla, Kerry K. Carnahan, Ren Hanami, Michael Hagiwara | Blake Boyd
Phil Proctor, Rachel Boller, and Jeffrey Landman in Sam Bobrick's L.A. Deli

The last laugh

Inspired in part by his own experiences in Hollywood over than past half-century, television comedy writer Sam Bobrick ("The Andy Griffith Show," "Saved by the Bell") has whipped together L.A. Deli, a collection of skits now premiering under Walter Painter's direction at the Lee Strasberg Center's Marilyn Monroe Theatre (through April 27) in West Hollywood.

L.A. Deli is a therapeutic 12 Sketch Program for show business habitués trying to break the cycle of rejection and self-delusion. Industry predators and their preyed-upon square off across the tables of Jeffery P. Eisenmann's detailed set. They include starry-eyed wannabes, jaded has-been, and every shade of shady character in between. Bobrick's program note admits that while most of these events happened to him or someone he knows, some are totally fabricated and, "after working in the entertainment business for over 50 years, I’m not sure which is which."

The cast of three men and three women represent a real-world range of time served in Tinsel Town, from Rachel Boller, the industry immigrant three years out of Illinois, to Phil Proctor of The Firesign Theatre, America's 1970s answer to "The Goon Show" and Monty Python in the 1970s, and Gail Matthius, a veteran voiceover and improv artist as well as a 1980s "Saturday Night Live" cast member. In between are Scott Kruse, Broadway veteran Jeffrey Landman, and Darrin Revitz, whose many local credits include a couple of Troubie shows.

The skits follow the arc of the diner from breakfast to closing time. While the other actors play multiple roles, Matthius serves as waitress Kathleen throughout the courses of the day, weaving in and out of tables to help stitch the skits together. The laugh meter crested with "Forever Young," in which Landman is an employer imploring gorgeous Boller to stop relying on the kindness of surgeons to appear young. When former co-star Proctor stops, we understand just how long and hard Boller's been stretching the truth.

Among the other instructional sketches are the opening "Pitch," in which Proctor's producer reimagines scripter Kruse's prison film as a department store romance that will require two weeks shooting in a Cabo resort; "The Actor & The Agent" with Landman as the fast-talking percenter bringing rising star Kruse into his camp; "The Team," in which they play writers sharing inequitable workloads; and "The Xs," with Revitz and Boller as golddigging husband-hunters comparing scorecards. Boller and Proctor prove the limits of family ties when they play studio exec and producer in "The Firing."

Bobrick drizzles a little Hollywood heartache into the light fare Matthius' closing segment. As co-worker Kruse sweeps up (in another of costumer Michael Mullen's logo-emblazoned aprons), Proctor appears at the locked door asking if Kathleen is inside. Turns out that years ago she was a starstruck newcomer who followed her dream to Hollywood, leaving Proctor in Idaho to raise their tots. Unfortunately, it turns out that the forgiveness of her abandoned family is just another Hollywood dream.

L.A. Deli closes with another highlight, a curtain-call dance number that puts the foibles and follies of Hollywood to music.

Full disclosure, Mr. Proctor is a friend with whom I have worked for several years.


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L.A. DELI

by SAM BOBRICK
directed by WALTER PAINTER

MARILYN MONROE THEATRE

March 21-April 27, 2014
(Opened, Rev’d 3/22e)

CAST Rachel Boller, Scott Kruse, Jeffrey Landman, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, Darrin Revitz (u/s Susan Huckle, Perry Lambert, Lyndsi LaRose, David McCharen, Matthew Wrather

PRODUCTION Jeffery P. Eisenmann, set; Michael Mullen, costumes; Michael Gend, lights; Chris Moscatiello, sound; Liana Dillaway/Natalya Zernitskaya, stage management


HISTORY Produced by Theatre Planners (Racquel Lehrman, Victoria Watson), Presented by Josh Weinstock, Jeff Weinstock, B.E. Stage Management, Emily Lynn Entertainment World Premiere


Phil Proctor, Rachel Boller, and Jeffrey Landman | Ed Krieger
David Keith as Paul Robeson in Paul Robeson at the Ebony Repertory Theatre with Byron J. Smith

Robeson returns

Paul Robeson was a titanic figure in America's cultural history and history in general. His outsized talents across numerous fields set new standards in virtually all of them. He left his mark as an artist, athlete, actor, attorney, activist, and, as we see in Ebony Repertory Theatre's presentation of Phillip Hayes Dean's Paul Robeson, starring Keith David, those are just the "A's."

Dean directs the play that premiered in 1979, with David as Robeson and pianist Byron J. Smith as his longtime accompanist and friend Lawrence Brown. Because David suffered a knee injury that delayed opening at the Nate Holden Theatre, performances on April 18, 19 and 20 have been added to the initial run that ends March 30.

The "As" on Robeson's reference list also include "African-American," and while his many achievements broke racial ground they usually reset standards for all Americans. In the theater, for example, he helped integrate the American stage as its first black Othello in an othewise all-white cast. But he did it with a performance that caused the production to run twice as long as any previous U.S production – not just of Othello but of any Shakespeare play.

His talents and tenacity helped transform America. Between his birth in 1898 and his passing six months before the Bicentennial, he was among those who turned the course of our history towards its better nature. He was born in a country where, every month of his first two decades, African-Americans were being lynched at an average of five per month. Theaters and music halls, which he would help mend, were bastians of demeaning stereotypes that eased the majority's silent complicity.

It requires a commanding presence to do justice to the physical and artistic power of Robeson, whose voice – both in sound and what it stood for – was among the most distinctive of the 20th Century. Like James Earl Jones, who originated the role in 1979, David is as familiar for his voiceover work as for his acting in films such as Platoon, Crash, Bird, and Barbershop. He narrated Ken Burns' Jazz and Unforgiveable Blackness, the Jack Johnson Story as well as one of the segments in The War.

The play opens on April 15, 1973, about three years before Robeson's death and six before this play would premiere on Broadway. Poor health had prevented him from joining the 3,000-person A-list that filled Carnegie Hall to mark his 75th birthday. From offstage, David reads an excerpt from the taped message Robeson sent to thank those in attendance. (Among the guests was U.S. Representative Andrew Young, who remarked that without Robeson's "legacy of hope," the civil rights accomplishments of the 1960s "would not have been possible.")

David, as Robeson, then emerges from the wings, explaining why he had remained with his sister in Philadelphia that night, and then beginning his biography with an incident in 1915 when he tried to patch up relations between his father, a preacher who had been born a slave in 1844, and an older brother whose anti-white militance, the elder Robeson feared, would bring violence against Princeton's black community. From there, we follow Robeson to Rutgers and athletics, to law school, and on through his extraordinary personal, professional, and political history.

The cumulative effect of David's herculean two-and-a-half hour monologue and Dean's profile is magnificent. The awe with which Dean hold's Robeson may explain the relaxed storytelling, which could benefit from tightening. And, 35 years and a couple generations after he wrote Paul Robeson, it might be time to consider what a magazine writer once told me, after reading a profile I'd written, "We need to know in the first paragraph why this person is important." If Dean could find a way to establish Robeson's enduring relevance, other than the uncharacteristic method of having Robeson himself say it (either through Brown or perhaps by projecting comments like Young's during the opening song), it would quickly engage audiences who need reminding and grounding.

Also in the opening couple scenes, Dean gives David an excess of blocking and business: removing and replacing his coat, and repositioning the chairs of Edward E. Haynes Jr's elegantly simple set. This effort to help establish locale suggests a lack of confidence in the words and performance and feels fussy. Soon enough, the direction relaxes, and the rest of the show proves the point that less is more.

Kudos to Ebony Repertory Theatre for bringing this dramatic reminder of greatness to Los Angeles. As was the case with with its memorable revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2011, it's something that benefits the entire Los Angeles community, and is another reminder that the Nate Holden Theatre on Washington may be this city's best space to see a play.


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PAUL ROBESON

written and directed by
PHILLIP HAYES DEAN

EBONY REPERTORY THEATRE

March 12-30, 2014 (extended through April 27)
(Opened, Rev’d 3/14m)

CAST Keith David, Byron J. Smith

PRODUCTION Edward E. Haynes Jr., set; Wendell C. Carmichael, costumes; Dan Weingarten, lights; Bob Blackburn, sound; Keith Young, choreography; David Blackwell, stage management


HISTORY Originally produced on Broadway by Don Gregory in 1979; Revived by Eric Krebs in 1988 and 1995. Production made possible in part through support of American Honda, Northrop Grumman, Steinway & Sons, and US Bank


Keith David, Byron J. Smith (background) | Craig Schwartz
Rebecca Mozo, Linda Park, Karianne Flaathen, Sally Hughes, Rhonda Aldrich, Etta Devine

Trapped girls

Wanting her 1982 play Top Girls to provide historical perspective on the challenges women face, Caryl Churchill had her modern-day main character invite five women from history to dinner. The result was an unforgettable opening scene that inspired a landmark play and, 30 years later, has inspired director Cameron Watson and 13 women to mount an historic revival for the Antaeus Theater Company (extended through May 18).

A play ostensibly promoting awareness of a career woman's struggles is a good fit at Antaeus, where respect for actors' career demands lead to a double-casting policy that gives actors alternate performances off to pursue additional work. Audiences will see one of two teams with a third, mixed cast option, which is reviewed here. Based on these performances, it can be assumed that whatever constellation appears on a given night will be brilliant.

To celebrate her promotion to Managing Director of Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene (Rebecca Mozo, alternating with Sally Hughes) invites five acquaintances for dinner. Churchill refuses any cumbersome rationale for how Marlene and the restaurant's waitress (Julia Davis, alternating with Alexandra Goodman) can mingle with a Japanese concubine from the 13th Century, a mythic female pope, a 19th Century globetrotter, and characters from art and literature. She also avoids confirming any suspicious we may have that, in fact, Marlene does not have real friends close enough to be invited.

First to arrive is Isabella Bird (Karianne Flaathen at all performances), the independent traveler who became the first woman in the Royal Geographical Society, followed by Lady Nijo (Linda Park, alternating with Kimiko Gelman), the emperor's concubine who became a Buddhist nun and also traveled for years. Next is Pope Joan (Rhonda Aldrich, alternating with Elizabeth Swain), whom legend says posed so convincingly as a man of God that Vatican hierarchy, presumably among the most easily deceived, elevated her to Pontiff. Her true sex was revealed when she suddenly gave birth during a papal procession and was immediately stoned to death.

Dull Gret (Etta Devine, alternating with Abigail Marks) is another figure from legend, famously portrayed in a painting by Breugel. Dressed in the armor of a man, she leads an army of women through the gates of Hell to battle Satan. Last to arrive is Patient Griselda (Jeanne Syquia, alternating with Shannon Lee Clair), whose nobleman husband took each of their two babies to be destroyed before casting her out. Years later, he brings her back as a willing servant to a new wife and the reappearing children she had unnecessarily mourned.

The play moves from the opening scene's accounts of hardship and humiliation through a half-dozen scenes that sketch in Marlene's life. First we meet a slightly dull teenager named Angie (Devine) who is trying to impress her younger friend Kit (Davis) with intentions to kill her drab single mother and escape to London to be with a glamorous, successful aunt. Stephen Gifford's exceptional set design allows us to quickly move from restaurant to this backyard locale and on to the Top Girls Agency, where Marlene and co-workers Win (Park) and Nell (Syquia) are interviewing hard-to-place candidates. One is an older woman (Aldrich) who recently quit a career after men with less experience continued to be promoted instead of her. Others include young applicants with unrealistic espectations of working life (Davis, Syquia).

Angie arrives with hopes Aunt Marlene will take her in, which forces her to confront family responsibilities she chose to ignore. Her conflicted feelings cannot be easily resolved, but we will learn a great deal in the play-ending flashback to her visit with her sister, Joyce (Flaathen), and Angie.

Behind Marlene's unfolding story, themes shift from scene to scene like a rolling backdrop. Religion, with its patriarchal structure dominated by an unseen Father figure, resonates for all the historical women, but is replaced in the contemporary workplace and homes by patriarchal business and family structures also dominated by unseen, absentee father figures. When we arrive at Joyce's, the system that emerges as a backdrop is politics, with, ironically, Margaret Thatcher as the father figure. Marlene admires the Iron Lady for her rejection of caring (feminine) government outreach in favor of every-man-for-himself free-market systems.

Watson has done wonderful work here keeping the rhythms crisp, the resonances rich and clear, and the actors free to give their characters both heartbreak and backbone they deserve. Without a false or obvious note Mozo moves Marlene along a dramatic arc from ebullience to regret. Park's Lady Nijo, is clearly trapped by her circumstances and further tortured by having the insight and intelligence to know her personal sacrifice. Later, as one of Marlene's co-workers, ironically named Win, Park lets us see the extent of her sense of personal frustration.

Syquia's Griselda is beautifully and mystifyingly undisturbed by the system that fostered such cruelty. The actress makes it clear the woman is intelligent, which makes her enabling of the depravity even more chilling. Flaathen gives Isabella and Joyce solid grounding in their beliefs while Divine is a heartbreaking Angie and a force of nature in the reflected character of Gret. Aldrich gives Joan the right air of papal supremacy, and Davis shifts from the observant waitress to Angie's innocent friend and a dreamy jobseeker with care and detail.

Gifford's set is a geometric marvel in carving up the space and always bringing the action close to the audience, while Terri A. Lewis creates beautiful period costumes for the dinner scene, flattering outfits for Marlene, and appropriate clothes for everyone else. Both designers tap the '80s palette of teal and maroon, giving the production a sly echo of that decade. Jared A. Sayeg's lights are beautifully integrated as is the music and sound design of Jeff Thomas Gardner and Ellen Mandel, although even a female version of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" for pre-show may be a few rings outside a bulls-eye of Churchill's target. And, Nike Doukas demonstrates once more that she has a real gift for helping actors get native-sounding dialects.


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TOP GIRLS

by CARYL CHURCHILL
directed by CAMERON WATSON

ANTAEUS THEATRE COMPANY

March 6-May 4, 2014 [extended to 5/18]
(Opened 3/13 & 14, Rev’d 3/21)

CAST Rhonda Aldrich, Julia Davis, Etta Devine, Karianne Flaathen, Rebecca Mozo, Linda Park, Jeanne Syquia (alternating cast: Shannon Lee Clair, Kimiko Gelman, Alexandra Goodman, Sally Hughes, Abigail Marks, Elizabeth Swain) Note: As of mid-April, Ms. Mozo is appearing in South Coast Repertory's Five Mile Lake.

PRODUCTION Stephen Gifford, set; Terri A. Lewis, costumes; Jared A. Sayeg, lights; Jeff Thomas Gardner & Ellen Mandel, music/sound; Nike Doukas, dialects; Heno Fernandez/Kristin Weber, stage management


Rebecca Mozo, left, and Linda Park, Karianne Flaathen, Sally Hughes, Rhonda Aldrich, Etta Devine | Geoffrey Wade [Mozo] / Daniel G. Lam