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ATLANTA by Adrian Pasdar and Marcus Hummon | Geffen Playhouse
ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE by Steven Epp and Dominque Serrand from Marivaux's 'La Fausse Suivante' | Unknown Theatre / Evidence Room
CRY-BABY by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan, David Javerbaum & Adam Schlesinger | La Jolla Playhouse
DAWN'S LIGHT: THE JOURNEY OF GORDAN HIRABAYASHI by Jeanne Sakata | East West Players
DEAR BRUTUS by J.M. Barrie | A Noise Within
HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY by Randall Mylar and Mark Harelik | Laguna Playhouse
RAY CHARLES LIVE! by Suzan-Lori Parks | Pasadena Playhouse
TONIGHT AT 8:30 / 1 by Noel Coward | Antaeus Theatre Company
TONIGHT AT 8:30 / 2 by Noel Coward | Antaeus Theatre Company
Should could wood
Allusions to Shakespeare, parlor game plotting, and a flopped-image mirroring of his famous 1904 Peter Pan give a sense of playfulness to J.M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus, rounding out A Noise Within’s three-play repertory through December 16. But that should not obscure the weightier themes that Barrie has buried, like bittersweet nougat, at the center of the confection. Co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez Elliott and her actors and designers have met the demands of this duality, capturing both its comedy-of-manners silliness and mid-life melancholy.
In English letters, Barrie’s creations stand with Lewis Carroll’s as singularly iconic. Like the worlds Alice found through the looking glass and rabbit hole, Barrie’s Neverland continues to inspire developing imaginations more than a century later. Thirteen years after Barrie's timeless fantasy about eternal childhood debuted in London, he returned to the aging theme from another angle. Dear Brutus is set in a childless environment. No children are in the story, or even referenced.
The exception is the mysterious Lob (Robert Towers, a casting bulls-eye), a tiny man of indeterminate age.
Before getting into the script’s merits, which predominate, a quick word about its weakness, which may explain why it is so seldom staged. The boyish Barrie has taken some shortcuts to get to the fun part. To assemble the disparate characters required for the plot, he brings the community’s saddest sorts together in the house of its oddest. As one character points out: "We have been here a week, and we find that when Lob invited us he knew us all so little that we begin to wonder why he asked us." Barrie seems to have had little interest in justifying his set up. It's unlikely people who are filled with the requisite regret would willingly oblige such blind-siding.
But with that quibble nibbled, we happily hoist our suspenders of disbelief and enjoy the ride. The view is another triumph from scenic designer Michael C. Smith, who creates a world of lush mystery and uncertainty. With lighting designer Ken Booth, they conjure up a nice trick with stage smoke to make it appear a mist has settled above the stage floor. Soojin Lee adds another two racks of detailed costumes to a "Fall Collection" she launched in ANW's Winter’s Tale. Rachel Myles’ sound and Laura Karpman’s music provide sonic accompaniment while the actors look and sound natural thanks to Monica Lisa Sabedra's hair and make-up and Nike Doukas’ guidance with dialects.
Lob, hiding his powers under a chosen name that in British slang means a dimwit, could be an aging Peter Pan, in the way Barrie, who was 57 when the play premiered, saw himself. But to not appear he was riding Peter's kite-tails, Barrie instead models Lob after Puck. In fact, one character recalls hearing him referred to as Robin Goodfellow. Another says villagers "remember him 70 years ago, looking just as he does today." Then again, there are possible ties to Peter's world. Lob's valet, Matey (William Dennis Hunt), could be Captain Hook’s First Mate, Starkey, brought back in servitude (which would explain his compulsive stealing.)
The play begins at 10 p.m. on Midsummer Night’s eve. Matey warns the guests that Lob may suggest a trip to a mysterious wood, but insists they not go. But, house-bound and anxious for adventure, they are not to be deprived. They will leave as soon as Barrie introduces us to Mr. and Mrs. Dearth (Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang), Mr. and Mrs. Coade (Mitchell Edmonds and Sally Smythe), Mr. and Mrs. Purdie (Bruce Turk and Jill Hill), and the unattached Joanna Trout (Abby Craden) and Lady Caroline Laney (Erin Bennett).
The Purdies have a lackluster marriage with a hole in its boat-bottom. Squeezed in on the incoming water is Miss Trout. Barrie shifts the writing pace to light farce for the Purdies' love-triangle scene with Joanna. Like Midsummer mechanicals, they are delightfully dim, and Craden, Turk and especially Hill bring off the comedy nicely. Though our house wasn’t quite ready to make the stylistic leap so quickly, the actors will likely learn to trigger them early enough to permit full enjoyment.
We briefly glimpse the other guests' humdrum lives and lack of fulfillment. As intermission nears, the group starts off for the wood, but Mr. Dearth, who seems to have done this before, eagerly reveals a better way. A man with a secret life, and looking a little like Barrie under his mustache, Elliott's Dearth opens the lanai and everyone except Lob and Mrs. Coade trips into the wood. Rodriguez-Elliott and Smith have fashioned the trees as columns, to remind us that fantasy is a product of human imagination, not the natural world. The wood represents, literally, what ‘would’ have happened if people had chosen another, presumably harder but more rewarding path. As Matey explains, “I am not bad naturally. . . . It’s touch and go how the poor turn out in this world; all depends on your taking the right or the wrong turning.”
Timeless plays are as independent of their author’s life stories as moon landers are of the mine fields that produced their raw materials. And yet, some dimensions of a story are only understood by understanding the writer’s background. J.M. Barrie, endearingly brought to life by Johnny Depp in 2004’s ‘Finding Neverland,’ had a dissatisfying personal life. At age 6 his 13-year-old brother David died. While David’s disappearance left him eternally young, it may have intensified Barrie’s embrace of his own childhood and antipathy towards death.
Barrie never had children of his own. And although he gained shared custody of a friends’ four boys, one suspects that the artist Dearth silently suffers an emptiness that Barrie endured. While much of ‘Dear Brutus’ is a great parlor game, as we watch the spellbound guests return from the wood and wonder how many secrets they’ll expose before their trances drop, the heart of the play rests heavily in the scene between the childless painter and his imagined daughter Margaret (Jessica Berman). The scene could seem unnecessarily long if its connection to Barrie’s philosophy and personal life were not understood. Credit Berman in her brief appearance with helping to draw together the extremes of Barrie’s vision. She and the director let that final parting between never-to-be parent Dearth and his make-believe child be honestly painful. It gives this cautionary tale its heft. Don’t let opportunity pass, said Barrie, who called Peter Pan’s fantasy paradise “Never” land for good reason. Imagination can take you only so far. In reality, if you have to make it happen, or live with regrets.
by J.M. BARRIE
directed by JULIA RODRIGUEZ ELLIOT
A NOISE WITHIN
November 3-December 16, 2007
(Opened, rev’d 11/10e)
CAST Erin Bennett, Abby Craden, Mitchell Edmonds, Geoff Elliott, Jill Hill, William Dennis Hunt, Sally Smythe, Deborah Strang, Bruce Turk, with Robert Towers and Jessica Berman
MUSICIANS Michael C. Smith, set; Soojin Lee, costumes; Ken Booth, lights; Rachel Myles, sound; Laura Karpman, music; Monica Lisa Sabedra, hair/make-up, Nike Doukas, dialects; Rebecca Dove Baillie/Liza Tognazzini, stage management
Bruce Turk and Jill hill
Everything is in place for Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the Randall Myler-Mark Harelik musical biography filling Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theatre now through December 16. Under Myler’s direction, the vehicle seems to have the right parts on board for an illuminating journey powered by country hits. But, despite a solid actor-musician core led by the sweet-voiced Van Zeiler as the man behind "Your Cheatin’ Heart" and "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," the ride never seems to stretch its limits. Perhaps that is because we know so well how the road ends.
Country music fans and those fascinated by the Alabama-born legend have plenty of cause to enjoy the show, as it is distinguished by the expert musicianship and singing which lovingly and faithfully recreates WIlliams' playlist. Not only is Zeiler impressive as the man who squandered his break-through talent and place in history, so are the cast members playing the men who provided Williams with both musical and emotional back up. Zeiler is a polished singer who makes Williams’ signature yodel sound easy. His acting range is sufficient to cover the script, although there may be dimension in the intangibles that lie between and behind the lines that an actor of originator Harelik’s talents was able to ferret out.
His band, the Drifting Cowboys, included his two lifelong sidekicks – guitarist Jimmy, played by Myk Watford, and bassist Hoss, played by Stephen G. Anthony. Given their duties as actors, musicians, singers and even cornball comics in the Grand Ol’ Opry scenes, the two are a wonder. The rest of the band is made up of even more accomplished players. As fiddler/mandolin player Leon, Mark Baczynski has only a few lines and pedal steel player Russ Weaver has even less. But they give the show a musical quality that should have audiences filling the aisles with foot stomping.
A fifth musician, Mississippi Charles Bevel, plays Tee-Tot, an old blues singer who sits gamely on the cluttered porch of a country service station and watches time go by, taking his own years one way as it takes appealing young talents like Williams the other way. Bevel serves as a kind of inspirational life coach in the show, standing as a testament to survival, turning hardship into art with no more than a $2 guitar. And, more often than not, forsaking the instrument to perform a cappella. But such a character, and what he represents, seems underused.
Sadly, the story is less exciting than the music. Part of the fault for the downcast storyline, of course, goes to Williams, who took a barnstorming career as a ground-breaking country blues innovator, and flew it like a kamikaze straight into the barn. But the problem also falls to the writers. There is a lot of rendering of songs without suffering their writing – either in the creating or the living. Snatches of lyrics pop up on pieces of paper and out of pockets. Suddenly in Williams’ years of boozing and drugging and womanizing, he comes up with "Lonesome," his real landmark. Zeiler delivers it beautifully, but we don’t really hang on the words as we would had we seen the scars that bore them. Consequently it floats in the air like a pretty paper lantern when it should be out there in the seats breaking our hearts.
As Mama, Margaret Bowman looks and sounds so authentic that one expects to see a dust-covered Greyhound with Alabama plates in the theater’s parking lot. In her flowered dresses and scowl, she is an iron-fisted disciplinarian who insists the band members toe the line. Can we really buy her son being afraid of crossing her one minute and then dry-humping his brand-new girlfriend in the passenger seat as she drives? And when does Papi suddenly start running the band? Somehow Mama silently relinquishes the reins and then wanders off for the better part of the show? Williams demanding wife, Audrey (Regan Southward), like Mama, comes off as surprisingly one-note. And a strange sequencing problem happens when she mentions a summer 1952 event and then divorcing in January 1952.
It’s a beautiful environment though, on a set imported from a production in Arizona. An inset, Victrola- arched proscenium creates a window for the various stages, touring scenes and home life, while Tee-Tot’s service station and a truck stop diner sit like detachable speakers stage right and left. When we get to the Grand Ol’ Opry scenes, several beautifully painted drops cable in like drapes.
Behind the diner counter, "The Waitress" (Stephanie Cozart) listens to the music on a radio and dreams of being taken away from all this. When she finally is, it’s by the singer who is so addled by substance abuse that she must continue imagining what it would be like to meet him, even as he lies at her feet. Giving us the full dimension of Williams is a bit beyond Zeiler's reach, but he can be forgiven, given the singing.
The show has been a big hit and certainly a major reason is the performances. But for all the sights and sounds that are provided, a better sense of the songwriter behind the singer is missing. In "Lonesome," Williams writes, "the midnight train is whining low," but for the Hank Williams train to have that lonesome whistle sound, we need a better sense of the heavy load it carries.
HANK WILLIAMS, LOST HIGHWAY
by RANDAL MYLER
and MARK HARELIK
directed by RANDAL MYLER
November 13-December 16, 2007
(Opened, rev’d 11/17)
CAST Stephen G. Anthony, Mark Baczynski, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Margaret Bowman, Stephanie Cozart, Mike Regan, Regan Southard, Myk Watford, Russ Wever, Van Zeiler
PRODUCTION Vicki M. Smith, sets; Robert Blackman, costumes; T. Greg Squire, lights; Eric Stahlhammer, sound; Victoria A. Gathe/Rebecca Michelle Green/Mia D. Osherow, stage management; Dan Wheetman, musical direction
Russ Wever, Regan Southard, Myk Watford, Mississippi “Charles” Bevel, Van Zeiler, Stephen G. Anthony, Mark Baczynski, Margaret Bowman and Mike Regan
Soul on ice
With a title straight off a Vegas marquee, the world premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Ray Charles Live!, at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 9, adds theater’s take on the seminal performer’s life and music to those of non-fiction literature and motion pictures. Where the best book, Charles’ own Brother Ray, let him whisper his story in our inner ears, and the blockbuster film Ray mixed a cinematographic documentary with a sometimes tabloid vibe, Ray Charles Live! shows the unique power of theater to weave a dramatic narrative through a virtual live concert.
Charles’ life was a rags-to-riches success story. He climbed to the top of a music business he helped redefine, all the while fighting the side-battles of blindness and blackness in America. By breaking the seal on the sacred sounds of gospel, and letting them walk the street with the blues, he alienated chunks of the white and black communities. But he helped forge the soul music that did as much as anything in the 1900s to work the truths within African-American music into the general culture. Appropriately, his two 'Live!" collaborators have established their own records of reaching wider audiences without sacrificing: playwright Parks won a Pulitzer for her unflinching yet artful look at racism in ‘Topdog/Underdog,’ and Epps increasingly offers his Pasadena Playhouse as an institutional launch pad for work socially ambitious works.
The play is set after Charles’ death at the age of 73 in 2004. Consequently, the title has two meanings: it's a live performance by someone who must return from beyond to make the gig. The deal he struck to get here isn’t important. He is back in a recording studio to lay tracks for a final Greatest Hits record while setting his permanent record straight. The famous Atlantic Records’ producer Tom Dowd, who died two years before Charles, is back at the board, mixing a pit band under the baton of Eric Butler. The musicians have a place of honor across an upstage platform, and serve as both Charles’ live concert accompaniment and session players. The live album will be a "life" album: working Charles’ greatest hits into his life story. But the tunes, when appropriate, will be sequenced to fit key characters and key moments to build the record’s other component, an oral history.
The tour guide for the show is Charles’ mid-career persona, played by Brandon Victor Dixon. Jeremiah Whitfield-Pearson plays him as a child in Georgia and Wilkie Ferguson beautifully handles four songs as "RC" the emerging talent in his late teens and early adult years. The person who shaped him most, his mother Retha, is given warmth and backbone by Yvette Cason, who delivers her songs powerfully, especially a heart-breaking version of Henry Glover’s "Drown in My Own Tears" after the drowning death of Ray’s little brother. We meet Quincy Jones (Phillip Attmore), a life-long friend who met Charles in Seattle, but is little more than name-dropped here, and David "Fathead" Newman (Ricke Vermont), who has a lot more stage time as a bandmember. Other musicians, bandleaders and music industry folks are represented, notably Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun (Daniel Tatar, back in Pasadena after The Last Five Years).
Of equal importance to the music are the women in his life. Charles’ long-suffering wife Della B is well-rounded and beautifully sung by Nikki Renee Daniels. And, as two of his "road wives" from the back-up Raeletts, Angela Teek is a feisty Mary Ann Fisher, while Sabrina Sloan is a sultry, younger Margie Hendricks.
Before Parks gets into the storytelling, however, she lets the man who would be Ray prove himself. The curtain rises on a bandstand filled with players. The show-ready Charles is led to the piano and, after introducing himself, takes his seat, tilts his head, and widens the signature smile-snarl that somehow spoke his ecstasy and anger at once. As soon as he and the band launch into a thumping rendition of "What’d I Say," it’s clear that Dixon knows Charles, vocally and instrumentally. (If he’s not playing the piano, it’s the best fake job we’ve seen.)
With the popularity of the book and movie, it’s not necessary to trace the "plot" of Ray Charles Live! The usual subjects are covered, and Parks’ narrative conceit permits Charles to indulge in some free-range storytelling, moving things around for dramatic contour and better effect. She doesn’t sugar-coat anything, either, portraying Charles’ womanizing, his emotional neglect of Della and their sons, and his 17-year addiction to heroin, which he kicked decades before he died but never apologized for using.
Still, there is a polished, restained quality to the piece that is inevitable with a Broadway-bound show: a prettiness to things, an over-articulation to songs. When we feel the kind of roadhouse heat that could cook this music to the searing point is in the Angela Teek numbers. This is not to sleight any of these fine performers out there doing their job. Cason in particular is a treasure. So are Daniels and Sloan, especially when they join Teek for the show-stopping "I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You." But during those Teek solos, you may hear a husky voice in the inner ear whisper, "That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout."
Still, Dixon is so good that if the show settles in for a Broadway run in 2008 he could own New York. If so, his key to the city will likely be his version of "Georgia." For one thing, it’s testament to the ability of Charles’ music and personality to triumph over ignorance, since it was adopted as official song for the same state that once banned him after he protested its policy of segregated theaters. On the other hand, it’s Dixon taking the master head on and delivering one of Charles’ most identifiable songs in a way that lets us appreciate both the actor and the originator.
The company is deep with talent, but a couple of shout-outs go to Maceo Oliver (back after his parts in Cuttin’ Up) and to Leslie Stevens, a utility player who not only dances to beat the band, but also serves up a remarkable range of well-toned characters – from Queen Elizabeth, to a male country singer, to a backwoods schoolmarm. If she weren’t the only white woman on stage you’d never believe it was the same person.
Of the stories that make their way into every telling of the Charles’ story, a favorite is about how he sized up a woman’s physical appeal. While shaking hands, he politely slid his left hand along her right wrist. As acupuncturists check the human body through points on the ear, Charles’ gauge was all in the wrist. His long-held inside joke, his personal definition of "eyes of the beholder," must have given the signature grimace-grin full flower. But it was the redefinition of music that makes him important. And if Live doesn’t redefine theater as a whole, it is turning at least one theater into L.A.’s hottest club through December 9. And that’s reason to smile.
RAY CHARLES LIVE!
Book by SUZAN-LORI PARKS
Orchestrations by HAROLD WHEELER
Conducted by ERIC BUTLER
Music supervision and direction,
vocal and musical arrangements by
Choreography by KENNETH L. ROBERSON
Dance arrangements by ZANE MARK
Directed by SHELDON EPPS
October 31– December 9, 2007
(Opened, rev’d. 11/9)
CAST Brandon Victor Dixon, Nikki Renee Daniels, and NRaca, Phillip Attmore, Matthew Benjamin, Aaron Brown, Christopher Brown, Yvette Cason, Meloney Collins, Tara Cook, Wilkie Ferguson, Dionne Figgins, Matthew Koehler, Sylvia MacCalla, Yusuf Nasir, Maceo Oliver, Jeremiah Whitfield-Pearson, Sabrina Sloan, Leslie Stevens, Daniel Tatar, Angela Teek, Rocklin Thompson, Ricke Vermont, Harrison White
PRODUCTION Riccardo Hernandez, set; Paul Tazewell, costumes; Donald Holder, lights; Carl Casella and Domonic Sack, sound; Austin Switzer, video; Charles G. LePointe, hair/wigs; Lurie Horns Pfeffer/Conwell Worthington III, stage management
HISTORY World premiere
Brandon Victor Dixon
Audience members immediately feel like insiders as they arrive for ‘If Love Were All,’ the first half of the Antaeus Theater Company’s two-part staging of Noel Coward one-acts (through December 23 at Deaf West Theatre). A ghost light guards the apron of a stage carefully set with the kind of between-production nonchalance the public seldom sees. To Glen Banks’ upright accompaniment, company member Philip Proctor rehearses one of the playwright’s music hall tunes: ‘Please, Mrs. Worthington, don’t put your daughter on the stage.’ Thankfully, it's a plea that went unheeded by the 44 mothers of the ensemble who make up this great acting company.
‘Tonight at 8:30” consists of eight one-acts divided equally between Part One, ‘If Love Were All’ (reviewed below) and Part Two, ‘Call of the Wild’ (opening November 10). Coward actually wrote 10 one-acts, and the remaining two – including a West Coast premiere – will be presented in special events during the run. This first quartet shows the range of interests, styles and achievement in these lesser-known, short-form examples of Coward’s writing.
“If Love Were All” opens with a backstage comedy of colliding actor egos (‘Star Chamber,’ directed by William Ludel) and ends with a drawing room comedy of mistaken identities and misplaced persons (“Hands Across the Sea,” directed by Michael Murray). In between, the two pieces that straddle the intermission are, first, a hilariously mannered and warmly forgiving look at the sometimes bad timing of sexual obsession (‘We Were Dancing,’ Murray again) and then a surprisingly dark look at the same dilemma (‘The Astonished Heart,’ directed by Stephanie Shroyer).
‘Star Chamber’ is a chamber piece for actors, to be played allegro, without rests or digging for depth. Ludel obliges with well-modulated spinning of the hamster wheel that takes us on a wild ride before letting us back off where we got on. There are plenty of high points along the way, however, in this non-story about a real-time meeting of a theater board easily bored with running a theater -- or even a meeting.
Susan Sullivan displays a natural talent for the style, which she will use to even greater effect in the better-written final piece. Michael McShane’s unfunny funnyman character offers some minor opportunities for the bittersweet, but McShane has mixed results shifting Johnny’s weight between delivering and being the punch line of the jokes. The rest of the ensemble is packed with more tastiness than Mrs. Gump’s chocolate box, including Anne Gee Byrd, Ned Schmidtke, Bill Brochtrup, Kitty Swink, Ray Porter and Nathan Patrick, all of whom appear in three of four plays. Brooke Bloom, listed as a member of the Antaeus Academy, is a stand-out as she delivers an envelop-pushing performance that stays in control and earns her her place among these veterans. And, a big tummy-rub goes out to the scene-stealing Bravo, who, as Atherton, performed an acrobatic Iron Cross for his big exit.
'We Were Dancing,’ the most resonant piece of the evening, provides a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the aftermath of instant infatuation. A bachelor and another man’s wife are head-over-heels in love following a dreamy dance at an elegant ball. After watching them follow their hearts beyond any propriety or reason, we get to hear the instigating song. That’s when we see, in a way, that they were merely acting out the kind of take no prisoners passion that is the backbone of romantic fiction and popular song. Though it has a cast of eight, ‘We Were Dancing’ focuses on four characters played by Byrd, Schmidtke and Brochtrup in their second appearances, and Emily Chase in her only outing. Chase’s Louise, younger wife of Schmidtke’s Hubert, discovers that an innocent dance with the dashing Brochtrup has suddenly turned her world upside down. With exquisite timing, Chase and Brochtrup surrender to what we simultaneously see as both utter foolishness and life’s greatest reward. With total conviction they tell Hubert, a wonderfully grounded Schmidtke, and his sister, Byrd in another spot-on characterization, that they are in love and will spend the rest of their lives together. Needless to say, the romance does not last a lifetime, but memories of this delightfully executed bit of comic insight likely will.
The one non-comedy is the adventurous ‘Astonished Heart,’ starring a colorful Shannon Holt as another longtime wife, Michael Reilly Burke as her doctor husband, and Kirsten Potter. It’s a triangle mildly reminiscent of ‘Constant Wife,’ except that Potter’s temptress is an intelligent force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t land with the gravity intended and that may rest with the men: Coward for over-complicating some of the relationships with a time-travel construction (though Shroyer cleverly minimizes the confusion), and Burke, who plays the office-bound doctor with a retreating nature in the early going that may not serve the arc. He does burst forth late in the act but by that time we have missed a lot of the nuance underlying his duplicity. For her part, Holt drives the story well, creating so much distance between this character and her minor role in ‘Chamber’ as to create one of the evening’s great chameleonic treats. And Potter, who we raved about in ‘As You Like It’ last year, shows her range with a completely different characterization.
With the evening’s final piece, ‘Hands Across the Sea,’ Coward is back to his strength with a wonderful romp that ends the evening on a very high note indeed. Here the versatile Byrd is teamed with Dr, Proctor (who creates a hilarious sideshow of his own as he interacts with a powerfully seductive martini) as a couple visiting acquaintances. Swink sinks her teeth into the part of Clare and seems to have as much fun as she provides. Again, the ensemble is so strong that it’s unfair to single anyone out. Still, Sullivan really puts on a clinic for stage comedians, getting every laugh without ever having to reach for one. It’s the top highlight in an evening of highlights.
But then, another equally talented cast is in the wings to perform the same four plays on another night! And, if that doesn’t drop the collective jaw, two more casts await to alternate in the four plays of ‘Call of the Wild.’ America will probably never get a national theater, but L.A.'s own theatrical phenomenon offers audiences 44 dance partners that should have them as smitten by the Antaeus ensemble as Ms. Chase’s Louise is with Brochtrup's Karl.
TONIGHT AT 8:30
Part I - If Love Were All
by NOEL COWARD
directed by WILLIAM LUDEL, MICHAEL MURRAY, STEPHANIE SHROYER
ANTAEUS THEATER COMPANY / DEAF WEST
October 20-December 23
(Opened, rev'd 10/28e)
CAST Englishmen [reviewed] – Brooke Bloom, Bill Brochtrup, Michael Reilly Burke, Anne Gee Byrd, Emily Chase, Shannon Holt, Micheal McShane, Nathan Patrick, Philip Proctor, Ray Porter, Kirsten Potter, Ned Schmidtke, Armin Shimerman, Susan Sullivan, Kitty Swink, Glen Banks (piano), alternating with Mad Dogs – Steven Brand, Josh Clark, JD Cullum, Nike Doukas, Faye Grant, Jeanie Hackett, Melinda Peterson, Christina Pickles, Lawrence Pressman, Philip Proctor, Devon Sorvri, Ryan Spahn, Amelia White, Bernard White, Matthew Goldsby (piano)
PRODUCTION John Iacovelli, set; A Jeffrey Schoenberg, costumes; Jose Lopez, lights; John Zalewski, sound; Matt Goldsby, musical director; Kay Cole, choreography, Tracy Winters, dialects; Young Ji/Rita Cofield, stage management
Emily Chase and Bill Brochtrup
Michele K. Short
Another round for my friends
When last we climbed the Deaf West Theatre’s aisle steps it was to watch part of a healthy percentage of Antaeus Theatre Company’s company perform the first four Noel Coward one-acts of their current two-part collection, ‘Tonight at 8:30’ (through December 23). Ten days have brought the opening of Part Two, with two more ensembles dividing up the roles of four more Coward plays. By luck or design, we see some favorite actors from Part One scattered among the new faces. While the plays’ themes and styles is narrower here than in Part One, the acting remains full and satisfying.
Like part one, ‘If Love Were All’ (reviewed above), ‘Come the Wild’ (from Coward’s ‘Come the Wild, Wild Weather,’ sung to introduce the fourth play), opens with a backstage comedy. But where ‘Star Chamber’s’ elbowing egos made it timeless, the aging husband-and-wife Vaudeville team or George and Lily Pepper makes ‘Red Peppers’ dangerously archaic. But, try imagining a home without iPods, cell phones, CD players, televisions or even radio. Back when a home entertainment center was a parlor piano, people flocked to live theater and Vaudeville. A variety of performers were kings and queens of the stage, passing on their acts through generations.
John Prosky and Rhonda Aldrich are George and Lily. Director Stefan Novinski introduces them in costume and make-up that completely hides their ages. Back in the dressing room as the sailor outfits come off, the years come on, and the wearing on and tearing at each other begins. The Peppers fit the classic take on the form: harmonious onstage; incompatible off. However, the twist here is that they aren’t even in tune on stage, where they drop both props and punch lines. But once under attack in the dressing room, they bond together in a blind, self-sabotaging act of resistance. Of course, the Peppers’ routines are excruciatingly corny, intentionally stacked with weak jokes. All the more to signal the inevitable end of their era, which will come in part through officious theater managers like Ned Schmidtke’s nothing-personal Mr. Edwards.
While the comedy is irreparably dated, these three, along with Philip Proctor and Anne Gee Byrd as the theater’s musical conductor and a dressing room diva, respectively, provide a bittersweet look at a tradition losing currency. The other three plays are even darker, with the second and fourth, ‘Fumed Oak’ and ‘Family Album,’ qualifying as black comedies and the third, ‘Still Life,’ serving as the evening’s ode to inconvenient passion.
For the Svengali cast of ‘Fumed Oak,’ Josh Clark (substituting for co-Artistic Director John Apicella, currently in ‘History Boys’), joined Katy Tyszkiewicz, Kitty Swink, and Lynn Milgrim. Here Coward takes a page from the W.C. Fields’ playbook, setting up a put-upon male breadwinner who hides his intentions behind a morning paper and late night “work.” He supports three generations of women: a useless mother-in-law (the hilarious Milgrim, with her Ruth Gordon drawl played to great effect), a shrewish wife (Swink in the series’ best showcase for the versatile actress), and a pampered daughter (Tyszkiewicz, a basket of tsks and pouts). The hook is that Henry’s method for fending off madness has been to hold his tongue and stash his resentments – and a healthy weekly allowance – in secret accounts. In Scene Two of ‘Fumed Oak,’ he locks their apartment door from the inside to keep the ladies from their picture show, then lays out the new world order. His behavior is unconscionable, dastardly, and reason for protective mothers to cover the eyes of impressionable boys in attendance. But it’s pretty damn funny, and the Egbert Sousés of the world will undoubtedly give it a standing ovation (if their wives aren’t beside them.)
In ‘Still Life,’ the single set is a café inside an Underground station. The station employees – Anne Gee Byrd, Devon Sovari, Adam Meyer and Clark (again in for Apicella) – flirt in age-appropriate pairs to show how easy romance is for the unattached who are free to scratch love’s itch. This prepares us for Laura, Alicia Wollerton in a beautifully detailed performance, a still-attractive middle-aged woman who wears her lengthy matrimony like a heavy coat. When something becomes embedded in her eye, a nearby doctor, played with equal care by Prosky, applies an inviting tenderness. Also married, but more determined to experience a rejuvenating fling, Dr. Alec pushes the agenda for a clandestine affair. They will meet in the café weekly, with the romance developing in between. Coward doesn’t offer his actors much in the way of specific dialogue to reveal their progress. Consequently, the play is dramaturgically more mysterious and tedious. However, the two leads make the most of their nowhere-to-go frustration, which is Coward’s goal. When the final moments come, with Aldrich showing up as a gossipy shopaholic, the inevitable dampening of their emotions is forced to begin within sight of each other, and they part in pained silence. It may not be the most well-crafted bit of playwriting, but like these generally sketchy one-acts, it provides a good showcase for the actors: Prosky, who displays controlled insistence after his stops-out showing in ‘Peppers;’ and Wollerton, here as a tightly strung bundle, who will return minutes later as a hilariously tongue-tied dimwit daughter among ‘Family Album’s’ devious mourning party.
The evening’s largest company is assembled for this final piece: Aldrich, Prosky, Schmidtke, Milgrim, Swink, Woolerton, Clark and Bill Brochtrup. Proctor returns as the family's hard-of-hearing butler in outrageously loud slippers. The story has a jolly arc, as the black-clad next of kin work their way from reverence for the dead to a conspiratorial act of protecting their interests – all to the gurgle of flowing brandy. As the lips loosen and the stories and true feelings burst forth, Coward reveals his great knack for letting the wicked be devilishly funny. 'Family Album' arrives at a fitting end for the story's not-so-dearly departed as it signals a perfect end for the eight-play 'Tonight at 8:30,' from which dear audiences then depart with new perspective on Coward's gifts, and a few smiles to carry along, too.
TONIGHT AT 8:30
Part II - Come the Wild
by NOEL COWARD
directed by BRENDON FOX, ROBERT GOLDSBY, STEFAN NOVINSKY, STEPHANIE SHROYER
ANTAEUS THEATER COMPANY / DEAF WEST
November 4-December 23
(Open’d 11/10, rev’d 11/11)
CAST Svengalis [reviewed] – Rhonda Aldrich, John Apicella, Bill Brochtrup, Anne Gee Byrd, Ramon DeOcampo, Angela Goethals, Lynn Milgrim, Nathan Patrick, John Prosky, Ned Schmidtke, Kitty Swink, Katy Tyszkiewicz, Alicia Wollerton alternating with Martinis – Gigi Bermingham, Josh Clark, JD Cullum, Emily Elden, Shannon Holt, Adam Meyer, Angela Paton, Robert Pine, Lawrence Pressman, Devon Servori, Laura Wernette, Amelia White, Mirron Willis
PRODUCTION John Iacovelli, set; A Jeffrey Schoenberg, costumes; Jose Lopez, lights; John Zalewski, sound; Matt Goldsby, musical director; Kay Cole, choreography, Tracy Winters, dialects; Young Ji/Rita Cofield, stage management