At the opening of his one-man show at Theatre West, Paul Dooley lists all the other character actors that he's often mistaken for, including Paul Sorvino, Ned Beatty, Charles Durning, Pat Hingle - great actors all of them, memorable from a hundred roles, but seldom identified with just one. They are the actors whose faces you know you know, but their names... don't quite come to mind.
So let me tick off a few of Paul Dooley's credits and see if his face begins to materialize for you:
-- Larry David's father-in-law in Curb Your Enthusiasm
-- Wimpy in Robert Altman's Popeye with Robin Williams
-- Mr Spritzer the TV Host in the Hairspray movie with John Travolta
-- Julia Roberts's dad in The Runaway Bride
-- The main character's dad in HBO's Dream On
-- Molly Ringwold's dad in Sixteen Candles
-- Mia Farrow's dad in Altman's A Wedding
-- Dennis Christopher's dad in Breaking Away
See a pattern in those last five credits? And now you know why his show has the title it does.
As Paul tells it, he loved jokes and all form of comedy from the time he was a kid; his all-time favorite comedian is Buster Keaton, whom he reveres as a comedy god. Paul came to New York City after serving in the Navy to try to make it as a clown. (His original last name is Brown, but he changed it to Dooley because he thought that it sounded funny.) He performed at kids' parties and department store openings and any kind of gig he could get, but there was enough money, and he kept hitting rock bottom. Finally he was able to get a commercial agent at William Morris, and that saved his career. At one point he had 27 National Commercials running at once on TV, and he was named spokesman of the year.
He was "discovered" as a movie actor by Robert Altman, who made him an important part of his ensemble for four movies. First came playing Carol Burnett's husband in A Wedding, then there was the movie that was supposed to make Paul Dooley a star. The Perfect Couple, 1979. Paul plays a middle-aged Greek businessman who is matched up with a bohemian rock singer (played by Marta Heflin) by a computer dating service. For once Paul Dooley had a chance to play the romantic lead, and he did a great job. Roger Ebert wrote, "We begin to expect an original comic achievement ... [and] we get one too, as long as Heflin, Dooley and his family are on screen. But Altman gets sidetracked..." The result was that the movie was largely neglected, and it rarely gets any mention, even when Altman's body of films are discussed. (But the comically bizarre Greek family here could certainly be seen as a forerunner to the one in Nia Vardolos's My Big Fat Greek Wedding - which, 20+ years later, was anything but neglected.)
Winnie and Paul - hanging on their bathroom wall
So it was back to playing "the dad" for Paul Dooley - something that had a grim twist to it, in terms of Paul's real life. As he movingly recounts in his show, Paul and his first wife were in the midst of an acromonious divorce when she took their two children and disappeared. Just vanished without a trace. It's a gut-wrenching story, and one that you should really hear Paul tell.
Only two shows left of Movie Dad at Theatre West, and I highly recommend catching it. Paul Dooley has come a long way from his upbringing in rural West Virginia, and he has become an original, an American comedy treasure, who took the improvisational skills he learned from Second City and gave it emotional depth and resonance. Unlike most comedy originals, Paul has become a deeply happy man through his 30 year marriage to Winnie Holzman, the actress and writer who penned the musical book for Wicked.
It's a real kicker of a story. But, again, he tells it so much better than I could.
With full committed schedules and a lucky twist of fate, veteran actor/directors James Eckhouse (Beverly Hills, 90210) and Richard Schiff (The West Wing) have come together as co-directors for Triptych Theatre Company's production of Adam Rapp's NOCTURNE, a solo show featuring Jamie Wollrab, Triptych Theatre's artistic director. We had the chance to question these two gents on their artistic affiliations with and contributions to the Los Angeles theatre community.
Thank you Both for taking the time for this interview.
What initially drew you to become involved with NOCTURNE?
James Eckhouse: Jamie brought me the script last year and asked if I would direct. I had worked with him over at IAMA Theatre. I loved the script and was very excited to have the chance to work with Jamie again.
Richard Schiff: Jamie asked me to look at the play and to direct, if interested. I had some time before my TV show starts in Vancouver later this summer so I read it. I'm a fan of Adam Rapp. I was moved by this play; it's a compelling story of surviving grief. It's almost triumphant in the end in that this character confronts the darkest corners of his existence and tells this harrowing story and yet there's that survivor's sense of irony and even a little humor wrapped inside the darkness. I've done a one-person play, by that I mean I've acted it. It's challenging and scary and asks the performer to go to the edge of that cliff and make the leap. I thought it would be interesting to coach another actor through that with the perspective of someone who's been there.
Who came up with the idea that the you two co-directing NOCTURNE?
JE: What a crazy idea! Actually this was by necessity. I started to work on the play with Jamie in January. We were hoping to get back into rehearsal in June, but I had some conflicts and wasn't sure I would be able to resume as director. Richard stepped in to direct and did a fantastic job with bringing the piece near to fruition. Then Richard had to bow out (to shoot a pilot). So I (happily!!) stepped back in to bring us to the finish line.
RS: Well, my schedule turned out not to be so accommodating and I had to come to NY for two weeks. I offered up a co-directing or any option that would be most comfortable for Jamie and the company. Then James, who originally was going to direct this, when he became available again, I was happy to give over the reins. Apparently, James, after seeing a run-through, felt compelled to have us share the credit. Jamie and I had worked pretty hard to set the foundational work, but I was fine either way.
Were either of you aware of NOCTURNE since it opened in New York in 2001, or during the succeeding years?
RS: No. I hadn't seen it before. My reading of it was my first introduction to it.
JE: I was aware of Adam Rapp, but not this play of his.
James, you mentioned you've worked with Jamie before. How about you, Richard?
RS: Jamie and I met in Vancouver while filming a TV show. He was coaching an actress in the show and we had dinner up there. Years later, which was just recently, I was doing a workshop for my wife, Sheila Kelley, at her S Factor studio. Sheila has created a journey for women through movement which is extraordinary. She basically invented the industry known as pole fitness back in the early 2000's. But now she has transcended its origins and has created a movement and journey for women that is transformative, life-changing. This workshop included men and understanding the differences between the genders. Jamie was there. He had been working with Sheila for years, but I didn't know until we met again at the workshop. I don't know the Triptych theater's work. I have been bad about LA theater, usually saving my theater going for New York, Chicago or London. I decided to change that recently and take advantage of what is here in town. I was looking at doing Hallie Feiffer's play at the Rogue Theater but the dates weren't working for now. I was going to act in that one. Then when Jamie presented this opportunity, I thought I should really think about this.
JE: As I mentioned, I had worked with Jamie at IAMA and he approached me to work with him at Triptych. I directed one of the John Patrick Shanley one-acts at Triptych this spring, which was a blast. This is growing into a very exciting company!
You both have been steadily acting for the eyes of the mass public since the mid-1980s. Surely, your paths must have crosses once or twice in the past decades. What do you remember of the first time you two met?
JE: Richard and I actually worked together many years ago at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO. I was producing and directing several one-acts that were part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's line-up. Richard (of course) was extraordinary to work with and watch perform. After that we haven't really played together but I enjoy being a huge fan of his work and admiring his kinda wonderful career from the peanut gallery.
RS: It was produced by HBO for the Aspen Comedy Festival. We had a good time. That's all I remember. That and that festival was my first introduction to Eddie Izzard, who was performing. That was a seminal moment for me. The guy is brilliant.
James, you started your theatrical career acting. When did you say out loud, "But what I want to do is direct!"?
JE: I've always directed when I had the chance. I don't think you have to pidgeonhole yourself. I started directing in a rather wacky theater company I helped found in 1981 in NYC. It was called Dearknows and we started out creating pieces from JAMES JOYCE'S DUBLINERS. Since then I've been a part of several theater companies both here and in NY where I've acted and directed, including a stint as Artistic Director of Ensemble Studio Theatre LA. I've been lucky to direct on camera as well, doing several episodes of hour TV, a documentary, and a couple of short films. I've also been teaching the last 12 years, which has been a fantastic journey. It has fed my work as an actor and director in all kinds of ways. I can't imagine growing up and having to choose one ‘label' or the other.
Richard, you started your theatrical career directing. What do you recall of your directing the then-newbie actress Angela Bassett in ANTIGONE?
RS: Oh, Jeez! She was amazing. Just out of Yale Drama. I was trying to figure things out as a director and she couldn't have been more patient and professional. And she was phenomenal in the role, as she always is.
Richard, you are co-executive producer of NOCTURNE. Does that give you an edge/advantage over when you and your co-director and James don't see eye-to-eye on a directing issue?
RS: Jamie and I had no disagreements during our time rehearsing. Of course, since I had to leave, perhaps he just sat on his hands and has changed everything since I left. Kidding! I believe that if your title is the final arbiter then you're probably on the wrong path.
Both of you have long, successful television careers. What draws you onto the LA boards?
JE: I have never been away from theater for more than a few months. Two years ago, I spent the year in NY acting in the Tony award-winning production of ALL THE WAY with Bryan Cranston. An incredible experience by the way. Last year I did a world premiere in Minneapolis. I have worked out here at The Geffen, the Taper, the Old Globe, Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Rep, La Jolla, as well as, the typical LA actor diet of gazillions of 99-Seat theater productions! It's my life's blood.
RS: I think I explained that. I did a play that opened the Wallis Annenberg a couple years back. Directed by the great Mark Brokaw, it was called PARFUMERIE. A beautiful production. That's the only theater I've done here since GOOSE & TOMTOM by David Rabe in 1991 and a couple of things with The Actor's Gang. I've gone to Broadway, to The West End, to Off-West End, even to New Brunswick and yet so little theater here in LA. I decided to face my prejudice and embrace what's here.
As one who's frequented the LA theatre boards for the last couple of decades, what do you see as the real value of doing theatre with little-to-no-compensation?
RS: Do the work you love. Love the work you do.
JE: I don't really divide the work into that which I get compensation for and that I don't. Never really think of it that way. It's all ‘the work.' It's all diving into the process and trying to expand, improve, excel at this elusive craft.
Richard, don't you credit acting in David Rabe's GOOSE & TOMTOM at the Stella Adler Theatre in 1991 for opening up the opportunity to be cast in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon?
RS: Well, yes. A producer saw me in GOOSE & TOMTOM, and next thing I know I'm at the table read of the film version of Glengarry with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon and a bunch of Hollywood brats. Later, I was flown to New York and auditioned numerous times. They kept me in New York for two weeks before casting a movie star in my role. Pacino remembered me at a party a few years later and that led to City Hall, which was a big break, and later to GLENGARRY with Al on Broadway. So, wait a second or two and the thing you thought was a break but isn't might yet turn into one.
James, would you share some of the perks you found in directing productions for Bonnie Franklin's Classic Contemporary American Plays?
JE: Working on great texts is like getting in there and really flossing your mind, your soul. It spurs the imagination which can get a little dormant (with a constant diet of television!). It challenges in a myriad of ways – having to dig deeper to reveal the essence of the work, really digesting the text and making sense of it, getting your mind and imagination to get deeper than just a surface level take on a piece.
What major differences/improvements do you notice in LA Theatre today as opposed to when you first entered the LA theatre community?
JE: That's a loaded question! We are at an extremely difficult moment in LA theater with the passage of some arcane rules that are supposed to be for the actor's benefit, but might well limit the opportunities we have to do the extremely important work of practicing our craft. It is a complex issue. I did a play last year in Minneapolis. A great theater town. They have all kinds of sized theaters – no 99-Seat plan. But they have a devoted audience – probably more sophisticated in some ways then LA. They aren't interested in seeing the star from the latest vampire thriller up close. They go to see gritty, exciting work. The actors get paid – not a lot in the small theaters – but a decent wage. Wouldn't we all love that? Of course! But this city's (LA's) relationship to “The Theataaaah” is very different than in Minneapolis or NY or Chicago. We need a much more inclusive and rigorous discourse from all parts of our community to create an environment where the theater life in LA can truly blossom. It's possible! The amount of theater has been growing and growing and the diversity of the participants is expanding, all wonderful to behold. I want theater to feel ‘essential' in this town. It needs to be a high protein/high calorie/vital part of everyone's cultural diet! (I tell ya'! If they'd only make me dictator of the world!)
RS: My nephew, Seth Russell, came from Montana to be an actor here. He is involved in all sorts of theater enterprises and companies. He got involved in the Rustic Theater Company at Santa Monica Airport where I've seen a few things he's been in. Good stuff. They also have cafe plays where a writer writes a theme-based play in four hours, and a cast and director then work on it for six hours, and then they perform it twice that very night. They were fun to see. They asked me to direct one, and I did with Spencer Garrett and Rob Morrow. We had a blast. That's what got me interested in doing more in LA. Funny, The Geffen or the Taper or Kirk Douglas have never asked me to do anything at those theaters. Don't know if I've been too busy or what. Also, I started teaching a master class out of the Rustic space. I actually loved doing it and was exposed to some very fine actors, some of whom have asked me to come to their plays in town. I did so and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Any one specific audience reaction you would love after the curtain call of NORTURNE?
RS: I'm always curious how audiences will react to material. One of the great joys and great mysteries is how when performing a show, it seems so different from night to night, and most of the time I think the energy of that night's audience is the major ingredient to that phenomenon. I don't like to predict a response largely because they vary so much. I stay curious and only hope that audiences listen and absorb everything they can from seeing an act of creativity unfold in front of them.
JE: Thunderous applause and a sea of invitations to expensive dinners.
Like a hard-core drunk coming off a massive bender, I am still whoozy and wobbly from the three weeks of Fringe. Did I really see 50-odd shows - some odder than others? Did I really turn around that time in Serial Killers to find the couple sitting behind me suddenly naked, as they vaulted past me, approaching the stage? And while we're on the topic, there was a lot of nudity in the Fringe. A lot more than I'd seen onstage in a while. Or did I just imagine it?
(No I didn't. I mean, there was one show, Naked Shorts, in which not only were all the actors naked, but the audience was required to strip down as well. Somehow I missed that one, maybe because I'm not 25 anymore. Also, the featured image is from Apartment 8, an immersive Fringe show I was never able to get a ticket for because the number of audience members was limited to how many could fit in a bathroom and watch a woman taking a bath.)
FRINGE SOLO SHOWS
There were by my count over 100 solo shows in the Fringe, on pretty much every conceivable subject. There was even a show that was a send-up of one person shows - EASY TARGETS - and it was one of the highlights of Fringe.
Here are a few of the shows that I was able to catch up with.
INGERSOLL SPEAKS! by Ernest Kearney
This fascinating show about "America's greatest intellectual" and "greatest foe of religion" is obviously a labor of love for the loveable Ernest Kearney, who also portrays Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, whose life spanned the latter two-thirds of the 19th century, was prophetic in his support of giving women the right to vote and in advocating for the equal rights of minorities; and Kearney completely captures that sense of the free-thinking philosopher who refuses to bow down to the prejudices and superstitions of his day. But Kearney's poster for his show touts Ingersoll as "The Great Infidel" and "The Great Satan" for his vehement opposition of religious intolerance, and Kearney comes off as too nice a guy to earn such labels. I would love to see more of the thundering orator displayed in his show - and maybe in the show's next incarnation, it will be. In any case, I am grateful for this introduction to an outstanding and influential American who I was unaware of before Kearney's show.
BEHIND THE PULPIT by Noam Friedlander
Noam Friedlander opens her show about her childhood in London by confiding a conversation she had when she was grown up and feeling at loose ends. The man she was speaking with told her that he felt the same way some years ago and was saved from despair by a wise rabbi he went to. "Was his name Rabbi Friedlander?" she asked. The man nodded. "He's dead now," she told him, adding that the man had been her father. Noam's one-person show is an intimate and intriguing look at what it's like to grow up "the child of a saint" who was also a highly imperfect father. Noam's father had a close college friend who was a higher-up in Hugh Hefner's empire and who traveled to London to open up a British Playboy mansion. This resulted in Noam and her family taking some visits to the mansion, which earned her father the nickname of "The Playboy Rabbi" and gave Noam some amusing stories to tell. The only downside is that Noam is still reading her narrative from the page, which makes it less spontaneous and transfixing. Once she's able to master her material's flow and relate more directly to the audience, she will have achieved something witty and wonderful. (She could also use a few more slides to give her stories a visual dimension.)
MAGIC 8-BALL (My Life with Asperger's) by George Steeves
There were two one-man shows in the Fringe on the subject of living with this condition - the other was A PAIN IN MY ASPERGER'S by Jeremy Ebenstein - and I wasn't really planning to see either one. Only because I'm wary of shows that have such specific agendas and that seem basically predictable - I'm attracted to experiences that will surprise me or at least keep me from getting too far ahead of them. But Mr Steeves approached me personally and beseeched me to see his show, which I did - and I'm glad to have done so. Contrary to the image of him in his show's poster - which I've posted above - George Steeves is not a wild and crazy guy. In fact, his show could be sub-subtitled "I wish I was a wild and crazy guy but I have Asperger's." Because Mr Steeves grew up obsessed with becoming a great entertainer, and he has all the attributes - good looks, a pleasant voice, a sharp mind and a good sense of humor - but Asperger's gives his voice and behavior a flat affect which prevents him from investing his performances with the passion and individuality necessary for commercial success. It also prevents him from having the fulfilling love life he envisions, because what we find attractive in people is the way they respond to our cues, and people with Asperger's are locked out of that dialogue - or rather, locked inside themselves by their condition. I never really grasped before how tragic that is, and Mr Steeves's show brought me to tears several times. Not because he's filled with self-pity - he isn't. He's grateful for being so high-functioning. I'm grateful for having a more visceral under-standing of what it means to have his condition. One note - because a writer with Asperger's is still a writer and thus subject to criticism - if you're going to call your show "Magic 8-Ball" then you need to incorporate that 8-ball into your finale rather than simply telling us how you've triumphed over adversity. What does your Magic 8-Ball say?
TOUGH BROWN LEATHER by Tonya Jones
Tonya Jones has a great story to tell - that of being a little eight year old football-playing girl who thought she could take a hit with the best of them, until she was repeatedly raped by an uncle; something that she's spent her life coming to terms with. But having a great story and being a great storyteller are two different things, and Tonya Jones is not there yet. She has moments of greatness, as when she takes her time analyzing the rapes from many angles, and then analyzing her response to it, including the way it changed her behavior. It's unnerving and highly unusual to dwell like that on something so disturbing, and it's very effective. Then she launches into a desperate monologue of self-hatred, and we can feel the terrible ways in which her sense of self was wrenched from her body. But this mixes uneasily with other stories of hers, acerbic stories about lovers who hurt her and jobs that didn't work out. Tonya Jones bears a slight resemblance to Chris Rock, and there are times when her delivery resembles his too, in a good way. At those moments it felt like she was finding her own voice, finding a way to talk about sexual abuse and her father's emotional abuse and the exploitation of women (especially black women) and still make us laugh. Still make us feel okay about laughing. That's the brilliance of Chris Rock, that he can talk about the most serious issues and the most frivolous and have us laugh equally at both, becuse he's in such control of his material. Tonya Jones has not found this yet, she hasn't found that kind of control. She's good now, but someday she may be great.
SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS: Is Asian the Mask We Choose Or The Mask We Are Given? by Paul Yen
I must confess that one of my personal blind spots is superheroes and superhero-related projects. Yes, I watched "Superman" on TV as a kid - the old-fashioned black-and-white show featuring George Reeves. Yes, I had a thing for Lois Lane and had fantasies of flying around with her in my arms. And then I grew up and was more interested in the complexity of human behavior and the difficult development of the Self. So when I encounter a presentation like Paul Yen's - which relies so heavily on superhero ideas and images - then I do my best to get past my own biases and try to experience the material on its own terms. But I don't usually succeed, and I didn't in this case. Mr Yen is handsome and charismatic, smart and articulate, and his subject matter - the ways in which Asians have been ignored, dismissed and short-changed by our society - is an important and interesting one. But as soon as he began expressing it in terms of "How come there aren't Asian Superheroes?" and "What would an Asian Superhero look like?" and "What if Superman, Batman and Spiderman were Asian?" - well, my attention span just went out the window and nothing he said really made any impression on me. I will say that the packed house at the Underground loved it and cheered frequently and hung on his every word. But I couldn't have cared less.
CHEMO BARBIE: My Lady Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer by Heather Keller
So this was another show that I had no intention of attending - another one of my blind spots is "inspiring stories of triumph," despite how much money they make, because of how they typically follow a tried and true formula - but Heather Keller is a very persuasive person, and she broke down my resistance. And Heather Keller proved to be funny and talented and able to summon up details about her battle with cancer - like the cold-capping routine that she had to do in order to keep her hair from falling out - which made her ordeal very real for the audience. She was able to articulate the shock of dealing with cancer at such a young age (her 20s), while also making it okay for us to laugh and experience the various stages of her "journey." In that way, yes, this is a very important story about how important it is to keep up a positive outlook and get support from your loved ones - in this case, Heather's husband, who was there for her big-time - in order to maximize your chances of suriviving a life-threatening illness. Very inspiring - which, as I've said, is not really my kind of story. Still, I'm very happy for Heather and for her lady bits.
THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone
I have truly saved the best for last. There is actually no other one-person show in the Hollywood Fringe that even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence - and yes, it is that good. I wish I could embed the entire show on a link for you here, because it's the kind of good the people want to share right away, want their friends and family to see. And also because it's not easy to describe what makes it so special. It's not because the story in and of itself is so different from anything you may have heard before. Rather, it's the way that it reminds you of so many other Hollywood stories, like Sunset Boulevard and A Star Is Born and a thousand others seen late at night on Turner Classic Movies. Also the Nathaniel West novel The Day of the Locust - there was a strong link in tone and content to that, even though I don't think it was intentional. There are several songs in the piece, and Ms. Hartstone has a pleasant voice, but not a particularly memorable one. No, that's not what makes it great. The piece is simply pitch-perfect. That is, it does exactly what it sets out to do - to tell a Hollywood story of a loser who never lost her humanity - and it does so with just the right amount of wit and grace and humility. In a more perfect world, this would run for several months and be as popular as Hamilton - though on a smaller scale and in a lower key. But the pleasures of a beautifully-imagined and realized show like this are hard to describe and even more difficult to market. "A young woman who loves Hollywood is driven to the brink by twists and turns of an unhappy fate" hardly seems calculated to have audiences turning out in droves. But if you watch closely enough, you will see Ms. Hartstone walking a tightrope as dangerous as anything Phillippe Petit ever crossed, and doing so with great ease. Yes, she does that nearly impossible thing, create a new Hollywood myth out of pieces of a forgotten past. I salute you, Joanne Hartstone, for the delicacy and toughness of your creation. I just wish that everyone could get to see it.
Every month or so, playwright Boni B. Alvarez and I have a kiki (Queer dictionary moment: kiki = chit-chat, coffee, shoot the…you understand). We meet up to talk shop, dream, scheme, and generally relish each other's company. Fresh off the opening of Boni's new play Nicky, you know I was eager for this month's talk. And I thought I'd invite your guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers, to the party.
Roger Q. Mason
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): I'll never forget how we met. It was 2009.
Boni B. Alvarez (BBA): Yes, it was my play Ruby, Tragically Rotund. My first production – with Playwrights' Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
RQM: I remember seeing that play and being wowed by the theatricality of the piece, the originality of the writing and the singularity of perspective. Until then, I had not yet seen a Filipino-American play on stage.
Boni B. Alvarez
BBA: The funny thing is I don't think of it as a Filipino-American play. I mean, obviously, it is. I am Filipino-American and there are a lot of Filipino and Filipino-American characters in it, but the inspiration actually came from reading a Maria Irene Fornes play. I think it was Mud and then I just envisioned a fat girl in a pig pen and that brewed in my head for about a year. I had always wanted to write a fat play, or a play of size. And what came out was Ruby, Tragically Rotund.
RQM: Did you start that play while you were at the USC's MFA?
BBA: Yes, it was my thesis play and Jon Rivera saw the reading and committed to it pretty quickly. We developed it and shopped it around. I graduated in 2007 and the production was in 2009.
RQM: That's sort of a fairy tale ending to the MFA experience. So many people bemoan the year after the MFA. You are broken of old habits by the MFA and then you are re-broken by the rejections that come thereafter, especially in that first year out because you're new, people don't know your work yet, and you're trying to establish those relationships. Some people thrive after that first year or so and others don't - they move on from the business. How was it for you coming out of the MFA and having a production right away?
BBA: You have something to look forward to. You know you're getting produced, but it also is a double-edged sword. It was two and a half years after graduation. The play wasn't reviewed as well as I thought it would be, yet audiences really loved it. It was a pretty sold-out run with a couple of extensions. It's kind of disappointing when you don't get that second production of a play when you hoped it would.
RQM: How's your new show Nicky going?
BBA: Really great!
RQM: What's it about?
BBA: It's an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.
RQM: Uh oh! Folks better watch out. Boni is taking on the canon.
BBA: It's what I deem as the problem play. It was Chekhov's first play which he labeled a comedy. Contemporary audiences would be like, “Where's the laughter supposed to be?”
RQM: It's Dantean comedy: a journey from a low play to a high place.
BBA: Right! And I keep to the Russian origin. The lead is Russian-American. But the play is definitely inclusive of places and cultures of the world that we live in now. That's usually my goal as a writer. If the play isn't all Filipino, it usually will have a little bit of everyone in it.
RQM: You really inspire me. My mom is Filipino, so I identify as Filipino American. For many years, I didn't know what to say about that aspect of my identity in my work. I just kept coming to your plays and seeing your vigilance in exploring it on the page. You look at the Filipino experience in the US and globally. The East always has one eye on the West.
BBA: The American dream is always at the forefront of my plays. In some works, it's more obvious than others. It's a testament to the career that I've chosen. It's a dream - an elusive dream: to be a playwright who works enough to sustain an existence on playwriting alone.
RQM: So whenever we hang out, we often talk about The Business. No, I'm not asking for your trade secrets in public, but really though, how do you keep working?
BBA: I get really excited by a story. But, once that inspiration hits, it's not like you can just immediately sit down and write that story. You have to let that inspiration live through you and bubble up - what the story is and who the characters will be. Usually it'll be 6 months to a year in between that first strike of inspiration and the first word I commit to the page. At that point, it's boiling to come out of me. I get inspired by the people I work with: directors, actors, companies. I know that times are tough. With the whole 99-seat debacle that's happening in Los Angeles, it's probably wiser for a writer to sit at home and write two-handers and one man shows. But all of a sudden, Nicky has 14 characters. My next play has 9. I've just written a three-act 11-character World War II epic play set in the Philippines. I'm not shying away from the bigness, how grand or how large things need to be. I meet more and more actors. I want to work with people and have things for them to be in. I think that is a big inspiration.
RQM: Process - let's discuss. For me, my writerly coming of age journey has entailed announcing to myself and others that I'm not a “traditional” playwright. A lot of my writing happens through improvisation and experimentation in the room. The work is interdisciplinary too - there's music, there's movement, it's like opera but at a slimmer ticket price. A friend has called what I do librettism. I'm a librettist for performance experiences. Knowing that about myself was a huge relief. What about you? What are your writing conditions like?
BBA: So after an idea boils up, I start writing. I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of writers groups with various theatres in Los Angeles so I have an avenue in which to write it in, a forum that has a structure to it with deadlines. Usually, I've been working on three or four plays at the same time, juggling between the projects. Now, I have to be more focused. There's usually a project I'm writing from scratch and then there's something I'm revising either for a production or a reading.
RQM: How do you compartmentalize the plays so they don't sound the same?
BBA: Sometimes they do sound the same. But, you know what, audiences aren't watching them at the same time. It's okay. I mean everyone has a trademark. I say that in jest, but also not.
RQM: What is Boni Alvarez's trademark?
BBA: Oh lord, I leave that up to the audiences, to the future. Maybe my trademark is that I've been emerging. It's been 10 years since I got out of the USC Dramatic Writing program and I feel like I am finally hitting a stride and that now most of my efforts are going towards storytelling and playwriting of some sort.
RQM: You are a career playwright. We can say that. We are going to say that.
BBA: Yes, okay. It's important to own it. I am a career playwright.
RQM: So 10 years…Is that about right? That seems to be the timeframe. I remember reading in the New York Times years ago when August: Osage County first came out that Tracy Letts was considered then an “emerging playwright.” I found that quite laughable at the time, considering the man had been working for years. But I guess emerging takes on many definitions and phases - even within the context of one person's career. You can be emerging in some new aspect or developing some new skill set to add to your tool box, and in that sense, you're emerging.
BBA: I'm emerging on the national level, to bigger theatres - getting on their radar through literary departments or other artists. It's an uphill climb being a playwright in LA. We live in the shadow of “the industry” - television and film. And it's hard to get the proper street cred as a playwright coming out of LA.
RQM: But yet you've stayed. So what keeps you here?
BBA: I lived in New York. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. My agents told me to move to LA. I never wanted to. There's a NorCal/SoCal thing and an East Coast/West Coast thing and I even had stuff in storage in New York while I was in school at USC.
BBA: I had every intention of moving back. But I found a tremendous community here. There's a humungous theatre scene here - so many talented practitioners of theatre.
RQM: How do plays that have developed here make it to the national scene?
BBA: You have to submit to everything. It detracts from your writing time, but it is writing, it's part of the process. They all ask for some kind of statement of purpose. Those statements help as a check-in for what you are doing, what you are working on. When you have to do a statement about your play, you have to think about why you are writing it. You have to be selective, too. I applied to this one thing year after year. I was a finalist one year. I didn't get it, but there was a private email from someone on the selection committee that said, “I'm a big fan of your work. I know it can seem like you are sending your script out into this empty black hole. You probably don't know if anyone is even reading it. It is being read, it is being appreciated. But it's not always recognized by the entire committee.”
RQM: Oh, the politics of readership.
BBA: There's politics in every committee. And so many points of view. If you are a director, you will judge a work from a director's point of view, what plays you'd like to take a stab at or if you're a producer, there are circumstances you have to take into account in selecting plays. You can't escape the baggage of who you are or your position. But you should also read it outside of that perspective as well.
RQM: And we can't be phased by any of that. We have to write our truth.
BBA: Right! You will write what you will write. And, hopefully, your champion reader will find it. I've been very lucky to have met a lot of generous people.
RQM: This is the people business.
BBA: And it's not just about the work. Are people going to want to work with you? Kindness is so undervalued and underrated. Just being nice - not pure as snow - but someone that people want to have in their presence and work with. For Nicky, we had over 200 submissions. We saw almost 100 people and I'm always amazed - wow they want to be part of my play. They want to be part of something I created.
RQM: And let's be real, some of them are coming specifically because it's YOU, Boni.
BBA: Yes, I realize that and I'm humbled. Some of my plays are mostly Filipino and I have fans who are not necessarily of the ethnicities of the characters I write for.
RQM: You know, according to Anthony Bourdain, we are in vogue. If restaurant trends are harbingers of larger cultural movements, Filipino-Americas are the new thing.
BBA: And we need to get ready to step into our light - the Filipinos of the world. Capitalize on the moment.
RQM: It is a really exciting moment to be a Filipino-American who tells stories.
BBA: I've got a question for you: as an Asian American playwright, do you feel a responsibility to include Filipinos or Filipino culture or African American culture in your work?
RQM: That comes back to my house and my home life. In many ways, my mother came to America to re-imagine herself outside of her Filipino life. Specifically, she came here to be a Western woman. That always bothered me growing up. She did not teach us any Tagalog growing up, amongst other things. My mother had a very difficult home life in the Philippines and she conflated her specific domestic situation with the Philippines as a whole. I had to come into my Filipino self on my own. I'd look on the internet and bombard her with purposefully mispronounced versions of useful Tagalog phrases like “I'm hungry” or “Good morning.” I made her correct me. Then, during the holidays, I went to my cousins' houses and it was like a different country. They served food from lace-doilied buffet tables; after the meal, the adults would sit around the television and give the kids space, and then the karaoke machine would come out. My aunt's house was decorated with a mixture of Chinese statuary and Filipino Catholic icons. I imagined that, were I born in a slightly different household, my world would be completed different. The Filipino world fascinated me, and I wanted to absorb everything I could from it.
BBA: Now this is fascinating.
RQM: I remember going to the Philippines in my 20s and being awed by the resilience, the vibrance, and the pliability of the culture. Here was a place that defined cultural fusion before the tastemakers started commenting on it. During that same trip, I went to Antipologos and looked down on Manila Bay. There was no middle class. It was ritzy Makati City on one side and the shanties on the other. That duality read like tortured poetry to me.
BBA: Well, the middle class of the Filipinos is not in the Philippines. They're all working abroad.
RQM: And also, the telecom industry is creating an emerging middle class there in the Philippines as well. That's another fascinating subculture. You discussed this in your play Dallas Non-Stop: a workforce that is trained to perform a version of self on the phone that is familiar and comfortable to the West. It's a kind of passing. Cultural passing. I am thousands of miles away but I know just what you need out of your hotel or your flight from Omaha to Detroit.
BBA: It's a type of global passing. You have Filipinos infiltrating the States, the UK, Japan, Israel, Australia. What's that show? There was a Filipino caregiver who won X Factor Israel.
RQM: Get out!
BBA: No, I'm not kidding you. Our people are all over.
RQM: Yes, we are! But, we digress. Back to your question, I've never really been able to speak to a monolithic identity, whether it's Filipino or Black American. On both sides of the family, my world is quite strange and unique so my work centers on speaking to that uniqueness as best and clearly as I can.
RQM: So, what have you got brewing next?
BBA: I have a reading of a new play, my WWII epic play Refuge for a Purple Heart as part of Echo Theater's Labfest in July. I have a played called Fixed, inspired by Calderon de la Barca's work.
RQM: Is this the lady boy play?
RQM: I am so excited right now!
BBA: It's about a family of lady boys who run a massage parlor in historic Filipinotown. This is going up at the Echo Theater in September.
RQM: This is literally putting a smile on my face right now. I am over here completely beaming. There is a play. About a house of lady boys. In September. In LA. Yasss!
BBA: The House of Malacanang.
RQM: Everybody needs to try and get into that house. Will there be tea?
BBA: Tea is always served, it might just be too strong for you.
RQM: Oh honey, yes! I just have a feeling. I can smell a smash hit from 4 months away.
BBA: You're a mess!
RQM: I always try to be.
BBA: You succeed, trust. So what's next with you?
RQM: My solo show The Duat is going up in July at Son of Semele Theatre. It's inspired by the shootings at UCLA which took place in the 1960s between differing black student groups on campus. This piece imagines a COINTELPRO informant's spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I feel really good about this piece - a great team and the script rewrites are coming together. Then I'm off to New York. My show The White Dress, the gender queer coming of age play, will be performed at the Araca Project in November. And then I'm filming a movie based upon my short play Softer, the gay slavery piece.
BBA: Look at you - so busy!
RQM: I'm doing what I Iove.
BBA: What is the picture of happiness in terms of your career?
RQM: What is it for you? I'll answer, but you go first.
BBA: Enough success to keep me writing plays. I'm at a point where I feel I need more productions. I mean, what playwright doesn't? But you can't just sit at home and write plays. You learn so much - the experience of being in rehearsal. Revising for production, really focused on the arrival of an audience. Audiences, they're a key element of the work.
RQM: The happiness for me comes in stages and waves. For the longest time, it was knowing what I was. And now that I know I write performance work with a foundation in playwriting, that happiness is fulfilled: I know who I am and what to do. But, as you know, happiness is addictive. So now I've got to get to the next happiness. Well, the next happiness is having a forum to do that work that's supported - my own theatre company, commissions, residencies. That's part of the happiness. The other aspect of the happiness is one that's always been there for me. I remember my first workshop production (and I'm saying that so you readers know the play is still available for world premiere rights). The play was Onion Creek, my Reconstruction-era Adam and Eve tale. At auditions, I remember seeing people in the hall trying their hearts out to come in the room and bring the strongest rendition of those sides. I saw firsthand that I was creating something larger than myself, something that people want to do.
BBA: It's a completely and utterly humbling experience.
RQM: Yes, and that's the happiness that sustains us.
I am posting this photo of these two girls, one of whom happens to be my daughter at age five or so (on the right), because it is the purest expression I know of the beauty of human beings, and after seeing Chimpskin and then Slashed! in the Fringe, I needed something to remind me that we are not all bad. Seriously, I felt such despair for our species after seeing those two shows, especially Chimpskin - which is a beautiful performance piece, but leaves so little room for hope that a colleague seated next to me was moved to exclaim, "Ugh! I hate humans." A common sentiment these days and one that often comes to mind while driving on the 405 or pretty much anywhere in LA. That's why it's important to have these reference points, these touchstones, that remind us of how loveable we can be. For me it's this photo. For you, something else. Or you're welcome to borrow this image, if it helps to keep the demons away. We can see the consequences of not having anything in the daily destruction all over the world.
MAKE A FRINGE PLAN, BEN HILL LAUGHS
I have spent a crazy amount of time putting together schedules for attending Fringe shows, but this is a less than perfect system, to say the least. For one, some shows respond immediately to a request, while others never seem to get the message. For another, there are so many shows - 375! - and so many that I would like to see, but there are inevitable time overlaps, and - and then one show ends at 6:30 at the Underground on Wilton, while another begins at 6:30 at the Complex on Wilcox and Santa Monica, but unless I use a transporter, I'm not going to get there and find parking until 6:45, by which time they will not allow me to enter. NOTE TO BEN HILL: Next year, every reviewer should get issued a Fringe-authorized transporter, which henceforth shall be called a Fringesporter. Don't be cheap, we're worth it! Because we've invested hours and hours trying to figure out your vercochte system.
OCTOBER BABY by Brooke Baumer
There is no denying that Brooke Baumer has a remarkable and deeply moving story to tell. A practicing Catholic and admitted control freak, Brooke loves the month of October so much that she is determined to have her second child be an October-born baby. She determines the optimal time for her and her husband to have sex toward this end, and it works! She gets pregnant with an expecting date of October 16 - perfect, right? No, not perfect enough for Brooke, since this is the year 2010, she is informed by a relative that if her child is born just 6 days earlier, it will be born on 10-10-10. And so an obsession is born. But suddenly everything starts going wrong with the pregnancy, just as Brooke finds out that her first child has autism. She is devestated that her plans have gone so awry, and asks God for an answer: "Why have I done wrong? Why are you punishing me?" Yes, it's a genuinely great story, but I question whether Brooke is indeed the best one to tell it. She makes several questionable writing decisions which undercut her story's power, such as when she had us view her pregnancy sex in her In-Laws' home through the lens of the furniture on which they are making love and the surrounding rocking chair and armchair. I mean, why does the creaky bed have a southern accent? At least I think it was southern, because Brooke's acting ability is very limited, and her mimicking of her OBGYN often sounds a lot like her mimicking of her husband. Nevertheless, she does have a great story to tell, and in the end we do get very wrapped up in the fate of her family.
DIVORCE: The Hip-Hop Musical by Conor Hanney
This somewhat awkward but always amusing musical doesn't endeavor to find humor in adult divorce. Instead, it tells the story of two fourth-graders (played by actors in their 20s) who decide to break up, which causes their toys to experience heartbreak and disillusion. The show still has a ways to go - it runs only 55 minutes, and even within that brief length, does a lot of spinning its wheels and repeating its better moments. If it can take all that energy and wit it begins with and spin that into a full-length narrative that keeps developing the characters (sometimes it lacks at present), then it will really have something. From a talented cast, Callie Ott and Brianna McClellan stand out.
DOG SEES GOD: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Bert V. Royal
This parody of the famous Peanuts comic strip has been around for 10 years and is being performed all over the country and the world, but this is my first encounter with it. It features the familiar comic strip characters of Charlie Brown (here called CB), Pigpen (here called Matt) and Beethoven, and re-imagines them in a darkly comic scenario that ensues after the death of Snoopy. Some of the dark humor seems dated - especially its depiction of gay characters and gay-ness as being exiled to the fringes of the community; though of course there are still many places in which this is sadly the case. This production, directed by Jonah Platt, features teenage actors who are just graduating from high school, and they are all excellent. More than that, they work together wonderfully as a company, and all seem deeply invested in the material, which abjures happy endings and concludes with a shocking tragedy. I was glad for the chance to encounter this play done so well by young actors with so much commitment.
URBAN THEATRE MOVEMENT PRESENTS URBAN UNREST: A Series of Short Plays
The Urban Theatre Movement also uses dark humor to make their points, but these are anything but comic book characters. The actors who bring these short plays to life are white, black, Latino and Jewish - the emphasis is on ethnic identity in the urban jungle of our cities. Drugs, sex and guns are the subjects that dominate, and there are also interludes from an African-American narrator who tells parables with tragic twists. Yet of the four plays presented, only the final one, Replica by Paul Tully, really emerged as a strong and memorable piece of writing, a play rather than a skit. This involved a small-time drug dealer played with paranoid humor by Spencer Weitzel in a performance that had echoes for me of Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park. He is selling such high-grade Meth that his friend Paul (played by the author, Tully) begs for a chance to peddle it in his neighborhood and make a big score. The pitch-black comedy that unfolds has some elegant and unexpected twists and turns, but it still struck me as minor-league Stephen Adley Guirgis. Lo and behold, when I got home I noticed that the play's program featured an endorsement from Mr Guirgis himself, who called the group "excellent. I love them." They are very good, and are certainly worthy of our support. But the bar has been raised so high on "the urban unrest" that surrounds us and the deepening crises of inner-city dwellers, that we need better and sharper plays than the first three presented here.
BONO AND THE EDGE WAITING FOR GODOMINO'S
Just realized that I forgot to include this very funny show in my original tour, so I'm squeezing it in now. While a parody of Beckett's Waiting for Godot that will appeal to all theater geeks, it's also a hoot for the general public in its spin around the recordings of U2, notable both for their great musicianship and their sometimes pretentious self-seriousness. All the actors are wonderful, and the final twist that comes with the arrival of the longed-for pizza takes it to another level. Do the bandmates finally find what they're looking for? Catch the last show on Saturday at 7 to find out!
WE ARE TRAFFIC: a rideshare adventure by Jonathan Lipton Meyers
And we have a winner, folks! In the Twisted Hipster's constant search for Epiphanies, I have found the man whose entire show turns out to be an epiphany, one that elevates him at the end of this "ride" onto a plane (so to speak) of boundless optimism. Jonathan Lipton Meyers has given us a ride very much worth taking, as he has all the qualities one looks for in both an Uber driver and the star of his own one-man show: he's a great storyteller, and he genuinely seems to love what he's doing. While Jonathan freely admits that he has not accomplished many of the goals he set himself when coming out to Los Angeles, he has, I believe, learned something more valuable: who he is and what his strengths are, both as a performer and a person. Because what comes across in the hour-long "ride" is how much Jonathan is like us - how imperfect and vulnerable he is, and yet how resilient and unflappable too. There's no room for self-pity or self-aggrandizement in Jonathan's vehicle, and it is the absence of these that makes it great to be riding with him. Well, okay, I can't speak for everyone, but he certainly made me feel that way, and I felt closer to everyone else because of the warm embrace of his fellowship. Jonathan has found an entire philosophy in the act of picking up strangers and giving them rides. He is truly an Uber-philosopher for our times, Lyfting us up through his acceptance of himself and what his life has become. If I'm going to put on my grumpy critic's face at all, it would just be to wonder if his epiphany at the end is entirely earned, if it might be a bit general and a bit show-bizzy - that is, giving the audience (or the riders) what he knows we want to hear. But maybe that's my problem - maybe I'm just suspicious of finding the very epiphany I've been looking for. Kudos to Matt Ritchey for his excellent directing work, as he has certainly coached Jonathan well in how to maintain the rhythm and flow of his "ride" until that final moment when we reach our destination - one that I hope each of you will get to experience too someday soon.
And now we have come back to Chimpskin and Slashed! The Musical and the end of OUR ride.
CHIMPSKIN uses choreograph movement and stage imagery to tell the story of Lucy, a chimp taken from the wild and taught human language as part of a scientific experiment. It is gracefully performed and quite heart-rending.
SLASHED! THE MUSICAL is a takeoff on the horror genre in which campers are slashed to bits by a ghostly killer for having sex or otherwise engaging in taboo activities. By any standard, this is neither inventive nor does it add anything to the many examples of the genre. It's a knockoff of a knockoff of a knockoff. Nevertheless the full house of devotees I saw it with screamed and shouted and cheered whenever a body was hacked up and purposely fake-looking body parts were tossed into the audience. The songs were depressingly witless, and only Fayna Sanchez as the crazy lady who knows the truth (but can't get anyone to listen) manages to rise above the blood and guts and add some style and wit.
Which bring us back to my private epiphany, this picture of innocence. But now it looks kind of creepy, doesn't it? I mean, depends on how look at it, but.... damn! Kind of creepy. How did that happen?
EASY TARGETSat Sacred Fools is simply the most fun you can have at the Hollywood Fringe, and one of the most fun evenings you will ever have at the theater. There's an A evening (Male Actors) and a B evening (Female Actors); I've only seen the A, and it's such a hoot. Can't wait to see B. Don't forget money for socks.
HOLLYWOOD (FRINGE) DREAMING
Oh God, I keep having this dream where I'm running down Santa Monica Boulevard, desperately running towards a pulpit on the street where a 30 year old man or woman leans. (It's hard to distinguish gender when your eyes are jumping up and down in your head, while you can hear yourself starting to wheeze.) Then, just as I vault across the street and race up to the pulpit, the 30 year old opens the door, then closes it behind him or her. I race up to the door, but it's locked! Locked! I knock, but the door doesn't open. And then I wake up, right? Wrong. Because this is no dream, this is an all-too-real moment of FRINGE!
I did manage, however, to see these shows: Incantesimo, Fire and Light, The Brick, Why We Become Witches, Ladies in Waiting, Roughly Hamlet, Normal.
INCANTESIMO, written by Chris Philpott, performed by Riccardo Berdini
I freely admit to being a sucker for magic. If the trick is presented and executed well, then I will gladly applaud and "Ooh" and "Aah" with the rest of the crowd. Yet I am also usually bored, as I know that at bottom what I've seen is just a trick, and that fooling me is not such a hard thing to do. But Incantesimo is something else entirely. It's not "magic" in any traditional sense. Riccardo Berdini, working from a script by Chris Philpott - or perhaps it's more of a strategy and an idea? - is more mentalist than magician, trying to read the minds of his audience, especially the songs that his subjects are thinking of. Because that is the theme of the evening- how music conveys the soul of humanity and of the individual, and how its power is far greater than we tend to recognize. Human beings emerged from the swamp with a hum and a song in our hearts - a song that Riccardo Berdini is somehow able to guess. How he is able to do this, I have no clue. No more than I was able to figure out his other feats. As I said, fooling me isn't that hard. But getting me to think about the birth of civilization and the primal role that music plays in our development - well, that's pretty great. As is Fringe for giving such a show a forum.
THE BRICK: A One Man Musical, written and performed by Bill Berry
The idea that gives rise to Bill Berry's "One Man Musical," The Brick, has an almost uncanny connection to Riccardo Berdini's show. To quote Berry's description: "It's been said that there are three deaths: first when your body ceases to function. Then when your body is put in the grave. And third when your name ... is spoken for the last time." In Berry's case, his show has him going to the grave of his mother, with whom he had a tortured relationship, and deciding whether to forgive her or to allow her her name to die as well, suffering that "third death." This provides the frame for Berry to sing his offbeat folk songs, which are paradoxically comic in nature. The songs are all good, very distinctive and well-staged by Kelly De Sarla - my favorite was one about how he and his friends tried to steal a cardboard cutout of Steve Martin at the height of his "arrow through the head" fame. I also loved the title song, about how each person's life is defined by what he or she does with his/her brick. I have to admit that this mix of comedic songs within such a serious framework was an odd one and took some getting used to; but it grew on me, and in the end it seemed appropriate to the nature of Bill Berry's argument with his German mother, who was always telling him "you will never get anywhere with this clang-clang." She couldn't have been more wrong, as Berry's show vividly demonstrates. I hope it takes up residence in a Southland cabaret where it can be appreciated by the larger audience that it deserves.
I will say right off the bat that this is probably my favorite show from the 2017 Fringe, and I urge everyone who appreciates wit, intelligence and a generosity of spirit to see it. Adapated from Lolly Willowes, a 1926 novel by Syvia Townsend Warner, this 40 minute gem presents us with the wonderful character of "Aunt Lolly," wonderfully played by Lisa K. Wyatt in a thrillingly brilliant staging by Kate Motzenbacker (who also co-adapted it.) Aunt Lolly is a woman in early 20th century England who "wakes up" at 47 to find herself a spinster aunt living with her portentous brother and his family, helping to raise his children, and entirely taken for granted. She has become in essence a non-person with no prospects. That's when she takes matters into her own hands and makes a move that promises her a liberation of spirit, even as her brother does everything in his power to block it. This is a one person show that feels populated by an entire world that Ms. Wyatt and Ms. Motzenbacker bring powerfully and delightfully to life. It also provides yet another example of why the Fringe is so important, since this show defies marketing labels almost as completely as it lays claim to our lasting attention.
I saw a friend outside the Stephanie Feury Studio after this show, and she said with an ecstatic expression on her face: "Can you believe how great that was?" I nodded politely and said, "Yes, very good," but the truth is, I was bored. There were some standout performances from the actresses playing the victims of Henry VIII's cruelty, especially Jennifer Haining as Anne of Cleves and Wendy K. Skuse as Anne Boleyn (but those were also the best-written roles). The author James Cougar Canfield also plays the lead, and he does so in workout sweats. The result is neither royal enough nor inventive enough. Canfield seems like basically a nice guy, which Henry VIII definitely wasn't. The result is big on bombast but low on charisma. Nothing is really at stake. The women say that it is their turn to pass judgment on Henry - an interesting idea, but Canfield doesn't take it anywhere. Henry doesn't care what these women have to say in death any more than he did in life, and he doesn't give a damn about the consequences. For me, Canfield's performance exemplifies everything that leaves me cold about British acting - all form, no substance. A major disappointment for me, though, as I said, others felt differently.
The publicity for this show describes it as "a fast-paced reimagining of one man's struggle to escape being trapped in his own mind, as he strives to make one single but very important decision, to be or not to be." That might make sense in some hypothetical other play, but it certainly has no bearing on the performance I saw. Dressed in a cheap blazer and trousers and wearing a red tie and red sneakers, Watterson seems most like a temp worker at a large corporation who is either having a fit of some kind or is intellectually jacking off during his break. I don't understand why he felt the need to create this cerebral burlesque from what is possibly the greatest play ever written. I definitely don't understand the red tie and sneakers. I can honestly say that there wasn't one single moment when I felt that Watterson had an idea that shed any light on the play or when I was glad I was there. It's possible that Watterson was inspired by Alan Cumming's one-man version of Macbeth. (I use the word "inspired" very loosely here.) If that was indeed the case, then no, that was simply wrong-headed. Okay, break over, Micah. Now get back to work.
NORMAL by Anthony Neilson, Directed by David Mancini
This play is based on the real-life story of Peter Kurten, called both The Vampire of Dusseldorf and the Dusseldorf Monster. He murdered at least eight people back in 1929 and boasted about killing many more, including children. It's a fascinating story, as Kurten had no remorse whatsoever and freely admitted to enjoying his murders and to getting intense sexual satisfaction from these heinous acts. The story of Kurten inspired one of the greatest crimes dramas in cinematic history, Fritz Lang's M, starring Peter Lorre. It contains one of my favorite lines in movie history, when Lorre tells the German Underworld (who have captured him and put him on trial) that he rejects their verdict because "You have no idea what it is to be me." This production (by the Vagrancy Company) features a brilliant central performance by Steve Madar as Kurten and several horrifyingly effective theatrical images, but it is not satisfied with this and attempts to demonstrate how Kurten's evil corrupts the society around him, specifically the mind of his attorney, Justus Wehner, played by Arthur Keng. There is the germ of an interesting question here - does the society create the psychopath, or does the psychopath corrupt the society? But it is not really pursued. Instead we get a mishmash of horror images and psychodrama and a lot of shouting by Arthur Keng, as his character seems to have caught Kurten's psychosis as if it was the flu. It's too bad, as there are so many admirable things going on here, but it appears that director David Mancini's ambition to say too many things at once has sunk the venture, which began to resemble a summertime Haunted House. Save it for Halloween, friend.
It has been a week since I've experienced this "immersive" and "interactive" production, and I'm still not sure what I think. It begins with a scene from a Christmas party - well no, that's not true. It began for me with a beautiful red-headed woman running around the Stephanie Feury Studio and calling out my name. When I stepped forward, she grabbed me and guided me towards the bathroom and closed the door. Then she stripped down to a red bra and panties while talking a mile a minute about her boyfriend, who had broken up with her because he felt like she didn't love him enough. I tried to give some sage advice about love, but this was a Hipster fantasy come to life, so while words were coming out of my mouth, I'm not really sure what I was saying. There was some kissing and a few other things transpired, then we went into this 1940s Christmas party, which involved more stripping and kissing (between the actors this time, not with me or anyone else in the select audience), then we were transported to another location, where a man dressed as a Bedouin Chief engaged in some ritualized behavior with us and and with a ghost of his wife and then stripped off his clothes (definitely a theme) and exited the tent - perhaps for the afterworld. Oh, and on the ride back to our place of origin, there was an unexpected dance by a lovely blond girl on the bus. On the whole, there was a lot of rich imagery about dreams and love and loss, about the fleeting sensations of life and the many illusions that rule our time here, but for me it will always be mostly a Hipster dream come true about a beautiful red-headed woman in scarlet underwear. Sadly, the Fire section has completed its performance schedule. It was a memorable ride, and ah yes, the memory lingers.
Enjoy this interview with the cast of The Pleasure Project at the MET Theatre, which closes Jun 24th and has additional performances all through July. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.
Hello beautiful souls! This is Miss Barbie Q! Your friendly neighborhood drag queen!
What a thrill it is to be reporting from the frontlines of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival (which I will lovingly refer to as the “Fringe” from now on).
But I come to you from a totally different angle. I am a trans person (I identify as GNC - Gender Non Conformist) AND a POC (Person of Color), so I got all kinds of goggles on! I'll admit, when I got the task of reporting from my point of view, my hardnose activist flag came up and kept looking for things that may or may not offend. I have show in the Fringe as well, so I have been hypersensitive of how my show is being perceived and welcomed. But as the Fringe has opened up, the preparation and people have strived to be as inclusive as possible. And I thank them for providing a space, not just Fringe Central, but the Office Hours and Workshops, for all to be mindful.
The process has been tedious to say the least. This year I am co-writing, co-directing and co-producing! It's called #LastDance. And I must say there are some things that are universal. Rehearsal schedules, press releases, the drama of the getting off book, the joy of blocking, workshopping and creating! Finding the right mix of actors that want to bring someone else's vision to life is beautiful to see. We have a mix of gay, trans, diverse ethnicities and that was done with a mindful purpose. I am not gonna lie, it as a task trying to get drag queens to come audition. Some of it was with timing, some were doing other projects but we as a production crew kept an open mind and realized that the right people would come as the universe saw fit and they did.
The play is dedicated to a dear friend that passed away earlier this year, so we tried to tell a poignant story alongside keeping the homage to him in mind. That was no easy task. Learning to agree to disagree, compromise lines, blocking, costumes all for the good of the show as a whole has been humbling and invigorating as well. Working with such talented people has made me love each one of them and make me want to knock each one them out on occasion as well. HA!
As the previews got closer, something happened. And I noticed it happens with every show I do. There is this “click” that happens when we all find this groove. I think it is a universal “click”. I think it happened for us when we finally got into the space at the McCadden and my actors got to be in the space. Not just be, but really “be”. Aaron, the stage manager, lighting and sound extraordinaire was such a delight during tech, that it helped everyone including me realize we have a real show! What a rush! So after previews, we reminded them to come to the Fringe opening night to make a presence, speak to other performers about their shows, get to know the Fringe folks and get used to talking about themselves and the show!
Miss Barbie Q, From the 2015 Hollywood Fringe
I'll admit, I was just as nervous, although I had a solo show two years ago, I never really participated in the other events because I was on a totally different schedule and I know now that I missed out on so much, and I didn't want them to miss out. So most of the cast and crew were able to come and yes, I was nervous!
And you know what I have found so far?
EVERYONE IS A NERVOUS AS I AM!! LOL what a relief?
I have seen two plays so far, UPSTAIRS, a musical ensemble piece, and LOVESICK, a solo piece.
Upstairs: A Musical Tragedy was such a delight. Although it has already closed, it stressed the importance of LGBT stories, especially the tragedies that cross the newsdesk (this one being about the fire that killed 30 people in New Orleans in June of 1973) The acting, the voices, the music not only told the story, but made you feel for the them and understand that their deaths mean something. Our stories mean something. Each and every one.
Lovesick: The Misadventures of a Love-Crazed Maniac took us on a journey all its own. Bringing the bisexual element to the play, it spoke of the thirst for love, in all the wrong places and the longing to just be loved. And the epiphany we all have in learning to love ourselves. It really is a testament to what the journey is to know what love is. Really. “Lovesick is still playing.
So this is just the first installment of what a chocolate gender non-conformist sees when it comes to the Fringe. I am so grateful to be able to speak my truth and am looking forward to sharing more of the LGBT shows that are at the Fringe. Granted, I am not able to see them all, BUT I am trying my best to go to them and share with you the inspiration, the laughs and insight.
Theatre 68's world premieres I AM NOT A COMEDIAN…I'M LENNY BRUCE, opening June 23, 2017. With the blessings of Lenny's daughter Kitty Bruce and the Lenny Bruce Foundation, Theatre 68's artistic director Ronnie Marmo has written this solo show reprising his previous 2010 role as Lenny from LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED). Directing Ronnie will be Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna, also known to television viewers as an actor and a director of Criminal Minds.
We managed to persuade Joe to take a few moments from rehearsals to answer a few of our queries. Thank you for taking a break from your rehearsals for this interview. What specific aspects attracted you to this Theatre 68 production? Well, my past experience with them. I met Ronnie and some company members years ago in a movie and I really liked their energy. Theatre 68 also reminds me of the Organic Theater out of Chicago. I have a lot of respect for what Ronnie and the company do. They get out there and create content. That's the key to getting anywhere in this business. Don't wait. You just have to get out there and do it. Lenny Bruce had a pretty controversial career with his numerous arrests for using obscenities in his act. Were you aware of him in your teenage years?
Yes, I was well aware of Lenny Bruce. I wound up doing the play LENNY in Chicago in 1974 and understudied the lead part. I remember seeing films of him, although I had never seen him live. I was well aware of what he did, and years later, I did a movie with Richard Pryor. All of the comedians today owe a lot to Lenny because he broke down a lot of barriers. It's taking freedom of speech to its purest definitions. As a budding actor, what did you think of Lenny Bruce and his routines? The same way I think about him now. He was a special artist. He wasn't just an artist, he had such social commentary in his humor. He was very unique. A lot of times artists who are breaking ground are not recognized in their own time. Just like Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Lenny Bruce is someone who was much more appreciated later on. No different than Martin Luther King, Jr. People who were killed and vilified, and now, they have a holiday named after them. You have been onstage (debuting in a Chicago production of HAIR in 1969) and in front of the camera for years now. When and what made you say, "But what I want to do is direct!"? I don't know if I have ever said that. It was a natural evolution. I just took to it and I enjoyed it when I did it. I never gave up my day job, so to speak. I've directed in the theater a fair amount of times. I've done eight or nine episodes of Criminal Minds. Once I felt confident about it, I enjoyed it. I'm glad I don't have to make a choice between being just an actor or just a director. Was your Tiffany Theater production of David Mamet's LAKEBOAT, with Ed O'Neil and George Wendt in 1994, the first play you directed? That's a good question. I directed a lot of little things before that. I think this was the first full-length with a full audience. I directed scenes and auditions for people before that. LAKEBOAT the play was successful, and then, we did the film of it after that. I gained a lot of confidence after that. What fond memories do you have of that production of LAKEBOAT? I had a lot of fond memories. I hired a lot of people I knew and respected. I brought in Andy Garcia, Charles Durning, Denis Leary, Peter Falk, Robert Forrester. I had a great cast in the movie as well. I had fond memories of both the play and the film. It was a nice evolution. I'm glad I was able to do both. As one who's worked on both sides of the camera, and both on and off the theatre boards; do you feel you have a better understanding or a shorthand communication when speaking to actors you're directing? Yes, definitely. I have worked with a lot of directors who are actors. There is a certain common language we can speak. There is something to be gained from that. If you have an actor who has a flare for directing, it can cut through a lot to create a nice shorthand. Also, as one who's worked on and off stage, what advice would you give to a neophyte auditioning for you? I would say, it's all about the preparation. Come in as prepared as you can. You won't always get the role. 90% of the time, it has nothing to do with your talent. You must give it your best shot. Most of the time, it has something to do with "you're too short, too tall, etc." You have to come in prepared with the attitude, "I am here to solve your problem." You must be able to take direction, and feel good that you did your best with your preparation. The more prepared you are, the more you can say that this is the best you got. I think if you have decent chops, eventually it will happen for you. It's happened to me, I did things half-ass when I was younger, and I learned from it. You have to go in there and feel that you nailed it. When I bring people in and someone will knock my socks off, but that person may not be the best for the role, I will pull them aside and I will tell them that. I will bring them back three, four or five times and then, finally, they will get something that fits them. You want the reputation of someone who auditions well. Eventually, you will be perfect for the role, and that will lead to something else, and then something else after that. What would you like the Theatre 68 audiences to leave with after Ronnie takes his curtain call? That it was a night well-spent. That they got their money's worth. That it was a better time than staying home or going to the movies. That they liked it enough to tell their friends to see it. Thank you again, Mr. Mantegna!
For ticket availability and schedule of performances thru July 29, log onto www.Theatre68.com
"Epiphany epiphany epiphany," Ellyn Daniels chants at one point during her stand-up Fringe show, Emotional Terrorism.
The context is this: Ellyn has just run into an old high school friend from Florida here in Hollywood, and she is crashing at the friend's house after a party. The friend has to go out to an acting audition, but she tells Ellyn on the phone that she's had an epiphany, and now she sees everything in her life differently. When the friend returns, Ellyn starts her chant and then waits to hear this "epiphany." What she hears instead is some sort of half-assed New Age psychobabble. Ellyn then confesses to her friend that she may have slept with her friend's boyfriend - she was so drunk at the party she can't remember too clearly - and at first, the friend is okay with that, and then she isn't. And then she disappears as a character from the show and presumably from Ellyn's life.
A development that summed up for me one of the perils of Fringe - that is, there are SO MANY SHOWS, and in many cases, nothing seems to matter very much. That is, you pay your $12, you hang for an hour, and then you move on to the next show. Fine. But is that enough?
For many folks, yes it is. I kept hearing all around me, especially from men and women in their mid-20s, "I just love the Fringe."
And there's a lot to love, it's true. There's a lot of talent on display, and a lot of ingenuity, and a lot of variety, and a lot of fun.
The Fringe opening night party was a sweaty hoot, with plenty of photo ops for the participants and lots of Fringe-related activities, as illustrated by the two posted photos I took that night.
But an "epiphany" here or there would be nice too, wouldn't it? That is, something that lingered in your thoughts for the drive home.
So here is a rundown and a roundup and a cavalcade of experiences - something for everyone, I'm sure, and lots to think about too, at least for this Fringer. Starting out with the one person shows, which abound.
EMOTIONAL TERRORISM by Ellyn Daniels
The publicity for this show states that Ellyn Daniels "takes us on an intoxicating ride ... from sitting on the precipice of suicide to finding salvation through stand-up," but that is not an accurate description of what I saw. Not only doesn't Ellyn find "salvation through stand-up comedy," she doesn't even seem particularly funny. And we never get to see even a snippet of Ellyn's "act." What we do hear about is Ellyn's search for stardom, which she very perceptively equates with trying to get her parents' attention. "My parents talked about characters on How I Met Your Mother with much greater interest than they ever talked about me," she tells us. "If I could just get on a hit sitcom, then my parents would finally care about me that much too." But Ellyn finds it hard to get on a sitcom, just as she's found it hard to excel as a model and as a dancer before this. Pretty, blond, tall and thin, she has the physique and manner that seem suitable to dancing and modeling, but she lost patience with both because her successes were not big enough to satisfy her need for specialness. Comedy would seem like a less than ideal arena for a young woman with her attributes, as the male comics I know would descend on her like piranha. However, the best thing about her show were her self-lacerating comic asides, as when she mocked herself for "taking moral advice from a porno star" (her Hollywood roommate). So maybe Ellyn Daniels is growing into her persona of a woman who has swum with the piranha and lived to joke about it. Who knows? A word to the wise - don't obsess about fame. Worry more about how to tell a good story. Right now, the stories are strung together like a shark's tooth necklace. The best comics know how to blend the stories together and call back aspects and details. So hang in there, Ellyn, it's all part of a process, and you're well on your way.
F*CK TINDER by David Rodwin
David Rodwin is one of those storytellers who knows how to blend his stories, who frankly has a mastery over his material that most comedians and performance artists could learn a lot from. His story of a contemporary hetero man's search for love and happiness comes across as oddly brave in times such as ours, in which smart, handsome, well-educated (all of which David is) white or Jewish guys are often seen as the enemy. We learn about his move to San Franciso, his falling in love with the woman he expected to marry, and then how this oddly (again) leads him to his first visit to a sex club and to his first acid trip. David is a very charismatic performer, and he has emotionally choreographed his tale in a sophisticated way. The only thing missing for me is his personal vulnerability and angst, and the distinct and distinctly memorable point of view that masters of the form like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian (the Hipster had the pleasure of seeing both perform several times) brought to related material. But yes, David Rodwin does deserve to be mentioned in such company, and there are very few edgy storytellers with his gifts out there right now, mining this kind of material. So catch him at this level while you still can.
UNDER THE JELLO MOLD by Jennie Fahn
Jennie Fahn is another master storyteller, though very different from David Rodwin - less hip, less edgy, more in the female Jewish comedy tradition of Joan Rivers, though very much her own person. (She actually reminded me most of Chandler Bing's girlfriend Janice on Friends.) The day I saw her perform, the A/C had gone out, and the Ruby Theatre at the Complex was packed to the brim. While producer Tom Cavanaugh distributed fans to the audience, it was still going to be a task to keep interest in her show. But Jennie had no problem with it, she had the audience laughing and hanging on every word from the start, as she weaved her tale about her deeply eccentric (to the point of actual cuckoo-ness) mother, and how Jennie dealt with her, both in life and in depth. It is very rich material, and I assume that there's an 80-90 minute version as well. Judging by her huge success here, I certainly think there's an audience for such an evening. My only advice would be to loosen up a bit and relate more to the audience, to the here and now. But maybe she does in other circumstances. When the A/C is out on a hot day in LA, the here and now may be something to keep at bay.
There is a myth going around that being a part of Fringe means that a certain degree of amateurishness is involved - wait, what? Oh yes, I spread that one myself, earlier in this article. Well, while this can be the case - and yes, I have had to walk out of a few shows that had gone off the rails - it is certainly not so here, where we are once again in the hands of a wonderful storyteller working with sublime control of her material.
CONFESSIONS OF A MULATTO LOVE-CHILD by Bellina Logan
Bellina Logan - like Jennie Fahn - has constructed a one woman show around her relationship with her deeply eccentric mother, though the two mothers are as different as Bellina is from Jennie. Bellina's mother, Avril, was an Englishwoman living in New York and attending the Actors Studio there when she met the African-American actor who soon became Bellina's father. Avril already had two older daughters, and she would regularly trek from New York to London to Los Angeles with her girls, until at some point it was just her and Bellina (and a number of cats she was very attached to). Bellina Logan is a lovely sophisticated woman with an English accent and an elegant sense of humor that gracefully brings the audience along with her on her journey, much as her mother had brought Bellina along. The anecdotes are (mostly) seamlessly interwomen, and Bellina conveys so much affection for and acceptance of her mother's often-questionable behavior, that it imbues everyone present with a sense of goodwill. She extends this warmth even to her stories about racial issues, as growing up she is often mistaken for various ethnicities. I would advise you not to miss this, but I know how difficult it is to get a ticket. All I can say is, keep trying.