THE Twisted Hipster BEST OF LOS ANGELES THEATER 2017

As 2017 winds down, I think it's inevitable that we ask ourselves: what was that all about?

There were expectations we had - some were met, most weren't.  There was money made - or not.  Or maybe a windfall, who knows?

There were a series of events... things that happened with parents, children, friends, lovers, business associates, strangers... mostly they were the same things that happened in 2016 and 2015, but with some slight variations.  Or maybe this year was uemarkably different. Who knows?

For the Twisted Hipster, the end of this year marks the end of my year-long return to journalism - something I pursued for 10 years in the last century (or last millenium) for The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, New York Newsday, American Theatre, In These Times, and many others.   I returned to journalism only once this century, 16 years ago, when I wrote a piece for the New York Times "Arts and Liesure" section about the effect of 9/11 on Downtown New York theater.  But I really appreciate the opportunity that Enci and Steven Box of Better-Lemons gave me to take up the journalist's pen again, and the freedom to write what I wanted to.  I've learned a lot about my adopted city, and the dreamers who are drawn to the Dream Factory, as well as the Dreamers being threatened with exile.

Of course, the theme of the moment is it's good to be rich.  Those with money keep making more and will get that windfall I mentioned with this disgusting new Tax Bill.  Those of us without wealth hang on more perilously than ever.  But we do hang in there, yes we do.

No art form is more perilous these days than the theater - as analog as it gets, with no rewind or fast-forward buttons, no collectible value, and completely dependent on the kindness of many strangers (the audience) - especially hard in a TV/Film town like Hollywood.  I attended as many plays as I could last year, which isn't easy with the bad traffic and the worse parking - I'm still fighting a few parking tickets I got at the Fringe.  I'm not sure that most people understand how difficult it is to make good theater, which budgetary restrictions keep making harder.  After a year of watching other people do it, I'm more impressed by this than ever.

Here then are the 25 best shows I saw here last year - the TOP 12, and then 13 others that were excellent too.  It wasn't a spectacular year in Los Angeles theater - or maybe it was, and it just didn't seem that way at the time.  Certainly there is a great deal more stage brilliance here than the world (or the non-theatergoing population of Los Angeles) gives us credit for.

So, going backwards (as I so often do), 3-12, in no particular order:

33 VARIATIONS - Here a remarkable play by Moises Kaufman received the remarkable production it deserved by director Thomas James O'Leary and the production team at the Actors Co-op.  Nan McNamara, playing a musicologist and Beethoven expert stricken with ALS, was simply phenomenal.  As good as Jane Fonda was in the role at the Ahmanson (in a production directed by the playwright), I was far more deeply affected this time, and the many levels of the play were much clearer to me.  Kudos to designer Nicholas Acciani for his evocative and wonderfully functional multi-level set.

BOB'S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY - The fun has been going on for 22 years, but this is the first time I caught it, and I was laughing so hard that it was difficult to write down any notes.   Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have developed a certain formula that features the talents of some wonderful comic actors working off each other with perfect timing.  I'm not sure I would have been as swept away as I was in other years, but this felt like the perfect entertainment for the first (and hopefully last) year of Trump.  The comedic masterminds seemed to sense this too, and their romp was filled with explicit references to Trump and his denigrating way of referring to "outsiders," meaning all those people who aren't on his side.  It was a perfect blending of the past and present for this show, and as far as I'm concerned, they should keep distracting us as much as possible from the heinousness of our political nightmare.

ROTTERDAM - This is one of the only shows on the list still running, so I urge anyone who hasn't been to the Skylight Theatre yet and caught this excellent play to stop right now and make your reservation.  This is another example of a wonderful play (by John Brittain) receiving an equally wonderful production, care of director Michael Shepperd and his deeply relatable cast.  What makes this play about a transgender woman of color and her gay girlfriend so memorable is how human-size all the problems are, how they are trying to figure out the riddle of their lives in just the same way the rest of us are - without knowing any real answers or how it may or may not work out.

RULES OF SECONDS - This play by John Pollono was seen by far too few when it debuted at LATC downtown. Featuring Amy Brenneman and one of the best casts I've seen on any LA stage, the play delves deeply into the all-too-relevant subject of toxic masculinity as memorably exemplified by Jamie Harris in this 1855 Boston setting.  "A 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th century," Charles McNulty wrote in the LA Times, and we agree that Jo Bonney staged it with great panache and technical mastery.  What impressed me most was the play's constant inventiveness and refusal to settle for easy answers.  It was produced by the Latino Theater Company. As their first offering, it bodes well both for their future and for ours.

SOMETHING ROTTEN - This is another show that's still running, though for only a few more performances.  If you love musicals and you like to laugh, then this is a show for you.  To quote my own review:  "Yes, it owes a large debt to Mel Brooks - not just The Producers, but also the musical number at the end of Blazing Saddles - but this show has its own brand of historical and parodic zaniness, and it does a masterful job of keeping a sense of real stakes while continuing to move the story and characters forward.  To my mind, every element of this production is brilliant, top-tier, and yet they all come together to form something that is greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.  This is so rarely achieved, and I am in awe of the many talents at work at such a high level here."

Alex Alpharoah

WET: A DACAmented Journey - This is one of the pieces I saw this past year that affected me most profoundly and stayed with me the longest. As I wrote at the time:  "It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free."  We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music."  Kudos to EST-Los Angeles for helping Mr Alpharoah to develop his work and then supporting it with an ample production run.  Mr Alpharoah's monologue is nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Play, and he would be a deserving winner.  Again, a good example of what a difference small theaters can make in the cultural landscape of our large and sprawling city.

MASTER CLASS - As I wrote: This is the first production of the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), but I have to admit that I didn't have high expectations.  The play Masterclass was first produced in 1995 - right here at the Ahmanson,  then on Broadway - and it has been revived several times. Was this really how you want to kick off a new theater?  Well, the answer is Yes.  This is a stellar revival.  In fact, it's so alive, so strong moment-to-moment, that it doesn't feel like a revival, it feels like an Event.  This is thanks largely to Carolyn Hennessy, who simply seems to BE Maria Callas.  She inhabits the play, she comes to life as a creature of the stage, full of joy, sorrow and many contradictions.  Credit must go to director Dimitri Toscas, who is also co-director of the Garry Marshall Theatre (GMT).  He clearly has a passionate connection to this play and to the character of Callas.  He deeply feels her pain - the pain of dislocation and loneliness.  "You know the only place where Callas truly fit in? On stage. In the opera house," Toscas writes in the program notes, and he wonderfully dramatizes this on the GMT's stage.

George Wyner and Sharron Shayne in "Daytona"

DAYTONA - This fascinating play had a brief run at Rogue Machine and was forced to close down just as word of its excellence was starting to get around.  There is word that it may be coming back soon - here's hoping that's true.  As I wrote:  There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform.  But Daytona by Oliver Cotton has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner's long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos.  The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they've cultivated for the past 15 years.  Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister. Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds.  Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, whom he hasn't heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli.

THE GARY PLAYS - These 6 plays (there are 8 in the entire series) are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling.  Directed with great imagination and a spirit of generosity and compassion by Guy Zimmerman and presented by Martha Demson and her tireless team at Open Fist.  Director Zimmerman describes Mednick's plays this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else.  And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son's murder, is an iconic LA character.”  There's so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau's depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character's skin.  For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity.  These are plays about LA Theater that achieve the kind of universality that all playwrights crave.  These plays should be celebrated, as should those who have lovingly brought them back to such vivid life.

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences - I had seen this monodrama by Glen Berger several times before, but this production at the Geffen Playhouse made it all new for me.  This strange but compelling play introduces us to The Librarian, who has rented this hall in order to present his "Lovely Evidences" about a book that was turned in several decades late, and the offender whom he has become obsessed with tracking down.  Arye Gross played The Librarian here, and he may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role.  Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski's Notes from Underground.  But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever.  Under Steven Robman's inventive direction - much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the one I saw in NYC in 2002 - Arye Gross attained a level of joy and excitement - even exuberance - which was infectious.

My two favorite shows from 2017 (drum roll, please):

2. LES BLANCS  - If you missed this production at Rogue Machine, you may never get another chance to see this fascinating play from one of our great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34.  Hansberry's first play, Raisin in the Sun, is an American classic, deservedly beloved and frequently performed.   Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window,  is very much an examination of social conditions in the late 1960s and has more value now as a social document than as a work of theater.  Neither of her earlier plays give any indication of the ambition, scope and sheer theatricality that Les Blancs contains, as she depicts on a huge canvas - with 24 characters! - the unresolvable problems created by American and European colonialism in Africa.  Huge kudos to Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn for having the determination and resourcefulness to give this truly important play its Los Angeles premiere.  Director Gregg T. Daniels does an admirable job in bringing this world of a white-run mission in the heart of Africa to mosquito-swatting theatrical life.  The set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is one of the best of the year - roughhewn slats of dark wood primitively lashed together  - truly capturing the essence of this place, so far removed from European civilization and regarded with such condescension by the white American liberal journalist, whose arrival in this village signals the beginning of the drama.  Jeff Gardner's sound design is also one of the year's best, bringing the surrounding jungle to auditory life.  A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, brilliantly plays Gardner's African compositions on a variety of instruments, and Shari Gardner's African dancing is haunting and inescapably vivid.  Yes, the play has scenes that go on too long and monologues that ramble; these are things that I'm sure Hansberry would have given better shape to had her life not been cruelly interrupted. But the fire that burns at the heart of this play - that burns a path of destruction through the lives of all these characters - is still very much with us today.  And I know of no other play that brings it to life s0 compellingly.

1. MR BURNS -  One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production of Anne Washburn's dystopian fantasy was that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they were able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This was absolutely ideal for Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which was, quite simply, what this production was as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.  And tickets were only $15!!! Amazing.

Other Extraordinary Productions from this past year in Los Angeles - thanks for the memories:

The cast of ZOOT SUIT in the revival at the Mark Taper Forum

WOODY'S ORDER by Ann Talman, directed by John Shepard, at EST-Los Angeles, Atwater Village Theater

CAUGHT by Christopher Chen, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander at the Think Tank Gallery

ZOOT SUIT, written and directed by Luis Valdez, at the Mark Taper Forum

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson, directed by Michele Shay at the Matrix Theatre

PLASTICITY by Alex Lyras, directed by Robert McCaskill at the Hudson Guild

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Joseph V. Calarco, presented by the Coeurage Theatre Company

SO LONG BOULDER CITY by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, directed by Jordan Black, at the Celebration Theatre

Katy Owens in "Adolphus Tips"

REDLINE by Christian Durso, directed by Eli Gonda, presented by the IAMA Theatre Company

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS - adapted from the book by Michael Murpurgo by Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS by Bruce Graham, directed by Stewart J. Zully at the Road Theatre

And from the Fringe:

MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adley Gurgius, directed by Tony Gatto

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone, directed by Vince Fusco

EASY TARGETS by the Burglars of Hamm, presented at Sacred Fools


BORROWING SHAKESPEARE'S MAGIC: Five History Plays on LA Stages

For more than a year now, we've been living through the historic and historical – and at times hysterical -  theatricality of our times. To suggest that the Shakespearean heights are daily surmounted in the Tweeted Tussles of our Clownish Head of State, has become a cliché of journalism – which, like it or not (pace Donny J.), is the first draft of history.  This fall, Southland theatergoers have had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the dumb-show eccentricities of history on parade.  Here is an examination of five such plays that have recently been in LA: KING CHARLES III, KING JOHN, SOMETHING ROTTEN, THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD and PACIFIC OVERTURES. (Editor's Note: SOMETHING ROTTEN continues until December 31. PACIFIC OVERTURES has 3 more shows this weekend on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 and 8.)

Jim Abele, Mark Capri, Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner in King Charles III

King Charles III, a play by England's Mike Bartlett, tells the what-if “history” of the current Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor, were he ever to become king of the shrunken United Kingdom. As speculative “history,” King Charles III is certainly a tale of troubles. It intriguingly projects the challenge to the British monarchy into a chaotic future.

It has a promising premise – one could call it a Shavian conceit – with the pre-crowned, 70-ish Charles taking a regal stand against Parliament's new law that will render the press “a little less free.” Like a Shakespearean history plays, Charles III develops into a crisis over the succession to the throne which sparks the threats of rebellion and war. However, in place of gutsy Shakespearean passion and psychology we are given “poor me” wailings about the rigors and strictures of being a Royal.

Written in blank verse (generally-unrhymed iambic pentameter) with syntactical echoes and dramaturgical turns reminiscent of Shakespeare's work, the script lays claim to a rarified artistic ancestry that it doesn't always live up to. Happily, the production at the Pasadena Playhouse (now closed) is well-acted by the cast of Los Angeles actors on a stage that has been extended into the audience. This brings the action out from behind the proscenium and up close to the playgoers.

Michael Hoag, Gus Krieger and Hersha Parady in King John

On the other hand, Shakespeare's The History of King John, a much larger play, with battles and ruined cities from London to the Loire, was presented by The Porters of Hellsgate (now closed) in a tiny NoHo black box at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center.

First performed 423 years ago, King John is in some ways just as speculative as Charles III. Written 380 years after the petty, spiteful and cruel, yet hapless demise of the titular king, Shakespeare, who lived in Tudor times, was writing about a Plantagenet, the dynasty from whom the Tudors wrested the throne when Welsh Henry Tudor defeated Henry VI. The Bard's grasp of history was never precise and never got in the way of a good bit of drama. And the anti-papist Protestant English would have been thrilled to see the trouble-making characterization of the Catholic Cardinal as the infusion of evil, if not outright villainy.

Now generally listed as the 13th of Shakespeare's works, as presented by The Porters, it plays like one of his earliest, too often shifting focus, being more work-a-day than inspired.  There are some moments to recommend it. Lady Constance's heartfelt grief when the King puts her teenage son under guard with an order to kill him, and the boy's successful pleading for his life. Perhaps the most intriguing character is a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, a crafty young man maneuvering between politicos. Called The Bastard, he is the least historical (hinted at by Holinshed in his chronicles, from which Shakespeare drew the story) and yet, he is the first creation by Shakespeare of a character with an inner life,  the progenitor of a line of charismatic characters, loveable and detestable, that runs through Hotspurs and Falstaff to Hamlet, Iago, and Edmund – and even Caliban. For villainous as the Bastard might seem, any character with the smarts to observe:

Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.

is a character to treasure and was Shakespeare's first psychologically self-motivating character.

Having nowhere near the finances or theatrical resources of the Pasadena Playhouse, one would not expect the lavish pomp and sumptuous circumstance that made this a popular play in the 19th Century. Instead, an intimate production in a 50-seat theater could better focus on the clarity and depth of the issues and relationships. Unfortunately, at The Porters' the dramatis personae are almost all attitude without any reality or feeling.  They are not the first to be undone by the flawed dramaturgy of King John, and they won't be the last.  It is as The Bastard says, “Sweet poison for the Age's tooth.”

While Shakespeare's King John scrambles flawed history, the charmingly produced play with music, The Heart of Robin Hood deals with a medieval folk tale from the same King's reign.  As seen at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, this touring family production toys what is now thought to be a myth based on a legend which is in turn grounded in the harsh historical truth of King John's reign: the terror of John's greed and ruthlessness. In a clever, first class touring production that turns the usual fascination with Robin on its political correct tush, Maid Marion is a heroine for the ages, dashing into the forest to teach Robin the thief the value of giving to the poor. That she saves Robin from King (here Prince) John is a feminist twist that leaves holes in the logic, emotion in the wings, and the dramatics to an Icelandic director's clever use of theatrics. And clever it is, and wants to be. As originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, it is a splendid presentation of a simplistic, often delightfully silly, script with more and more echoes of Shakespeare. It seems to exist mainly to beguile and to inspire young girls to bravery.

Blake Hammond and Rob McClure in Something Rotten

For a third work spawned from Shakespearean genetics, we are lucky to have the musical Something Rotten (Ahmanson Theater). Twenty years in the making, it's about as tuneful as a recital of operatic recitative, but makes up for the lack of melody with a surfeit of choreographic mayhem, clever direction and first-class performances.  It's a romp, with no pretensions to classic theater. It has very little claim on history, except, oddly enough, the chronicles of Musical Theater. And if you don't know the history of the American musical you'll have less than half the fun most theater-goers have. Perhaps the show too often relies on snippets of songs and famous line-references from the history of popular musicals like Oklahoma! Sunset Boulevard, Cats, and the entire Sondheim canon. It gives us puns and mugging in place of irony, intrigue, or depth, but then it has no pretensions to history, devoted as it is to entertainment.  And it delivers. It is centered on a character that goes by the name of Nick Bottom (from A Midsummer Night's Dream), one of the Bard's more captivating creations, and creates for him a brother, Nigel. They need a new show. The Soothsayer predicts the next big thing will me – musicals! Shakespeare is a character with as much humanity as you can give a spoofed-up rock star stage writer. Clever, often effervescent, it is a memorable an evening of fluff that delivers just that – but only that! Leave history to others.

The often sublime, Pacific Overtures, is on the other hand one of the deft gems of the musical theater. Born of the art of Stephen Sondheim, 41 years ago, with John Weidman's witty book, and Hal Prince's brilliant direction, it originally starred Los Angeles' great Mak0 (film and television actor and first artistic director of East West Players).

As history, Pacific Overtures is more kaleidoscopic than academic, which is to say, it gives us the feel of history without concern for narrative consistency. Like Shakespeare's The Tempest, what action there is flows from the unexpected arrival of disturbing forces on a magical island.  To suggest that The Reciter (Mako's role) in Overtures is an unintended descendent of The Bard's Prospero may not be the stretch it seems on first blush. Both characters share a magical power within the context of their individual worlds.

Pacific Overtures is one of the Sondheim-Prince musicals from the last quarter of the 20th Century (this one produced in 1976 for the Bicentennial of American Independence). And it stretched the limits of musical theater far beyond the romantic limits of boy-or-girl meets girl-or-boy, mix-and-match. It follows Admiral Perry's “opening up” of Japan's closed samurai culture to its sadly logical conclusion of crass commerciality that was in the late 20th Century seen as “Japan today.”

And as Prospero uses “my so potent art” which he calls “rough magic” to create a Tempest that will alter his fortunes, requiring “Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end…” he seems to be conjuring the musical in which The Reciter foresees a Tempest of culture that will “threaten the serene and changeless cycle of our days,” singing:

“In the middle of the world we float
In the middle of the sea
The realities remain remote
In the middle of the sea.”

It plays more as a theatrical statement of America's responsibility for spreading the evils of rampant capitalism than as a narrative drama. But the material is so dazzlingly sophisticated, pungent, and polished that it remains a delight to experience, including a charming romp by Europeans and American ambassadors that brings the show up to its somewhat regrettable end with a brash and vulgar finale about late 20th Century American marketing, Japanese style. Like a Smash-Cut, the finale shatters whatever the mood might have been created and brings home the message with a crunching SPLAT! (which is unfortunately, the “message” it's creators intended). Prospero just breaks his magic wand and begs

“As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

While Pacific Overtures gets a rather drab re-doing by the ever-adventurous Chromolume Theater, they obviously have deep respect for the material. The company of 12 men and one woman has the material down pat, but the production lacks the style required for Sondheim's well-honed delights. And one misses the delicate balance between Japanese poetics and Samurai brutality upon which the success of the work depends. With the entire company in black – except for the one-time appearance of the brightly kimono'd “Ladies of Kanagawa” – and displaying little of the ritual discipline of Japan's theatrical tradition, the production gives us the charm of the score and little else to while away the two and a half hours trafficking.

Of course, presenting a multi-million dollar mounting of a demanding musical is not possible in an under-99 seat theater where the intimacy of scale allows intensity to do the work of extravagance! Shakespeare seems to have understood that issue as he moved between his giant Globe theater into the more intimate Black Friars. For us, Sondheim is easily his match for endlessly inventive, ironic, and perceptive writing, and Something Rotten does at least live within the madcap world of the Bard's comic genius. Meanwhile, we of the Fabulous Invalid, soldier on.


Jeremy Rabb & Deborah Strang CAROL-ing & Making NOISES Together

A Noise Within continues its annual Christmas tradition of presenting A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The sixth edition of ANW's Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's distinctive take on the Charles Dickens classic has already opened earlier this month. Many cast members return to perform in the same roles they've inhabited before. We had the chance to chat with two of them - Deborah Strang, who's currently playing Ghost of Christmas Past and Charwoman and Jeremy Rabb, alternating as Marley.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Deborah and Jeremy!
How long have you two been Resident Artists of ANW?
Deborah Strang: 26 years!
Jeremy Rabb: I was asked to join the company in 2014.
How did your becoming a Resident Artist come about?
DS: Total luck and chance. I was in the process of switching careers and had gone back to school to pursue a biology degree to get into environmental science. My husband, Joel Swetow, was doing a couple of shows with ANW. So I met everyone, and Joel dropped off a resume. I auditioned, not really expecting there to be any openings, and the rest is history. My first three years at ANW, I continued my science studies, but eventually theatre won out.
JR: I can't speak to what ultimately put me over the top since Geoff and Julia alone determine what that is, but becoming an RA was something I aspired to ever since my first show back in 2009. I've always loved the idea of a repertory ensemble that works together so closely and for so long that they bring a level of artistry to their work that doesn't exist elsewhere. I've loved working on plays elsewhere, but once a production finishes, there's usually a let-down since the cast will most likely never work together again. The idea of having an artistic home and developing connections with a professional family is much more gratifying. When I did my first ANW show, there hadn't been a new RA added to the roster in years, so it felt like a pipe dream. I decided not to worry about the result, but instead to focus on the process, figuring that even if it never came to pass, the journey itself would be worth it. My hope was to just keep getting cast in one more show. I brought a strong work ethic to each production, striving not only to be open to direction, but to actually embrace it as well. I loved Geoff and Julia's aesthetic, so that wasn't particularly difficult. I think the degree to which I expressed how much I cared about ANW, how deeply I embraced the theater's culture and community, and how eager I was to take on a variety of disparate roles, all contributed to my receiving the honor.
As Resident Artists, do you get dibs on a role before 'general auditions'?
JR: We do receive casting priority and are either offered or given the opportunity to read for roles in the season before the postings go public. There's no guarantee that any of us will be cast in the season, but it's the rare show at ANW that doesn't have at least a few of us in it. I've been fortunate to be cast in five of the seven shows produced at the theater for the past two seasons, so I have very much benefitted from the leg up, which I hope to exploit for as long as I can. 
DS: Geoff and Julia make the play selections and offer casting suggestions to the various directors. They always try to take care of the Resident Artists, but casting is always subject to director approval and the needs of the production. I have found that I just say, "Yes!" They are much more imaginative in how they have cast me than I could ever be.
How many productions have you two worked together on?
DS: Oh gee, I'll bet Jeremy will be able to answer this, but my brain doesn't work that way, I'd have to look at a list and add them up. I'm going to guess between 12 and 14. Let's see how close I get.
JR: NOISES OFF in the Spring will be our tenth production together.
Can you name the shows and your characters off the top of your head?
DS: No way! Once a show is over, my memory gets wiped clean for lines and characters. But two come to mind immediately because we had such fun together in our scenes: YOU NEVER CAN TELL and ALL MY SONS.
JR: I can, partly because I'm a huge fan of Deborah, and partly because I'm a bit of a weirdo: Queen Margaret & Buckingham in RICHARD III, Maria & Aguecheek in TWELFTH NIGHT, Prospero & Stephano in THE TEMPEST, Mrs. Peachum & Tiger Brown in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, Kate Keller & Jim Bayliss in ALL MY SONS, Mrs. Clandon & Finch McComas in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, Toinette & Dr. Purgeon in THE IMAGINARY INVALID, Christmas Past & Marley in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (twice).
Jeremy, one of my all-time favorite productions I've seen in the past years has got to be ANW's MAN OF LA MANCHA, in which you played Padre and Paco. Would you tell me some fun memories you had in that show?
JR: That was a very special show to be a part of. Sharing in the emotional outpouring from our audiences during the final moments of the play and through the curtain call was always so beautiful and moving. I had a lot of fun messing around with the other muleteers as we jumped into those fearsome characters head first. To switch back and forth so quickly between the unsavory Paco and the kind and gentle Padre was a blast, even though trying to juggle all the costume changes and myriad props could be tricky. Getting Cassandra Murphy (Aldonza) to laugh at me as Paco in rehearsal was also very entertaining. I'd express my lust for her character by getting on the ground and imitating a panting dog in heat, which always cracked her up. She finally figured out a way to keep a straight face... she stopped looking at me during the scene. She also never backed away from the aggressive fight choreography, urging her "assailants" to really go for it: "You can hit me harder!" I was so inspired by her ferocity during the final note of "It's All the Same" that I nearly blew out my voice during the guys' final cry of "Aldonza!" Even though I knew it might make my later solo a little harder to pull off, I didn't care because it was so fun.
This is the sixth year A Noise Within has presented A CHRISTMAS CAROL. How many times have you had a role in it?
DS: All six. We had done different versions of the play a few times in earlier years, and I was in those as well.
JR: This is only my second year, but I did play the same role in another production at Indiana Repertory Theatre years ago as well. 
 Deborah, did you always play Ghost of Christmas Past, and/or Charwoman?
DS: For the past six years, those are the roles I have always played. In our earliest version in the late 90s, I was Mrs. Cratchit. But in our next version in 2000, I was Christmas Past and that was actually when they built the dress I wear now – which makes that costume 17 years old. Each year they seem to add an extra layer of petticoat – it feels like it weighs about 50 pounds, but I'm sure that's an exaggeration.
Jeremy, did you always play Marley?
JR: I have. I guess there must be something about me that reads "eternity of regret and agony." I do also get to play some other fun characters like Fezziwig and Old Joe, but Marley's the most memorable and far and away the most exhilarating to play.
Must be nice to be able to 'step into' a familiar role, much like putting on comfortable slippers?
DS: I do hope that I get a little closer to being word perfect each year, but remember I'm the one whose memory is wiped clean when the show ends.
JR: It's definitely comforting, not just in terms of picking up the lines more quickly, but also in the added luxury of relaxing into a part while making new discoveries. Because Geoff and I have done the show before, and have acted together in many other plays, the ease and chemistry we have in the Marley scene is a delight. That said, I have to admit that familiarity can also breed concern. This particular production is a major workout with quick costume changes, warp-speed character switches and races to make entrances while avoiding a crush of other actors flying by. The first day of rehearsal invariably brings with it the question, "Am I really going to be able to pull this off this year?" So far, so good.
What tricks of the trade do you utilize to keep your portrayals fresh from year to year?
DS: Geoff and Julia keep us pretty honest. Each year they approach the play with new eyes and give us new direction and tweaks. The cast changes a bit each year as well, so there's new blood and energy. But it's the audience that really keeps it fresh. When I first enter, I have a perfect vantage point to gaze out at those wonderful faces – both the young and the young at heart – and they are looking up at me in awe and wonder, totally accepting the stage magic. No matter how cynical I might have felt before my entrance, the audience delivers me right into Charles Dickens' timeless tale of hope and redemption and I invest anew in delivering the story.
JR: They're not exactly secret tricks of the trade: I listen actively to my scene partners, and reinvest in what my character needs to accomplish. No two live performances are the same, so that moment-to-moment uncertainty and not knowing how an audience might respond, keep the performance fresh. We have a saying at the theater: don't try to be perfect, just try to be present. The more present I can be, the more alive the performance feels, so I don't have to try to make things fresh. Plus, new cast members this year bring their own rhythms and energy to the piece, which also helps transform it into something new and exciting.
What satisfying response from a past audience of ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL just warms the cockles of your heart?
JR: An adorable little girl once came up after a performance to comfort me. She said she was sorry that Marley was so sad, but that he was a good person because he helped his friend, Scrooge, live a happier life.
DS: After the show, we stay and meet the audience and take pictures. One little girl just clung to me. She couldn't even speak – just kept looking at me, touching my dress – as if she couldn't believe I was real.
What's the most surprising response to ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL you've experienced?
DS: What's most surprising is how many people return each year. One family has taken pictures with me each time they come. The children keep changing and growing in each picture, and I remain the same.
JR: Kids and adults alike are often startled by my first entrance, which is intended to shock. I've heard screams, curses and even seen some people jump in their seats. The most memorable response came from a boy who was so freaked out that he started yelling. It became so intense that he had to be taken out of the theater by his mom to help calm him down. I found him after the performance and was relieved to find that he not only felt a lot better, but actually loved the show and the character of Marley as well. He explained that I was very scary, but that he liked being scared.
Any particular role you are looking forward to in tackling in ANW's upcoming season?
DS: We're bringing back NOISES OFF this year – one of the funniest plays ever written. We laugh rehearsing it, the audience laughs, we're backstage laughing – we laugh so much and run so much that we all lose weight. Laughing must adjust your body chemistry because I'm always happier when we do that show.
JR: I'm really looking forward to playing Freddy in NOISES OFF. Having been in the audience for each of the previous mountings of the production and wanting desperately to be a part of it, I'm thrilled that I finally get to share in the fun. Freddy will be particularly fun to tackle, not just because he has great lines and hilarious moments of slapstick, but because he'll be a nice contrast to the more aggressive and less sympathetic characters I've played as of late (Crofts in MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, Cornwall in LEAR). I've also had the pleasure of working previously with everyone in the cast, so I know just how wildly talented and funny they all are. I can't wait!
Deborah, is being a part of ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the most Christmas-y thing you're doing this Holiday season? Or is there a much more Christmas-y tradition you will be partaking in?
DS: This is my tradition, otherwise I'm afraid I'm much more of a Scrooge in real life. Getting together with the cast and the play each year brings me right into the holiday spirit. Some of the young people in the play have been in it every year, we've watched them grow up. Rigel Pierce-English has been Tiny Tim, then Turkey Boy, and now Scrooge's sister Fan. I imagine that one day she will be the Ghost of Christmas Past. It's a beautiful thing.
Thank you again to you both! I look forward to experiencing your CHRISTMAS CAROL magic!
For available tickets and A CHRISTMAS CAROL scheduling through December 23, 2017; log onto www.anoisewithin.org


SANTASIA's Shaun Loeser On How Family, Fun & A Funny Father Merge For A Most Hysterical Show

An annual Valley holiday staple for a raucous time to be had by all, SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY opens December 1, 2017 at The Whitefire Theatre. We had the chance to chat with one of the co-founders of SANTASIA, Shaun Loeser on the familial inspiration and family ties that creatively bind this troupe of funny, funny people.
Thank you, Shaun, for agreeing to this interview!
Thank you Gil! I'm really excited to talk with you.
I see a number of people with the last names 'Loeser' on the SANTASIA website. How wonderful that this is a family affair, yes?

Ha, ha!, Yes! This is a family affair. My brother Brandon and I started SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY 18 years ago. My wife Tania, has been part of SANTASIA for 15 years and Brandon's new wife Rachel, has been with us for two years - she's the newbie. BTW, The full show title is SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY. But most people call us simply SANTASIA. We've reached the Cher and Madonna level!

Do you have to separate SANTASIA creative pow-wows from your everyday family lives? Or does everything overlap?
I wish we had separate SANTASIA pow-wows! Unfortunately, this show has pretty much taken over our lives for eleven months of the year. (We try not to think about it in January!) Things will inspire us throughout the year, so we start to create those ideas as soon as they transpire.
Can you specify who originated the idea of your first SANTASIA? Or was this a group light bulb?
SANTASIA was honestly created to get me and Brandon through the holidays without our Dad. Our Dad passed away after a hard-fought battle with cancer on July 1st, 2000. He (our Dad) was crazy about Christmas, holiday decorating and frigging Christmas lights. He made us hang all these lights on the coldest Chicago nights. But he always made Christmas the most fun and the best time of the year for us. Our Dad was also the funniest guy we ever knew. He had a great sense of humor, and he was very snarky and sarcastic. He was the most lovable asshole you'd ever know. After he died and Christmas was approaching, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. We knew that Christmas and that holiday season would just cause us pain and anguish. So we decided to get in front of that depression and start making fun of Christmas, it's traditions and our family. Seemed like something “our Dad would want us to do.” So that's when we created our SANTASIA. I remember telling Brandon, I think producing this show would be cheaper than a shrink. 18 years later, I was way wrong.

So, your first SANTASIA was put on in winter of 2000?

Our first SANTASIA was performed in 2000. We did four shows. We played on Tuesday nights, and between 15 to 20 people attended every night. But, on our final performance, we sold out. Sixty people showed up and we got our first standing ovation.
Have revised any original SANTASIA sketches from your first show for this show opening December 1st?
From the original show back in 2000, there's only two scenes we've kept for all 18 years. And these scenes are pantomime - one is an epic snowball fight, and the other, an adventure's bobsledding fiasco.
Any cast members who have been involved in all of the editions? Do you have a core SANTASIA troupe (besides the four Loesers)?
Brandon and I, of course. And, then my wife Tania has been with us the longest for 15 years. Another cast member Lon Gowan has been going strong for the past 13 years. Then Rachel for just two years.
Does your wife Tania choreograph around the unique dancing strengths of your core cast? Or does she have to audition for someone to be able to perform a specific dance move?
Ha! Yes, we do have a “unique dancing strength.” You're never going to believe this, but none of the guys in SANTASIA are trained dancers. I know, but it's true. We do try our damnest to be the best we can. It's a part of the charm and innocence of the show. Tania has a real gift of creating and inspiring non-movers and non-dancers to look the best they can. Tania is able to pull your unique strengths out of you and incorporate them into her amazing vision. Her choreography is very imaginative, and her ideas are both clever and funny and always smartly executed. Fun fact - Tania is the genius who incorporated dance and the musical numbers into our show. After Tania saw our show for her first time in 2000, she insisted we add a dance number to bring the show to the next level. Tania came up with the idea of "The Full Monty" and proposed it to me. It ended up being a hit and "The Full Monty" is still in our show as a staple. We have added musical parodies ever since. Our take offs include “A SANTASIA Line,” “All Those Toys,” “Snow Block Tango.,” Last year, we added a HAMILTON parody. Now we have to describe SANTASIA as a holiday musical/sketch comedy/multi-media event!
Whitefire Theatre's currently in its 35th season. How did you originally connect with Whitefire?
By phone. That's partially true. SANTASIA was performing at the El Portal Theatre as the guest artist for the 2004 “Valley Theatre Awards.” SANTASIA was nominated for, and won, Best Comedy Ensemble. Tania won Best Choreographer, and a I won for Best Comedy Actor (Although, Brandon claims he's the funnier Loeser brother).
It was at that awards show Bryan Rasmussen, owner of the Whitefire Theatre, first saw us perform. After we ended that year's run, we knew we needed a bigger venue. It was fun because when we called Bryan, he remembered us and welcomed us with open arms. Bryan is one of the most supportive and most giving theatre owners I have ever had to pleasure to work with. Bryan is truly passionate about his theatre, the work that goes on there and their patrons. In my opinion, the theatre is the nicest one in the valley. It also has really comfy seats that don't hurt your butt.
How soon did you start conceiving this current edition? Right after last year's?
To be perfectly honest…we usually get inspired two weeks into the run. Somebody will shout backstage, “Next year we should…” Then we'll, “yes and...” the idea and that will be our starting off point come February.
How did the inclusion of claymation multi-media come about?
I've always been a fan of the Rankin and Bass holiday specials. I grew up on Rudolph and Frosty. I met Michael Granberry the second year he came to see SANTASIA. He was what we like to call a super-fan or a “Santasi-ac.” Anyway, he told me he was a stop-motion animator. Michael asked me if I ever wanted a claymation piece for the show. I told him I had an idea for this split scene I was working on. It was going to be live on stage. Two kids were trying to build a snowman and just when the snowman was completed everything and everyone kept falling down. It's revealed later on the other side of the stage there was a little girl shaking a snow globe. So I wrote the scene down on a napkin for him. And I couple month's later he produced our first claymation film San Andreas Snowman. We now have four claymation films - Pulp Christmas, Some Assembly Required and Penguins Don't Fly. Fun fact - after Michael worked on our SANTASIA projects, he is now a two- time Emmy Award-winning animator for the show Tumble Leaf on Amazon. Not sure if SANTASIA had anything to do with it, but we are tight with Santa Claus.
Video plays a big part of SANTASIA. Who's the mastermind behind your videos?
Yes, they are, and they began out of necessity. Brandon and I hate long blackouts and scene changes. I wrote the very first film parody, based on the Matrix, titled Santasia Reloaded. This first trailer was our unique take on the Matrix Reloaded. It had stunts, Santa flying through the air and special effects. It was ridiculous! The audiences loved it. Then they asked, “What are you doing next year?” We realized then, we had to make more.
Whoever is inspired, gets to write and direct them. Tania, Brandon and I have all had our fair share of creating and producing these films. This year's film was directed by Tania. These films are full-on mini-productions. Tania will also do costumes and hair. Brandon does all the post-production. I'll get props, locations and talent scheduled and booked.
These films are definitely a collaboration of ideas by the SANTASIA team. Since our first film, we've produced Brokeback Igloo, Breaking Naughty, On Santasia Tides, Snowfall 007, The Walking Gingerbread, to name a few. Also, we add various commercials and PSA's throughout the show. But to be honest, I'm very excited about this year's parody film. It's really a bit Strange.
You and your brother Brandon both studied under Chicago's improv guru Del Close. Did you and Brandon start out performing together?
Yeah, pretty much. We started doing shows in college, and then Brandon and I started training at the iO in Chicago. If you know Del's work, you'll see the big influence Del had us in our storytelling. SANTASIA's structure is derived from Del's famed long form, the “Harold.” Del showed us how to truthfully do a scene and find the comedy within that truth; and how scenes, people and relationships will organically always find a connection.
After we studied with iO, both Brandon and I both went on to pursue careers as actors and stuntmen. We've both been lucky enough to work film, TV, and commercials. Brandon and I usually don't work together too much. We usually get cast as the same type. It just depends if production wants the short, chubby Loeser brother or the tall, goofy one. A couple of times, we did a sketch on the Conan show together. Come to think of it, SANTASIA is the only show we do that we actually share the stage.
Was stuntwork your entree into the entertainment industry? Or we you acting first?
For me, it kind of came at the same time. I was a diver in high school, so I developed some pretty good air sense. I auditioned for this Batman Stunt Show at Six Flags in Chicago. My big stunt was falling off a two-story building, and because I acquired that air sense, I was able to successfully do that fall. Then I bought some high fall pads and taught Brandon how to high fall. He became my counterpart the next year at the show. The live shows were a great way to make ends meet while pursuing the film and TV work. I have done the live show circuit, and it has literally taken me around the world. I've done shows in Chicago, New Jersey, Orlando, California and Italy. It was in California at Six Flags Magic Mountain doing the Batman and Robin Show where Brandon and I met Tania for the first time. Tania was playing Poison Ivy, and Brandon and I were cast as the mad scientist.
Any specific themes you incorporate into your yearly SANTASIAs?
Basic holiday dysfunction and the craziness of the holiday season and family. It seems like we always go back to family, if you love them or not. We go out of our way to try to make SANTASIA an escape from the holidays, so we try our best to keep current events out of the show, and make it more of a timeless production.
Any different goals you Loesers have set for this year's SANTASIA? (Laughs per minute? Shocked gaffaws? Extended standing O's?)
Usually we get about 10 to 12 laughs per minute. This year, I'd like to see if we could bump that up to 14.5 laughs with a guffaw every three minutes. (I don't want to push it.)
But, you know what would be really cool is an ovation so big that after we run off stage the audience cheers so much, they demand us to return. You know like the rock stars get! Then we perform Freebird and call it a night!!!
Thank you again, Shaun! I look forward to laughing a lot at your SANTASIA!
Thanks, Gil! It was fun. Let me know if you need anything else from us! I gotta go so I can learn Freebird.
For schedule and available SANTASIA tickets through December 25, 2017; log onto www.santasia.com


"TOXIC MASCULINITY" IN HOLLYWOOD (Onstage)

Given how much "toxic" masculinity there is around these days - just this morning, some jerk in Northern Cali joined the growing list of lethal shooters, at a children's elementary school, no less - well, I thought I'd begin with a memoir from a non-toxic Hollywood male.

BORN STANDING UP: a comic's life by Steve Martin, published by Scribner's

"I was not naturally talented - I didn't sing, dance or act - though working around that minor detail made me inventive.  I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from standup with a tired swivel of my head, until now," writes Steve Martin, in the first chapter of this fascinating self-analysis of his 18 year career as a standup comic.  Martin adds: "I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product."

This is not a new book - it's been out 10 years already - but it has sat on my shelf for some-time now, unread.  I am suspicious of celebrity culture of any kind, and self-analysis is usually of the most superficial variety with such folk.  But Steve Martin has been more unpredictable than most, branching out to playwriting, literary fiction, painting, musicals.  And I found his book to be unexpectedly and delightfully insightful, both into the formation of "Steve Martin, standup" who became the first comedian to play stadiums, and into the art of standup comedy itself.  Steve Martin spent years as a standup failure, bombing hard and often.  He lost managerss, he lost lovers, he had no money. His father never believed in him and was clearly hoping he would call it quits.  Even the months before his stardom were filled with gigs with small audiences and loud hecklers.  How and why did it change?  Read the book and find out.  I was deeply impressed with the honesty and humility with which Martin was able to view his own development as an entertainer and creative force.   He comes across as a flawed but genuinely good guy, a private person from Orange County who is well aware of the demands of celebrity, keeping it at as great a distance as he can afford to.

STUPID KID by Sharr White, Directed by Cameron Watson

Joe Hart, Taylor Gilbert, Rob Nagle, Allison Blaize, Ben Theobald (Brian Cole)

There are sometimes when the opening scene of a new play is so original and mind-blowing that I worry about how the rest of the play is going to be able to continue on this level, much less top it.  Such was the case with Sharr White's Stupid Kid at the Road.  The play opens with a knock on a door - suddenly Chick (Ben Theobald), a wayward man in his late 20s, is facing his father Eddie (Joe Hart) on the threshold of the run-down family home.  "Who are you?" Eddie keeps asking, and he seems unable to comprehend that this stranger at his door is actually his son.  Soon mother Gigi (Taylor Gilbert) joins the fray, and things only get more wildly out of control.  What's so winning about this opening scene, from a playwright's point of view, is that the three major characters are established and we begin to get a glimpse of the terrible tragedy/media event 14 years earlier that changed their lives - all without ever slowing down the play or compromising its reality to give us any exposition.  The play has raised several intriguing questions without giving away any crucial information.  Soon after this, the "toxic masculinity" in the play is introduced in the character of Uncle Mike (Rob Nagle).  Uncle Mike was the town sheriff, until he was unceremoniously removed.  Now he's running for town judge to get his revenge.  Uncle Mike has moments of greatness, but his character ends up raising more questions than the play is able to answer, chief among them: why would a man so concerned with power and domination rent a boy's room in his sister's run-down house for the last 14 years?  Given the depth of sadism, maybe he needs people to dominate; but other questions emerge that simply prove to be too big for this play to deal with.  Still, it's a terrific production, with great costumes by Kate Bergh and a wonderfully-detailed set by Jeff McLaughlin.  It has six more performances and is worth catching.

LES LIASON DANGEREUSES by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Robin Larson

Reiko Aylesworth and Henry Lubatti in the Libertine cast (Geoffrey Wade)

This would seem to be the perfect play for right now, dealing as it does with the sexual misdeeds of two 18th Century aristocrats, La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, who conspire together to pray upon the more vulnerable members of their society.  There's even this quote from a mother to her teenage daughter in the early moments of the play, regarding why Valmont continues to be received in polite homes, despite his tawdry history: "You'll soon find that society is riddled with such inconsistencies, we're all aware of them, we all deplore them, and in the end, we all accommodate them."   As Jenny Lower pointed out in her Stage Raw review, this could be a description of how Harvey Weinstein's uncouth behavior and violations went unpunished for so long.

Antaeus is famous for having two separate casts for each show - in this case, The Libertines and The Lovers.  I saw The Libertines cast, with Reiko Aylesworth and Henry Lubatti in the lead roles, and the production simply didn't work for me, because Mr Lubatti didn't make me feel the emotional devestation that Valmont causes by rejecting his true love, La Presidente de Tourvel.  In her Stage Raw review, Jenny Lower raves about how well this worked with the actors in The Lovers cast.  Something to think about.

REDLINE by Christian Durso, directed by Eli Gonda, presented by IAMA Theatre at the Lounge

This father-son play about the consequences of a 5 second outburst of toxic masculinity has all the emotional devestation I found missing from Liason Dangereuse, and much more.  It is the culmination of a two year development process in which playwright Christian Durso continued to work on his play with director Eli Gonda and actors James Eckhouse and Graham Sibley, having readings, making changes. The play is still finding its levels and filling in a few details, and the ending still feels a bit tentative, but this is an example of what small theaters can do that major institutional theaters rarely can.  The collaborative elements here are outstanding, and IAMA Theatre deserves huge kudos for helping to bring about such a powerful theatrical experience.  Every family will be able to relate to the central event in the play - an argument between mom and dad on a skiing field trip that gets out of hand and ignites a moment of chaos that results in a tragedy for many people.  Further, the play shows how the emotional damage is compounded and passed along from father to son, resulting in another heartrending and entirely preventable tragedy.  Eckhouse and Sibley are two of SoCal's best actors, and both are at the top of their games here.  But, again, the brilliance here is the result of a great collaboration between all aspects of theater, including the flexible steel set by Rachel Myers and the excellent lighting by Josh Epstein.  Kudos also to producers Tom DeTrinis and Jen Hoguet for their contribution.  There are only 3 performances left with available tickets: this Saturday at 2 and 8 pm and this Sunday at 2.  Grab one fast.

 


Audio Interview: Judith Scott - of the feature film GUESS WHO - stars in “Mrs Warren's Profession” at A Noise Within

Enjoy this interview about “Mrs Warren's Profession” By George Bernard Shaw staring Judith Scott (of the feature film GUESS WHO where she played alongside Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher & Zoe Saldana) at A Noise Within, running until Nov 18th. 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.


LOVE, ART, THOUGHT - Searching for the Magic Connection in the Sacred Space

HIPSTER TIPS

MASTERCLASS by Terrence McNally, directed by Dimitri Toscas

Carolyn Hennesy and Roy Abramsohn in "Masterclass"

This is the first production of the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), but I have to admit that I didn't have high expectations.  The play Masterclass was first produced in 1995 - right here at the Ahmanson,  then on Broadway - with Patti Lupone as the aging Maria Callas and the young Audra McDonald as one of her students; and it's been revived several times since.  Was this really how you want to kick off a new theatre?  Well, it turns out that the answer is Yes.  This is a stellar revival.  In fact, it's so alive, so strong moment-to-moment, that it doesn't feel like a revival, it feels like an Event.  This is largely thanks to Carolyn Hennessy, who is wonderful and simply seems to BE Maria Callas.  She inhabits the play, she comes to life as a creature of the stage, full of joy, sorrow and many contradictions.  But everything is excellent in this production, from Callas's students (I was especially taken with Landon Shaw II as a tenor who is especially taken with himself) to Manny the accompanist (Roy Abramsohn) to Francois-Pierre Couture's heartbreakingly beautiful stage design of the naked stage.  Credit must go to director Dimitri Toscas, who is also co-director of the Garry Marshall Theatre (GMT).  He clearly has a passionate connection to this play and to the character of Callas.  He deeply feels her pain - the pain of dislocation and loneliness.  "You know the only place where Callas truly fit in? On stage. In the opera house," Toscas writes in the program notes and wonderfully dramatizes on the GMT's stage.

 

INCOGNITO by Nick Payne, directed by Katharine Farmer

Claire Adams and Henry Jacobson in "Incognito"

I was fortunate enough to catch the West Coast premiere of British playwright Nick Payne's new play Incognito at the Rubicon in Ventura, and to my mind it confirms that he may well be the second coming of Thom Stoppard.  The play scrambles together three different story-threads having to do with the act of cognition and the very real possibility that our sense of self may be the biggest delusion of all.  It is not a perfect play by any means - as Philip Brandes in the LA Times pointed out, it may add on one subplot too many, which invite a confusion that threatens to obscure how brilliantly it explores the intersecting byways of consciousness, identity and memory.  It's simply the most exciting and challenging play I've seen this year.  Under the guidance of Katharine Farmer, the cast of four actors - Claire Adams, Joseph Fuqua, Henry Jacobson and Betsy Zajko - is excellent, making hairpin emotional turns and seamless character transitions.  Here's hoping that CTG or the Geffen or Roguemachine or some other adventurous purveyor of new plays brings this production to Los Angeles, where it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Paige Lindsey White and Daisuke Tsuji in "With Love and a Major Organ" at Boston Court. Photo: Jenny Graham.

PREVIEW of a New Play at the Boston Court:

WITH LOVE AND A MAJOR ORGAN by Julia Lederer, directed by Jessica Kubzansky

Speaking of "adventurous" - a word that is in the mission statement of the Boston Court Theatre - I attended a preview last weekend of their new production, With Love and a Major Organ by Canadian playwright Julia Lederer, directed by co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky.  The play depicts what director Kubzansky described as "three screamingly lonely people" searching for love in a hostile technological landscape: a 20-something man, his mother, and a 20-something woman.  The young woman and man meet on the subway every morning on the way to work at some anonymous office job, and the woman feels a pheromone-fueled attraction to the man.  The man doesn't sense this at all and feels embarrassed by intimacy.  His mother, meanwhile, is on the internet searching for a soulmate - or if not that, then simply someone she can talk with.  The play contains another of Boston Court's extraordinary sets, something they have become justly famous for.  In this case it's a dingy subway train, complete with the illusion of movement.  There is a mythic sense to the characters, who are not so much realistic individuals as figures of yearning, desperate for that magical sense of connection in a world of disconnect, where the wish for intimacy is dangerous and actively suppressed.

"There are three qualities we look for in a Boston Court play," Kubzansky told me in the theater lobby after the preview.  "The play must be inherently theatrical, visually arresting and textually rich.  Julia's play is poetry for the theater - another quality necessary for a Boston Court play.  We are constantly on the lookout for plays that find new and original ways to convey poetic essences in a theatrical style."

Kubzansky added that Boston Court has been adapting to the conditions of the new Equity contract, which have definitely increased the challenge of living up to their mission.  "Last season we used half as many actors as we had the previous year, but it cost us $112,000 more.  This is has made it impossible for us to do some plays we love, but which require a cast size we can no longer afford.  Still, our subscribers expect a certain kind of theatrical experience from us - something they can't find anywhere else - and we are determined to keep providing that."

At its core, With Love and a Major Organ is a deeply romantic play which should appeal to theatergoers looking to feed the heart without ignoring the mind.  Paige Lindsey White, Daisuke Tsuji and Bonita Friedericy breathe life into Ms. Lederer's words, and you have until November 5th to catch Boston Court's latest theatrical train ride.  Click here to hop aboard!


Hollywood Fringe's TURBULENCE Hits Downtown NYC Theatre Scene!

The Los Angeles-based comedy improv troupe Robot Teammate is crossing the country in October to make its New York debut at the SoHo Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series. The troupe will be performing its original scripted musical, Turbulence!, which won Best Musical, Best World Premiere, Critics' Choice, and A Little New Music's Award for Outstanding Songwriting at the Hollywood Fringe this past June.

Since this marks the ensemble's debut on the East Coast, performers/writers/producers Chris Bramante, Molly Dworsky and Kat Primeau were happy to participate in a roundtable interview about this exciting event.

How did the opportunity arise for Robot Teammate to make its New York theater debut with Turbulence!?

Molly Dworsky: Our Fringe audiences have come to know us as passionate creators of new comedy musicals and have honored us by filling the seats of our venue and telling their friends to come, too. Our hard-earned reputation garnered interest from an important stranger this year — a theater scout from New York who saw Turbulence! He reached out to us see if we'd like to co-produce the show at his theater, the SoHo Playhouse, for its Fringe Encore series. We were elated and said yes immediately!

artwork: Monica M. Magana and Dan Schaffer

Has any member of the cast worked in New York theater before? If so, what were the circumstances?

Chris Bramante: Beyond writing and performing in playwright colloquiums when I was studying at NYU Tisch, this will be my very first actual New York theater production. When I think about it that way...well, hot dog! I'm even more psyched than I already was, which was quite a darn bit.

Kat Primeau: I did an Off-Broadway Playwrights Festival years ago, performing Dana Lynn Formby's beautiful short play, Armed with Peanut Butter, and later spent time interning at Culture Project, a political theater company. I had the time of my life, dropping postcards off at theaters around Manhattan and feeling the electricity of the sidewalks powering me along as we endeavored to make the world a better place through art.

What's the most exciting aspect of bringing the show to the SoHo Playhouse?

Molly: While Robot Teammate has traveled for the weekend here and there around the Southwest for festivals, two-day residencies and workshops, we have never undergone a cross-country trip together, nor have we tested a run of a show outside of California. This will be groundbreaking for our team, and we all love this work and each other so much. We are over the moon about sharing the experience of New York theater performance with each other.

Chris: I'm excited about being a mere few blocks away from Blue Ribbon Sushi. But even more so, getting to assemble and meet with other artists bringing their work to the Festival and this super dope venue. As a Hamilton obsessee, the fact that the theater used to be owned by Aaron Burr (sir) is also a fun bit of something.

Kat: I love viewing theater from all around the world. It's always a treat to see different artists' processes and products. I love meeting new producing entities and getting insight to what work and subject matter interests them. It's consumer research, understanding what artists and audiences are hungry for. I'm really looking forward to connecting with international and regional companies also participating in the festival. An opportunity to travel with your craft is always amazing, especially when it reunites you with old producing partners and new potential collaborators!

Martians from Turbulence (photo by Matt Kamimura)

What are you most looking forward to experiencing in the Big Apple?

Molly: I'm sure it's slightly different for everyone, but I'm excited to not have to worry about driving or parking! I can't wait to walk everywhere and use great public transportation. Also, connecting with dear friends in New York will be a top priority.

Chris: New York is a second home to me, as I lived there for five years, first studying at NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing and then working my first job in media at ABC News. I cannot wait to see all my friends, family and professors who are still living and thriving in the city. I've been performing with Robot Teammate out in Los Angeles for over five years and so many of my beloved people have never gotten the chance to see my little musicbot family. I hope the current student body of the Department of Dramatic Writing attends. Ya see, kids? Study hard and show up to class and then one day you can stomp around in shiny silver hot pants just like this alum.

Kat: I can't wait to spend time with my friends from Ohio University, eat a ton of bagels and actually see Autumn again!

How do you think New York audiences will receive Turbulence!?

Molly: We hope our show can transcend coastal preferences and be as well-received in the theater capitol of the world, if not more beloved, than it was in Los Angeles. Because our show is feel-good, family-friendly and only an hour long, we think it can be like a chocolate cookie of a show instead of some of the more hardy and harder-to-swallow meals like the serious/dramatic/two+ hour shows. This show is fun, and we know people tend to need an escape from a scarily un-fun reality right now.

Chris: I think they will love it. Hey, it's a fast-paced, zany comedy with catchy synthpop tunes at an affordable ticket price. It's theater that a tourist can pop in and pop out of. Perfect for a family that can't afford the higher Broadway prices but still wants to experience a theater production in New York.

Robot Teammate's 2016 Fringe Show - poster by Dax Schaffer and Monica M. Magana

Have you had any interaction with New York improv theater companies yet? Have they offered you any tips or guidance?

Kat: We are performing at the New York Musical Improv Festival at the Magnet Theater on October 22nd with a really incredible team we met at West Coast Music Improv Festival earlier this year, American Immigrant. We are excited to see them and a bunch of talented musical improvisers while we are in town, and are reaching out to our friends in comedy for advice and support. I have to give a shout-out to my theater company buddies at the TEAM and Theatre for New Audiences who have been especially helpful so far!

Since winning a bunch of awards at the 2017 Fringe, what kind of interest has the show engendered and how has it benefited the company?

Chris: It has given us a chance to bring our show to the musical epicenter of the planet, so that's incredible. We hope to create lasting connections with theater communities out here while we're in the midst of the run.

Molly: It seems that successes come and go so quickly in Hollywood (or anywhere). We've enjoyed putting our laurels on our promotional materials, but it's a challenge to get our art in the right hands — to someone who could really make a difference for our creative careers. Mostly, the awards give us confidence to keep working toward our dreams and confirms that what we're doing is really resonating with our friends and fans.

Is anyone going to squeeze in some New York theater while you're there? If so, what do you want to see?

Chris: Yep! As a huge animation fanboy, I really just gotta see Anastasia. I love it too much to not. I would also love to take my shot at the Hamilton lottery to see the new cast (was lucky enough to see Lin, Leslie, Renee and the original cast two years ago). Most certainly I want to check out Sleep No More. Would love recommendations! What should we see?

Kat: My first goal is to get to the Hayden Planetarium and convince Neil deGrasse Tyson to come to our show. Second goal is supporting friends who are performing currently in the city. Third goal is exploring some immersive productions, new musical workshops and recommendations your readers leave us in the comments! Fourth is watching Broadway shows on tape at the New York Public Library.

Molly: We'd all die to see the Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, but we know we're not alone in that desire. We'll all definitely be visiting the TKTS line during our days off and drinking in whatever we can of your magical city. Hopefully this run of Turbulence! won't be Robot Teammate's last trip to New York together and we'll get to visit and see more shows as often as possible.

Turbulence! will play at various times from October 13-22 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street. Exact showtimes and tickets can be obtained by visiting the theater's web site.


Bryan Rasmussen On His Visions for His Whitefire Theatre - The SHORTS & the Long-Reaching

Whitefire Theatre will be presenting their latest edition of their SHORTS series, FALL SHORTS, opening September 26, 2017. Whitefire Theatre has been a reliable San Fernando Valley fixture providing countless entertaining theatre pieces and workshops.
Whitefire Theatre's artistic director Bryan Rasmussen took some moments from his creative multi-tasking to chat with us.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Bryan!
This is your fifth year of presenting your evenings of original short comedy plays. What was the genesis of inaugurating this series?
When Jake O'Flaherty (the producer) and I started the company; we still didn't know exactly what material we would be presenting as a company. Because the choice of the material you do is your reputation usually for the company itself. I had already been working in the 10-minute format for a while and thought it was just amazing. And then it all came together, being able to use every actor in the company for every show. And they would basically get cast as leads in their short pieces. So everybody got great roles, and we could use 25-to-30 actors for a show. So we started using that format. It worked so well, we just kept using it, and we use it now exclusively for the company.
How do you select what shorts become a part of each production?

We have a core group of writers that we work with on a regular basis, both within the company and outside of the company. Many award-winning comedy writers are involved. It takes approximately 16 weeks to find the plays, rehearse and develop them. Because these are plays and not sketches, it needs that kind of rehearsal process. We pick the nine or ten best plays we can find, and we cast them that way rather than the opposite way of finding plays that fit the company. But it happens anyway every time. Amazing!
Have any of the 100-plus shorts you've presented in the last five years grown into full-length plays?
Some have, but that's not necessarily the reason this is happening. The 10-minute play is its own genre. It's not just a short clip in order to get the long-form produced, etc. And many great things can happen in that arc of 10 minutes. I did one that covered the characters from babies to Alzheimer's, and it was incredible! The format that these lend themselves well to is the web series. And we are developing many of those as well.
Any specific success stories to brag about?
Well, we have many great relationships with artists, but collaborating with Academy Award-winning writer (Crash)/director/producer Bobby Moresco for over eight years is a great one! Many of our projects that we developed in the Gym have gone on to full-length play productions, feature films, scripts and other projects. We've been developing a new work inspired by Studs Terkel's WORKING but with completely new characters and written by members of the Actors Gym and Bobby Moresco who conceived the project called WORKING 2017, starring a world-class cast that we will be streaming live worldwide.
This is the 35th anniversary of Whitefire Theatre. What made you decide to stake ownership in Whitefire eight years ago?

It was actually a very serendipitous event. I was an actor at the time bartending with no real ability to start a business whatsoever. But a friend of mine stepped in and put up a little money, and then I was able to get a few others to do the same. Amazingly, it all took place over the course of a six-month period. Then after about three years of steady bookings, the recession hit and changed everything drastically. 
I had run spaces and produced before but having my own theatre was not a realistic goal of mine. I think everybody would like one, but it was certainly not on my goal list. I was on full steam ahead for an acting career, and had already done a lot by the time this came along. But it came along in my life when I was at a crossroads trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life and, Boom!, this came into my life. It's been an amazing ride!
Your Whitefire website pictures a core group of eleven company members. Do you choose the plays Whitefire produces to fit their talents? 
Actually, our core group is 25 company members. The biggest difference is most casting is the actors becoming characters that have already been written. But in film and television, it's very important to understand what your 'personal' essence is, as opposed to your 'casting' essence. So these parts are all customized for each of their individual talents and diversity or ethnicity. And it's worked just fantastically that way!
Do company members get first crack at new roles? Or do they have to audition at your open auditions?

Yes, they do...we always consider our company members for other shows playing at the Whitefire. Theatre company members read all the submitted plays and are then cast based on who can represent the characters best as written. We have open auditions after the close of each show for any new company members who would like to join for the next show. Our producer Jake O'Flaherty arranges the audition process. 
How does one become a company member? 
Auditions are held on the week after the current show closes. The actor needs to prepare a two-minute comedy monologue of their choice to perform, and bring a headshot and resume.
You, Bobby Moresco and Jessica Lynn Johnson offer classes at Whitefire. Does one need to audition to enroll in your classes?
Yes, but they aren't as much classes as they are workshops. Bobby's are by referral and he has writers, actors, and directors in that. Jessica's is a free ongoing workshop developing solo shows. Mine is an ongoing on-camera, working-actors class for all pro-actor needs. Bill Chott (This is Us) teaches an ongoing improv workshop on Saturday and Sunday 11am-1pm. Portia Scott runs a Sunday morning voiceover workshop. Jake O'Flaherty has commercial and business of acting classes as well. The rest of the time we are in production.

What are your long-term goals for Whitefire?
We are launching our live-streaming program as we speak. We are very excited about what this could all mean!
What's in the immediate future for Whitefire? 

I'd love to make the Whitefire the Netflix of theatre. Broadcasting our content nightly live out of the Whitefire, and creating a stream of income for theatre artists so they can make a living doing theatre in LA!
And in the future for Bryan Rasmussen, acting or directing?

The Company show FALL SHORTS that opens Tuesday, September 26 at 8pm. Then, I am acting in a feature film in October, shooting in New Orleans about the aftermath of Katrina. Jake O'Flaherty and I are also doing multiple web series together. So life is good when you get to do what you love. That is true success. After my heart attack a year ago, it helped me hyper-focus on what is important, and who I wanted to work with. I'm the luckiest guy in town.
Thank you again, Bryan!
For FALL SHORTS ticket availability and schedule thru October 31, 2017; as well as, ongoing Whitefire Theatre class schedules; log onto www.whitefiretheatre.com


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA - Day 9

Day 9 –

Show Day & Moscow Adventures

After a very deep sleep from our two-show day and celebration, I rose early so I could get a jump on the day. Our tour will be over before I know it, and I've seen hardly anything of the city that wasn't from the hotel to the theater.

The weather will be quite warm and sunny today so I throw on a thin t-shirt with my linen button-up, jeans and my Asics sneaks - I do plan on being comfortable in my walking tour. And since we do have a show tonight I'd like to pace my feet, as they are still smarting from overuse.

Today I head to the Chekhov House-Museum. It is the house he lived in with several members of his family and where he wrote over 100 short stories.  It shouldn't be too far of a walk - like one and half miles.

As I head out I pass through a massive traffic square with massive statues on one side, an underground tunnel to cross the street and enter the subway and the entrance to a park on the other. I walk through a gorgeous, enormous park with a fountain and the original McDonald's (yes that's the very first McDonald's in all of Russia) and a sandy pathway down the middle with trees on either side and the streets going one way and the next on the outside. The traffic is epic so I stay in the center on the pathway. This goes on for a almost a mile until I come to another towering gorgeous statue and a rather complicated intersection and the choice to go down one of three streets that will take me into the area of the Chekhov house.

As I wander down the street of choice-ended up being the middle one-I notice that the street is lined with many different countries' embassies. Brazil. Finland. Jamaica. I found it odd that they were on the same street. Same block even. I also found it odd-or maybe just unexpected that it was those countries. Finland sure-but Brazil and Jamaica? Yeah mon!

When I got to the intersection where I was to take a right, I paused for orientation. Another absolutely massive intersection with a tunnel and 6 different directions you could go in any of 8 lanes and a building that takes up the entire block. It is simply huge and sprawls across the whole block and even boasts a garden. I go right about two buildings and it's right there.

Or it should be.  But I don't see it. Did I pass it?

I consult my map. I consult the buildings. I walk back the direction I came from and watch the bouncing ball on the map move further away. I walk back toward where the Chekhov House is supposed to be and stand where it's supposed to be. I look around in 360 degrees and am baffled. There is nothing where I am standing but a large grey wall obscuring a garden and possibly another building but absolutely nothing that would resemble what I was to expect for the Chekhov House Museum. I am stymied. And pissed off. I pride myself on being able to read a map and navigate with the best of them. And I can't find the Chekhov Museum. What the blankity blank blank? Alright, I guess it's time for Plan B.

I consult the map for Arbat Street. It's a famous street that I've dreamt of since I first read The Master and Margarita. The Master and Margarita is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov and was notoriously censored.  It was also the first Russian play that I did (18 years ago), and it changed my life. So, if the Chekhov Museum is going to play hide and seek with me, I will go enjoy some other illustrious literary wonders illuminated by a different Russian author.

I walk to a market and stop for a bubble water and tiny wrapped cheeses and grapes. I walk more. Good Lord, where is Arbat street? I know that the main street that says it's Arbat - probably isn't the Arbat I'm looking for because that is supposed to be a smaller one of those diagonal walking streets. It's probably all souvenir and chotchkies shops anyway, but I continue. I will find victory.

Another good mile and I finally am upon what is known as New Arbat. It is a fancy walking mall along the main street. There is a small skateboard park. Super fancy shops and restaurants. It's where the cool kids are hanging on this warm afternoon. There is an actual mall. I go inside. It is a seven floor indoor department store that is the equivalent of a Barney's or the coolest Nordstrom you have ever seen. Everything is shiny and chic and organized by designer and I get every kind of look, from "No, not her in the running shoes" to "Oh, maybe she needs some new sneakers…"

When I return to the walking mall I come across a Black Star Burger that has a line around the corner for a dessert that I can only deduce is a giant, crazy ice cream sundae with macarons and marshmallows and other unidentifiable floating objects that hoards of friends have gathered to share this delectable delight together on this hot afternoon. I decide to just sit down for a minute and watch people enjoy this obscenity that is dessert. My feet hurt.

There is an entrance to a little indoor mall. I pop in for another water and some air conditioning and come across a bakery that has fancy breads like we ate in St. Petersburg. They are absolutely beautiful handcrafted artisan creations. The gentleman baker in an apron behind the counter tries to speak to me. I mutter Spasibo and wave in a way that says "No, thank you" and try to telegraph the message inside my brain that says "I'm sorry I came to your country without learning your language." I can see at this moment that was incredibly rude because I would love to talk with you about this gorgeous edible creation that you've obviously labored over, but alas I will have to wander away in shame.

The real Arbat street is around the corner so I walk to it. It is a walking street and it is mostly souvenir shops. I stop into one and purchase a couple of little Babushka dolls and realize that for someone who never leaves the house without a hat, I have been walking for two and a half hours in the midday sun and am a little woozy and irritable.

I decide to grab an Über back to the hotel. We have our last show tonight, and I am beginning to feel as if time is evaporating. It is also starting to look like rush hour in Moscow, and it will be 20 minutes! Maybe the subway. It is all in Cyrillic and I don't have the patience to try and figure it out. I just want to sit in some air conditioning. This was not the walkabout day in Moscow I was looking for. But inevitably at some point on tour or when traveling, there is a day that doesn't go quite as anticipated. Today is that day.

When the Über arrives, it is a white Mercedes and my driver is named Sergei. He greets me and turns the air conditioning on high and quietly sits in traffic as I sit and watch the people walking on the sidewalk pass us and I simply don't care. Our hotel is 1.5 miles and it takes 40 minutes as I sit and drink a bottle of water and doze off and feel like a spoiled American. But I will say that it was the best $11 I spent the whole trip.

Once I return to the hotel, I have the quick switch of grabbing show clothes and racing out the door. Tonight is our last show in Russia.

As I walk to the theater I realize I have walked 6.5 miles already and that is before the show. The weather has shifted and the wind has started blowing. By the time I reach the theater, it has started to rain. I am greeted by the three security guards with whatever the Russian version of “Hey” is. Two of them are bald. I can see that my bribery of them with candies yesterday has made me memorable today. I shake out my hair and my scarf and droplets land on the security glass. They laugh and pantomime flipping their hair to tease me. I rub the top of my head as if I was wiping the rain off my bald head and they all burst into laughter and give me thumbs up.

I pop my headphones on and walk my warm-up and make-up and dressing and pre-show ritual. I feel restless and cannot put my finger on why.

We do our pre-show huddle and decide to do this show for our director Tina & writer Richard. They are the reason we are here and tonight we will honor them. Do our best to make them proud. There. It's settled. It's not about me. Whew.

Tonight's show is met with the same trepidation that we experienced in last night's show. However this time we understand. This will be an earned experience that we share together. We are just getting to know each other and trust is something that is built.

When Vershinin arrives on stage for the first time, it feels like the first time for me as Masha. If I can make Vershinin fall in love with me, I can hold the heart of the Russian people. The show races forward. and I struggle to hang onto it. This last time until the next time that can never be too soon. This last time that disappears as quickly as it began. This last time before an audience that I can hear gasp and weep audibly as I say my goodbye to Vershinin as quickly as it seems he first stepped on stage. This last time the breadth of this story of this family is reduced to us three sisters standing before an empty abyss that is filled with a sold out silent crowd that I can hear sniffling with us.

Black out.

 

 

 

 


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA - Day 8

Day 8 – Two Show Day.

Today is the day.

The day of truth.

I pack for our adventures. Workout clothes for tech from 10 – 12 pm. Then a show for the press at 2pm. More dry workout clothes. Then a break and then another show at 7 pm. And a change of clothes for a reception after the show. Yellow dress? Red dress? Red dress.

I sling my bags over my shoulder, throw on my headphones and walk to the theater.

We do a dance call on stage and walk through transitions. I feel keenly aware that the staff and crew are seeing all of these shenanigans of the show out of context. In my mind there is a secret fantasy where we could clear the house and have a private tech for just us. As if we were doing a nude scene in a movie. However that would make it difficult to run the timing of the supertitles that need to match our lines.

At the break there is really only time to peel off sweaty clothes, try to dry under humid conditions, figure out how to prop the dressing room window open without opening the blind that separates us from the walkway to the stage door and eat a protein bar.

Focus is the name of the game.

I give myself extra time for my ritual back stage.

I can feel myself start to stiffen and auto-pilot waits in the wings.

Too much work has been done for auto-pilot to steal what is waiting.

Luckily this isn't about me. It's about Masha and her experience. It is about the show and telling the story.

Just touch one person's heart.

Yes, it is a house filled with critics. They will either love you or they won't, but all we can do is do what we came here to do.

We gather in the wings for our pre-show ritual.

No feathers. No fluff.

The pre-show announcement comes on and there is silence.

The lights go down, and we start the show.

We get through the opening dance.

Silence.

It becomes abundantly clear to me in those first few moments that the only thing we can do is to do it for us. And hang on to each other for dear life because right now that's all we got. Each other and this story.

The house is about three-quarters filled and it is all press.

We get to our next big song and dance and there is silence.

As we move forward and just do our thing, we start to hear a few chuckles sprinkled through the house. They seem to escape before they too can be silenced.

We finish the show and are met with moderate applause. Applause that says you aren't the worst thing we have ever seen, and I'm not sure how I feel about your interpretation of Chekhov, but we appreciate the effort and can see that you worked really hard.

Well, at least we got that under our belt.

I change into dry clothes and walk out to rain. A downpour.

I skip past puddles to the sushi restaurant. Yes, again. I have a seaweed salad and brown rice. Just needed a little comfort food.

A deluge of rain continues and the sidewalk gutters overflow. There doesn't seem to be much of a difference in the stride of the people walking on the street.

And then before I know it, my food is gone and so is the rain and I feel recharged.

I go down the street to a little market I'd discovered that has Coke Zero. I grab one and peruse the Russian candies. I choose a bag of chocolates that looks like dark chocolate filled with marshmallow and another bag of chocolates that I have no idea what they are but they have this amazing picture of a baby with a Babushka scarf that is so adorable I want to eat it.

When I get back to the theater I give the security guards chocolates and they look at me as if I am trying to bribe them. I am.

Kendra is pumping in the dressing room.

Lucky you!

We decide that trying the candies are our only salvation.

The dark chocolate marshmallow ones are actually not marshmallow at all. It is more like a marzipan except that it is so super sugary it crunches.

The cute tiny baby candy is however the most delicious thing in the world. It is like a chocolate wafer covered in a cross between milk and dark chocolate with maybe a little caramel. Good lord it is amazing. I hand the rest of my piece back to Kendra and instruct her that I am only allowed to have a single bite of that no more than once a day no matter how I try to negotiate with her.

As the rest of the crew returns we dry off, regroup and prepare for our show. The best thing about a two-show day is that by the second show you are already spent and any obstacle that was in the way has been removed. The second wind of a second show when you already gave your all carries the gift of not caring what anybody else thinks. And balls to the wall, let's do this thing.

I give myself extra time to stretch and warm-up. My show shoes are so worn out (I really should have replaced them before this trip but I am superstitious and couldn't find the exact same pair) that I put gel sole inserts into them which makes the shoes a little tighter and will have to be removed for this second show for the following reasons:

My feet are swollen and I need the extra space.

My plantar fasciitis is aggravated and the gel inserts have been changing the arch of my foot.

The bones in my feet feel like they have been bound and there is no escaping it so let's just get back to the way Masha feels in the shoes as is.

We join up for our pre-show ritual.

We decide to do the show for Moscow. The city of Moscow. For the people of Moscow. This is for them.

Pre-show announcement.

Light clapping.

Hey, it's already looking up.

We do the dance and move through the beginning of the show. I can feel they are with us even though maybe they don't know what to make of the show yet. It is as if I can feel their apprehension. It occurs to me that they need to know we are going to take care of them. That we are going to take care of this play. They are recognizing the chart of the story. They are seeing that Chekhov's Three Sisters is in our birthday cake song and dance. By the time we get to the transition from the first to the second act, which is a tango with furniture, and then we become the band, they can see that we are following the play. They see their Three Sisters in our Track 3, and it's as if they can finally settle down into the play. Collectively. At the beginning of the second act. And from there we can hear their audible responses to the play. Sighs, laughter, recognition, oh's and Da's. They are getting everything. Every little nuance.

At the end of the Second Act, Irina has a speech describing Moscow, and they broke out in delight. The acknowledgement of their city, their brutal history, their sophisticated culture. There were little bursts of Russian clapping.

We have a line in the Third Act when the fire has happened.

Tuzenbach says: In 1812 Moscow was on fire. Man, weren't the French surprised.

And they laughed.

No one has ever laughed on that line.

Because it isn't funny unless you understand that the Russians set Moscow on fire so it wouldn't be taken by Napoleon in 1812.

They laughed.

Come the end of the play, we were received with Russian clapping and flowers, and we went off and came back amid a partial ovation.

After the show we gather in the lobby, and Eugenia and Alice and Vladimir are there to walk us to the Festival headquarters where our reception will take place.

 

There is a fresh breeze blowing out the rest of the rain. The air is crisp in its cleanness. As we all meander along these Moscow streets and I take in the buildings and the street lamps and the clouds that I can see moving across the sky, a silence falls over me. Everything seems to fall away for a moment.

A moment where I can feel my feet beneath me. Not the pain from before just the aliveness of my steps. I can feel my legs as they carry me, my hips as they sway, my core as it balances me, my shoulders tall and proud. I can feel every cell of my being awake and present to the voice that whispers in my ear.

This is what living the dream is.

This is what it feels like.

This is what it tastes like.

This is what it smells like.

It is not a destination.

It is this here now.

Remember this moment. Memorize where it lives in you.

You can call upon it again when nothing seems to go your way.

And those moments are living the dream too.

This is where it lives.

It lives in you.

When we arrive at the headquarters we go down into the basement and into a red room with white Rococo wainscoating and these candelabra sconces that look like they are melting down the wall. There is a beautiful table filled with fresh veggies and breads and meats and cheeses and fruits and wine and vodka.

Alice, Richard and Eugenia

The festival director gives a speech. It goes a little something like this.

In Russia, there are only two kinds of theatre.  Drama and entertainment.

(The space between the two is elaborated with very deliberate hand gestures putting entertainment on the right side and Russian Drama all the way on the left side-also illustrating that there is nothing in between.)

There is Russian Drama and entertainment.

We expected you to bring us entertainment. And you brought us Drama. Russian Drama.

Well, okay. Thank you for that. Again I am crying.

Then more speeches and more tears.

Then Richard gets up for a speech.

With the eloquence of a writer he is able to express the depth of gratitude that is felt for the work that has gone into making this dream come true for all of us and now everyone is crying because he is crying.

It is a proud moment.

Even prouder as we discover that this room that we are in was originally a printing shop. Anton Chekhov used to sit in the corner that I am seated in when he was still a doctor and he would write his short stories which later were printed in this same room. The room where we celebrate now was the beginnings of what led to his beautiful work and eventually to The Three Sisters and now to us retelling his story.

In some way, I feel as if we have come full circle back to where it literally began.

 

 


THEATRE MOVEMENT BAZAAR'S JOURNEY TO RUSSIA - Day 7

Day 7

Moscow & Rehearsal

It is Sunday. I am tired and migraine-y. I feel like my veins are filled with molasses.

I put on my same jeans and my Never Give Up SGI t-shirt and take the elevator to the basement to see a similar type buffet as St. Petersburg with the addition of hot dogs and a cream filled napoleon-style dessert.

I am not awake enough to join the group, so I have a little eggs and cabbage salad on my own and go back to our room.

These are the days on tour that I don't love the most. After a week of non-stop hustle & bustle and travel and lugging and walking at least 7.5 miles every day - oh and the shows we did the week before we left and all that running around to get ready to leave the country and now we are finally here in Moscow and I'm winded walking a flight of stairs.

I feel silly that I've come all this way, and I have to give myself a little lie in. My whole life I've dreamed of standing in the middle of the Red Square and now it is less than a mile from my door and I'm balking. I guess I really am human and considering that we are doing two shows tomorrow, I remind myself that I am here to do a job.   This is a tour not a vacation.

I opt to take advantage of the empty room, chant for an hour and take a very long shower. I pack my rehearsal clothes and snacks and lie back down for another hour. I open the skylight and enjoy the fresh air and I feel the full weight of my body on this very firm twin mattress.

I wander downstairs and begin my stroll toward the theater down our tiny little street. It is warm and there are high puffy clouds. There is a small white church in the traditional onion-dome style. The domes are bright blue like the sky. It has an equally small flower shop in front of it filled with red and pink flowers. As I approach the first intersection of a major street, the volume of cars and people quadruples. For a moment it feels like New York City, except the streets are spotless and I haven't seen a homeless person in a week.

There is a stride amongst the people walking that is swift and un-self conscious. Maybe a better way to say it is they come across like they aren't concerned about how they look. But there is a sense of style and formality about them. Being from California, I forget how casual we are. There are no flip-flops here. A sense of self-regard in how they carry themselves which comes across in the clothes they wear. In St. Petersburg, the fashion all felt a little bit like it was the late 90's or early aughts. There were women of every age wearing dresses with sneakers or cute flats. Here the people instantly feel a little more sophisticated - is it simply because they are Muscovites? Perhaps.

As I arrive at the theater, I put on my lanyard and stop for a selfie. The theater is beautiful in it's terracotta red, and it feels welcoming. Not austere or grandiose.   I walk past security and hold my lanyard and smile and the security guards partially nod in my direction. I walk around to the back of the theater and come to a security desk with turnstiles. I smile and hold my lanyard and they motion me on.

I walk through the green room and directly onto the stage where I find our writer Richard and our stage manager Aaron tech-ing the lights for the beginning of the fourth act.

Let's go higher on the shutter to the top.

Alice - whom I discover later is the person who translated our show into supertitles - translates Aaron's adjustments to the theater's team.

I find Tina working on our costumes and help her distribute to our dressing rooms. Once everyone has arrived we are led through a labyrinth of doors operated by key cards up and down stairs into the lobby where we will rehearse until they are ready for us on stage.

The lobby is grand and lined with tall French windows facing the street. There are these incredible show posters and production stills. The hardwood floors make our voices echo and as we do our dance call the room resonates with our songs. We tease about maybe if we do it well enough in the lobby we will get to do it on the stage. I get goose bumps as we sing “Meadowlands”, our a cappella number that is a Russian folk song. This song comes in the transition from the second to third act when the fire has burned down a third of the town.

 

I feel heavy under the weight of the history in this city that I cannot quite comprehend. Not because the people I speak to are so serious. It is something in the way they speak and hold themselves. It is as if they have assimilated themselves through this historical lens and allowed their individuality to shine while honoring what has brought them to where they are. Yes, it feels like honor and self-respect.

Then we are off to dinner. Eugenia offers to take us to any of the three within walking distance. David MacIntyre and I opt for the sushi restaurant. I've always enjoyed Mac's company. He and I both have a lone wolf streak in us and sometimes it's nice to connect even when it's about not feeling a part of the group. I order a rice bowl with steak and veggies and Mac orders the ramen burger and is presented with black nitrile gloves to wear while eating the burger. Neither of us think sushi as our first meal in Moscow seems weird, and we thoroughly enjoy ourselves. (It was either that or Le Pain Quotidien, which I can get at home.) I sit on the front steps of the theater and eat my bowl while FaceTime-ing with super hubby.

Are you okay babe?

I'm tired today. Hoping that rehearsing the show will help me motivate to get to the Red Square after rehearsal.

Take it easy, honey. Be careful and don't worry. I won't tell your mom you are going to the Red Square at midnight.

And that was the half hour.

The theater is a 400 seat house. Simple and beautiful. The backstage is giant and able to accommodate Broadway-sized shows.

About half way through our rehearsal I start to get some adrenaline back. Everything still feels tight though.

Yes, we had a spectacular show in St. Petersburg.

Yes, perhaps they spoiled us and it might be anti-climactic tomorrow.

St. Petersburg is not Moscow.

I can feel the difference in the air. But instead of it feeling like pressure, it is beginning to feel like specificity and focus. That pinpoint of light where everything else falls away and you can see clearly.

We finish up and pack our things to go. I let Kendra know I will meet her at the hotel later, and I slip away into the night. It is actually night here. It has only just gotten dark at 10, but the sun does go down.

Now that I've got my feet underneath me again I head toward the Red Square. It has been raining and the air is heavy. As I wander and let this city's life carry me I am thrilled to see so many people on the street. Folks hanging out in front of bars and restaurant patios are filled. When I come to the end of my street it is the main thoroughfare that goes around the Red Square and back and forth to the Moscow River. To my left is the Bolshoi. It is impressive and takes my breath away a little bit. I double check my map to make sure it is the Bolshoi Ballet. With it's giant fountain in the front and the chariot of four horses coming out of the top of it, it looks a little more like a government building than a house for art. I don't know why this is my next thought but it is…

Am I supposed to be impressed?

Yes, I believe you are.

This is a thought that I feel many times around Moscow.

I feel my size in relation to everything around me. I feel tiny.

I find an under-the-street tunnel that will take me to the other side as there are no cross walks.

I wander the direction lots of people are walking and I come to the gates of the Red Square. And as I walk through I am not un-impressed. It is everything that I expected.

 

The square is flanked by a church to the left and then to the right the super long red wall that is the Kremlin. At the end of the square is St. Basil's Cathedral. And then on the left is this super white lights extravaganza of a building that turns out to be a mall known as the GUM. Okay I didn't expect that and am actually a little disappointed that one of the largest and most known squares in the world next to Tiananmen Square has a mall.  I am a little offended.  I guess I had an expectation that Red Square wouldn't feel like visiting Rodeo Drive.

The square is filled with people of every size, shape and color, all doing the same thing I am. Taking photos and selfies and videos and pointing and marveling.

The clock tower rings out twelve bells to announce that it is now midnight. I will not tell my mother that it was midnight when I came as she had asked me not to go anywhere alone. Sorry Mom but I feel completely safe. (sheepish shrug)

I look at the map to see how far it is to the hotel. Now is probably a good time to head back-before the adrenaline exits my body and leaves me in a lump on the side of a Moscow road.

As I walk back and gawk at all of the awe-inspiring buildings, this same thought comes back to me.

Am I supposed to be impressed?

Is that the point? For me to be impressed?

Am I supposed to feel small?

Am I supposed to supplicate myself?

Was that the intention?

Is this part of a larger subliminal ploy for the militarization of a country where the good of everyone must work toward supporting the state?

This conversation is supplanted by the third giant and grand theater I pass. I stop to weigh the cultural ramifications of the importance of art and it's grandeur even if it is meant for the purposes of supplication.

I decide to table this entire conversation with mom until further investigation or maybe not even then.

Maybe hanging out in my brain trying to assess the positive and negative traits of Communism isn't the best use of my energies right now.

When I return to the hotel, I have walked 5.6 miles. Not bad considering the beginning of the day was spent prone in my bed.

The only job that I am now tasked with is to rest and prepare my heart, mind, body and spirit for our shows tomorrow. The first being our run-through that will be a show for the press. And our second being at 7 pm.

This is what all of your training was for, I tell myself.

All of those years.

All of the blood, sweat and tears were for this.

Rest easy and dream big.

Tomorrow Moscow awaits.