Registered Critic: Eric A Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, writes for People's World (peoplesworld.org). He has written for dozens of local, national, and international publications, mostly about art, music, culture, religion and politics. His undergraduate degree is from Yale and his doctorate in history is from Tulane. He was director of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring in Southern California from 1995 to 2010. Eric is the author of "Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein," and co-author of "Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson." A book he translated from Portuguese ("Waving to the Train and Other Stories," by Hadasa Cytrynowicz) appeared in 2013. In 2015 he executive produced "City of the Future," a CD of Soviet Yiddish music from the 1930s. He is the former Southern California Chapter Chair of the National Writers Union (Local 1981 UAW/AFL-CIO).
Jun

Antigone, or We Are Rebels Asking for the Storm

Fittingly, in this version, the setting is “Thebes, or right here.” The time is “441 [BCE], or right now.” The contemporary language, including liberal use of swear words, makes it sound as though it's all happening in real time as we see the revolution being dramatized—and televised (Gil Scott-Heron was wrong)—before our eyes. The demonstrating Greek chorus chants, “Bury the dead, not the living!”

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Jun

Plunge by Tom Jacobson

Maxwell, a renowned curator at the then fairly new Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art (now known as LACMA), is also a leader at his local YMCA (pace Village People!), where he has access to young boys on field trips and excursions. Reynolds is a Roman Catholic priest who struggles with suicidal thoughts over his own peccadillos with the young churchgoers in his charge. Both are severely damaged men, whom Jacobson treats gingerly, revealing how they themselves suffered abuse, while not excusing their actions. The playwright brings in the views and practices of “alienists” (an older word for psychiatrists), and of sexual theorists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld by way of communicating the then-current understanding of such outlier behavior.

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May

SOFT POWER

Ms. Clinton—now there's a woman Xue Xing can admire as someone who “stuck with her mistake”—is the female star, all razzmatazz in her Wonder Woman outfit belting out a brassy Jennifer Hudson Dreamgirls-like gospel number as she tap dances her way toward practically humping a McDonald's Big Mac. But it's all show. As she delivers her wonky, boring speech about how great gradualist democracy is, the crowd thins down to no one but her campaign manager (Maria-Christina Oliveras). As she and Xue Xing start falling in love, he has a Sound of Music-like “Do-Re-Mi” song in which he tries to teach Clinton about the four tones of the Chinese language, which she needs to understand if, for one thing, she is to correctly pronounce his name. She screws it up like an obtusely dense Westerner. In other words, she's tone deaf—one of the consistent criticisms of her candidacy—and more than Russian interference, more than the electoral college, more than gerrymandering, why she lost.

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May

Wiesenthal

Wiesenthal should absolutely be on every high school student's curriculum. Yet in light of what Dugan has chosen not to include in the play, what we get is a warm, delightful feel-good visit with a sweet, somewhat forgetful, doddering elder who dotes on his grandchildren and tells cute jokes amidst his important tragic stories. Dugan acts the part superbly, mastering the gait and the delivery of an old Central European Jew. It's hardly as though there aren't plenty of dark sides to this story. Yet as a play this biodrama travels a sentimental, middle-brow path that makes the character of Simon Wiesenthal less than fully rounded. Obviously for the kind of audience Wiesenthal seeks, I would not expect blistering criticism of the destruction of Arab villages during the Nakba of 1948: That would defeat the purpose and spirit of the play and threaten to derail it off its designated track. Yet it might have been interesting to explore, for instance, what his differences were with Elie Wiesel, another renowned Holocaust survivor who likewise became a heroic rememberer. It almost felt like this Wiesenthal was an edited-for-school-assembly version of what might have been an even more challenging dramatic work.

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May

VIOLET

The story still largely unfolds on the Greyhound bus, but here, instead of the passengers sitting on their luggage, we have several actual bus seats on rollers which the characters move about the thrust stage with audience seating on three sides. At times the characters are sitting right next to audience members. The walls of the cramped theatre are decked out with long bus windows, as though the whole audience is on that road trip with Violet. For after all, don't we all have our crosses to bear, various scars and wounds that still need more time to heal?

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May

Cardboard Piano

After all the fraught tension has exploded, in this challenging play with four actors and six characters, will it dissipate, or will the cycle of hatred simply reproduce its venom from generation to generation? Does forgiveness mean the same thing for the forgiver and the forgiven? Perhaps not.

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May

ICE

24th Street Theatre tries to straddle some fine lines in making its points accessible to all audiences, young and old, English- and Spanish-speaking, and in that is it largely successful. In the last play I saw by this company, La razón blindada, the featured performers were also the wondrously capable Jesús Castaños-Chima and Tony Durán playing imprisoned Don Quixote- and Sancho Panza-acting characters. That play was advertised as for teens and adults 14+. ICE is promoted for adults and kids 8+, and the more naïve content is evident. Younger audiences will especially enjoy Nacho's juggling with tomatoes (kids, don't try this at home!), the pantomime baseball plays in the shadow of Dodger Stadium, and the troca's insistent messaging (done with projections) that guides Chepe and Nacho toward a future neither anticipated. Mature theatergoers will perhaps entertain other questions: Does Mexico need to be so idealized by way of contrast to the U.S.? And does the U.S. have to be such a consistently ugly place? What forces in these two men's lives propelled them to risk such an uncertain and dangerous life in the States? And, dramatically speaking, why does that kindly priest need to disappear from the story? Not to mention, what made Tía Teresa's salsa recipe so special? It can't only have been the Sinaloa tomatoes.

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Apr

Bad Jews

Bad Jews suggests that there is a pluralism of bad Jews here: It's not just the intermarrying Liam, and not just Daphna who makes no secret of despising the “stranger” Melody, and perhaps it includes Jonah as well, who resents being placed in the middle of this fight to the death and who indifferently expresses no claim on the item of jewelry in question until he is finally forced to choose. Curiously, in terms of Jewish values of tolerance and acceptance, maybe it's Melody, stemming from many generations of Northern Europeans of different nationalities who settled in Delaware, who, although she has her own phobias, comes off the best! The particular vs. universal dialectic plays out in almost every culture in similar ways: Indigenous peoples trying to preserve their identity against assimilation by majority encroachment; Europeans raising questions about welcoming war refugees—Jews, Syrians, Muslims; Make America Great Again, translating into racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ policies.

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Apr

Native Son

In a word, theatre doesn't get any better than this. It's a requiem for an America that's still very much alive.

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Apr

BEDLAM: HAMLET + SAINT JOAN

The play has some 24 roles, ranging in class from uneducated soldiers to petty nobles and indebted princes and kings, from lowly priests to archbishops, and deployed on both the French and the British sides. Even in good times, and even if you double-up a few roles, that's an expensive production! Bedlam's solution is to pare down the cast to four players. The magnificent Aundria Brown plays Joan, and the other roles are divvied up among Aubie Merrylees, Sam Massaro and Kahlil Garcia, all exceptionally catlike in their astonishing agility and versatility. Eric Tucker directs, as he also does the same cast in a concurrent rotating repertory Hamlet. The set design, simple and utilitarian with a few props, is by John McDermott. The costumes and sound design are also by Tucker, who prefers modern casual street dress with only the occasional indication, such as a robe or head cover, to indicate rank or profession. There is much to admire in such an essentialist approach: We focus on the text without distraction from gorgeous costuming or lumbering sets. Yet much is also lost in the process. Skilled as the actors are in adopting a different voice for each character, a distinctive walk or gesture, miss a single word (almost all of it barked at breakneck speed) and you're liable to miss which character is speaking. Miss a couple of them in a dialogue or ensemble scene where the four actors are playing up to seven or eight roles, and you're really at sea. The actors speak with American voices for the French roles, and British accents for the English, so that helps some.

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Apr

Significant Other

Significant Other doesn't set its story within this larger social context. Indeed, there's hardly a context at all, except that we know Jordan works at some large company with many employees. Other than his grandma, we don't even know if he has siblings or parents. He doesn't date, he turns down the one offer of sex he receives, he has no hobbies or interests that would bring him into contact with available gay men. He doesn't join a social club or therapy group, or patronize gay venues such as a gym, bars, spas, retreats, ocean cruises, the gay men's chorus, or even the LGBTQ synagogue, where, as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”

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Apr

Evangeline, the Queen of Make-Believe

The production is a fine example of community-based theatre. The addition of Gaby Moreno as the star musical attraction kicks it up into the don't-miss-it realm.

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Mar

Engaging Shaw

But Charlotte is not quite like other women whom Shaw has encountered. She recognizes before he does that the unique bond they share is that of two freethinkers who can yet love, help and appreciate one another to mutual advantage. She aspires to marriage not so much as a sexual arrangement but as domesticity and companionship. Melanie MacQueen directs this farrago of epigrammatic wit and ricocheting ideas with well-timed aplomb. Indeed, Morogiello's version of these two later-in-life Irish lovers is itself very much in the Shavian mode. He expects his audience to follow along as four sharp minds joust and parry without surcease. If the Webbs are more emotionally transparent than their playwriting comrade, they are nevertheless both intellectual and happy. With Shaw we see a Nietzschean superiority of intellect that would become tiresome if he were not so damned witty and polished all the time. Perhaps the best way to deal with him is to let him have things his way, but without enabling his anti-social, anti-marriage impulses. Left to stew in his own juices, he might come around to some accommodation that both parties can live with. A bit talky in patches, like some of the title subject's stage works, Engaging Shaw is generally a playful mental exercise that turns over some of the most established rules of society and asks that we “engage” with their less pretty underside. It's not as if these aren't still relevant questions.

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Mar

An Undivided Heart

The dialogue is crisp and telling, laden with layers of past experiences—although at the upper reaches of the Church hierarchy there is little character development as such. The author connects his differently suffering characters in all the expected, and in many unexpected ways. Even some of their dreams are shared. He shows the value in interfaith conversation. Several of his characters will eventually (beyond the scope of this play) fall in public disgrace, but a few others will be lifted, having weathered the crises and become more empathic and human. Now, I'm not a play doctor, but sometimes I get to play one in the pages of People's World. The actors' execution of Toropov's engaging script is nearly flawless, and that alone is a strong draw to see this play. But the premise of the script itself promises more than it fulfills. Not that every piece of theatre needs to come wrapped in a pretty bow to be considered complete, but the audience for this piece is entitled to more. In a world premiere production for a play that may—and should—have legs, now is the time to work out the kinks. For example....

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Mar

The Madres

It's strong political theater that should not be missed. But don't misunderstand: It's also just strong theater, period. The play is based on factual events. Fourteen women first gathered publicly in Buenos Aires in 1977, defying the government's efforts to terrorize its people into silence and submission. It is “about a piece of history that is so important and relevant today, and yet very few people outside of Argentina know about it,” says associate producer of The Madres, Marcelo Tubert. “The mothers' quest to find the bodies of their missing children gave birth to a whole movement…and they have inspired generations of artists and activists, men and woman, to resist and persist.” These courageous madres of the desaparecidos are still teaching the world how to fight tyranny. More than forty years later, the mothers are still resiliently marching in their white headscarves—or demonstrating in their wheelchairs, as many are quite elderly now. Their relentless campaign for justice has produced results. According to The Guardian, “as of 2016, more than 1,000 of the dictatorship's torturers and killers had been tried and 700 sentenced.” In some cases, children born to desaparecidas were handed over to childless military families, and they have since been identified and reunited with their genetic families.

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Mar

Violet

Jeanine Tesori: The most successful-ever woman composer for Broadway. She wrote the score for Tony Award-winning Fun Home and Caroline, or Change, both of which I admired and loved. It was her name that brought me once again to brave the L.A. freeways to Chance Theater in Anaheim, some 50 miles from home, to see Violet (Feb. 25)….Although Tesori explores several standard genres in her music, she puts her own ID on them. About two-thirds through several of her songs in Violet, she unexpectedly introduces a new note not in the “chord” that raises the number to a fresh, unexplored place. Both the subject matter of the songs and their staging are often distinctive: There's one number called “Luck of the Draw,” in which on one side of the stage Violet's father (Johnny Fletcher) is teaching the Young Violet (Rebeka Hoblik) how to play poker, while on the other, just a few feet away, the mature Violet (Monika Peña) is playing cards with her traveling companions, Flick (Taylor Fagins) and Monty (Jordan Schneider). It's an intricate ensemble that brought to mind another card-dealing scene—the famous fortune-telling quintet from Carmen.

It bears noting that just as there are two Violets in the show, the younger and the older, in Tesori's Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical coming-out memoir, there are three Alisons—the mature one writing the book, the college-age Medium version first exploring her lesbianism, and the 10-year-old Small Alison. This theatrical gimmickry, relatively rare but not unknown, must have a special appeal for Tesori.

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Mar

Dessa Rose

The show has many moments where we see people lying to save their skins, and supporting one another by speaking untruths. It's all well and good to preach against bearing “false witness,” but if you can save your fellow human being from being whipped or sent back into slavery, then dissembling speech is by far the lesser sin. Ruth, too, uses her femininity and presumption of innocence to evade slavehunters. A natural empathy develops between these two oppressed peoples—Blacks and women—and they realize their only protection is themselves and each other.... The singing and acting are revelatory in a show that is itself a revelation. I hate to even speculate on the reasons Dessa Rose has been so little produced, but for those within reach, now's your chance.

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Mar

THE NEW COLOSSUS

Watching this docu-theatre unfold felt at times like peering into a microscope and seeing a colony of cells agitating randomly across the specimen glass. No developed characters emerge, so it is almost impossible to emotionally bond with anyone in particular, just the collective aggregate, faces in a crowd, similar to the projections of “huddled masses” throughout the performance. Ultimately, we are prompted to ask, Who are we as a nation right now? Where do we come from? What values moved us to get here, and which ones hold us together? Are we still indeed the “mother of exiles?” After the performance, the cast and the director conduct an open discussion with the audience, inviting them to share their stories or their families' stories as refugees or immigrants. The theme is highly important and contemporary, the staging somewhat academic.

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Mar

Jackie Unveiled

As to JFK's death, of course she is angry that “they” killed him, but then goes on to recite all the putative forces behind the killing, saying in the end, “I don't even care who”—Dugan's clever way of dispatching that particular wasp nest of conspiracies. With a mountain of material on JBK to plough through, it's tempting to pick out some prophetic-sounding concerns and ramp them up a notch. For example, shortly after the Clintons moved into the White House, Jackie met Hillary on Martha's Vineyard, and saw that the new first lady was having a hard time finding her sea legs. “Be yourself,” JBK counseled HRC: “There's nothing in the world that frightens a man more than a powerful woman.” Toward the end, as her son John turns 30 and she realizes it's not her place any more to try to control him, she begs for one last dinner together to offer him her wisdom. It's about the generations of danger-courting champion Kennedys—and the examples and consequences are legion. “Stop taking risks with your life.” In the second act Jackie is working on an assemblage of photos and ephemera, “one big messy collage we call life.” She holds a matchbook from one of JFK's campaigns and asks herself, “Where should I put Jack?” In the popular memory John F. Kennedy carries some saint-like attributes, although we all know he had his full share of flaws. His widow asks a good question. And after seeing this play, we might ask the same about Jackie. The creative team includes: Francois-Pierre Courture (scenic design); Jared A. Sayeg (lighting design); Marcy Froehlich (costume design); and Randall Robert Tico (sound design). The set looks like a realtor's “staging” of a property for sale—fake books in precious arrangements on the shelves (and no coffee table art books with which JBK was identified), vases of flowers placed just so, a TV set placed oddly with no chair or sofa in front of it, a foyer seen just offstage which serves as the actor's entrance door but which also illogically features a fireplace. This is a tour-de-force for Ms. Burrows, a notable entry in the annals of political theatre, and a deeply intimate experience, if you'll only promise to remember, it's not living history, it's a play.

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Mar

The Alamo

Director Kent Thompson says that the play “features vivid characters whose lives haven't turned out quite the way that they had hoped. Each of them carries scars of the past (from Vietnam to 9/11, and choices long gone)…. Ian McRae writes with such passion, compassion, and humor, about a forgotten group of people—blue-collar Americans.” McRae's language is polished to a tee, words sculpted to a perfection worthy of Michelangelo. Iraq and Afghanistan, Joey remarks, are just like Vietnam: “Only the bombs got smarter.” Carmen enjoys going on a tear herself when she feels the spirit: She learned to be a cynic about religion when the nuns indoctrinated their charges about the poor “pagan babies” whose souls they had to contribute five dollars to save. Joey and Carmen, and by association the other dramatis personae in The Alamo, join a rare club of truly memorable characters in the catalogue of American dramaturgy, and I am seriously talking about Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry, Tony Kushner. I predict a rich future for this play and the people who inhabit it.

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