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).
Mar

Ironbound

In the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok's Ironbound, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Marin Ireland reprises the lead role of Darja, a 40-something Polish immigrant to northern New Jersey's now almost completely evacuated industrial zone. In a taut 80 minutes that has her character on stage the entire time, we see (in a nonlinear succession of scenes) how her life has evolved over a twenty-plus year period, from the early 1990s to more or less the present. It was a bleak life working dead-end factory jobs, yet it was also tragic seeing those factories close their doors, the jobs moving offshore. Now Darja is reduced to cleaning houses of the well-off, but her resentment gets the better of her, and in time that dries up, too. Two marriages failed and now she has a shot at a third. Whatever illusions she had—I guess the politically correct word to say is “dreams”—they have dissolved to grime. She appears as someone on the verge of becoming one more piece of capitalism's human garbage, a castoff with no sunny daybreak tomorrow.

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Mar

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

The jaunty, fun-embracing, always clever and athletic staging (set and costume design by Sophia Clist) offers the Chagall story almost as a clown show on a sharply raked platform, a virtual Punch and Judy show within the play. Marc's face is painted mime-white, and Bella is dressed like a Russian folk mannequin. The Flying Lovers makes sure to hit the high points of the Chagalls' early lives, but stops far short of probing into causes and problems. At one point, after the Revolution, Marc exclaims about the new climate in Soviet Russia, “A poor Jew is free in Petersburg.” But how it started falling apart for them doesn't receive much attention. Theatrically, it's warmly engaging; historically it's glib and sentimental.... On the way out on opening night (Feb. 24), we heard people use the word “cute” a lot. Yes, it was, a sweet Valentine—in both the positive and negative ways.

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Mar

The Happiest Song Plays Last

If in Water by the Spoonful I had the sense that Hudes was trying to make us work to fit the moving parts together, I also felt the effort paid off. In Happiest, which serves as a kind of summing up of the trilogy—though also written to work independently—I left not one hundred percent convinced that the jigsaw pieces come together, or even if they all came in the box. (This one didn't receive a Pulitzer nomination, for what that's worth.) An undercurrent in the play is the network of rivers and streams, mostly now covered by concrete, in the city of Philadelphia. With all the characters' baroque criss-crossing lives to focus on, I simply found these subterranean waterways too much information, too removed from the personal stories except on the most symbolic plane, and I couldn't invest any more of my brain's energy into it. I wonder if in her drive to pile up and mix up the narrative so erratically she became overwhelmed by her own artistic license.

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Mar

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has taken a complex, diffuse script and wrestled it into order. The central metaphor is keeping a young child alive with frequent (five minutes apart) tiny doses of a spoonful of water. Hudes writes in such a way that however exasperated or troubled or baffled we are by the characters' behavior, we get that frequent spoonful of information or advancement in the storyline that keeps us interested in what comes next. An audience feels like they have worked to appreciate this play, and the payoff is palpable.

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Mar

THE CAPE AND THE KLAN

The play is written in an unadorned, expository style with little room for subtlety or poetry, and none of the sure, sardonic noir sensibility of that era—strangely like the lifeless radio scripts these hapless actors are given to hyperventilate into listeners' ears. Characters are given little of the moral ambiguity which makes them interesting. Certain references are made for today's audiences, such as all of Sam's talk about making America great again, and his fear of seeing a Black man in the White House one day. If this work is to go anywhere beyond North Hollywood, a play doctor will be required to punch up the dialogue to resuscitate the patient. I do believe it could conceivably be made to zing! bam! and pow! the way the authors no doubt imagined. Having said which, I should say, however, that the premise is charming, and the actors give it their best. It's always fun to watch radio actors and their invisible hijinks. As it stands now, I would not recommend that theatergoers necessarily “run, run, run” to the Lonny Chapman Theatre, but if you do happen to be interested in the period or the topic, you will have an enjoyable time.

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Mar

THE CHINESE WALL

The production is, as I've tried to indicate, timely and admirably well intentioned. Like the IWW's Little Red Book of songs, it aims to “fan the flames of discontent” with wit and righteous anger, and move a mute audience toward action. Yet integrating the crazy-quilt of characters into a Julius Caesar-type of story already laden down with obvious and somewhat repetitive satire, was a challenge this version of the play does not fully meet. All these unnaturalistic roles are difficult to imbue with feeling. Much of the humor is forced and heavy, the acting stiff and flat.

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Jan

The Hothouse

We never see any of the patients of this institution, although from time to time we and the characters on stage do hear strange groans and moans—which may be sounds from the residents on the floors above (treatment? illness? nightmares?), or charitably may be the characters' conscience calling to them. In any case, the patients are known to the staff only by number, and as we soon learn during the course of the action on one Christmas Day, a couple of them have just undergone major life transitions: Patient 6457 has mysteriously died, while Patient 6459 has given birth to a baby boy, an unmistakable echo of the outcast child born twenty centuries earlier and celebrated on this day.... The acting is ace, the material challenging, the production rare.

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Nov

This Land

Although the issues are laid out masterfully and intriguingly, I longed for the hyperactive stage to stand still for a moment or two and allow each character half a minute to voice a poetic address to his or her unique personal and historical predicament.

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Oct

Runaway Home

Kamps writes in a rich, popular vernacular and it rushes by at a fast clip. Audience members surely cannot pick up every word. But I think that is the playwright's point: to recapitulate the rush of water from the broken levee in the avalanche of words. Oh, I thought more than once, if the actors would only slow down a bit so I could appreciate the sheer poetry they're speaking. But no, life implodes on us, and sometimes so does theatre. If we want to know a community through the art it produces, we must understand that we will not instantly get every pungent word, every obscure reference, every edgy nuance. Not always easy to grasp on a first exposure, a second look would be well rewarded.

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Oct

HEAD OF PASSES

...[F]aith—and salvation, if that's what you aspire to—is not individualistic. We express our compassion not just in the credos we recite, but primarily in relation to others. Standing fast in obstinate solitude will not save you or anyone else. Shelah is herself a “head of passes”—the family leader who passes on accepting an outstretched hand. If some theatergoers see McCraney's play as about the “power of faith,” others are equally right to point to its futility, and even the selfishness of it.

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Oct

Lost in Yonkers

That is the outlook that informs the semi-autobiographical play Lost in Yonkers, another coming of age story but with a four-generational psychological through-line. It won Simon the 1991 Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. Whether it stands up as a true masterpiece over time remains to be seen. I suspect its strength depends, again, more on superb performance than on the script itself, at least judging from The Group Rep production now playing in Los Angeles, my first exposure to the work.

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Jul

Hershey Felder's "Our Great Tchaikovsky"

Much is made of Tchaikovsky's thundering welcome abroad. Music lovers may recall that he conducted his music at the opening night concert of Manhattan's new Carnegie Hall on May 5, 1891. A short video about the hall and that opening night can be viewed here. Surely the composer must have known that returning to his oppressive homeland would only deliver ever more assault to his personal sense of self (“identity” we might say today). He was vilified in the press, blackmailed by his legal wife (that's a story in itself), and thwarted in his loves. In the more modern, liberal societies of the West, he would have found far less harassment, much wider appreciation, and a shower of monetary compensation. But the draw of home was overpowering for him: Was there perhaps a compulsive masochistic component to his retreat to the familiar birch woods of his dacha outside Moscow, and to the fear of exposure that had become engrained into his essential character?

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Jul

Animal Farm

It is thoroughly engaging, highly creative, musically charming, and overall a profound educational excursion to “actually existing socialism” in “rural England” “once upon a time.

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Jul

PARADE

Anaheim's Chance Theater gave this show a stunning, innovative production (scenic design by Fred Kinney) on bare wooden planks in a staging involving little more than tables and chairs in constant motion. Costuming by Elizabeth Cox brought out the class disparities of a deeply racist society given to populist appeals against outsiders who besmirch our Southern womanhood. Confederate flags are prominently waving. It has become one of the great American social commentary musicals, a powerful story not just of prejudice and discrimination, but also of feminist emergence as Leo's wife Lucille (Erica Schaeffer) rises to her husband's defense, even as he tried to discourage her from asserting herself so visibly (typical man's “I can handle this” pride).

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Jul

The Merchant of Venice

This review also covers "Parade" at the Chance Theater in Anaheim: Two successive nights of theatergoing, two Jews lynched, one by law, the other by rope: William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1597) and the American musical Parade (1998), book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, which take us back to Atlanta, Ga., in 1913, when Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew making his life with his new Southern-born wife Lucille, was put on trial for the murder of a 13-year-old girl.

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Jul

The Cake

Della is, of course, the central character who must decide, thinking for herself out of her own experience for maybe the first time in her life, to bake or not to bake. Rupp is pure genius at evolving this wacky character into surreal believability. It is to the playwright's credit that all of her characters are congenitally flawed. Yes, we the audience undoubtedly enter the theatre with preconceived notions of right and wrong, but the characters meant to embody these principles are not necessarily so likable. Della is not the only one with “issues.” Actually, one of the issues is the wisdom of spending so much money on a wedding at all.

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Jun

The Pride

The play smolders with weighty observations about human character, tossed off in fluent and witty dialogue by actors whose magnificent training is on full display. Always, just out of reach, that better day seems to be within grasp. As each scene changes, arriving characters look piercingly at the ones leaving, as if to ask, Don't I know you from somewhere? or, Remember that face, you might see it again sometime.

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Jun

Tough Brown Leather

Tonya Jones certainly is capable of telling Sara's frightful story in a first-person voice.

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Jun

Les Blancs

For several reasons this is an experience theatergoers should not miss. It is the final work of one of our great American playwrights, who reportedly considered this her most important play. And it is so powerfully staged and acted. Rogue Machine Theatre has given it its full due. This is a rare and memorable experience.

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May

Species Native to California

It's a fine work both comedic and wise, and not only for our moment.

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