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

POSTPONED - Taming the Lion

Taming the Lion is a well-spent entertaining evening, the re-creation of a bygone, not always so glamorous Hollywood. (Actually, MGM was based in Culver City.) Accounts of salacious evenings Billie and Jimmie spend at the YMCA, or in drag clubs and back rooms of the era, or in hotel rooms with sailors, remind us that same-gender thrills and cross-dressing urges are hardly new.

Yet what is an author to do when the end is a foredrawn absence of suspense? Rushen tries to simulate the speech and mindsets of his characters, principally the antagonists Haines and Mayer, but his writing struck me as largely utilitarian and episodic. The many scene changes unnecessarily slowed down by recordings of contemporary songs keep the action from moving gamely ahead. It might have been more exciting pared down to an extended one-act format. Lost in all the exposition is a lyrical voice that might have probed a little more deeply into the psyches of these men and women, at the same time lifting them up and out of the prosaic to reveal the passions that set these people apart. Sadly, the stiffness of the writing is unavoidably reflected in the acting.

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Feb

Human Interest Story

In his 1958 personal autobiography cum manifesto Here I Stand, Paul Robeson reflected on the ways in which other interest groups can manipulate a minority’s voice, in words that could apply to almost any constituency: “Effective Negro leadership must rely upon and be responsive to no other control than the will of their people…. Negro action cannot be decisive if the advisers and helpers hold the guiding reins. For no matter how well-meaning other groups may be, the fact is our interests are secondary at best with them.”

In other words, who will write the script for Jane Doe? Andy likes to believe it’s “my words reflecting your truth.” But will he, as a kind of benevolent racist Pigmalion, just serve to turn her homelessness, her womanhood, her Blackness, into merely another commercial marketplace commodity, while keeping a job for himself? As for Harold Cain, “There is no freedom of the press. The truth is whatever we say it is.” (almost literally from The Cradle Will Rock). The play takes place in “An American City. Now.” but its implications are universal.

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Feb

Fun Home

I’ll make another couple of points about smaller theatre productions: If the acoustics are well managed, and they are here, with every performer adroitly miked, words come through in a way that they often do not in larger houses with more reverberation and a boxier sound. I recall, for example, the trio of treble-voiced children—Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Reese Hewitt) and John (Christopher Patow)—singing their number “Come to the Fun Home” about coping with their squeamishness living in a mortuary. At the Ahmanson two years ago I could barely understand a word of it, but here, almost all of it came through loud and clear.

In an expansive house, especially in a big Broadway show on tour, casting tends to favor well-tempered, trained voices with broad commercial appeal. At Chance, the mature, middle-aged parents, the controlling Bruce and the long-suffering Helen Bechdel (Jennifer Richardson), are what I would call singing actors more than acting singers. Their showstopper numbers—“Days and Days” for Helen and “Edges of the World” for Bruce—are intense inner reflections on life failures that it turns out do not require the polished, soaring vocalism that Broadway demands. They can be equally effective on the small stage just a few feet away from you, with the audible scratch in the throat, the lyrics poignantly hovering between speech and song. Neither interpretation, big or small, is better or worse; they’re just different for distinct production styles.

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Jan

THE LAST SHIP

A play or musical is not likely to spark a revolution, but it can certainly heighten political awareness through militant anthems, chants, and hymns to pride of place and dignity of labor. While I found the music stirring and even universal in its reach, what I found equally impressive are the lyrics. Even outside of song, the musicated speech is frequently expressed in organized couplets. I could not help thinking I would like to read these words as literature of the unstoppable, timeless working class—clear and unpretentious, but still poetical, intimate and elevated in tone.

The song “Island of Souls,” which is recapitulated a couple of times, is about that place where these working folks’ souls will go after death. It’s a sad, but collectively comforting reminder that the work that labor achieves will long outlive any individual life. We who inhabit the celebrity culture need to reminded of that: Celebrities will come and go, rise and sink, get rich and go bankrupt, fall in and out of love. But our honest work will stand for generations, centuries, even millennia, as tribute to our common endeavor.

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Jan

Nowhere On The Border

The emotional weight of the play rests on the shoulders of proud Roberto’s family. Against his wishes, Pilar has paid a coyote to get her across the border so she can live a normal married life with her husband Nardo, who has been gone for three years now, evaporated into the maw of low-paid immigrant-wage agribusiness. When we meet Roberto, he is waiting in a stretch of desert that he located on a map drawn by someone who believes he saw Pilar.

This happens to be the area Gary is patrolling, officiously geared up like an overgrown Boy Scout with a spanking uniform, advanced communications systems, and weapons—gun, knife, pepper spray, and rope. He obviously enjoys pushing his limited authority around. While Roberto’s story as a former copper miner is patently pathetic, Gary’s isn’t much better. He’s a former steelworker now reduced to helping out in his wife’s Hallmark store. He recites what he deals with on a daily basis: greeting cards, ribbons, bows, wrapping paper. Quite a comedown from his former livelihood.

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Jan

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

The play reaches back to the late 1980s, when 15-year-old Heidi, from her hometown of Wenatchee, Wash. (Apple Capital of the World), traveled across the United States to participate in Constitutional debate competitions sponsored by the American Legion, earning her college tuition with her prize-winning reflections on “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Aside from genre-bending in form, the play engages in a number of other kinds of shape-shifting. Dizzia portrays both Heidi Schreck now, a mature, wiser and perhaps more cynical woman in her 40s, and wistfully, without any change of clothes, the 15-year-old she once was. Later, when she engages spontaneously with the teenage debater, she can’t possibly still be Heidi Schreck; by now she must be herself, Maria Dizzia. Enough to make you dizzy (sorry!) sorting out everyone’s identity at any moment.

The droll American Legion guy too is a shape-shifter. The character is identified as Mike Iveson, but that’s the actor’s name. At one point, the actor drops the stiff drill-sergeant martinet rule-maker persona and becomes what he purports to be himself. Later on, he drops that too and just serves Ms. Dizzia in neither of those personas by handing her cue cards. I would also observe that the “understudy for Mike Iveson,” the aforementioned Gabriel Marin, seemingly would play “Mike Iveson,” not himself as “Gabriel Marin.” The audience also goes through an identity change: “Schreck” tells us we are the American Legion audience and we are all older white men smokers. Now I’m even dizzia.

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Jan

Sunday Dinner

While not a kitchen-sink drama as such—the action has moved to the prim and slightly kitschy dining room and living room—the environment is all important. The neighborhood is changing: New waves of immigrants have moved in. The food they eat, the languages they speak, and the clothes they wear are all unfamiliar. Now that Grandpa has died—he lived in the apartment above—it’s time to move out, to Brooklyn, Connecticut or New Jersey, and unload this property which is rapidly decreasing in value.

Anywhere they move is going to be more expensive, so it becomes a critical question how to divide up the proceeds from the sale of this house. Will money exert a stronger pull on their behavior than their loyalty to family?

That’s the central question of the play (seen opening night, Jan. 16), but it comes wrapped in a whole cocoon of other issues both personal and familial: ancient sibling rivalries, lies, failures and flaws, jealousy, lust and illusion, PTSD, old vs. new theology, and I could go on.

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Dec

AUGUST WILSON'S JITNEY

Wilson’s great gift is the juicy pungency of language, and it’s in full flower here. It is simply a joy to bask in the streetwise vernacular that suffuses his plays. We know that some of these characters will not respond well to change, but others show promise that they will rise creatively above circumstance and make the best of it. In the end, it’s the humanity that Wilson lifts up in all its complexity, musicality and vivid diversity.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson and his entire cast merit a well-deserved Bravo for a joyous and revelatory couple of hours of fine-tuned stage work. A more authentic production cannot be imagined.

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Nov

Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room

Harding is portrayed as an unconscious tool of other men, other forces, almost hounded by inevitable fate, preordained by destiny as if in some ancient Greek play where the gods command the last word in the action. From a dramatic point of view, perhaps it could be said that Harding is not even the protagonist. That part goes to Daugherty, who also has to overcome the paralysis he encounters in Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn), the senator’s superstitious, shrewish wife (five years older than Harding), whose fervent belief in “the stars” and in their infallible interpreter, a certain clairvoyant Madame Marcia, presents a powerful obstruction to the progress of the plan.

Mrs. Harding, smart, sarcastic and sassy, has the best lines in the play. “You and your friends,” she snarls to Daugherty, “will dictate to my husband. And why not? He never had any ideas of his own to begin with…. I can see nothing but tragedy, turmoil and heartache.” She and Warren are all either of them has (how much she knows or cares about Nan is a question): “Desolation is my home town—population 2.”

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Nov

Salvage

The songs in Salvage are so well made; I only regretted that the individual songwriters were not given proper credit in the program. Spiritually they trace a slow path from the nihilistic opening number “I’m So Tired of It All” to the final “Rivers of Hope,” with its chorus “There’ll be rivers of hope when the love rains down.” It’s like a short-form course of psychoanalysis or Truth and Reconciliation, all in an hour and a half.

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Nov

Tonight only. All other dates cancelled - La Vie En Rose

It was with this song that an aperçu came to me: Here was the exception, a song about women of a certain privileged standing, who like the others have their problems and passing love affairs, but who can afford to gather with their friends and socialize at cafés with a dance band. The other songs on the program, and really the ones we most associate with the genre, bring out the essentially working-class character of women whose lives don’t afford them a wide array of choices—for example, to get up and leave the man who beats them and has other lovers on the side.

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Nov

The Wrong Kind of People

As a screwball piece of nonsense, it works almost as cleverly as a Swiss watch. But produced by the 25-year-old Robey Theatre Company, dedicated to providing opportunities to Black actors in works that tell stories of the global Black experience, the zany play hasn’t a great deal of substance to offer. Perhaps the title sums it up best, forcing us to ask who really are “the wrong kind of people.”

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Nov

THE DOUBLE V

In an ideal world, The Double V would be produced by regional theatre companies and high school and college theatre programs all over the country as a staple in the American dramatic canon. It needs to be seen.

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Oct

Between Riverside and Crazy

The role of Pops fits Montae Russell as though it were written for him. He bears his suffering like a lead character in an August Wilson play—and indeed he is a noted Wilsonian, having performed in the entire cycle of his ten plays about African-American life decade-by-decade throughout the 20th century. His suffering has sharpened Pops’s character. What he cannot squeeze out of the city in a final payoff he will secure by any means necessary, in a form of “reparations” for the white man’s mistreatment of him and his family. He also pays back the grace he receives in an entirely unexpected way that will have students of the drama debating and discussing for decades to come.

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Oct

Neil Simon's Musical Fools

A charming new musical closely based on prolific American playwright Neil Simon’s Fools has just enjoyed its world premiere here and is running through November 17. It’s not a terribly deep piece, and not the usual fodder for our serious, politically engaged readers, yet it is so boisterously silly and good-hearted, and suitable for all audiences, that it is truly worth seeing in times that need a little comic relief. Wasn’t it Lenin, after all, who said, “Irony and patience are the principal qualities of the revolutionary?”

The role of the fool is a well established literary type; there probably is no cultural tradition in the world that does not poke gentle fun at the more simple-minded among us. He shows up in the best places—Shakespeare, the operatic stage, countless Russian novels. Critics always like to point out how the fool, like a child, can say things to the face of authority that others cannot: On the surface their comments are illogical and meaningless, but underneath them resides a deeper lucidity about power and its abuses. I’ll pick up on this thread further down.

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Oct

The Abuelas

As to the writing itself, Walker’s story unfolds in the generally accepted mode of the traditional “well-made” play. Some possibilities have gone relatively unexplored; for example, as powerfully as Gabriela’s own birth is depicted, we learn next to nothing about her own child Luca’s birth, which took place only months before and could well be still a fresh reservoir of memory, image, pain, and feeling. From the newly uncovered grandmother, we also learn far too little about Gabriela’s birth parents. We see photos that uncannily mirror Gabriela’s face. But were they activists? Married? We do find out the father Agustín was a musician, but surely a distinguished cellist would want to know a little more about that—what instrument? Classically trained, an amateur, a songwriter, a public performer?

sweet-sour

Oct

A Kid Like Jake

The acting is highly credible: Anyone who has been in an intimate relationship will recognize both the zenith and the nadir of emotions that we see here, even as we recognize that Pearle has not painted the picture of a perfect couple. He employs the Cinderella story to great effect: When Cinderella is at the ball, her stepmother and stepsisters look directly at her and cannot recognize her. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from that insight.

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Oct

Sisters In Law

Where O’Connor sought not to fix things but to uphold the law as she saw it, compromising principle in the face of realism, Ginsburg, called “Mother of the Feminist Movement,” was out to change the law, elevating egalitarian principle above settling for half-measures. Yet if sisterhood would be powerful, they needed each other, even if one moved at the pace of a tortoise and the other a hare. They both found solace and comfort in the feminism of the Biblical Book of Ruth, which they could quote by heart. And they could both see the sorry truth in SDO’s observation that “When it comes to gender equality, liberal men are in no hurry.”

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Sep

In Circles

That said (and it would be irresponsible not to have said it), the very best spirit of inventiveness and freedom of speech that Gertrude Stein represented is on display now in a stunning perf

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Sep

The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Much as I might like to agree that DWT is “the perfect company,” I am not so sure the trans-Atlantic and trans-ability transformation of Thorne’s play entirely works. The relationship between a hearing and a Deaf person is inherently different from one between two hearing or two Deaf persons. I don’t mean emotionally, for disability of almost any kind still allows for a full range of human responses. But technical details of negotiating the differences are reflected in the text itself, which doesn’t match up with what we are seeing and hearing. Phil’s character, in particular, is the problematic one. There are residues in the script of Phil struggling to communicate with the Deaf Alice—he calls himself a good lipreader, for example, and he chooses an LP recording to play at Alice’s apartment on their first sex date. So one can only wonder how he could become so quickly and so competently expressive in ASL until we realize, oh, yeah, in this production, he’s supposed to be Deaf, too.

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