The multi-ethnic cultures of New York City in the 1980s are not what immediately come to mind when thinking of a fairy tale setting. Yet in Ben Snyder’s new play Shoe Story, having its Los Angeles premiere at Theatre of NOTE on April 15, the play is billed as an urban fairy tale.
Snyder, who is in his final year of graduate school at the University of Texas, where he is pursuing an MFA in playwriting, says, “I imagined this play as a story of a young person being told a fairy tale from a storybook, except it’s an urban fairy tale that takes place in the late ’80s in New York City. The feeling is almost as if it’s a medieval time with dragons and wizards.
“To me that’s how people who grew up in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s think of that time. When they tell stories of their childhood, it feels like there could be dragons. It has this larger-than-life storybook quality because the city was so different and so intense. The director of this production, Maureen Huskey, really caught on to that and did a very nice job of finding the kind of heightened theatricality of that idea.”
The play is a coming-of-age story about Pee Wee and his relationship with a mysterious street-smart character named O.G. Mar, who is also the storyteller/narrator. It’s set in a shoe store owned by Yu, an overworked Korean father who is struggling to survive.Â Snyder credits the motion picture The Princess Bride, in which the story is told to a boy and the action goes in and out of the fairy tale, as an inspiration.
Also influencing the genesis of the play, continues Snyder, was that “in the late ’80s there was media frenzy around kids killing each other for sports clothing with collectible logos,” continues Snyder. “Whether or not that was happening a lot or it only happened a few times, I don’t know, but it got a lot of press.”
And he drew on his own experience: “I was doing a lot of violence prevention work in high schools in New York City. In 2000/2001 when I talked to young people, gangs were not cool. They were kind of corny; they were dated and they were out of style. Then about five or six years later, I started seeing a lot more kids with their colors and with their bandanas and beads. I started to notice a kind of a resurgence of gangs and gang culture.
“I also noticed that in different neighborhoods, the corner stores, the bodegas, were carrying items for gangs like the right color beads or the right color bandanas. I started sketching a piece about a corner store caught in a very violent environment trying to survive. That play didn’t go anywhere but I did pull some of the characters for Shoe Story.”
Norm Johnson and Nikki Brown
“Right around that time,” Snyder recalls, “I was heading home from a party late at night in Brooklyn and I got to the subway, and there was a young man who had just been beaten and robbed of his shoes and thrown on the railroad tracks. He wasn’t hurt, but he was in shock because the friends who were with him didn’t do anything. One of his friends was like, “˜Listen, we could call my cousin and we can borrow his gun, and you can go look for those guys, or you need to stop crying and acting like a baby. Like do something or don’t. It happens. Get over it.’ That kind of stayed with me, this matter of fact response to this guy who was in a lot of pain. It also felt very dated to me. Wow, people still get robbed for their shoes. It was like a throwback in time. The culmination of all that and these ideas in my head started me on the path towards writing Shoe Story.”
Snyder shares some of the struggles he had with the development of the play. “I had a hard time getting a grasp on the language. I moved to New York in 1998. I didn’t know what it was to be in New York in the ’80s. The street language today is different than it was then.
“At the same time I found myself unable to write the character of Yu, the Korean store owner, without leaning on all the wrong stereotypes. I was getting frustrated and I was going to scrap the character. One day the actor who had been doing the readings for me asked what was going on with the play. When I told him I was going to cut the character of Yu, he asked me why? I said, “˜I don’t know him, I don’t know that voice and I don”˜t know that world.’
“He said, “˜Look, my uncle was the king of handbags in New York City. He was in with the Korean Business Association.’ Then he said, “˜He lives in New Jersey now. Let’s go out to Jersey and you interview him and ask him whatever you need to know.’ The uncle broke it all down for me, the language, certain parts of the story and I learned his voice. It was so clear after that.”
The play also reflects the pyramid of influence and race politics, Snyder explains. Loans that were going to the new immigrants to start their businesses were coming from Jews. “I’m Jewish and some of my family was involved in similar things in Los Angeles. They gave loans to the black community who couldn’t get them elsewhere. And the Korean uncle I interviewed had also borrowed money from Jews in New York.”
Justin Alston and Craig (muMs) Grant
There was one last person Snyder credits for the completion of Shoe Story. “Bobbito Garcia was incredibly helpful. He’s famous in New York but he’s also known around the world. He played professional basketball in Puerto Rico. He’s also an expert on sneakers and sneaker culture. He wrote the definitive book on New York City sneaker culture, called Where’d You Get Those? That book was my research; it was all there.
“He breaks everything down,” Snyder says, “and he does it with a sense of humor. It’s fun and with the photos, it’s an amazing book. I met with Bobbito in New York. He’d read the play and was curious to know how I’d heard of any of the shoes? He felt I was too young and the shoes that were really sought after were mostly in New York City and I’m not from New York.”
Snyder continues, “I told him I read his book and he was flattered, and eventually he served as my dramaturge. He taught me about the shoes and helped me with the language and was a really useful guide along the way.”
What does Snyder hope his audiences will take away from Shoe Story? “I don”˜t know if I’m necessarily trying to impart any knowledge or wisdom to my audiences that they don”˜t already have. I’m hoping they enjoy the play. I’m hoping they laugh and, if they feel so inspired, they cry. I hope they have a good experience in the theater and in the end the play will lead to good conversation.”
**All production photos by Darrett Sanders
Shoe Story opens April 15; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; until May 22. Tickets: $18-$22. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood; 323-856-8611. www.theatreofnote.com.
Viennese children arrive in London on the Kindertransport. Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library.
Shortly after the November 10, 1938 Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” when coordinated Nazi race riots across Germany and Austria targeted Jews and their property, Britain “gave permits” while “America closed its doors” to many Jewish refugees, remarks English playwright Diane Samuels.
London responded to the Jews’ plight “because various humanitarian organizations in this country, including Jewish organizations, Quakers, church organizations, said we’ve got to help people. They put pressure on the British government to allow people into the country, and the government said we won’t allow everyone, but we’ll give permits to 10,000 children under 16.”
The Nazis “wanted to get rid of all the Jews, so if any Jews would go it was a good thing. It wasn’t such a problem getting out of Germany, before the war. The problem was having somewhere to go to.”
This rare rescue operation that resulted, called Kindertransport, conveyed young Jews from not only Germany and Austria, but from Czechoslovakia, Poland and the city-state of Danzig to Britain. Believing the separations to be merely temporary, the youngsters left their birth families to be resettled in many non-Jewish as well as Jewish UK foster homes and Jewish-run hostels, with assistance from organizations such as World Jewish Relief. Unfortunately, as the Holocaust descended, most of the children’s families left behind in Nazi-occupied Europe were eventually exterminated.
Samuels reminds us about the 75th anniversary of this compassionate deed in her drama Kindertransport, which is being revived by LA Theatre Works and recorded live in front of an audience at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, Television. Directed by Jeanie Hackett, the actors will perform in the LATW style — no sets or costumes — for future broadcast on the company’s syndicated radio theater series, which is scheduled weekly on public radio stations nationwide. Also, starting in October, a British revival of Kindertransport will begin a tourthat will continue into the middle of 2014.
The subject of the Kindertransport also showed up on another Westwood stage, at Geffen Playhouse, last year, in the Mona Golabek/Hershey Felder collaboration on The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Golabek’s piece is based on a true story about her mother, who was one of the Kindertransport children. That production also recently completed a run at Laguna Playhouse.
In an interview via Skype across the proverbial pond (plus a continent), the London-based Samuels says she has no direct personal involvement with the Kindertransport. She describes herself “as not particularly practicing as a Jew, but I’m connected to Jewish culture because I grew up in it and recognize it.” Born in Liverpool around the time the Beatles were rocking the Cavern Club in that British port city, she lived “in the 1960s and 1970s in a Jewish community there, which at the time was 8,000 strong; it’s a small community but at the time quite a vibrant one. Most of the people’s families’ parents or grandparents had come to Britain in the early 20th century or late 19th century. They were of Russian or Polish origin. It’s now dwindled to about 2,000 people,” says Samuels, who went on to study history at Cambridge University and participated in theater as an extracurricular activity.
After earning a postgraduate degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, Samuels taught drama in London secondary schools for five years. Since the time of Kindertransport’s 1993 premiere at London’s Soho Theatre Company, Samuels has mainly been a full-time writer, focusing on plays, although she also reviews books for The Guardian.
Jewish children on their way to safety after Kristallnacht. Photo courtesy of LettertotheStars.at.
Samuels reveals how she came to write this play about one of England’s finest moments: “At the time when it was the 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport, it wasn’t very well known then. The Kinder themselves — that’s the people who had been on the trains which brought the children to safety out of Nazi Europe in 1938 and 1939 — they were starting to come together and they organized a reunion. It was the first time — people were talking about it a bit… I was friendly with a woman whose father was on the Kindertransport, when I first heard about it. Her father was going to a reunion.”
The play Samuels wrought is more than just a dramatized chronicle of a brief, shining moment in British history. “Assimilation actually occurs when Jews choose — it’s something that usually happens when a society is welcoming. The more welcoming a society, the more people will assimilate. The play is partly about assimilation because the child, Eva [depicted by Shannon Lee Clair], is welcomed here, on some level, although there is a tension in it.”
Samuels adds, “The play is really about relationships between, particularly, mothers and daughters. It’s about the universal experience of what happens when the parents and children are separated, when perhaps the child isn’t ready to leave the parents or what happens in extreme circumstances. The play is really exploring the impact on the child as she’s being forced away from her parents when it’s too young to happen. At the heart it’s an exploration of how we cope with trauma and being hurt, frightened, under threat, damaged, psychologically and emotionally suffering great loss. And how we somehow manage to survive that. So it goes beyond the specific story of the Kindertransport into the theme at the very heart of it, which is children and parents, mothers and daughters specifically. How do we deal with something that has hurt us without just denying it, cutting our self off from that hurt part of ourselves.”
Two of the drama’s leads are stage veterans who are better known to the TV-viewing public for their sitcoms, while the third co-stars in a TV comedy crime drama. Jane Kaczmarek (who plays Helga in Kindertransport) depicted Lois from 2000-2006 in Malcolm in the Middle and from 2001-2010 provided the voice for Judge Constance Harm on The Simpsons animated series from 1991-2002. Susan Sullivan (who plays Evelyn in Kindertransport) appeared as Greg’s snooty millionaire mother Kitty Montgomery on Dharma & Greg, and since 2009 has portrayed Martha Rodgers on ABC’s Castle. Sullivan’s co-star in the latter comedic police procedural, Molly C. Quinn, portrays Faith in Kindertransport.
Jane Kaczmarek, Susan Sullivan and Molly C. Quinn
Kaczmarek has previous experience doing Kinderstransport. She was in the Off-Broadway production in 1994 at Manhattan Theatre Club, and she won an Ovation Award for her performance in the LA production at the Tiffany Theater in 1996. Samuels notes that “Jane was not known for her sitcom work when I first worked with her. She’s a very skillful actress” who has “many strings to her bow.”
Among Kaczmarek’s other stage credits are Raised in Captivity and Dinner With Friends at South Coast Repertory, The House of Blue Leaves at the Mark Taper Forum in 2008, Good People at Geffen Playhouse in 2012 and, earlier this year, The Snake Can at Odyssey Theatre.
As for Sullivan, she appeared at Pasadena Playhouse as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, worked at Washington, D.C.’s National Repertory Theatre and appeared on Broadway with the post-Graduate Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine. She is a member of LA’s Antaeus Company and has appeared in several productions there as well as at the Matrix Theatre, Falcon Theatre, and Pasadena Playhouse. Her extensive television credits include non-comedic roles in daytime and prime time soap operas on the tube, including Another World (1971-1976) and Falcon Crest (1981-1989).
Quinn’s credits include the voice of Supergirl in the 2013 animated production Superman: Unbound. The original Man of Steel comic book character, of course, was created not on Krypton but by two Cleveland Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in 1938 — the same year that the Kindertransport began.
Kindertransport’s other cast members include Ovation winner Hugo Armstrong (Waiting for Godot), Angela Paton (Harvey on Broadway) and Shannon Lee Clair (currently in Antaeus’ acclaimed production of The Crucible).
German-Jewish refugee children arrive at Southampton as part of the Kindertransport effort. Photo courtesy of Hulton Getty.
Some of Samuels’ other plays include The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari, Cinderella’s Daughter and the US spy drama The Arrest of Rosa Gold. Her five-part radio serial Tiger Wings, about pilot Joan Allen’s 1948 solo flight from England to Singapore, was broadcast in 2012 on BBC Radio 4. Samuels’ play Swine will have a staged reading at London’s Jewish Museum in October. She wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Persephone (A Love Story) with composer Maurice Chernick and the book for The A-Z of Mrs. P, with music and lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, to be performed at the Southwark Playhouse, London in 2014.
She says that when she was growing up there was greater pressure on Jews to conform to a British norm compared to today, in a more multi-culti U.K. with its “acknowledging of differences now… There’s a redefinition of what Jewish-ness is going on, there’s a new Jewish community center opening in London, there’s a thriving Jewish museum.” On the cultural front, Samuels appears to be a part of that redefining and rethinking process.
If England is, as John of Gaunt proclaims in Richard II, “This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, Dear for her reputation through the world,” that renown has arguably not been earned because of all those royal noggins throughout the centuries that have worn bejeweled crowns and invaded lands far and wide so that the sun never set on the British Empire. Rather, England is debatably dearest for preventing the Nazis from exacting their pound of flesh from 10,000 Jewish children, for rescuing them from Anne Frank’s fate, and for fighting fascism during the Battle of Britain and beyond — while Washington looked the other way and Moscow signed pacts with the devil. Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport reminds us of this fact — and that there is more majesty and awe in acts of simple human kindness than in all the world’s conquests.
Kindertransport, James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall, UCLA, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, LA 90095. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes Sunday. Tickets: $49; student tickets: $15. web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/912528. 310-827-0889.
Attendees of the Producer’s League Voting Ceremony. Photo by Dani Oliver.
LA’s theatrical producers are organizing themselves, but for the moment there are two nascent groups — Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, which represents theaters that operate in venues with fewer than 100 seats, and Greater Los Angeles Theatre Producers’ League, which represents theaters that operate in midsize venues that use Actors’ Equity contracts .
Approval of the small-theater group’s bylaws occurred Monday evening, as representatives of 55 Los Angeles-based 99-seat theater producers — theater operators and independents — gathered at Burbank-based Colony Theatre. The vote in favor of the TPLLA bylaws was 54-1.
Meanwhile, approval of bylaws for GLATPL, the midsize group, occurred in a recent electronic vote.
The bylaws adopted on the two levels are “very similar,” said Trent Steelman, one of the GLATPL organizers — and also the host of last night’s gathering as executive director of the TPLLA meeting site, the Colony.
But “one notable difference is that we [in the midsize group] have removed all references to collective bargaining with the unions. We are all mostly happy with our individual negotiating, and did not feel that we need to collectively bargain at this time.”
Michael Seel, Chil Kong and Trent Steelman
By contrast, in the language approved by the small-theater group, “representing theatrical producers in union negotiations” is mentioned alongside other goals such as strengthening LA theater and its “brand identity.”
At the small-theater level, the organizing began last July 20, at a producers’ meeting held at the Academy for New Musical Theatre in North Hollywood, where 14 individuals were selected as a transitional committee to draft the proposed bylaws.
Prior to last night’s larger meeting, committee member David Elzer — an independent producer and theatrical publicist — affirmed, “We have met a number of times between last August and May of this year. After some revisions, we now feel we have a solid bylaws proposal to present tonight.” Nine of the 14 transitional committee members answered questions from the small-theater producers before the vote took place.
The bylaws are composed of four articles covering membership, dues and assessments, membership meetings and the leadership council.
Before opening up the meeting to comments and discussions with the assembled theater representatives, committee member and Rogue Machine artistic director John Flynn read a prepared statement that addressed the proposed league’s relationship with midsize and large houses. “We must be clear that this organization is for those theaters that produce in spaces that are 99 seats and less. We have had talks with both large and midsize houses and everyone assured us they are interested in forming a larger organization. However, there were issues within the mechanics of it all in forming such an organization that include some conflicts of interest that led us to decide, for now, that we would form our own entity.”
The transitional committee opens up the floor for questions and comments
In a statement to LA STAGE Times, Steelman explained the later but somewhat parallel development of the midsize effort. “In early January, we had a meeting at the Colony Theatre for midsize producers. At that meeting we collectively agreed that we wanted to create a set of bylaws for our producing level, and follow the same timeline that the 99-seat theater producers were following. We all believed that it was important to show that the theater community is united on multiple levels, and we wanted to demonstrate that we also have a strong midsized community.
“At the January meeting, we agreed to have a transitional committee of four” — LATC general manager Paul Stuart Graham, Theatre West executive director John Gallogly, Falcon Theatre producer Sherry Greczmiel and Steelman. The quartet met twice, using the draft of the bylaws for the 99-seat theater committee. “We then met with representatives of that [smaller theater] transitional committee to discuss the steps we were each going to take. Last week, we conducted a vote via email of all of the mid-sized producers.”
Steelman expressed his hope that eventually the two groups will merge, with separate committees for smaller and midsize theater contained within the larger umbrella group.
Meanwhile, what about the largest theater companies?
“Most of the major larger theaters [the theater companies that use League of Resident Theatres contracts, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West, etc.] have had meetings about this with small and midsize theater producer representatives,” said LA STAGE Alliance director of programming and operations Doug Clayton, “and have been universally interested and supportive of the idea of a producers’ league. They move much more slowly, and have more bureaucratic, legal, and financial hurdles to deal with than the smaller houses do, so they encouraged the 99-seat and midsize producers to move ahead with getting approval for their governance structure and to elect their first formal leadership, who can then work with the larger houses in a more constructive way in the fall.
Terence McFarland and Doug Clayton of LA STAGE Alliance
“The point of view of the LORT houses, in particular, is different” from those of other theaters, Clayton explained, because LORT companies already belong to LORT — a trade association that addresses union issues and other business issues that affect their field. “So that need is already, in some ways, met for them in a way it’s not met for anyone else.” But, he added, “they support, in concept, this League idea. Also, most of the larger theaters have said that it’s really impossible for them to engage coherently with the 99-seat theater producers until the 99-seat producers have clear representative leadership to meet with.”
It is that very issue that was on the mind of John Flynn when last night’s meeting was thrown open for discussion. “This has to be a trade organization. To that we need a Leadership Council to represent us. To do that we need to move forward on these bylaws. We are at the bare beginning of this whole process.”
During 50 minutes of freewheeling exchanges, much attention was paid to Article One’s stated requirement for full membership, which stipulates a producing organization is eligible if it has mounted at least one qualified production per year in three of the past five years and has a budget of at least $10,000 per show with a minimum of 12 performances, operating under at least one union contract (SDC, USA/829, AEA) or the AEA 99-seat agreement.
Audrey Marlyn, founder and artistic director of Actors Forum Theatre in NoHo, voiced the concerns of many of the attendees. “I don’t meet that criteria and I have been producing professional theater in Los Angeles for 38 years. Does that mean I am ineligible to join the Producers’ League?”
Elzer assured the attendees that the application process allows applicants to submit a statement of merit to the Leadership Council, which has the power to waive any eligibility requirements and grant full membership to any individual or organization at its discretion. Other committee members added that producers and producing companies are also free to apply as associate members, according them all TPLLA privileges except voting.
The transitional committee with vote tallies
The continuing TPLLA timeline includes: June 17-July 15 — transitional committee accepts initial membership applications; July 15-August 1 — transitional committee reviews membership applications and approves initial membership of TPLLA; August 1 — nominations for the first TPLLA Leadership Council open; August 15 — nominations for the first TPLLA Leadership Council close; August 19 — first full membership meeting of TPLLA, including election of first leadership Council (location TBA).
As the assembled devotees of 99-seat LA theater moved out to Colony’s lobby area, Flynn shook his head. “It is not going to be easy get people who have been struggling to express themselves artistically to think in terms of being a hard-nosed trade organization, but that is what’s going to have to happen to survive.”
Jesse Merlin and Laura Sperrazza in “Exorcistic.” Photo by David Haverty.
“As soon as I saw Hedwig and The Angry Inch, the question was how can we have more shows like this?” Michael Shaw Fisher was in New York City in 1998, and he had just seen the rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell. “I was infected by it. It just got in me. That I had to do that kind of work. Musical. Dramatic. But not just your usual musical where things are in a Broadway style.”
The latest manifestation of Fisher’s vow is his new rock musical Exorcistic, a parody of the movie The Exorcist, opening as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, at the Open Fist.In the play-within-the-play, the Orgasmico Theatre Company decides to take advantage of the 40th anniversary of the film’s release to put on the parody. But none of the members of the theater company believe in upper-case Evil. They want only to explore the themes, the film’s cultural impact. That’s when things start going wrong for the company. Maybe evil does exist?
Michael Shaw Fisher
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is the story of the daughter of a movie star who gets possessed by Pazuzu, an Assyrian demigod. Having nowhere else to turn, the movie star turns to two Catholic priests, one of whom is suffering a crisis of faith. They decide to perform an exorcism to cast out the demon. Many people consider the William Friedkin-directed film one of the scariest movies ever.
This won’t be the first time The Exorcist is staged. A non-musical version was on the Geffen stage last year. Fisher did indeed see it there. “I say watching it from the second or the third row was a lot more powerful.”
This is the third Hollywood Fringe Festival appearance for Fisher, who is hoping to make it as successful as the first two. His first show was The Barking Pig, which was one of 20 “Best of Fringe”-designated shows in 2011, followed by Doomsday Cabaret: A Rock Musical of Apocalyptic Proportions, which was also “Best of Fringe”, best musical and nominated for Top of Fringe. It went on do an eight-week run last fall at the 2nd Stage Theatre.
Fisher came to Los Angeles for the USC graduate program in screenwriting. After finishing, he turned back to his first passion, theater. He says, “Everything I’ve ever done that’s worth a damn has come from theater.” He began the Los Angeles Playwrights Lab with a former teacher, Robert Gardner. Through the lab, Fisher met someone who suggested he should get involved with the Hollywood Fringe Festival. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. “It had only been around one year at that point.”
Originally Exorcistic was meant to be produced in last year’s Fringe, but because of the impending Geffen production word came down from above. Fisher says, “I was trying to get that (the musical) done until William Peter Blatty put his foot down.” Blatty had heard about the impending production and contacted Fisher. He wanted him to hold off on the show for a bit, which Fisher agreed to do. Fisher continues, “Blatty was a sweetheart. He’s a great man and a great artist.”
Pushing it off for a year gave Fisher more time to develop and expand the show, which he first began writing in 2010. He reveals, “I was excited about the idea of a kind of lounge lizard Regan that’s seducing the audience.” Regan, in the book, is the girl who gets possessed, changed to Megan in Exorcistic. He continues, “I’m into the question of evil. I don’t know if I believe in it, which is why I keep going to it.”
Sarah Chaney, Curt Bonnem and Michael Shaw Fisher
Fisher is attracted to the themes of possession, the dark and strange. In his work, he says he wants to tap into the fear of the other, the unknown. “It’s driven so much of America’s neuroses. So much of America believes in evil that to do something like Exorcistic where you’re parodying it feels dangerous.”
Over the course of the year he added more songs and continued to hone the script. Ken Sawyer, who directed Lovelace, The Woman in Black, and Dracula, offered feedback after staged readings.
Fisher’s first step in the rehearsal process was helping the cast through the play-within-a-play. The cast members are playing heightened versions of themselves, representing different types one might find in an acting company. Pat Towne is the show’s director.
Within this context, Fisher explores the idea of theater companies turning to parody in order to break even. He says, “The only way you can possibly make enough money to pay your actors or to pay everything back is to do a parody.” The “Orgasmico Theatre Company” decides to sell out and do a parody of The Exorcist, and, Fisher says, “They get what is coming to them” when the theater production seems to be cursed.
The music is “real rock,” Fisher says. “Gothic. And it really makes you feel like you are in the presence of something dark.”
Fisher feels Doomsday Cabaret celebrated the spirit of the Fringe by uniting people, while Exorcistic shows the other side of the Fringe. “It’s more rebellious, it’s more audacious, more bawdy, more twisted.”
He contacted Blatty about doing the show at this year’s Fringe. He was “cool” with it, Fisher says. “He’s not involved in any official way, but he read the script to make sure I wasn’t stepping on anything that he felt was sensitive.”
Curt Bonnem and Jesse Merlin
Fisher first saw the movie when he was 13 years old, in a friend’s basement. “I didn’t see what was so scary about it. I think I fell asleep,” he recalls. Years later he saw it again, and this time it connected. “The movie is a great movie. It’s not a very obvious horror movie. It’s very slow. In the first hour, very little happens. Except for this sense of unease.”
“This show is a tribute to a movie that introduced evil to people in a new way,” he continues. “They never imagined evil could exist inside you. It redefined where the enemy was. And it freaked people out.”
So does Fisher believe evil is real or a metaphor? “My mom would say it’s real, no question.” He pauses and thinks. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s possible for me to go forward with a project like this without respecting there are things I don’t know.” Which, as Fisher explains, is a theme of the show. “The show sets out to make fun of any possibility of evil, and ultimately, that ends up being this company’s curse.”
What does he hope the audience will experience? Without a pause, Fisher answers, “I want them to have fun.” And no worries if you haven’t seen The Exorcist or fear scary movies. Fisher nods, smiles, “I think if you’re a person that stays away from scary movies, you don’t have to stay away from this. I’ve said this is sort like ‘How to get over your fear of The Exorcist in 80 minutes’.”
Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment, Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. June 19 10 pm, June 21 7 pm, June 27 9:30 pm, June 29 11:30 pm. Tickets: $16. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1136. 415-994-4760.
**All Exorcistic production photos by David Haverty.
Comedies and farces are frequently funnier if something within them provides a shock of recognition — the feeling that the writer is reflecting something that’s happening within our own lives or our own culture. Even if it’s set in a different culture, it’s still important for us to be able to trace a common human connection.
Of course the details might be exaggerated for comic effect. Carrying a concept or a situation to its logical extreme is often the best way to get laughs along with recognition. But if the play veers too far from recognition or from logic — into the realm of fantasy — the fragile connection to our own lives may be severed.
Tara Summers, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean in “Yes, Prime Minister.” Photo by Michael Lamont.
Yes, Prime Minister, at Geffen Playhouse, is a prime example of how a script that is set in another culture can still stir up plenty of laughs based on the shock of recognition, without tipping too far into fantasy.
The Geffen production is the American premiere of a very British play, but it isn’t just for anglophiles. The leading characters are a chief executive — in this case, the prime minister — and his closest aides, who try to control his agenda and his sources of information. If you don’t think a similar dynamic could exist in the White House or, for that matter, in private-sector executive suites, then you haven’t been paying much attention to recent or not-so-recent American history.
In the case of this 2010 play, which was adapted from a long-running British TV series, the issues these people are facing sound remarkably current — such as economic recovery from a massive crash and the fate of a proposed oil pipeline (no, it isn’t the Keystone but it also start with a ‘K’ – the oil in this case would come from the fictitious country of Kumranistan). By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a map get such a big laugh in another play as I heard when a map of this proposed pipeline was unveiled on a screen during Yes, Prime Minister. I will describe it no further so as not give away the gag.
Still, even with that big laugh I just mentioned, if the subject matter sounds insufficiently “sexed up,” don’t worry. This is a farce, and the dilemma facing the characters also includes a request by the Kumranistan foreign minister for the prime minister’s office to provide some entertainment from prostitutes while he’s staying at Chequers, the prime minister’s country estate. Or course enough American politicians (and Secret Service agents) have recently been involved in their own prostitution scandals for us to sense that this is far from being an extra-terrestrial scenario.
Tara Summers and Michael McKean
In the Geffen program, at the end of an interview with the director and co-writer Jonathan Lynn (the other co-writer is Antony Jay), Lynn acknowledges that “we have made a few changes for the sake of clarity for an American audience. For instance, we added more information about the European Union, because audiences here may not be that familiar with it. The first editor of The Guardian famously said of his readers: ‘Never overestimate the readers’ information but never underestimate their intelligence.’ That’s the balance we try to strike with audiences.”
That’s a balance that David Mamet failed to strike in November, his recent farce with somewhat similar characters but with a setting in the White House (first produced in 2008 but seen at the Mark Taper Forum last fall). Mamet’s play is obsessed with trivial situations that were seemingly detached from any real-life issues. If Mamet was trying to make the point that government leaders are too obsessed with trivia, at the expense of bigger issues, it didn’t come off that way. It seemed as if he didn’t want to reflect on real issues because he didn’t want the play to be trapped in time. But the script’s issues were so inconsequential that the play felt lifeless, no matter when it was supposed to be set or when it might be produced.
There is one other major issue that’s treated in Yes, Prime Minister, primarily near the end of the play — climate change. This is the point at which an American audience might discern a big transatlantic gap. In the play, doing something significant about climate change is proposed as a way out of the Kumranistan mess, even though this prime minister doesn’t sound as knowledgeable or committed to the subject as even Margaret Thatcher did in prescient comments more than two decades ago. Despite any wavering opinions of his own, however, he sees action on climate change as the politically viable solution — never mind whether it’s necessary.
Dakin Matthews and Michael McKean
In America in 2013, of course, most people think such action on climate change is necessary, but it’s still considered politically dangerous, primarily because the party that controls the House still has to bow down to those who deny the science. Almost unwittingly, the American premiere of this play illustrates the difference between the two systems — in the UK, the prime minister is either the head of the majority party in the legislature or at least a coalition government, while in America the legislature can still be controlled by the president’s opponents, leaving the president to rely only on scattered executive orders in order to get anything accomplished on certain subjects. If you think about this in those terms, you’ll certainly take no comfort from concluding that after all, the shenanigans in this play are ultimately British, not American.
Lynn’s cast is mostly American and mostly wonderful. The only Brit is Tara Summers, whose program bio begins with the words “British Actress.” But the cast includes a number of familiar LA theater faces: Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean (in the title role), Brian George, Time Winters, Stephen Caffrey. In the Shavian tradition, the play has a lot of words, perhaps a few too many, but I would never cut the elaborate and deliberately obfuscatory arias spoken to perfection by Matthews.
Then again, one of the funniest moments is virtually wordless, and it’s given to Jefferson Mays — also an American, though not so much an LA actor — as he self-consciously tries to tone down his look into something more casual. Known for his ability to transmute into many roles within one production (he did his multi-tasking solo performance in I Am My Own Wife for the Geffen), he remains one very consistent character here despite his brief efforts to change his look. His performance is a formidable comic concoction.
**All Yes, Prime Minister production photos by Michael Lamont.
Yes, Prime Minister, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Ends July 14. www.GeffenPlayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
Opening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on the same night as Yes, Prime Minister was Andrea Thome’s English translation of Neva, Guillermo Calderón’s little play in which Chekhov’s widow Olga Knipper (Sue Cremin) and two fellow Russian actors Ramón de Ocampo, Ruth Livier) are huddled together around a heat lamp in 1905, rehearsing and fretting while intimations of revolution rage outside. Fitting the size of the play, Neva was presented not in the main Douglas auditorium but rather in a small upstairs rehearsal room.
Sue Cremin and Ramon de Ocampo in “Neva.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The production closed at the Douglas yesterday but now moves on to South Coast Repertory, where it will play this week. From there it moves to La Jolla Playhouse for another week.
Neva made quite a splash at the Radar L.A. festival in 2011 in its original Spanish-spoken, English-subtitled version at REDCAT, from Chile’s Teatro en el Blanco. In retrospect, the reactions were probably due primarily to the unusual stage directions that apparently call for no lighting other than the heat lamp. The production conveys a shadowy, rather dreamy quality, thanks to the restricted lighting.
This is an unusual look for what is essentially a comedy about three neurotic actors worrying about their performances, their images, and about whether what they do has any meaning compared to what’s happening on the streets outside the theater. These, of course, mirror some of the concerns and moods in the work of Chekhov himself, who also considered his plays to be comedies but whose writing usually is described with words such as “bittersweet” and “melancholy.”
On second viewing, it’s hard not to compare Neva to Chekhov’s plays, and — no surprise here — the comparison favors Chekhov. Neva looks like a minor experiment more than a major original. If you lower your expectations accordingly, you might find yourself at least momentarily entranced by Neva. But a warning to all lighting designers out there — no one has that title in this production, and you may feel that the production instills professional irritation and foreboding more than dreamy comedy.
Neva, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Wed 7 pm, Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555. Then at La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego, June 26-30.
And now for two comedies that fly too far into fantasy for the shock of recognition to really kick in.
Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, revived by International City Theatre, begins with the intriguing premise of a woman (Alina Phelan) in a café discovering that a fellow diner has died when he won’t answer the annoying ringing of his cell phone. This quickly turns into a comedy of manners, more or less, as the woman takes charge of answering the man’s phone, pretending that she knew him. She soon becomes obsessed with offering fictitious but presumably soothing lies to his grieving relatives about the man and his relationships to the bereaved.
Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.
So far, so good, in Richard Israel’s staging — there’s nothing wrong with this production. But by play’s end we still don’t learn enough about why the protagonist takes this course of action. And Ruhl pursues a self-consciously wild narrative that takes the woman to another continent and then to the afterlife and turns the play from successful comedy of manners into unsuccessful sketch comedy.
By the way, as I was leaving for Long Beach to see Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I couldn’t find my own cell phone. So in the back of my head, while I watched this play with “cell phone” in the title, I was a little concerned about my own phone and where it might be. I’m not sure if this made me less receptive to the play. It might actually have increased my interest. But it also made me more aware that the play was from an era when people still mostly talked on their phones instead of using them to text or to check the internet. How time flies (for the record, I found the phone when I returned home).
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob: A Life in Five Acts, an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre, begins as a cartoon, not as a comedy of manners. A baby is born and abandoned in a White Castle in Louisville, only to be immediately stolen by an employee of the fast-food joint. She takes the infant and then the boy with her on an odyssey across America. As in Ruhl’s play, we have no idea why she does this, nor why she later dies. But that’s hardly the end of the play. Bob drags on as a long-winded cartoon in which many things happen for no reason, far into Bob’s adulthood.
I remember being marginally more engaged by Bob in its premiere, in Louisville in 2011 — I can’t say if that’s because the production was better than Chris Fields’ for Echo or if the play’s few charms are inevitably more fleeting the second time around. Probably the latter — the LA cast is capable enough, even if the production design isn’t nearly as lavish as Louisville’s.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone, International City Theatre at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Ends June 30. www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. 562-436-4610.
Bob: A Life in Five Acts, Echo Theater at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Ends June 30. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. 877-369-9112.
I caught only one Hollywood Fringe Festival production over the weekend, but at more than two hours (with an intermission!) it’s surely one of the longest shows in the mostly short-form Fringe fare. And it sounds as if the new Good People Theater Company that’s behind this musical at Lillian Theatre is determined to continue producing in LA, in contrast to many of the other Fringe offerings.
Dominic McChesney and Audrey Curd in “A Man of No Importance.” Photo by Shirley Hatton.
It’s the LA premiere of a musical, A Man of No Importance, which was created by the same team of Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally that turned out Ragtime.
This musical is much smaller and well, of less importance, than Ragtime, but it tells a story that gets more interesting as it goes along — in contrast to, say, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Bob. Set in 1964 Dublin, the title character is a middle-aged bus conductor who lives with his sister. The joy in his life revolves around the plays he directs in a church hall with amateurs, but his decision to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome sets him on a rocky road that eventually opens the door of his gay closet — with a number of grim results, although the ending feels somewhat artificially pumped up with feel-good sentiment.
While it isn’t a great musical, it’s consistently absorbing, and Janet Miller’s staging is powered by what sounds like an authentic four-piece Irish band (Corey Hirsch is the music director). Although there was an apparently last-minute substitution in one role, most of the Good People on the stage are good enough to treat the tale with the respect it deserves.
Matthew Scott Montgomery and Terrance Spencer in “Revolver.” Photo by Sean Lambert.
Things aren’t just evolving over at the Celebration Theatre, they are re-volving as the company prepares to open the premiere of Chris Phillips’ latest play, revolver. This emotional drama centers around six scenes in what is described by Celebration as “the gun-shaped city of West Hollywood”. It requires a cast of six actors (like the six barrels of its titular weapon).
revolver marks a rather poignant moment in Celebration history. It’s the final play to be produced in the space the company has occupied for almost 21 years. Citing a significant increase in rent as the reason for departing, Celebration is set to vacate the premises of its 64-seat space at 7051B Santa Monica Blvd. on July 31.
For choreographer Janet Roston, who choreographed Celebration’s most recent musical Justin Love and won an Ovation award for her work in its The Color Purple, working in the current space has been quite the education. Known for its three-sided seating arrangement and rather large structural support pole stage left, directors and choreographers certainly have its inherent obstacles to contend with, particularly for a blockbuster musical like The Color Purple with a 30-member cast. “When I first came in there, I was like, ‘Oh my god, the space is so small! And there’s a pole! I just viewed it as a challenge learning how to work in such an intimate setting, with an audience around you on three sides. There was a real learning curve about that.”
Roston particularly credits Michael Matthews, Celebration’s co-artistic director and director of The Color Purple, with helping her adjust to what is typically one of theater’s biggest no-no’s. “I think he’s a visionary. He was so comfortable in that space. I learned a lot from him about not being afraid to have your back to the audience, because that’s what’s going to happen in the three-quarter space. It’s ‘backting’ — you have to make sure that the person is alive even when their back is to the audience. You have to make sure that there is a visual, not just a back. It forces you to keep things rotating and come up with different ways of using the space. Certainly with The Color Purple I really learned to use every inch of that space and not to repeat.”
While the layout of space may prove somewhat problematic to the creation of a show, Roston has also discovered that the various perspectives offered by the seating arrangement can be very rewarding for audiences. “When I watch my shows there, I really enjoy sitting in all of the different areas. I go ‘Wow, look at what I’m seeing! It’s really different from this side’.”
Though revolver is not a musical, dance certainly plays an important role in one of the six storylines. Centered around West Hollywood, with forgiveness as the central theme, the scene in question involves Jesus and Judas locked in an intense discussion while performing a very intricate tango. “The idea is that Jesus has decided Judas is the one that he wants to dance with for his birthday. This is a tradition Jesus does every year; last year he danced a waltz with one of his other apostles.” The routine should look complicated but so well-rehearsed that the two men that can proceed to have an intense discussion without thinking about the steps they’re dancing.
La Toya London (center) and the cast of “The Color Purple,” choreographed by Roston. Photo by Barry Weiss.
With about four weeks of rehearsal, commencing as soon as the actors were cast, Roston began instructing them on the basics of the tango, including how to lead and follow, and then blocking the routine to incorporate where the dialogue would go. “It’s very important that the conversation is foremost, so the dance has to be second-nature. It really travels through the space. It’s fun! I just love the challenge of it. First of all, two guys dancing together is awesome and fun. I really wanted to do tango that was as authentic as I could with dancers who really haven’t studied tango. It’s not fake or clichéd tango. It’s coming from the real tango tradition.”
Roston discovered that part of that “real tango tradition” actually includes two men dancing together. “There’s actually really great footage of men dancing the tango together for an Argentinian audience and everyone shouting ‘Bravo!’ The dancers would switch who was leading and would switch their hand positions. For me it was awesome learning that there was actually this tradition of male-male tango.”
An accomplished director herself, Roston strives to go above and beyond in her role as choreographer to help director, friend, and colleague Ryan Bergmann achieve his vision for revolver. “When I’m the director/choreographer, it’s this big vision that I’m trying to achieve. But when I’m the choreographer, which I love just as much, my job is to manifest for the director. I listen to their vision and my challenge is to then deliver that to the director and possibly more. As a choreographer, I’m totally willing and happy to make the changes to accommodate the director. You have to remember that there are a million choices out there, and if you can choose one you can choose another. I don’t hold my work so precious that there can’t be changes. The challenge of trying to meet the director’s vision is what interests me.”
AJ Jones and Matthew Scott Montgomery in “Revolver”
Roston and Bergmann are headed to Austin next, where Roston will serve as director/choreographer and Bergmann as assistant director/producer of the premiere of a new musical, A Little Midsummer Night’s Dream. Set in a rock music festival (think Coachella or Bonnaroo), this stripped-down 90-minute musical of the Shakespeare classic features a score by songwriting team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda (aka Groovelily). Roston’s choreography can also currently be seen in the currently-running musical short The Real Housekeepers of Studio City, which is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
As for what’s next for the Celebration…that question remains to be answered. Roston is confident, however, that this change will bring about new and exciting opportunities. “Obviously I’m sad for them. I love Celebration, it’s like a home to me. Everyone there is so wonderful and dedicated and generous and open. But I think they’re going to come out stronger. Hopefully they’ll get a bigger and better space.” She also hopes the company can stay in its Hollywood/West Hollywood area. “Maybe this really peculiar space that they’ve been in has been explored and it’s time to go find a new one…without a pole.” She laughs.
In the meantime, Roston assures us that Celebration is leaving its legacy at the space on a high note with revolver, and giving us something to think about while the company determines what’s next. “I think it’s a really thought-provoking show. What I find really interesting about it is that it starts out as the six separate scenes but as it progresses the references start to overlap, and by the end of the show I feel like there’s a real kind of wholeness. It brings you back around; it all sort of comes together. It’s a pretty powerful show. The Jesus and Judas tango is actually probably the lightest thing. Not that it’s all doom and gloom, but it’s definitely intense.”
revolver, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood 90038. Opens tonight. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 21. Tickets: $30. www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323 957-1884.
Leigh Ann Smith, Lani Shipman, Ryan O’Connor, Matt Musgrove and Gabby Sanalitro in “The Real Housekeepers of Studio City.” Photo by Roger Fojas.
Growing up, I was obsessed with two things: television and musicals. My parents often talked about how I danced to The Muppet Show before I could even walk. I wore out Annie on vinyl before I turned six. So I suppose it follows logically that my first produced work — The Real Housekeepers of Studio City — is a musical about television.
When composer Joe Greene approached me with the idea of a musical about sitcom maids, I was honored, excited and a little terrified.
It had been 11 years since I graduated from University of Michigan with a BFA in theater directing, which I swiftly left behind in my move to Los Angeles, where I had spent the last several years marketing film and television by day, while using my free time to develop a big- and small-screen writing portfolio with my husband and writing partner, Tom Moore. In the little free time that remained, we listened to musical soundtracks and saw as many musicals as we were able to afford. It never occurred to us to write one, probably because neither of us had the musical skills to compose. But Joe had those skills in abundance, and he was looking for a couple of writers to develop the seed of his idea into a project that would introduce us all to the Los Angeles theater community.
The process of finding our way into The Real Housekeepers began with the idea of interviewing TV maids for a position, a la Mary Poppins. But there’s only one place in the world that could happen — a fantasy city where all television characters live. Once we realized what that neighborhood would look like, our musical was born. In our fantasy “Studio City,” the Bradys’ mod house stands next to Dorothy Zbornak’s airy abode, with Gilligan’s hut next to the Fresh Prince’s mansion. We open the show with a stroll down that street to establish this world (and our play) as a place where characters you love (and perhaps have forgotten) can open the door — literally on stage, and figuratively to your fondest memories of television.
As Joe, Tom and I developed the songs and the material, we went back and forth with ideas, lyrics and music, collaborating fluidly and excitedly as we reconnected with our old favorite shows, bringing them back to life in our script.
It gradually became apparent that our different relationships with television gave us a broad range of favorites and experiences to reference. My years watching syndicated classics on Nick at Nite alongside prime-time ’90s comedies had blurred my boundaries of TV time. Tom, who works as a reality television editor, brought a behind-the-scenes perspective of modern television and its hate-watching audiences. And Joe, who is a drag performer and a self-professed sitcom-holic, brought his love for Edna Garrett right onto the stage — he’s one of the stars in our show. From there, we started weaving a quiet commentary into an otherwise silly and playful production, illustrating how television has changed, and how it changes us. We wanted to get it up in front of an audience as quickly as possible, to see how the material worked.
Daniel Switzerland, Lotie Moore and Leigh Ann Smith
Once we heard the audience’s response to our workshop production at Celebration Theatre under the direction of Ryan Bergmann, we knew we had something special. It was humbling and overwhelming. We lost an entire song to the deadpan humor of Gabby Sanalitro in the dual roles of Consuela and Rosie the Robot. Joe’s gigantic Mrs. Garrett beehive had us pausing for more than a minute of spontaneous roaring. We had unexpected rewrites to do — in order to make room for the audience going crazy over these characters they didn’t even realize they were missing.
With no established company behind us, the three of us dug in to build the production. We were blessed with enthusiastic and talented actors — they are an embarrassment of riches, and we are so lucky to have found them all. We pulled together our separate resources — Joe from his local theater experience, Tom and myself from our film contacts. Together we created a bootstrap marketing campaign to raise awareness of our show for the Fringe Festival, and that led to making a phenomenal number of “Fringeships,” as we call them — a collection of up-and-coming theater creatives who are banding together to support each other’s work. Being a part of Fringe has meant that we have become integrated into the Los Angeles theater community more fluidly than we ever could have imagined. I’m humbled to be a part of such an exciting slate of new theatrical works.
The Real Housekeepers of Studio City, Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. June 14 10 pm, June 15 7 pm, June 16 4 pm, June 20 7 pm, June 21 11:30 pm, June 22, 2:30 pm, June 27 10 pm, June 28 7 pm. Tickets: $15. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1186.
**All The Real Housekeepers of Studio City production photos by Roger Fojas.
Heidi Powers is a mild-mannered marketing guru by day. By night she and her husband/writing partner Tom Moore fight crime (where fights=writes and crime = a portfolio of original work for stage, screen and television.)
MTG MOVES FOR SEASON 2013-14…Musical Theatre Guild (MTG) is not only going to the movies as inspiration for its four-show 2013-14 season of Broadway in Concert tuners, it is moving to Santa Monica’s 344-seat Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, on the campus of New Roads School at the Herb Alpert Educational Village, 3131 Olympic Blvd. Due to extended renovations of its previous primary home, Alex Theatre in Glendale, MTG is making a permanent move. The first event in the season, on Nov 17, is the 1953 Tony-winning Wonderful Town, wrought by Leonard Bernstein (music), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), and Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov (book), based on their play, My Sister Eileen, adapted from Ruth McKenney‘s collected short stories of the same name that also served as the inspiration for two films and a TV series. MTG’s season continues as follows: the never-produced-in LA Death Takes A Holiday on Feb 9, 2014, created by Maury Yeston (music & lyrics), Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan (book), adapted from the 1929 Broadway play be Walter Ferris (from 1924’s La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella), also the basis of the popular 1934 film, starring Fredric March; Ruthless! The Musical — satirizing all things “show biz,” music by Marvin Laird, book and lyrics by Joel Paley, on Apr 6, 2014; and City of Angels, a jazz-tinged homage to 1940s film noir, created by Cy Coleman (music), David Zippel (lyrics) and Larry Gelbart (book), on June 7, 2014. MTG also announced it will no longer be staging performances at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks…
GOODBYE AVERY SCHREIBER…Founded in 2003 by Linda Fulton and named after the famed comedic actor and Second City alumnus, – formerly the Bitter Truth Theatre, located at 11050 Magnolia Blvd in NoHO — is closing. Fulton is not selling the property but leasing it to Fat Dog, a gastro pub with outlets in Hollywood and Montrose. The theater is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the needs of a modern restaurant. Fulton, who created Total Improv Kids school at the Schreiber, affirms she is not closing the space out of financial concerns. Her plans include moving the school to Sherry Theater located next door. Fulton also revealed the Avery Schreiber name is not going away. Writer/thesp Joanne Mosconi is renaming her Magic Mirror Theater, at 4934 Lankershim Blvd. in NoHo, the Avery Schreiber Playhouse, beginning July 1. Mosconi affirms, “I know Linda (Fulton) is going to take some time off, but she is definitely going to be involved in projects here. We both have such a history with children’s theater and with improv. She should definitely keep going”….
PREMIERES…For the eighth annual outdoor theater production in the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, CalArts’ Center for New Performance (CNP) will offer the premiere of Joel Agee’s translation of the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, usually ascribed to Aeschylus, helmed by CNP artistic director Travis Preston, with original music by Ellen Reid and jazz multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, opening Sep 6 and featuring a five-ton, 23-feet revolving steel wheel as the focal point of the set…In Santa Monica, CRE Outreach — serving at-risk students and the visually impaired through theater-based arts programs — is premiering Dreaming in Color, scripted by and starring blind actress Caitlin Hernandez, focusing on a teenage girl who has lost her sight but still aspires to become an artist, helmed by CRE artistic director Greg Shane, opening July 6 at Promenade Playhouse…Hollywood Fringe premieres include Frank and Ava, about the affair between Sinatra and Gardner, scripted by Willard Manus, helmed by KellyGalindo, opening tonight at 3 Clubs on Vine Street…Also debuting at this year’s Fringe, Sewer Rats at Sea, scripted by ZK Lowenfels, helmed by Aaron Lyons, which is said to walk “the fine line between realism and the absurd” in its depiction of a man and a woman on a yacht at sea, debuting June 16 at Theatre Asylum.
CIRQUE-A-PALOOZA IN PASADENA…The venerable “State Theater of California” is debuting a summer festival, featuring variety shows and Cirque-style specialty acts that will play Pasadena Playhouse’s mainstage and adjoining Carrie Hamilton Theatre, beginning July 19, co-produced and hosted by Cirque du Soleil comic act designer Stefan Haves. Cirque-A-Palooza kicks off with magician Justin Willman’s Tricked Out (July 19, 20). Frank Ferrante’s solo, An Evening With Groucho, plays one night only, July 27. Daily performances of specialty acts begin July 31, featuring magicians from the Magic Castle, mime Benedikt Negro, tap dancer/boxer Joe Orrach, clown Randy Minkler, pancake juggler Scot Neary, sword swallower BrettLoudermilk, comedic magician Tanba Tamba, hula-hoop artist Mat Plendl, commedia dell’arte troupe Grand Guignolers, and clown/magician Moonie.Performance dates and additional performers are to be announced…
AROUND TOWN…For the final show of its 60th season,Musical Theatre West is reviving Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, opening 20 years to the day of this tinseltown tuner’s debut in London. Helmed by Larry Raben, with musical direction by David Lamoureux, this sojourn through the tribulations of faded film star Norma Desmond opens July 12 at 1070-seat Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach…ThespMolly C. Quinn, who plays Susan Sullivan’s granddaughter on ABC’s Castle, is taking on the role of Sullivan’s daughter in LA Theatre Works’ record-before-a-live-audience-for-future-radio-broadcast staging of Kindertransport,Diane Samuels’ 1993 dramatization of the 1938-1940 effort to assist thousands of Jewish children to flee Nazi persecution, helmed by Jeanie Hackett, opening June 20 at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater in Westwood. The cast also includes Jane Kaczmarek, Hugo Armstrong, Shannon Lee Clair and Angela Paton…Classical Theatre Lab is reviving Trouble in Chiozza, Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century romp through the machinations of two rival families with daughters of marrying age, translated by Robert Hoyem, helmed by Louis Fantasia, opening July 6 at Kings Road Park, co-produced by the City of West Hollywood. Admission is free…Falcon Theatre in Burbank is hosting Wrap Your Heart Around It, written, composed and performed by five-time Grammy-nominated Nashville musician LynnMarie Rink –chronicling Rink’s life-long struggles with her father’s alcoholism, her own religious beliefs, and being the 40-year-old mother of a special needs child. Helmed by Michael Kearns, with musical direction by Paul Carrol Binkley, the solo tuner opens July 20…
Michael Peretzian. Photo by John Flynn.
EXTENDING…In downtown LA, Beautiful, Jozanne Marie’s chronicle of her challenges in life as a Jamaican woman, helmed by Geoffrey Rivas, is extending through June 23 at Los Angeles Theatre Center…The West Coast debut of Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, helmed by Michael Peretzian, is staying put at Rogue Machine through Aug 5…Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, Michael Lluberes’ retelling of JM Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, helmed by Michael Matthews, is reaching to June 30 at Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood…And to no one’s surprise, the “energizer bunny” of LA theater, The Rainmaker, scripted by N. Richard Nash, helmed by Jack Heller, is extending again, through Aug 31 at Edgemar Center in Santa Monica.
Actors Forum Theatre
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…Born in the Bronx, Audrey Marlyn starts singing and dancing at age six. She gets her professional start at age 14 when her father, vaudeville entertainer Charlie King, adds her to his act. Audrey soon finds her way to Broadway, making her debut in the musical, Crocodile Island. Married at 17, she and husband Mike Singer go west on their honeymoon and decide to make LA their new home. Not losing sight of her love for live theater, Audrey Marlyn Singer founds Actors Forum Theatre in 1975, converting a tin building located at 3365 ½ Cahuenga Boulevard West to a small theater with the help of friends. Selective in its output, Actors Forum produces notable stagings of Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story (1977) — starring then artistic director Shawn Michaels –the melodrama The Fortunes of Farley (1981), William Inge’s Natural Affection (1981) and Bud Freeman’s What To Do ‘Til the Saviour Comes (1983). When the building is sold, Audrey and her husband relocate to the NoHo Arts District in 1994, purchasing the building at 10655 Magnolia Boulevard. After a year of renovations, the 45-seat Actors Forum Theatre opens with the play, Monique. Singer continues to produce an eclectic range of stage fare, including The Great Sebastians, The Boyfriend, Fireflies: Wizards of Magic, Messin’ With Destiny, and A Hatful of Rain. In August 1997, Actors Forum hosts the premiere of the solo It’s Me! Dad, written by and starring KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman. In 2006, Singer helms the premiere of actor Don Scribner’s autobiographical solo, Two Rooms in the Valley, which is subsequently made into a film (2008). Actors Forum Theatre is also an actors group consisting of from 14-25 members, holding weekly workshops led by Audrey Marlyn Singer.
Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review, celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret, Fridays (2 to 2:30 pm) on KPFK (90.7FM). On June 14, Martinez spotlights Larry Cedar, Lisa Cole and Bill Ratner – performing in solo plays that are making their debuts at Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Kahyun Kim and Sterling Beaumon in “Survival Strategy.” Photo by Marcus Efron.
When I set out to write a play about a burn survivor, I knew I had chosen a tricky subject, and more than that, a subject to which I felt a personal responsibility. My mother was burned at the age of 18 and is now the executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a national non-profit. While I’ve written plays about a lot of difficult subjects — school shootings, miscarriages, Alzheimer’s — this is the only one with which I’ve had a personal connection.
Survival Strategy is about a young boy who was burned in a fire that killed his younger brother. It’s a story of blame, forgiveness, and most of all, healing. It’s influenced by my own life, my own experiences, and because I am connected to the community I’m writing about, I felt an immense sense of responsibility to do it justice.
It’s an honor to have the play produced as part of Blank Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival. This is my third year participating in the festival, and I’m thrilled that I’m closing out my run as a “young playwright” with a play in which I’m so personally invested. My last year with the YPF feels like the end of an era, and maybe because of that, I’ve been thinking a lot about my evolution as a writer.
When I was 11, I wrote my first “novel.” It was definitely the product of an 11-year-old mind, one cliché on the heels of another. There was a prophecy, there were several sword fights, and even a “Luke, I am your father” scene. But the novel served its purpose. I fell in love with writing, and I haven’t stopped.
At 16, I convinced my mother to send me to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in northern Michigan where I could major in creative writing. I spent hours picking out my classes. I wanted to take everything. I took a class on fairy tales, a class on the concept of fate in literature, and of course, Introduction to Playwriting. I thought it would be fun, maybe improve my dialogue for my fiction…but I never imagined that it would become my passion.
When I got the call from Daniel Henning about the 2011 Young Playwrights Festival, I was 40 feet off the ground in a tree. Luckily, I didn’t fall out of the tree when he told me that I was a winner, and that I would get to travel to Hollywood and participate in the professional production of my play. I had all but forgotten I had submitted to the competition, but suddenly it was all I could think about.
I was 17 when I came to the Blank for the first time, and sitting in rehearsal for my play Lockdown, I knew that there was no going back. I was in love. I was in love with the energy, the intensity, the collaborative process. I threw myself into that process, listening raptly to my mentor as she explained a playwright’s role in rehearsals, watching the actors make discoveries about the characters, getting to know them better than I did. I watched my director transform my play into theater.
John Lacy and Sterling Beaumon
And the first night that I had an audience, nearly a hundred people sitting in the dark laughing and crying because my words, I didn’t just love it. I needed it.
Now, two years later, I’ve returned to the YPF for the final time. I am a different person than the kid up in the tree. Because of the Blank, I know what I want to do. I’m in college now, majoring in theater, happily avoiding thinking about the likelihood of a future characterized by ramen and Salvation Army clothes. I’m doing what I love, and I’m doing it because at the age of 17, I had an opportunity that most kids only dream of.
Each year I’ve returned to the Blank, I’ve gotten more and more out of the process. I’ve embraced my role as a playwright. I’ve started to find my own voice. I’ve learned what makes a play good, and more important, what makes a play producible. My three years with the Blank have given me the opportunity to meet incredible actors, brilliant directors, and other young writers, but primarily they have given me an incurable love of theater. As I look back at the last three years of my life, I couldn’t be more grateful to all the people who make the Young Playwrights Festival possible. They may never know the impact they have, but I’ll remember the experience for the rest of my life as the thing that turned me into a playwright.
Survival Strategy, Blank Theatre’s 21st Annual Young Playwrights Festival, Stella Adler Theatre, 2nd floor, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., LA. 90028. Opens June 13. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through June 16. Tickets: $14-$20. www.TheBlank.com. 323-661-9827.
**All Survival Strategy production photos by Marcus Efron.
Nicole Acton is a three-time winner in Blank Theatre’s YPF, a 2012 Presidential Scholar in the Arts, and a winner of the 2013 Young Playwrights, Inc National Playwriting Competition. She was a Level 1 finalist in the NFAA’s YoungArts competition, and her fiction has been published in One Teen Story.
Alina Phelan and Trent Dawson in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone has been in previews for two nights when cast member Alina Phelan walks into Brew Haus Coffee & Tea, a small establishment in downtown Long Beach, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and patterned kerchief. Her grip is very strong, and she laughs about initially walking past the shop while talking on her cell phone — ironic, considering the play has a lot to do with cell phones running our lives.
After grabbing what looks to be an iced tea from the coffee bar and remarking on the day’s news flashing up on the TV in the corner, she sits down to chat about her leading role in Sarah Ruhl’s play at International City Theatre (ICT), just blocks away.
The Michigan-bred actress grew up watching her father in community theater and memorizing the cast’s lines, which she silently mouthed from the audience during rehearsal. “It was creepy, I’m sure,” she says with a laugh. Phelan maintains that her childhood acting ability was “awful,” but, she remarks, “If you start young enough, you can be awful and nobody will remember.”
She kept at it, attending Western Michigan University and then transferring to CalArts. What she eventually learned, she says, is “You have to get out of your own way in order to be real and in the moment.” To explain this somewhat cryptic advice, she provides an example of a role she had in college. “I was flicking flowers at Nina,” she says of Chekhov’s The Seagull, “and I just did it because that’s what I would do.” She reflects, “Every once in a while you get those moments that are so true.”
Since graduating from CalArts, Phelan has been a busy actress. She took home a Garland Award for her role as Hamlet in Hamlet: The First Quarto at Theatre of NOTE (of which she is a member) and was Ovation-nominated for Family Planning, Chalk Repertory’s site-specific production. She was also part of a long-form improv group called Those Meddling Kids, who she says have now all grown up to have their own kids.
Phelan also has voice-over and film credits, with roles in Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia. TV roles have included parts on ER, Lie to Me, and The Young and the Restless, among others.
For ICT’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she plays Jean, who becomes frustrated when a man at a café refuses to respond while his phone rings incessantly, disrupting her thank-you-card writing. The title provides a clue to why he’s not answering.
So why does Jean pick up the phone? And why does she not only continue to answer it, but start making calls on it to the point where she is tying up all the dead man’s loose ends?
“I think it’s something that happens instantaneously and on a guttural level,” Phelan says.
Answering the phone is the inciting incident for the character, she says. “She sees somebody die.” The actress, whose freckles you can see without all the stage makeup, starts to speak a little more deliberately. “She is the only person to witness his death,” she says, then as her light brown eyes start to water, warns, “I’m going to cry now.”
Phelan recounts how an actor friend recently passed away. “He died on the street somewhere. He didn’t have any information with him. So we didn’t know about it for like three days.” Playing Jean puts her in the place of finding someone who has died — as someone must have done for her friend.
Alina Phelan, Trent Dawson and Eileen T’Kaye
“I came to the first table reading and we were all chatting, then all of the sudden I’m bawling, the same thing I’m doing now. Because I would do anything to know who the person was who helped him in that moment. Because I would have asked how he was. Was it fast? Was he in pain? All these things you think about.” She laughs and cries a little at the same time.
“I think I wish I were a little bit more like her,” she says of Jean. “She just basically goes on this journey to better these strangers’ lives that she doesn’t know. She’s made it her mission to make sure that whoever this dead guy was, she’s going to make sure his memory lives on in the people he left behind. Even though she has no idea who he was.”
Phelan talks fondly of her character’s actions — taking the phone of the dead man (whose name is Gordon) and connecting with his close family members. Although, she admits, the lengths Jean goes to do so — pretending to have known him and even at one point taking a plane to South Africa — are “a little bit crazy.” And, she adds, “I think she feels important” managing his affairs.
It’s clear Phelan is used to living with and playing the character at this point. As she continues to explain why Jean fascinates her, she switches between referring to her in the third and first person. She recounts Jean’s reasoning for operating Gordon’s cell phone despite having disavowed using them in her own life: “No way. Like, his wife’s not getting it. Not his mother. Because it’s my job. It’s my mission. I am going to honor him.”
Despite the obsession, Phelan contends, “That’s what’s so sweet about this play. These people who are so lost and so disconnected will believe anything because they are desperate for it, and they are desperate to know that person loved them.”
Trent Dawson and Alina Phelan
The play, which received its Southern California premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2008, often goes off into what Phelan calls “weird fantasy sections,” such as a “cell phone ballet,” but the actress is definitely on board with playwright Ruhl. She notes how some sections, like the ballet, have unusual stage directions. Ruhl gives several options for the scene and then writes “or you can not do it at all.”
“I don’t think she had any rules in her head when she was writing this,” Phelan observes. But she’s fine with that. “I like risky theater. That’s my bag. I like that ICT is doing this. I think that caryn desai, the artistic director, made a really good decision,” she says, referring to including the play in ICT’s season. “It’s maybe not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s in the right place.”
Phelan is also a fan of Richard Israel, who is directing. “I looove him,” she gushes, adding that she has known him for some time. “I was so excited when I saw he was directing this straight play.” Israel is best known for directing musicals and comedies, or some combination thereof, with recent credits including Once Upon a Mattress (Cabrillo Music Theatre), Avenue Q (DOMA Theatre Company), and The Full Monty (Third Street Theatre). A co-artistic director of the dormant West Coast Ensemble, he is a recipient of the LA Drama Critics Circle Milton Katselas Award for career or special achievement in direction.
“He knows how to get you clued in,” Phelan says of Israel’s directing. “I think because he was and is an actor, he knows how to get you there. He also serves the play.”
Between the cast, the theater, the director, and Ruhl’s construction of the play itself, Phelan is one happy actress. “I’ve had the best time. I think it’s a beautiful space. Completely professional, from the tech staff to the artistic direction.” And, she adds, “I have my own dressing room! When does that happen?”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu–Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Ends June 30. Tickets: $38-$45. ictlongbeach.org. 562-436-4610.
**All Dead Man’s Cell Phone production photos by Suzanne Mapes.
Ruth Fox, Carlos Flores, Kevin Katich, Hank Doughan and Aaron Lyons in “The Devil and Billy Markham.” Photo by Wry.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein was, and remains, the favorite book of my youth. Silverstein has an amazing body of work (fun fact: he wrote “A Boy Named Sue”), and his works have inspired hope and tears, laughter and reflection throughout my life. For each of my life’s mile-markers, he has a corresponding text that mirrors it. The Devil and Billy Markham is where I am at mile-marker 0039.
The Devil and Billy Markham was originally published as a poem in Playboy Magazine in 1979, and a stage adaptation of the poem later appeared alongside David Mamet’s short play Bobby Gould in Hell under the title Oh, Hell!.
Upon reading the script, my first thought was “It’s wicked awesome! I must do this show. The story, the characters, the poetry and the humor resonate to my core.” That was eight years ago. The desire to perform this “epic dirty poem” never went away, but how could I stage it effectively? Devil is a one-actor show, in rhyming couplets, in six chapters.
Solo shows are challenging enough when the actor performing wrote the piece — or if it speaks to a political, social, or spiritual issue for the performer, even though someone else wrote it. Devil has none of these elements (on the surface). I was afraid that, if I performed it, it would come off as a “Hey, dig me, look at all these characters I can do” piece. I was afraid of The Devil, I was afraid of feeling like a masturbatory LA actor, and I was afraid that I couldn’t pull it off. For eight years these fears kept me from following through.
And then, in 2011, during the critically acclaimed Pulp Shakespeare, two of my co-stars (Brett Colbeth and Gowrie Hayden) asked me if I wanted to co-found Zenith Ensemble, a production company that would challenge us to push the limits of our “artist comfort zones” and tackle the projects that send chills down our spines. Too often I had found that even though I put 100% into a project, it rarely challenged me to grow as an artist. Brett and Gowrie certainly challenged me, by asking me to direct (for the first time in more than a decade) Zenith’s debut production of Rise, by Cal Barnes for the 2012 Hollywood Fringe Festival.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an amazing community, and it has proven to be a safe place to take risks. But the question still remained…did I really want to do a solo piece? Definitely not. Well, maybe. Yes. No, definitely no. But if there was a way….and yet….
On the one hand, like most actors, I love the give and take of performing with others, the feeling of being onstage and getting something new, giving it back, and helping make the moments shine in their immediacy. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to separate the characters and divvy them up among several actors. I wanted to push myself to play all of the characters, from the Narrator, to the “down and out” Billy Markham, the Devil, God, and Scuzzy — an aging hustler. And besides, it is written as a solo show. There had to be a way to do this piece within an ensemble.
Just do it. I’ll find a way to make it work. Hollywood Fringe, here I come.
I asked a trusted friend, Amanda McRaven, to direct. We thought about collaborating with a dance company; they could move around the stage to a instrumental Tom Waits playlist I had compiled years earlier while I told the tale of Billy gambling with the Devil. But none of the companies I approached seemed to gel with the idea. I secretly had another idea of telling the tale of how the “Devil burned Billy’s soul, but Bill singed the Devil’s ass” with aerialists, acrobats, clowns, and fire performers. I even entertained the notion of telling the tale of the good vs. evil within every one of us through the use of puppetry and shadow play.
And then, as if Shel himself whispered in my ear, “live band” rang out. All at once my fear disappeared. I could perform one of my favorite pieces, challenge myself with a scripted solo show, and be able to play with other performers. Amanda loved the idea and assembled an incredibly talented, playful and generous group of musicians and one extremely graceful and sexy dancer. The last elements came into place when we secured the 3 Clubs Cocktail Lounge as our venue, and the amazing Paula Higgins on costumes.
So hear I am, at mile-marker 0039, no longer calling this a “solo show.” It is a true collaboration of rhythm and music, poetry and physicality. I am grateful to have waited eight years to realize this dream. I can’t imagine it any other way.
The Devil and Billy Markham, 3 Clubs Cocktail Lounge, 1123 N. Vine Street, LA 90038. June 16 and 23 6:45 pm, June 19 and 26 8:15 pm. Tickets: $12. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1227.
**All The Devil and Billy Markham production photos by Wry.
Aaron Lyons is an actor, director, writer, editor, painter, cook, landscaper, handyman, and run-on sentence enthusiast. Being born in Ringling Brothers’ Circus has given him an incredible sense of wanderlust and desire to tell stories; the only place he could find that would satisfy these two soul-satisfying urges was in the theater, where he has been a struggling artist ever since. He has performed in 48 states, nine countries, and four dimensions. The most important lesson he has learned in all of his travels is: “When traveling, ask the locals where their favorite restaurant is, and you can rarely go wrong.”
Tara Summers, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean in “Yes, Prime Minister.” Photo by Michael Lamont.
In luxurious governmental headquarters, political dignitaries and their dutiful underlings grapple with assorted crises, such as a debt-ridden economy on the brink of collapse, illegal immigration, and more, as they attempt to forestall inevitable media scrutiny. Is this a news update on the current US political scene? Not quite. The setting is Great Britain, as the fictional hubbub is related in the US premiere of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s farcical satire, Yes, Prime Minister.
This West End stage hit, based on a popular British television series, opens at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater on Wednesday, featuring a notable cast — Jefferson Mays, Stephen Caffrey, Brian George, Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean, Tara Summers, and Time Winters.
Mays previously appeared in the Geffen’s 2005 LA premiere of Doug Wright’s biographical solo play I Am My Own Wife, staged at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. The actor repeated a role that earned him a Tony and several other awards. (The play was originally developed, pre-Broadway, in 2001 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Page to Stage workshop.) Mays’ other acclaimed Broadway credits of recent years include Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Pygmalion, and Journey’s End.
Wild and Woolley
In Yes, Prime Minister, “I play Bernard Woolley,” Mays begins, during an interview in the Geffen green room. “He’s the principal private secretary to the prime minister. This is a play about government, not about politics. It’s about how things work and who runs the show. It’s been such a revelation to me, because you think you know who the British are, and their government, but [the US] government wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the British government. Ours is an extension of that, and a reaction to it. It’s Alice in wonderland. It’s crazy.”
Matthews plays the permanent cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, while McKean appears as the prime minister. Mays explains, “This is a Jeeves and Wooster relationship, but with two Jeeves and one Wooster.” (Mays’ reference is to the comedic butler-servant characters appearing in P.G. Wodehouse stories and novels; they served as the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Alan Ayckbourn’s 1975 musical Jeeves — which, in a revised version called By Jeeves, played the Geffen in 1997).
He continues, “We [Woolley and Appleby] are permanent, we don’t change, we are the government, a couple of Oxonians in public school-educated class systems, who keep the mechanism working. These vulgarian politicians come in for a few years, but they’re short-time help. We are the British help. Whereas, in the US, it’s a system of checks and balances between the judicial branch, legislative branch , and executive branch, this is sort of between the Bertie Woosters of government and the Jeeves [the butlers], who keep the thing going. So there’s great comic potential in that relationship. My character is caught between his duty to the senior civil servant and his duty to his prime minister.”
He describes the play as “a comedy, and I would say a farce at points. That’s the way I like working the most, because it’s building a machine. The work is so specific. It’s like doing a really complicated math problem. Jonathan Lynn is fantastic, like Beethoven conducting his own symphony. He’s extraordinarily specific, and it’s like working with a great conductor. He literally sits there and says ‘this passage goes faster, or slow down here.’ He has built in passages.”
The first British TV version of this story (originally called Yes Minister) began in 1980. It was re-dubbed Yes, Prime Minister, for its 1986 revamp. The most recent television version opened in Britain this January. The stage adaptation has thrived in tours throughout England since its 2010 debut.
Dakin Matthews and Michael McKean in “Yes, Prime Minister.” Photo by Michael Lamont.
“The play is now having a second life, with a new cast,” Mays remarks. He believes the Geffen production will resonate with current news headlines. Yet he admits, “I was a little leery at first, thinking this was so Anglo-centric. But all government is fundamentally the same. The comic subject matter, I think, doesn’t change at all, but Jonathan’s a news junkie and he’s not above putting in things that are currently going on in the world. But he’s also uncannily anticipating what’s going to happen. He sort of foresaw the hung Parliament in Britain right now, and there are allusions to drones and things that will ring a bell with us.”
Mays says that the material is “different from the original in that it happens now. But it’s the same in terms of characters and relationships.” The actor was aware of the show when this role was offered to him but says he still hasn’t seen any of the TV versions. “I met Jonathan a couple of years ago, and he asked if I would read Bernard, in a staged reading, and I said yes, and I asked, should I go and look at the TV show? And he said no, just treat it as a new play.”
Mays, who is married to actress Susan Lyons, is originally from Connecticut. He has resided in New York since the early 1990s. He studied at Yale and in the graduate drama program at UC San Diego, appearing in La Jolla Playhouse productions and working with artistic director Des McAnuff. For several years, he was also a member of Anne Bogart’s SITI program, which he believes gave him invaluable training. He has a number of television and film credits, but his career focus has largely been on the stage.
Mays is excited to return to Broadway this fall in Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a musical set in Edwardian England, which is based on the Roy Horniman novel Israel Rank and its classic 1949 film adaptation, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Directed by Darko Tresnjak, the new musical, with book by Robert L. Freedman and score by Steven Lutvak and Freedman, had an acclaimed premiere last fall at the Hartford Stage and earlier this year at the Old Globe in San Diego, in a co-production between the two companies.
Jefferson Mays as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith and Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith and in the 2013 world premiere of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at The Old Globe. Photos by Henry DiRocco.
According to Mays, full casting for the Broadway production is now underway. He is set to reprise his lead role of a possible duke — ninth in line to inherit that title. He also plays this gentleman’s eight rivals, each of whom meets with a suspicious demise. “I play all of the roles that [Alec] Guinness played in the film,” Mays asserts. In the Los Angeles Times review of the Globe staging, Charles McNulty wrote that it’s Mays’ “prolific originality that gives A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder its liftoff.”
“A musical is new territory for me,” says Mays, “but I did an Encores! production of Of Thee I Sing [in New York] in which I didn’t even sing. It’s extraordinary. I may never want to go back. Plays are such heavy lifting. Act one, scene one tends to be a lot of exposition and trying to get people on board, but in a musical, you sort of step out on this magic carpet, the overture strikes up, and bears you aloft. It’s intoxicating.”
Yet Mays eventually offers a qualifier regarding his debut as a musical comedy star. He tells of an experience in 2008, shortly after he had starred as Prof. Henry Higgins in a Roundabout Theatre revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Following that run, Mays was summoned to take over the role of Higgins in the play’s classic Lerner and Loewe musical version, My Fair Lady, at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, because the actor slated to do the role dropped out at the last minute. Mays says he “knew all the lines, so I stepped in. It couldn’t have been a better introduction because you start out speaking, and you end up singing.”
He adds, “Higgins is such a wonderful role. I would love to do that again. I was talking to Jonathan about that the other day. It’s funny because in America, our knowledge and expectations about Pygmalion are so affected by My Fair Lady…People would say ‘what, you don’t do that — this is where you sing the song.’ It’s amazing because [Alan Jay] Lerner, who did the lyrics for the musical, used so much of Shaw, the play is now kind of a disappointment to an American audience. It’s quite different as a musical and, I think, as heretical as this sounds, My Fair Lady is a greater work of art.”
Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean and Corey Brill at the April 1, 2012 opening night curtain call of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.
In Pygmalion, he continues, “Shaw was writing Higgins as himself, and he didn’t permit him to go places where he was not comfortable going — too close to his own character.” Lerner “humanized Higgins and gave him the possibility of caring for this other person. And then it’s so beautifully structured. You have this wonderful arc, whereas Pygmalion doesn’t allow him much of a change. Eliza is the one who goes through this transformation. And they also flesh out the makeover aspects of it in the musical. There’s not a scene devoted to that in the play.”
He adds a personal anecdote: “My parents had opening night tickets to see My Fair Lady in the 1950s, and ended up giving them away to friends. They asked, ‘Shaw as a musical? Couldn’t possibly be.’”
Mays says he has thoroughly enjoyed his other Broadway performances. In The Best Man (Gore Vidal’s 1964 play about a contentious presidential race), “oddly enough, a lot of the cast members from Yes, Prime Minister — McKean, Dakin and I — were in that company as well, so we spent about seven months together on Broadway last season. It’s lovely. That happens more often as you age. Working with people who you worked with before shaves off two weeks of rehearsals. You have some sort of working vocabulary to work with people, so it’s lovely to see some old friends.
“I played a character named Sheldon Marcus in The Best Man, sort of a sap who comes in with a compromising piece of information in Act II. It was a small role, but it was fun. Another very pertinent play. We were all joking the other day that we seem to do political plays with lots of furniture.”
John Ahlin, Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines in the 2007 Broadway revival of “Journey’s End” at the Belasco Theatre. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
He calls his lengthy run with I Am My Own Wife — initially developed in San Diego, followed by the Broadway run, then on tour — “ a great adventure and very fulfilling artistically.” He also speaks highly of his experience appearing in the 1928 drama Journey’s End in its 2007 Broadway revival: “I saw the play when I was 10 years old at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. It’s a play that a lot of Americans are not familiar with, because it’s never done. But it’s a great war play.” He adds, “It’s not a preachy play. It doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s written by R.C. Sherriff, who’s a survivor of the Great War, and it’s based on his own personal experiences as an officer in the trenches in France. All the characters are people he knew. He had written a memoir that had never been published. It was sort of a memorial to his fallen comrades. The play was a deeply moving experience. We got along famously as a cast. And we all got blown up at the end. I just remember being so affected by that play. To have this opportunity to do it on Broadway was something I had never anticipated happening.”
Regarding future ambitions, Mays remarks, “I think a lot of people advise you to have a list of things you want to accomplish — roles that you want to do. But I love the element of surprise, in which you get waylaid, in which a director will come up and say ‘You know what, you should really play this.’ Look at I Am My Own Wife. It’s crazy. Who ever would have thought they would play a gay 65-year-old East German transvestite? So I always love it when other people get excited for me to do things.”
He elaborates. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of different things to do. I think being typecast is the worst thing for an actor, though there are a lot of actors who make a career out of that. And I know some actors will tell their agents, ‘I don’t go out for that sort of thing.’ But the joy of being an actor is the transformation. I like the other shoes you get to walk in, the other thoughts you get to think.”
Jefferson Mays in “Yes, Prime Minister.” Photo by Michael Lamont.
Speaking of transformation, “I wish theater makeup would come back,” he adds. “I was looking at a book the other day that was astonishing. Think of it. If you’re in a repertory company, or something, in order to keep your audience engaged, you have to transform yourself — putty in the nose, putty in the jowls. It makes sense and I’d love to bring all that stuff back.”
Despite Mays’ busy schedule this year, he has one additional iron in the fire that’s a very personal project: “I’m starting to work on another one-man show, which I didn’t think I’d ever do again. Solo shows can sometime be a lonely experience, and you get involved in theater to spark ideas with other ideas and play onstage, but this is a project based on the works of Shakespeare. I’m in the process of reading all of his works. It’s not going to be Gielgud’s Seven Ages of Man, but something like that idea. A friend and I are going to see what leaps out and then craft some sort of evening. But that’s sort of a long-term project. It would be nice to have something kind of portable that you could carry around and do.”
Meanwhile, he’s anticipating the opening of Yes, Prime Minister: “I’m fiendishly curious how it’s going to play for an American audience…It’s extremely British, but we love the British. Plus there are lots of slamming doors, and I think the relationships are extremely funny, and the set is lovely, adorned by French doors and sofas. I think it will have great resonance.”
Yes, Prime Minister, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood 90024. Opens Wednesday. Tue-Fri 8 pm. Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $47-77. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
Deidrie Henry (center), Travis Michael Holder, Jan Munroe, Judy Jean Burns and L. Trey Wilson in “The Katrina Comedy Fest” at the Lounge Theatre as part of Hollywood Fringe Festival 2013. Photo by Rob Florence.
Think of Hurricane Katrina, and the images that probably come to mind are wind and rain pounding the flooding streets of New Orleans, people standing on rooftops waiting to be rescued, or the cleanup process that dragged on for years.
But according to The Katrina Comedy Fest, tales of destruction, chaos and suffering are not the only ones to emerge from the storm. The play tells the true stories of five individuals who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and through each person’s resilience and positive outlook, the tragedy itself gets a decidedly more uplifting spin.
Playwright Rob Florence is a longtime New Orleans resident and historian. He owns and operates Historic New Orleans Tours, has authored several nonfiction books about New Orleans and teaches playwriting at University of New Orleans and Tulane University. His next play, Holy Wars, will be produced at the Bayou Treme Center.
Florence, director Misty Carlisle and five of the six cast members have gathered at the Cat & Fiddle restaurant — which Carlisle chose because its outdoor patio reminds her of New Orleans’s French Quarter — to discuss the play and its themes.
Florence says he didn’t want to write about Hurricane Katrina for a long time because the experience was so traumatizing, but he began to take issue with the kinds of stories the mainstream media were reporting about how the people of New Orleans had weathered the storm and its aftermath. He says too many of the stories were negative, focusing on crime and painting residents as partly to blame for the trouble the city faced.
In fact, Florence’s early versions of the play took a similarly dark tone. But he wasn’t happy about it.
“Initially some monologues were really brutal,” Florence says. “That wasn’t an accomplishment because you swing a dead cat in New Orleans and you hit 45,000 really depressing Katrina stories. That’s easy. What was surprising were these triumphant, funny stories, like situational comedy.”
The five main characters in the play are based on real people, all friends of Florence except for one who was a friend of a friend. Each actor plays one main character as well as supporting characters in the other four stories.
Deidre Henry as Antoinette
Deidrie Henry plays Antoinette K-Doe (alternating performances with Peggy Blow), wife of legendary New Orleans blues musician Ernie K-Doe and the owner of the Mother-in-Law Lounge, a haven for New Orleans musicians. Antoinette (who died in 2009) sheltered her neighbors and granddaughter during the storm on the second floor of her establishment. Florence calls her “a living surrealist” who “doesn’t ask you to do stuff, she tells you.”
Henry says she was attracted to The Katrina Comedy Fest’s concentration on people’s kindness and courage during the storm, which were generally obscured in media coverage. Like Florence, she had never heard such inspirational stories from Katrina.
“I’d never heard of the kindness. Just the length of time and the steps people took and how quick the water rose and where they were and how they got out,” she says. “I wanted to get into this woman’s body, and I wanted to get into her mind and experience that whole adventure with her.”
Judy Jean Berns as Judy
Judy Jean Berns plays Judy, a “strait-laced” woman with pet ferrets who becomes fast friends with a group of tattooed, pierced kids, “who she never would have had anything to do with before,” Berns says. Travis Michael Holder describes his character Rodney as the play’s comedic relief. While trying to get his elderly parents to safety, Rodney grows increasingly aggravated by his cranky mother. He’s got a “Mario Cantone vibe” about him, Holder says, and the real “Rodney” actually spoke one of Holder’s monologues in the play.
Jan Munroe describes his character Sonny as a take-charge kind of guy, who always comes up with a plan of action and marches forward even through adversity. “He seems to be very practical, in the moment, unfazed,” Munroe says. “I don’t even think he’s horrified by this. He’s taking it in stride as part of what is happening to him.”
Travis Michael Holder as Rodney
L. Trey Wilson’s character Raymond, an artist who lives predominantly on the street, doesn’t just take the storm in stride — he actually views Hurricane Katrina as a positive event in his life because he gets to travel and have an adventure.
Wilson says he believes that art heals, whether the tragedy in question happened yesterday or nearly 10 years later. The Katrina Comedy Fest offers a chance at healing from Katrina even if the memories are still painful, he says.
“To have someone witness it and tell your story as a way of healing, whether it may be what you felt or what someone else felt, it makes you feel like you’re not as alone,” he says.
And while there’s still a sense of outrage in America about what happened, in the play, Munroe points out, “there’s very little outrage, which makes it interesting.”
L. Trey Wilson as Raymond
“These five people didn’t have time to be outraged. They were living it,” Carlisle adds. “Today everything is built on conflict and sensationalism, so it’s nice to finally be a part of something where it is inspirational and people do survive. They’re not negative about it, they’re not bitter about it, and they all still live there and they all still love their home.”
Florence and the cast hope theater companies keep The Katrina Comedy Fest in mind and perhaps stage it in honor of Katrina’s 10th anniversary in 2015. But even if it’s not produced again, the play already seems to have had an impact.
Holder, who teaches acting at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus, says he brought his students to see the play’s first preview. Echoing a sentiment probably shared by many who remember watching television coverage of Katrina almost eight years ago, one student from Brazil said she had never seen this side of the storm.
“She said, ‘I never heard these personal stories, I never had a personal connection to it. I think of Katrina and I think of people on the roofs, people in the water, but this is the first time I’ve put human faces to it,’” Holder says. “I think that’s really valuable.”