Swetow and Zuker Play Trotsky and Kahlo

Frida Kahlo is flirting outrageously with Leon Trotsky as they enter from the garden. “Where’s Natalya?” he asks uneasily, as if summoning his wife will ease the sexual tension. “She’s upstairs with Diego (Rivera),” Frida responds. And so this merry ménage a quatre rolls on, as we await the anticipated denouement in the premiere of The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy, Peter Lefcourt’s new play, produced by Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s from the same team that presented Mutually Assured Destruction at the Odyssey last year. Murielle Zuker as Frida Kahlo looks enough like the famous Mexican artist to be her doppelganger, even before she dons the single eyebrow. With her hair rolled around her head in a fat braid, she could pose for any of Kahlo’s self-portraits. “Maybe it’s just me, but I think the unibrow is sexy,” Zuker says. “Not for life, of course, but in this play it’s fashioned to the shape of my face and comes to a sharp little ‘v’.” The play is sexy, too, she adds, with all kinds of affairs cropping up between the characters that history never recorded. “The play is a mixture of Noises Off and Marat/Sade”, Joel Swetow inserts. “It’s a comedy, after all.” (Swetow as Trotsky, acts out a prolonged death scene that would do James Cagney proud.) “The play isn’t about the assassination,” he continues. “It’s about the actors taking over a play about an assassination.” “The play is about revolutionary characters,” Zuker explains, “and so the actors become revolutionary while doing a play about a revolution.” In taking over the play, the actors insert familiar dialogue from all the other plays they’ve acted in, and the audience can guess where the lines come from. For example, one of Trotsky’s many lines as he twitches to a slow death, is “’Tis a far far better thing I do…” The play itself is set in the Blue House, the home in Mexico City that Kahlo sometimes shared with her on-again, off-again husband, Diego Rivera. It is to that home that Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalya eventually came to stay after Trotsky was removed from power in the Soviet Union. As a key member of the Bolshevik Party, a supporter of Marx and Lenin and a founder and commander of the Red Army, he was expelled from the Communist Party and exiled by Joseph Stalin, who then succeeded in having him and most of his family killed. Trotsky is known for his theory of permanent revolution and his support for proletarian internationalism, but the pros and cons of his evolving political viewpoints are not crucial to the development of this quirky comedy, and the denizens of Kahlo’s household do not engage in these polemics. For Swetow, an actor trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, his 10 years onstage touring with the National Shakespeare Company were “a great time,” but by the end of it he was “poverty-stricken.” He started taking roles in Hollywood and also joined Glendale’s A Noise Within company, where he spent the next 20 years in “the greatest roles of my life” — including Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Dr. Dorn in The Seagull and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He also co-starred in Antony and Cleopatra at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. “A Noise Within, now in Pasadena, became my primary focus,” he says He is one of its resident artists. But he is currently relishing the fact that — in contrast to the writers of classical plays – playwright Lefcourt is present during the preparations for the upcoming Assassination. “To do a new play with the writer present is a revelation,” he says. “It makes for a challenging collaboration.” “I don’t think there should be a line drawn between comedy and drama,” Lefcourt says. “Reality and dramatic truth are necessary for comedy.” The fact that Lefcourt’s wife, Terri Hanauer, is directing the production is an added plus, according to Zuker. “Terri is a dream come true,” Zuker says. “She’s loving and fun and the production will share that. I hope it’s as much fun for the audience as we’ve had rehearsing it.” Zuker, who graduated from UCLA in theater, was born in Chile. Her father is a molecular neurobiologist, and her mother is a linguistics professor and painter. Zuker credits her father with supporting her wish to act. “He recognized that I felt the same way about acting as he felt about science,” she says. And so, she adds, “I haven’t had to have a day job, and I get to be picky about my

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roles.” One of her favorite roles is Lady Macbeth in “the Scottish play.” “I’d like to play that part at least 10 more times before I get too old,” she says. She is also adept at improvisation. She tells of her role in a movie thriller shot in Italy. “The producers never showed the actors the script,” she explains. “We were given the plot points, but were left to improvise the rest. It was like a treasure hunt. There were three cameras shooting 12 hours a day.” The film was called Murder in the Dark and was memorable for its extravagant use of fake blood. It was never finished, she says, because the producers ran out of money, but she has hopes that it will be resurrected and completed in some hoped-for future. Swetow, in addition to his classical work, also has a long history with the Star Trek franchise on TV. He has played Ambassador Thoris, a “blue guy with antennae that were manipulated by someone lying at my feet, out of camera range,” he says, a merchant named Yog the Yridian, the Avatar named Alpha in 10 episodes of Charmed and First Chancellor Valis of Kelowna on Langara in Stargate. He portrayed a Cardassian commander in Deep Space Nine and in a video game. “I was a Cardassian before Kim,” he says with a laugh. He was also one of eight voices that were layered to provide the rich tones of the Borg Commander, the big guy with the furrowed forehead. “I’ve been fortunate to vary it up,” he says. “I’ve played an Israeli soldier, a Moroccan cab driver, a Russian gangster…” as well as costarring in such films as Three Ninjas, Alice in Wonderland, Son of an Afghan Farmer, and starring in Vartan LLP and something called Chicxulub, to name a few. Meanwhile, he and Zuker are looking forward to the opening of Assassination this week. Zuker is excited because her family, including her mother, grandmother, and aunt, are flying up from Chile for opening night. “My grandmother and aunt don’t speak a word of English,” she notes with trepidation, “but there’s something for everyone in this play, and I’m sure they’ll understand and enjoy what’s going on.” The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Opens Saturday at 8 pm. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through July 28. Tickets $25-$30. www.plays411.com/trotsky. 323-965-7735. Photo: The Assassination cast by Ed Krieger Reprinted from LA Stage Times, published June 21,2013

Stamp your feet with Joy!

How do you get an overweight, out-of-shape Jewish lady “of a certain age” to join a flamenco class? You nag. You noodge. You kvetch. You promise her ice cream. Or you take her to see Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song at the Fountain. Sachs, the Fountain Theatre’s co-founder and co-artistic director, has had a string of award-winning plays in recent years (including Cyrano and Bakersfield Mist), but this

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latest is in reality a love sonnet to a dance medium he obviously adores. With the guidance of its producing artistic director Deborah Lawlor, the Fountain has become the prime producer of flamenco music and dance in Los Angeles—some 500 concerts since 1990—and the popular Forever Flamenco series, now in its ninth year. For Heart Song the Fountain has brought back to its stage Maria Bermudez, the renowned dancer and choreographer from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. In a nearly mystical performance she sets the stage for the production, introducing the historical background and attitudes of the Gypsies whose dance form it is. And then she shows us how it’s done. For her six acolyte/students Bermudez has imbued them not only with the intricacies of the dance and music, but also with the appropriate Gypsy emotions involved. It is these poetic outbursts that the dancers share which convince Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) to take a chance on letting herself go. Rochelle is what an earlier generation might call a “sad sack.” Never married, no children, and having

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lost her mother within the year, she is without emotional support and literally at loose ends. Seeing her desperation, her masseuse Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) suggests she join the flamenco class. Actually, “suggests” isn’t the right word. “Hounds” is more like it. Its formalized movements, Tina insists, are designed to free the dancer, body and soul, and “wake up what is sleeping.” And so, with great trepidation, Rochelle goes to class, loses her inhibitions, and winds up dancing at Radio City Music Hall! No, not quite. But she does wind up stamping her feet and swishing her shawl with her new friends and inspiring the audience to think about flamenco as a cure for what ails you. Flamenco is a song you sing from the heart, as one of the dancers puts it, and Stephen Sachs has written a paean to flamenco that is well worth singing. And well worth watching. Heart Song is directed by Shirley Jo Finney and features choreographer Maria Bermudez as lead dancer through June 14th and Denise Blasor beginning June 15th until the end of the run on July 14th. The play runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., in Los Angeles. For tickets, call 323-663-1525 or visit www.FountainTheatre.com

Genocide in Southwest Africa

In the last couple of decades of the 19th century and the first couple in the 20th, the Germans rehearsed the genocide they would spring on the world some 20 years later. This wasn’t the Holocaust that so shocked and transformed the world, it was a quieter, more contained version and it took place in Southwest Africa, where apparently nobody gave a damn. In fact, most people have not heard of this grotesque piece of history to this day.

Now, a young playwright named Jackie Sibblies Drury has written a play-in-progress in which six actors try to imagine and improvise their way through that gory adventure. The play is called—hold on, here it comes–-WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTHWEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SUDWESTAFRIKA, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915.

The actors, identified as Actors 1 through 6, are two black men, two white men, one black woman, and one white woman whom they name Sarah. Sarah is the universal Everywoman waiting at home for her lover to return from battle.

At first the six, struggling to bring the story of the genocide to life, try to build it around the letters that the German troops actually sent home from their dusty, boring bivouac in the Namib Desert, the oldest desert on earth.

The letters are the only artifacts left from that period, but as they were love letters and did not cover the soldiers’ lives and activities, the present-day actors determine that they are irrelevant to the play they are trying to develop.

They then pursue the historical transfer of authority from the Germans to the Herero tribe to the Nama tribe and back to the Herero, with cattle being exchanged with each transfer.

During this period the Germans attempted to force the tribes to build a railroad and instituted many of the same sort of horrendous laws that they later promulgated so devastatingly in Europe. Two examples: “Any land a German sees that doesn’t belong to a German he can claim and if you contest the claim and you aren’t German, you will be hanged”, and “Cattle that wander onto German land belong to the Germans and if you try to reclaim them you will be hanged.”

The Germans also instituted concentration camps, starved the tribespeople, worked them to death, and eventually issued an extermination order that eliminated some 80 percent of the Herero by 1908.

Eventually, as the play-within-a-play progresses, the players begin to rebel against the actions they are taking. The lead White Man (John Sloan) doesn’t want to perform the cruelties that are encompassed in the role of the German he is playing. Phil LaMarr, who plays Actor 2/ Black Man, becomes incensed by his role as a downtrodden Herero. He wants to capture the spirit and identify with the great African warriors whom he claims as ancestors.

He wants to roam through the African jungles “hunting tigers,” he says. Whereupon the others tell him he knows nothing about Africa or his own presumed heritage, and that he is a black American, no longer an African. (Which is self-evident in the fact that he is unaware that there are no tigers in Africa.)

This theme about African-American identity becomes the heartfelt focal point when Actor6/ Black Woman (Julianne Chidi Hall) wails that she longs to see “an African face that looks like me, so I can point to it and say ‘There! That’s where I came from!’”

The other members of the ensemble, Daniel Bess, Joe Holt, and Rebecca Mozo are also uniformly good, but the play doesn’t succeed in arousing immediate empathy because it is so scattered and fragmented and broken up by its various fits and starts. There is humor and silliness and a lot of throwing parts of the ramshackle set around as the cast and the playwright and the director (Jillian Armenante) strive to make their intentions clear. It’s a thought-provoking play that becomes clearer the next day, but leaves you disengaged at the end.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through August 11th at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. Call 323-852-1445 or visit www.matrixtheatre.com for ti

A Time for Pardoning

Is 82 years too soon to make a musical out of a true story of rampant racism, the worst depression the United States ever experienced, and the flamboyant injustices of the legal system? Maybe. But in The Scottsboro Boys the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the book by David Thompson and the direction and choreography of Susan Stroman make for a shocking and engrossing tale that is brilliant in its conception, its staging, and its performance. The Scottsboro Boys follows the paths of nine young men, ages 13 to 19 and complete strangers to each other (except for two who are brothers), who are riding a boxcar to a disparate group of southern towns looking for work. Pulled off the train by policemen in Scottsboro, Alabama, they are accused of having raped two white women on the train and are summarily sentenced to die in the electric chair. But due to a series of blunders by judges and lawyers they wind up being tried eight times—all culminating in a repeated verdict of Guilty. It’s a documented tragedy and travesty, but that’s only half the play’s message. A parallel story is presented as a minstrel show, with the “boys” singing, tap-dancing, somersaulting, and generally playing the stereotypical buffoons. And participating in mostly unfunny one-liners of the Amos ‘n Andy variety. It’s humiliating and offensive, but the cast makes it less so by their very exuberance and, dare we say it: class. It is also a special treat to see Hal Linden, that old

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song and dance man, strutting, arms akimbo, as the minstrel show’s Interlocutor and urging the players to cakewalk, which is how traditional minstrel shows used to finish up. In the Performances magazine of the Ahmanson Theatre Los Angeles journalist Lynell George explains, ”As the creative team envisioned it, the staged Scottsboro saga wasn’t imagined as typical jukebox musical fare…its complex arc requires a different level of thoughtfulness and consideration. “That discomfort is precisely what Kander and Ebb were after,’ George continues. “A discomfort with how easy it was, and too often is…to manipulate a lie into a semblance of truth—a masquerade or

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burlesque. How was it possible that a group of innocent boys could be destroyed by a single lie?” And John Kander adds, “Why was it easier to believe that lie than it was to accept the truth?” Oh, and about that 82 years I mentioned earlier. The arrest of the Scottsboro Boys took place in March, 1931. The last of the boys died in 1989. And the governor of Alabama graciously and officially “pardoned” them all in April 2013. The Scottsboro Boys opened on May 29th and will continue at the Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at l and 6:30 p.m. through June 30th. Additionally, there will be a 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, June 20th and 27th and no 6:30 p.m. performances on Sunday, June 23rd and 30th. Tickets range from $20 to $115 and can be reserved by

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Who’s Afraid of Flamenco?

“I have a long history of flamenco,” Pamela Dunlap says — her tongue firmly in her cheek. And thereby hangs the tale. “Actually, I’m not a dancer,” she continues. “I’m dragged kicking and screaming into flamenco class” as the lead in Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song, now having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre. Playing Rochelle — a middle-aged, out-of-shape Jewish woman who’s undergoing a crisis of faith — Dunlap is persuaded to join a flamenco class for other middle-aged, out-of-shape women. The production unites two of the Fountain’s specialties — plays and the subject of flamenco (the Fountain is presenting Forever Flamenco at the Ford on June 15). “It’s an all-female cast,” Dunlap says, “and the camaraderie is great. It’s a wonderful journey.” Shirley Jo Finney is directing. When I suggest that it sounds a bit like Steel Magnolias, a perennial favorite, she says, “Oh no, it’s not anything like Steel Magnolias! In this play nobody has diabetes, nobody’s getting their hair done, and there are no cranky old women.” She should know. She was in a Salt Lake City production of Steel Magnolias, playing the role of the former mayor’s widow, who describes the new mayor’s wife as looking, while dancing, “like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.” Dunlap confesses that early in her career she taught Latin dances — the cha-cha, the merengue, the samba — at a Xavier Cugat Dance Studio in New York. “Cugat was the Arthur Murray of Latin dancing,” she says. “He had dance studios all over.” Dunlap is herself a New York woman from Flushing and Jackson Heights. Currently she considers herself bicoastal, with a home in Manhattan and another in Van Nuys. In Southern California, she has performed at the Ahmanson, South Coast Rep, and LA Theatre Works, but this is her first appearance at the Fountain. In New York she has been seen on Broadway in Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, and Yerma, and in several Off-Broadway roles. Recently, she appeared at Theater Raleigh in North Carolina as Mattie Fae, the nagging sister of Violet and mother of Little Charles in August Osage County. On TV she has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, NCIS, Law and Order SVU /em> and Commander in Chief, but her most visible role currently is as Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law and abominable baby-sitter for Betty’s daughter Sally on AMC’s Mad Men</em>. About her role as “Sally’s fiendish baby sitter,” she calls her “a woman with a great sense of entitlement, exactly the opposite of the woman I’m playing in Heart Song — a woman who is struggling to find her sense of entitlement.” In Heart Song, Rochelle is “a woman who never married, whose mother recently died, and who has very little support. She’s in a painful place of transition, dealing with mortality and trying to find her own identity,” Dunlap explains. Questioned about her identification with the characters she plays, she says, “acting allows us to play so many different characters, but we can always find something in ourselves that is like the character. The play mirrors the struggles we all go through, and we find a common history that we didn’t suspect we have in common. A common history or something that connects us to that character.” On the adventure level, though, she has had a few experiences that aren’t reflected in any play she has appeared in. For example, when her son, Trevor Morgan Doyle, an anthropologist doing research in Finland, decided to marry a Finnish woman, she traveled to the wedding, driving a car for 10 hours above the Arctic Circle. “The car was chugging along because the fuel was freezing in the tank,” she says. She also reports that the bride’s family, “obviously testing my mettle,” invited her to swim with them in weather that was 70 degrees below freezing. They dug a hole through the ice and then kept scraping the

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ice off the top of the hole as it froze on contact with the air. Did she do it? You bet she did! “Actually, they claim it’s a cure for depression,” she says. “You’re shocking your whole system. I’ve never felt so alive in my life!” On the opposite end of the spectrum, she has ties with Ethiopia. She is an active member of the Salt Lake City-based Children of Ethiopia Education Fund, a non-governmental organization that provides schooling for girls in that country. When not rolling naked in ice holes and visiting schools in Ethiopia, however, she has taken a few moments to accept awards. She has received three Drama-Logue awards, has been an honoree of the New York Drama League, and has won an OOBR (Off-Off Broadway Review) award. As for the future, she has very definite ideas about whom she would like to work with. Before the question is completely posed, she answers enthusiastically, “Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the real deal.” But for the present, she is delighted to be working with director Finney, choreographer Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez, and a cast consisting of Juanita Jennings, Tamlyn Tomita, Bermudez (through June 14), Denise Blasor (beginning June 15), Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou and Sherrie Lewandowski. Heart Song, The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. LA 90029. Opens Saturday. Thu- Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 14. Tickets $25-$34. www.fountaintheatre.com. 323.663.1525. Photo: Pamela Dunlap By Cynthia Citron Reprinted from the LA Stage Times, published May 21, 2013