Where’s Annette?

11 Aug
August 11, 2014

Twenty-three insanely inventive actors. A hilarious script. And a world-class guitarist to strum them through the scene changes. And they do it all without Annette!

It’s Hope Juber and Jeff Doucette’s ad lib extravaganza Without Annette, now having its World Premiere at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

The play works on a simple, uncluttered premise: an improv class run by Sam Wasserman (Jeff Doucette, alternating every other week with Mark Beltzman), an old-time actor who serves as guru for a varied group of eccentric thespians. (In fact, the role mirrors the real life of both men, who are actors, writers, and directors as well as veterans of Chicago’s Second City.)

The audience members, who are cast as “auditors” of the class, are also called upon to shout out from time to time objects or places that the actors must weave into their improvised routines. The results are invariably witty, zany, and hysterical.

As a director, Sam is described as “completely adequate” by one of the students as he launches them into a “self-discovery” exercise. Whereupon a tiny Chinese girl, Libby, (Julia Morizawa, alternating with Corinne Dekker) wails that everything about her is considered average, but yet “there is nobody who is like me.”

She also bemoans the fact that older women in films are only cast as “grandmas or real estate agents,” and complains “It’s not my fault I’m not sexy—I’m ASIAN!”

Then there is C.J. Carter (Gary Robinson/Shea Scullin), a mountain of an ex-football player who now sells insurance and is seeking to Improve his people skills. He is awkward, shy, and skeptical and it’s fun to watch him gradually come into his own.

And Hogan Connely (Charlie Mount/Bill Chott) who talks about time spent selling a script and calls it his “fantasy weekend.” (Mount, in addition to acting and directing, served for eight years as Artistic Director of The Chestnuts Theatre program at Theatre West, where his hit play Against The Wall ran this spring and summer.)

Kyle Klein and his twin brother Jeremy, and Matthew Shane take turns playing Kyle, a morose teenager. Tara Ciabattoni and Christina Engelhardt alternate as Jeanette Parker, a successful actress and femme fatale, and Timothy Walker and Adam Ball play Michael Gaines, who, because he is moderately successful professionally and an egotist personally, takes on the role of unsolicited leader and bosses everyone around.

In one of the last exercises, the “class” is directed to do a complete advertising campaign for a new product. The product, suggested by an audience member is “bleach.” Working spontaneously, the group describes the product, writes a slogan and a jingle, and writes and acts an entire commercial—all within the five-minute limit specified by Director Sam. None of it makes any sense, but it’s hilarious.

Hope Juber, the co-playwright, is best known for her smash hit musicals It’s the Housewives! and A Very Brady Musical. Her husband is Laurence Juber, an amazing guitarist and veteran of Paul McCartney’s Wings. He presents a mini-concert before the show, replete with his own songs, and plays delicious riffs between scenes.

Without Annette has a dynamic that is comparable to big band jazz,” he says. “A tight ensemble performs structured arrangements with room for improvised riffs.”

Says co-writer Doucette, “You could see this show many times, and since the casts change each week and there’s a lot of improv in it, you would never see the same show twice.”

I can’t think of a better way to spend your Thursday nights from now through October 2nd!

Without Annette will run on Thursdays at 8 p.m. through Oct. 2nd at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Call (323) 960-5773 or visit www.plays411.com for tickets.

Photo: The opening night cast of Without Annette
Photo by Michael Lamont

The Men in Penelope’s Pool

05 Aug
August 5, 2014

In the beginning there were 100 suitors vying for the hand of Penelope. But Penelope, the faithful wife of Ulysses, is patiently waiting for her husband to return home after having participated in the Trojan War and ten years of fantastic adventures.

By the time he finally returns, there are only four suitors left, spending their days idling on the floor of her empty swimming pool. They are Quinn (Brian Letscher), a youngish, self-absorbed, and belligerent wastrel; Dunne (Ron Bottitta), an older version of Quinn, who spends his time boasting and preening; Fitz (Richard Fancy), an even older version of both of them, but who has lost his fire; and Burns (Scott Sheldon), who serves as a sort of cabana boy, running and fetching, bringing towels and drinks to the others and absorbing their abuse and insults without responding. It isn’t until the play is nearly over that you realize he is also a suitor.

The play is Penelope by multiple award winner Enda Walsh, presented by the much-celebrated Rogue Machine and directed in its Los Angeles premiere by John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine’s founding Artistic Director.

The play consists of monologues and conversation that are mostly scornful of society, politics, and the current state of man. Man goes “out of poverty and into obesity,” Quinn says contemptuously.

Meanwhile, they are devouring and ruminating on the delights of sausages that Burns has prepared on the barbecue. As a non sequitur, all four admit to having had a dream the previous night that the barbecue was on fire.

After much banter, the suitors get down to business: attempting to “seduce” Penelope with a recitation of their outstanding attributes and their suitability to be chosen as her husband.

Dunne, who calls himself a “master scribe”, attempts to woo her with poetry, but keeps getting sidetracked into egotistical expositions of his own worthiness and his masterful (but somewhat pot-bellied) physique. “Do you not see in me Pedigree?” he challenges her.

Noting their common interests and pursuits, he observes that the remaining suitors are “building a company” and comments to Fitz that he should “embrace trust.” The “company” dissolves within minutes, however, as the conversations continue.

“We are the last men,” Quinn says. “We annihilate everything that doesn’t conform to our taste.” He acknowledges that he had killed a man named Murray, who he viewed as competition, and Burns bemoans the loss of his friend and, by implication, lover.

“Hate is our friend,” Quinn notes. “Only a ten-year-old has no burden of the past,” Dunne adds.

Fitz’s soliloquy is a softly mumbled assertion that he is “building a house of nothing” and that “love is to grow from a glorious nothing.”

In the midst of all this, Penelope (Holly Fulger) appears on a balcony and silently watches and listens. She says not a word as the play devolves into violence and chaos. And finally she absents herself to await Ulysses’ arrival.

All of this takes place on a messy and dilapidated set ringed by multiple raggedy curtains prepared by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. It is a most unattractive venue to reflect on for 95 minutes. The costumes, by Lauren Tyler, are equally undistinguished. All four men wear only tiny Speedos and occasionally a bathrobe.

In the end, the play itself, which started with so much promise, peters out. In my view, it’s hard to empathize, or even care about, such a group of vacuous losers.

Penelope will run Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 through August 17 at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Call 855-585-5185 or visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com for tickets.

Photo: Brian Letscher as “Quinn”
Photo by John Flynn

Yoruba Fantasy

30 Jul
July 30, 2014

The Brothers Size is not an easy play. It’s just astonishingly brilliant. Obscure at times, its language, spoken by three extraordinary actors, consistently resonates like a bold symphony. The men are vital, intense, and mesmerizing.

Named for three Yoruba deities, the two brothers, Ogun and Oshoosi Size, and their mischievous sidekick Elegba represent modern-day avatars of the celebrated Nigerian gods transported to the “Distant Present” and living near the Bayou in Louisiana.

Ogun Size (Gilbert Glenn Brown) is an auto mechanic, angry and belligerent; his namesake, Ogun, is the god of iron working, and is also known as a mighty warrior. His younger brother Oshoosi Size (Matthew Hancock) is a dreamer. Recently returned from prison, he is grimly pressed into service in his brother’s auto shop, a pale shadow of his namesake, who is the divine hunter concerned with the human struggle for survival. And then there is Elegba, (Theodore Perkins), who bedevils the brothers like the god of chaos and trickery for whom he is named.

Tarell McCraney, the playwright who put this mythical dichotomy together, was influenced and inspired by his work with playwright August Wilson, who was interested in creating a body of plays to help African Americans more fully embrace the African side of what he described as their “double consciousness.”

The two brothers argue continually as Ogun meticulously goes about his work and Oshoosi just as meticulously avoids it. But when his resistance falters, Elegba hovers in the background to stir up controversy and remind them of their forlorn past.

From time to time the three hurtle into a stylized African stomping dance, galumphing around the stage to Peter Bayne’s vivid drumbeats and musical compositions. Metal rods and steel drums, which comprise the “props” onstage,
are used to accompany the music or to emphasize a point.

The Brothers Size is directed by Shirley Jo Finney, who recently won her second Ovation award as Best Director of 2013 for her direction of In the Red and Brown Water, the first of Tarell McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays. The Brothers Size is the second play in this trilogy, and although the same characters appear in all three, McCraney contends that each play can stand alone.

The Brothers Size is a tale of dreams, fantasy, and brotherly love that has obviously gripped the imagination of Los Angeles theatergoers. On a recent Sunday afternoon every seat was filled in the Fountain Theatre, and the public acclaim has caused the play, which was scheduled to close on July 27th, to be extended until
September 14th.

The Brothers Size plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through September 14th at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Call (323) 663-1525 or visit www.FountainTheatre.com for tickets.

Photo: Theodore Perkins as Elegba, Matthew Hancock as Oshoosi, and Gilbert Glenn Brown as Ogun
Photo by Ed Krieger

The Vortex: a Pas de Deux for Mother and Son

13 Apr
April 13, 2014

The sophisticated, snarky bon mots of Noel Coward floated up and got lost in the rafters of the Malibu Playhouse. At intermission the man sitting next to me asked how I liked the play.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I didn’t get a word they said.”

“Oh thank god,” he said. “I thought it was just me.”

Judging by the pervasive silence during the performance, the rest of the audience apparently didn’t get what was being said, either. Whether it was the accents or the acoustics or the rushed, shrill delivery, the audience didn’t respond with much enthusiasm or amusement. But they gave the play a standing ovation at the end anyway.

The play is The Vortex, the dramatic comedy that was Coward’s first commercial success, the one that made him a major star in the 1920s.

A vortex is defined as a swirling mass, such as a whirlpool or tornado, that sucks everything near it toward its center. And that would be Florence, an aging prima donna so intensely self-absorbed that she sucks the air out of every room she enters.

Florence (Shannon Holt) has brought her latest young paramour, Tom (Daniel Jimenez) home with her, even though her husband (Will Carney) lives there as well. And, visiting with his fiancée, is Nicky (Craig Robert Young), a troubled young man dealing with (and attempting to overlook) his homosexuality, his mother’s smothering hold on him, and his Oedipal feelings for her.

Coward wrote the part of Nicky for himself, and it was probably the closest he ever came to publicly acknowledging his own homosexuality.

Originally produced in 1924, the play shocked the London and New York audiences with its subject matter: Florence’s serial adultery, Nicky’s homosexuality and drug addiction, and the seething tension between mother and son. Part of the tension comes from Nicky’s stubborn naivete as he badgers her for an answer to the question of whether she has actually been sleeping with Tom. And all the other young men she has attracted over the years.

Director Gene Franklin Smith has chosen to reset the play in 1965, however, and in my view it doesn’t translate well to that decade. While the issues involved are still with us, even now, the shock value is long gone. The sixties was the decade of rebellion, free love, psychedelic drugs, the Stonewall riots, the growth of experimentation and the anti-establishment counterculture in America as well as in Britain. The crises of the principals in The Vortex would be as recognizable in the ‘60s as they were in the ‘20s, but the reactions to them would be decidedly different, and The Vortex would be an entirely different play.

In the second act the play does become an entirely different play. The conflicts are acknowledged, if not resolved, in a darkly moving climax that traps both mother and son for a lifetime in their tragically perverse relationship.

The Vortex will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 through May 18th at Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu. Phone 310-589-1998 for tickets.

Photo:Shannon Holt and Craig Robert Young
Photo by Brian McCarthy

Recall: a Forgettable Play

07 Apr
April 7, 2014

Recall is one of those plays that telegraphs everything it’s about to do, and then it does it. The only element that’s at all intriguing is the title.

The word itself usually connotes a memory that has returned to a person’s consciousness. Or what you do on the telephone after you’ve gotten a busy signal. In the case of playwright Eliza Clark’s confusing off-Broadway import, however, it refers to what the manufacturer does with cars that are defective. Only in this case it isn’t cars that are defective. It’s people.

But we don’t know who is monitoring them or recalling them. Or why. Certainly Lucy (Madeline Bertani), a violent, vituperative teen-age psychopath would seem to be a good candidate for recall. But she isn’t even on “the list.” Her boyfriend Quinn (Kevin Grossman) is, however, although he exhibits nothing more serious than a sense of alienation and “otherness.”

Lucy’s mother, Justine (Karen Nicole), is a ditzy actress who can’t get her love life in order. She drifts from one man to another as easily as she moves from one sleazy dwelling place to the next. As the play opens she and Lucy are preparing to flee from yet another motel room, and while Justine is getting their things together, Lucy is on her knees trying to scrub a humongous bloodstain out of the rug.

The two are befriended by a mysterious stranger, David (Mark Souza), who offers them shelter in a safe house that he runs, and he goes on living with them there. The play hints that he has some kind of official assignment—is it to “monitor” the two women? But meanwhile, he has dreams that leave him writhing and screaming in the night.

Oh, and did I mention that Justine has witchy talents that she uses to wipe away a person’s memories (so that they can’t “recall” them)? I apologize for revealing so much of the plot, but I’ve only dealt with some of the questions that the plot introduces. I haven’t revealed any of the answers because, unfortunately, there are none. Described as a “science fiction thriller,” it is neither science fiction nor thrilling. Set in some kind of weird near-future, it isn’t a nice place to visit, and you certainly wouldn’t want to live there.

Recall, presented by The Visceral Company, is directed by Dan Sturgeon at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue in Hollywood. It runs for 85 minutes, without an intermission, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 through May 4th. For tickets, go to www.thevisceralcompany.com.

Photo: Madeline Bertani and Karen Nicole
Photo by: Amelia Gotham

Can Paris Save This Marriage?

31 Mar
March 31, 2014

Have you noticed? They’ve begun making films for people who aren’t 12-yesr-old boys! Le Week-end is one of those. Aimed at Baby Boomers and beyond, it stars Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent (he won for the agonizing Iris) and Lindsay Duncan, winner of two Olivier Awards, a Tony, and a Drama Desk Award (for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Private Lives). She was also named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

In Le Week-end Broadbent and Duncan are a married couple “of a certain age” who have returned to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. It was where they spent their honeymoon, and they are hoping to revive that “honeymoon glow” for a marriage that has grown stale and bitter over the years.

As a couple they appear to be almost cruelly mismatched. He is a meek-mannered, complaisant Philosophy professor; she is a bored, dissatisfied wife whose vicious comments are filled with condemnation and contempt for him. The fact that she is beautiful (she looks like Eva Marie Saint) doesn’t seem to assuage her perpetual malice. Yet he still loves her and is unwilling to acknowledge that the feeling is not mutual. He shrugs off the fact that she rebuffs every attempt he makes toward intimacy, recoiling as if he were attempting to give her a deadly disease. And yet they have their moments. She pushes him to the peak of bewilderment and despair, and then mischievously turns playful and says something to make him laugh. What that is I can’t tell because her delivery is either whispered or mumbled and, when you can hear the words, they are spoken so quickly that they sound like a foreign language. Subtitles would definitely help.

As they bounce around Paris you get a pretty good overview of the city, including an introduction to a plethora of restaurants. If you take notes you can wind up with a pretty good list of places you might want to try for a meal.

While the film is generally well-paced and well presented, it takes a giant leap forward with the entrance of Jeff Goldblum, an old friend of Broadbent’s who is now a successful author living in Paris. He is an unabashed motor-mouth who delivers an intense monologue that is one of the highpoints of the film. The other showstopper is the last few seconds of the film, which is one of the most delightful endings you could ever hope to see. It leaves you smiling, but uncertain. Le Week-end is playing in select theaters around Los Angeles, including the Laemmle Monica.

Photo: Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent

You Won’t Find It On Hotels.com

26 Mar
March 26, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a funny film. Not in the LOL sense, but more in the way of a smile of acknowledgment from time to time at the absurdities of the plot. It’s like an old Looney Tunes cartoon. Watch out for that cliff that you’re just about to fall off of! Ralph Fiennes is M. Gustave H., the quintessential concierge at this lavish European hostelry. He is imperious with his staff, obsequious to his guests, and enticing to his cohort of elderly widows who come to him repeatedly for the wooing and the sex. Not surprisingly, many of them leave him chunks of their estates in gratitude for his unwavering charm and meticulous attention. Among these is the extraordinarily wealthy Madame D., played by Tilda Swinton in some of the most ghastly makeup since Dorian Gray. She is virtually unrecognizable in her mountainous white hairdo and glassy eyes. She instigates the film’s action, however, by dying and leaving M. Gustave a priceless painting. When Madame D.’s son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody, looking like Salvador Dali in a threatening black moustache) refuses to acknowledge the bequest, M. Gustave is reduced to stealing it off the wall from the family mansion. M. Gustave is aided in this,

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and all the farcical adventures that follow, by his ardent apostle, Zero (Tony Revelori). You can recognize him by his tight purple uniform and by the fact that the words LOBBY BOY are embroidered in large gold letters on his cap. For some inexplicable reason, the authorities decide Madame D. died under mysterious circumstances and that M. Gustave is her murderer. So, with the devoted Zero at his heels, M. Gustave leaves the hotel and begins a series of adventures that are nearly impossible to follow because they appear to be carefully calibrated non-sequiturs. But not to worry. Even though the film sweeps back and forth between the 1930s and 1968, the abiding mood remains constant: a quirky romantic nostalgia for the decades between the wars. A mood that is only enhanced by the rich photography of the landscapes and the colorful houses and narrow cobblestone streets of the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka. In a short expository film online, the story is told of the search throughout Eastern Europe for just the right hotel to represent the Grand Budapest Hotel. There were many lush hotels and castles in Germany, where the film was shot, but in the end the designers chose an empty department store that they refurbished and furnished from scratch. They constructed the rather seedy “modern” version of the hotel as it looked in 1968 and proceeded to shoot the end of the film first. Then they tore down that set and constructed the elegant lobby of the earlier years, replete with bright red carpets, gleaming woods, and spectacular chandeliers. Wes Anderson, who directed, produced, and wrote the story and screenplay, acknowledges that the film was partially inspired by the works of the Austrian novelist, playwright, and biographer Stefan Zweig, most notably his novels Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl. For me, however, the most delightful elements in the film are the cameos by Anderson’s informal “repertory company” of friends. They pop up unexpectedly for brief moments, sometimes speak only a line or two, and disappear. In addition to Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, and Tilda Swinton, they include Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Murray. All of them have appeared in two or more of Anderson’s films, and Bill Murray has appeared in all of them. At any rate, in making this film they all look like they’re having a helluva lot of fun. As Tilda Swinton has described it, “It was one huge rambling house party.” The Grand Budapest Hotel opened on March 7th and is in general release now in Los Angeles. Photo: Tilda Swinton as Madame D.

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