Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Village Arts "Awake & Sing!" sings praises to its creator!

"When one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life."

Bessie Berger knows she lives in the jungles of the Bronx. It’s 1935. You bet her goal is to protect her family and everything and everyone she holds dear from the wild life out there.

Sandy Campbell, Max Macke, Joe Paulson (background)
She knows that just down the street from their Longwood Ave. apartment they threw a family out on the street and all their furniture on the sidewalk. “A fine old woman with grey hair.” Forbid, she might be next.

She also knows that a butcher on Beck Street won eighty thousand dollars with the purchase of a fifty-cent piece. She questions why anyone would spend a fifty-cent piece for Irish Raffles? She reasons that if they could win on Beck Street ‘we could win on Longwood Ave.’

She knows as well that in order to protect her children from living in either shame or misfortune that she will do anything, lie, cajole or coerce to stop that from happening. Bessie has all the answers because she is in charge of the Berger lair.  

Bessie Berger is a first generation American Jewish woman. She lives in Odets’ world and embraces the essence  of his beliefs. Clifford Odets was born to Jewish immigrant parents. He later became one of the original members of the New York City based Avant-guard, left wing ensemble Group Theatre. 

He has been ‘lionized as the country’s most promising playwright,” “the proletarian Jesus”, and the “poet of the Jewish middle class.” “Awake and Sing!” premiered in 1935 one month after “Lefty”. That March his anti-Nazi pay “Till The Day I Die” opened in New York.  

To the best of my recollection his plays produced here have been few and far between and that, my friends, is our misfortune. His 1937 “Golden Boy” was among the first in this area, and that was in 2008 by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. They are at it again currently mounting Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” (Originally titled “I Got The Blues”) considered to be his masterpiece. It is making a San Diego premiere. It plays through April 16th.

Tom Deak, J. Tyler Jones, Eric poppick, Sandy Campbell, Joe Paulson, Tom Steward, Max Macke.
Under Kristianne Kurner’s (she also designed the detailed and cramped set of the Berger home) deft direction, and an all-star cast Odets’ play and this production is a stunner. It is also timely, provocative and eye opening! If one fails to see the similarities then and now of the condition in the country, one has been blindsided.

Bessie Berger (Sandy Campbell) struggles between realism and idealism.  She is the personification of the life’s blood of her family yet on some level she is one that almost sucks the air out of them in the playwright’s homage to the woes and misery, tensions and conflicts of life in America during the great depression.

If you are looking for a Jewish mother, Campbell’s Bessie fits the bill. “I don’t understand what I did to God He blessed me with such children. From the whole world…”

But Bessie doesn’t live in a vacuum. Even though she runs her tight ship with righteousness and conviction there are those in her flat that are trying to grow wings and fly. Her job is to see that they fly in the right direction.

Her apartment on Longwood Ave is bursting at the seams with immediate family and a lodger. Ideological conflicts and hope also permeate the spaces left between conversations.  Oft times it appears that the jungle lies within.
Tom Deak, Eric Poppick, Max Macke, J. Tyler Jones
Bessie’s father Jacob (an outstanding Eric Poppick) is a sentimental idealist who strives for justice when justice is the last thing on his daughter’s mind; think respectability.

Poppick’s Jacob is as steady as is his character especially when those around him have lost their center. He begs his family to leave the world a better place than when they found it.

He finds his neutrality not in his belief in Marxism, but in the recordings of the Great Caruso. His main contribution is the attention, support and inheritance he gives his grandson Ralph (J. Tyler Jones). To both his grandchildren, his final act of dignity is to convince them to ‘free themselves’.

Ralph is the romantic in the family. He is, if allowed, the future of the Berger family. “I got a girl…Don’t laugh….But she got me! Boy, I’m telling you I could sing!” Jones is near perfect as he pushes ahead, listen, draws conclusions, stays true to his own beliefs, good bad or oft times stifled. “Life with my girl. Boy, I could sing when I think about it.”

J. Tyler Jones, Max Macke, Anna Rebek
Hennie (Anna Rebek) is the almost spinster daughter at 26. Stoic to a point she finds herself, much to her chagrin, in an arranged marriage when her mother realizes that her stay at home independent daughter is in a ‘family way’. Rebek’s body language and facial expressions say more with a look or gesture than all Bessie’s kvetching, reasoning and oft times humor.

The man Bessie picked for Hennie to give her daughter an air of respectability is Sam Feinschreiber (a well measured performance by Tom Steward). It is Hennie’s job to convince Sam that the child they are rearing belongs to him. Still fresh off the boat, and shy to a fault he runs to Bessie whenever there is a family crisis between himself and Hennie.

The almost invisible person in the room is Myron (Joe Paulson), Bessie’s passive husband who, even if he tried, couldn’t compete with his wife. He quotes the good old days, offers an opinion or the answer to a rhetorical question in which no one is particularly interested. “People aint the same. No manners. The whole world’s changing right under our eyes.” Paulson, who is making his NVA debut, is a person to be followed. His is another flawless performance.

Anna Rebek, Max Macke, Sandy Campbell, Joe Paulson
Speaking about flawless Max Macke is Moe Axelrod, the boarder in the Berger homestead. His performance as the tough guy (he lost a leg in the war) and larger than life presence that also carries a torch for Hennie goes beyond excellent. There is a brute force between the two that reverberates in look and closeness. In fact, the Berger world almost revolves around him as he struts, pushes, mocks and dominates every scene he’s in.

Dropping by for some chopped liver on his way to a union meeting is Uncle Morty (Tom Deák), Bessie’s brother. He’s made the American Dream come true and everyone looks to him for advice. Deák fits the bill as the domineering force in the brother /sister relationship, but like his sister he likes to change the odds if and when it suites the need.

And, as Tevye says, ‘those outside our circle include’…. Outside the Berger circle is Schlosser (Alex Guzman who also doubles as the guitar player seen behind a scrim above the Berger’s), the German janitor. He gets no respect and is overworked and oft times verbally abused by Bessie. Last but not least is Tootsie the unseen dog.

Adding to the overall look Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes are right on target, Melanie Chen’s sound design, Chris Renda’s lighting and JoAnn Glover’s dialect coaching give cause to celebrate Odets in the house.

As a supporter of recycling, reclaiming and reviving, Odets’ “Awake & Sing” in this revival by NVA is as top notch and relevant as the year it was written.

“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust awake and sing for joy! For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.  Isaiah 26:19.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 16th
Organization: New Village Arts Theatre
Phone: 760.433.3245
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village
Ticket Prices: $36.00
Photo: Daren Scott

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Abundance” is a J & J double whammy of a winner.

There’s some kind of dynamic duo energy going on at Moxie Theatre these days. New kid on the block Backyard Renaissance Theatre is mounting Beth Henley’s “Abundance”.

“Abundance” is Henley’s tragi-comedy spanning 25 years in the lives of two mail order brides, Bess (Jessica John) and Macon (Jacque Wilke). They meet at a train stop while awaiting their prospective mates. It has its beginnings in 1868 on the Wyoming frontier.

Both women have traveled west looking for adventure (Macon) “Out here I can do anything I want”…”We’re hunting down the elephant.” For Bess, it's good man to settle in with. “I hope our husbands don’t turn out to be too ugly.”

Henley’s “Abundance” is mixed with humor, love, friendship, trust, dreams and expectations, passion, disappointments and courage. Its about two women who form an instant bond, who become sisters, strangers adversaries and soul mates over the course of a quarter century. 

That these women were able to form this close -knit community at the outset had to be an act of fate. Two more different personalities under different circumstances would have gone their separate ways but necessity, fortune, loneliness and the fact that they were so opposite brought them together… for a while at least.

Jacque Wilke and Jessica John
Bess is shy, dreamy, wistful and afraid to rock the boat. Compared to Macon’s energetic, sure if herself pioneer spirit the two manage to complement each other.

As fate would have it timid Bess ends up with the brother of the man that was to be her intended (he died…don’t ask). He turns out to be the brutishly handsome, overly abusive Jack Flan (Francis Gercke). Macon’s mate is the passive, timorous one-eyed Will Curtis (Brian Mackey).

Neither is a marriage made in heaven. Over the years Macon and Will settle into a workable but rocky existence as their fortunes grow. She seeks the impossible; he wants the reasonable. The same cannot be said of Bess and Jack.

Again fate steps in and the sameness of their lives changes dramatically as ‘turn about’ might not necessarily be fair play, but Henley no stranger to change sets all four characters on paths no one would expect. 

Co-directed with an eye for both the comic and tragic Francis Gercke and Anthony Methvin have chosen the dynamic duo of Jessica John and Jacque Wilke to portray the two mail order brides. I can't imagine a more compatible duo to embrace these charactres.

Wilke is the larger than life Macon. Her spirit radiates throughout the play and her boldness, good bad or indifferent, is authoritative and on solid footing. She shines in this role.

Jessica John is perfect as the frightened and withdrawn Bess in Act I and convincing and steady as their worlds turn in Act II. Both women bring an energy so convincing that on some level its difficult to decide exactly what the fate of their lives will become. Both are survivors. Both play off each other to perfection. There is definitely synergy there.
FrancisGercke and Brian Mackey
Gercke and Mackey are up to the task as well. Gercke is contemptible, brutal and smug. If one could horsewhip him it wouldn’t suffice for the way he treats his wife.

Mackey on the other hand shows a softer and more sympathetic side; one that knows right from wrong and plays the cards as he sees them. He also adds some comic relief in an odd sort of Henley way.  

Adding to the cast later on David Raines comes on as Professor Elmore Crome who exploits Bess’ experiences in the West. It’s a thankless part, but he manages it well.

David Raines and Jessica John
Ron Logan’s set is as barren as the wilderness they are trying to tame. Wooden planks, chairs, a bench and scant knickknacks personify the living conditions. Lining the walls is a map of the Wyoming territory. AJ Paulin’s lighting with Samantha Vesco’s period costumes and Matt Lescault-Woods sound design add to the overall freshness of a very current topic of conversation on the role women play in today’s society, not to mention the women pioneers that ventured into the untamed and stood by each other. That was explicitly clear in Henley’s final scene of reconciliation.

If you’ve never seen “Abundance” I highly recommend you catch this production. If you have seen it in the past, it’s long overdue for another look-see.

Since women play such a dominant role in all of the playwright’s plays and women are at the helm of so many of our theatre companies it's refreshing to follow the trajectory women throughout the centuries have played in our lives. 

See it before it closes, you won’t be sorry.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 2nd.
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Theatre
Phone: 619.977.0999
Production Type: Tragi/Comedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego, CA 9215
Ticket Prices: $15.00-$30.00
Venue: Moxie Theatre

Photo: Studio B Photo

Thursday, March 9, 2017

OnStage Playhouse Presents Contemporary and politically challenging “Next Fall”

“Next Fall” by Geoffrey Naufft's now currently playing at OnStage Playhouse through March 25th is a poignant, contemporary laced with irony and humor play about being gay. It’s about believing and  not believing. It’s about friendship and family, geography and history and past and present. It has it all except solutions.

Tony Bejarano and Rob Conway
Luke (Rob Conway) and Adam (Tony Bejarano) are lovers. They have been for the past five years. Luke is deeply religious, and wears it on his sleeve. We know this because he gives thanks before he eats and after sex. (He knows that sex with Adam is a sin.) 

But more importantly, he does not question the dogma of his childhood teachings and is at peace with himself regarding his evangelical Christian beliefs around life and death (“When the time comes… I welcome it”). He knows Adam is a non-believer. “I never had that in my life, so how do I know for sure…everything’s gonna be all right”?

But they have bigger problems than Adam’s non-religion, religion. Luke’s parents don’t know he is gay. He has yet to come out, explaining to Adam that ‘next fall’ when his younger brother goes off to college he will deal. 

So far, he has been able to manage the gay issue. His mother Arlene (Susan Bray) and Dad, Butch (James Tarbert) live in Florida and have been separated for years. He is pretty much on his own and ‘safe’ in New York. 

Luke works in a candle shop that is owned by Adam’s best friend, Holly (Kira Vine).  He aspires to be an actor. Adam is a substitute teacher, and wannabe writer. He is older and somewhat of a hypochondriac, which is where most of the humor comes in.  

Adam and Luke have their differences and may or may not have worked them out. We will never know because of the tragedy that will bring all these good folks together; Luke is struck by a cab and is in a coma on life support.

The story weaves back and fourth, (Bruce Wild designed the flexible set and Susan Stratton and Bruce Wilde designed the projections) past to present and back again giving us snippets of how they met, what their life looks and looked like to some degree, and how they came to be the men they are today.

When we meet the entire family they are in the waiting area of an ICU at a Jewish Hospital in Manhattan. (This play has it all, Jewish, Agnostic and Fundamentalist Christian). Luke’s Mother Arlene (Susan Bray is wonderfully over the top as the discombobulated recovering addict whom we later learn has fallen off the wagon) is in a constant state of dissaray. She does it well. 

When Holly mentions to Arlene that they sell tchotchkes and things in the candle shop, Arlene wants to know if it’s a Jewish thing like bagels. Thankfully, when push comes to shove, she finally has the spine to face the reality of her son’s sexuality. In fact both parents do in their own time.

His irritated and narrow-minded father Butch is also present in the hospital waiting room, but prior, Butch paid a visit to his son's New York apartment and if he didn't see the clues regarding his sexuality its only because he didn't want to.  

Both parents have just arrived from Florida. Butch is furious to learn that the cab driver has no insurance or green card! Butch paces and challenges everyone.

James Tarbert and Kira Vine
I suspect he knows more than he lets on just by the attitude he has toward Adam throughout the play. Tarbert’s actions and reactions are homophobic appropriate. He doesn’t endear himself to anyone although I did feel a twinge of sympathy for him at some point. “Who let’s these jackasses across the border, that’s what I want to know”. “I’ll sue the whole damn city if I have to”. And so on.

Long time friend Brandon (Chris Tenney), a bible studying property developer and friend Holly are already at the hospital when the play opens. I understand Holly’s involvement in Luke’s life; she is after all his friend and boss. She came into his life by way of Adam, who used to work for her as well.

But the character of Brandon is like a hanging chad and is never really fully explained.  One has to wonder why the playwright needed his character. I never understood it.

Kira Vine's Holly is credible as more of a reality check and neutralizer for everyone. Her timing is spot on every time she’s in a scene; it lends credence.

Susan Stratton directs “Next Fall” with an eye focused more on the lighter side of playwright Nauffts’ a la Neil Simon style one-liners while the real issues are sidelined. It’s frustrating to watch Adam, who is not allowed to see Luke when he finally arrives at the hospital after coming home from a high school reunion.

Bejarano’s Adam huffs and puffs, frowns, raises his brows and tugs at his sweater but never puts his foot down to confronting Arlene and Butch. After a while it becomes old hat and fails to convince.

Butch has notified the hospital personnel that ‘only family’ can go in Luke’s room. Why Adam just doesn’t tell Butch what he already knows and put him out of his misery is a mystery. Throughout the play Tarbert’s Butch, a larger than life presence grows into the part.

Conway’s Luke is much younger, and eager to please, yet fully committed to his views and teachings. The contrasts in their life styles reflect their differences in just about everything they do and believe. Talk about opposites attracting, this is a classic case.

The relationship between the two, regardless of their disagreement, works and is believable thanks to Conway, a real cutie with enough charm to win this reviewer over. Throughout we keep on rooting for Luke to recover and for Adam to have time to spend with his lover.  

It deserves to be seen if for nothing else but to understand the corruption and hypocrisy that takes place within the religious community (churches/synagogues) when the gay community is condemned and vilified. When marriage equality is shot down it affects the whole community. Thankfully just now some of the churches and synagogues have become gay friendly. It's about time. 

When parents refuse to see their offspring as they are and when children and or young adults do not feel safe sharing with their own parents their sexual preference and when young people feel the need to kill themselves because they are different, attention must be paid!

“Next Fall” opened off –Broadway in 2009. In 2010 Drama Desk Awards nominated it for Outstanding Play. It was also nominated for a Tony as Best Play. Sadly, some things never change or they seem to regress and crawl back into their mythical shells.

Today the gay community is more at risk of having their civil and human rights taken from them than in the past. All the gains made before Trump and Pence are in jeopardy and that is in itself is scary. 

As a relatively new comer to OnStage productions, I find it rewarding that the board is willing to mount controversial and more importantly current and oft times politically challenging topics, and do it wholeheartedly. Congratulations.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through March 25th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619.422.7787
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, CA 91912
Ticket Prices: $20.00
Photo: OnStage Playhouse