Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Backyard Renaissance Theatre’s Intense “Zoo Story” Takes Flight.

Remember when you were told, or you told someone else ‘not to talk to strangers’? Peter (Phil Johnson) didn’t get the message. Either he was too busy being wrapped up in himself, or he just plain forgot.

Edward Albee’s 1959 “Zoo Story”, now considered an American classic, is currently in powerful and intense production staged by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company through July 29th at the at the home of Diversionary Theatre.  

This season three year old Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company has been selected as La Jolla Playhouse’s 2018-2019 Resident Theatre. For at least one year Backyard will have a place to call home. Yea! 
Francis Gercke (L) and Phil Johnson
Albee’s "Zoo Story” can get under your skin for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the title. What picture you might conjure up of a zoo is no doubt different than mine. So lets take this dark ride into Albee’s assertions of zoo's and animals together.

Under the skillful direction of Rosina Reynolds, who steers this production with perfection, the play and players, two men meet as casual strangers (or not) in New York’s Central Park. P: “I sit on this bench almost every Sunday.”

One wants to ‘talk’ the other wants to read. One feels entitled the other has nothing but a few broken or worn out 'things'.  Over the course of less than an hour the play builds to a crescendo of emotions taking us down a path no one would have expected, or anticipated.  

Peter is clean -shaven, well–dressed in a tan corduroy sports jacket, checkered shirt and bowtie, brown shoes and bluish trousers. (Jessica John Gercke reimages a 50’s look beautifully). He is married, has two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets, wears glasses, smokes a pipe, is an advertising executive and lives in an upper class neighborhood.

One might say he is living the dream. But living a dream to me might not be the same as it is to Peter. Today he wants to be left alone. In fact he is a solitary man, quiet, soft spoken and gentle but no one really knows what lies beneath.  
Johnson and Gercke
 Jerry is scraggly looking with a few days facial hair, torn pants (by a dog that attacked him) a plaid unbuttoned short sleeved shirt with a soiled undershirt exposed. He's desperate to have a conversation with someone, anyone. He’s solitary, gruff, and aggressive, in your face rude and asks a lot questions.

Jerry’s isolation is a different type of isolation than let’s say Peter’s. He yearns for someone to connect with while Peter doesn’t need the connection. There is no yin to another’s yang; they are as different as night is to day and with absolutely no meeting of the minds.
Something, though in their individual id brings them together and it brings out the animal instinct in each.

Jerry approaches Peter, who, at first turns his back on him, but Jerry won’t go away. He tells him he’s been to the zoo and ‘that Peter will read about it in the paper the next day 'or see it on TV news'. That gets Peter’s attention.
A day at the Zoo
 Most of this conversation is a rambling stream of what possessions Jerry has (toilet articles, empty picture frames and pornographic playing cards, to name a few), his existence in a flophouse on the Upper West Side, his relationship with women, his landlady and her dog (that he will eventually kill) and the sorted life of both parents that ultimately left him alone in this world.

When Peter has had enough and gets up to leave Jerry stops him and insists on having Peter get off the bench so he can have it.  In a twist of irrational possessiveness Peter will not let go of the bench claiming it was his before Jerry got there and it belongs to him now. (J: “You have everything, and now you want this park bench.”) When Jerry pulls out a knife and eggs Peter on to engage in a fight, breathing stopped and a gasp ran through the house.  

Both men live out their characters’ personalities to the ‘nth degree. Johnson’s seemingly passive resistance or aggressive to Jerry’s openly aggressiveness matches his body language. We can tell just by an expression, a simple move one-way or the other what he is thinking, how he’s absorbing Jerry’s words; maybe he seems to agree with what he hears. At other times he’s annoyed, yet he can’t seem to move away from what he must feel as danger. Fatal attraction?

In Gercke we have the penetrating, concentrated and powerful intentions of a man with a goal. There is nothing unintended about him or in his marvelous performance. Straight forward? Not so much. Round about, convoluted and calculated, well choreographed as much as possible for him to put his exit plan into play? Yes

Set designer Justin Humphries leave the actor’s two options or two benches and a small grassy area for Gercke to pace around.  Alex Crocker’s lighting with Matt Lescault-Woods sound design, the Central Park Zoo couldn’t have been further away from us, unless you count the two animals fighting over a park bench on a Sunday at the Zoo.  

This early one act essay of Albee’s work doesn’t get produced often enough these days for several reasons; high tech, original (nothing wrong with that) and or big money making musicals that might bring in profits if they make it to Broadway. However presenting a slice of life that is as true today as it was in the ‘50’s is just as valuable, or more so to make a point and a truth that the more things change the more they stay the same.

And the thing about talking to strangers? Well, if the shoe fits...

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 29th
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company
Phone: 619-977-0999
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4545 Park Blvd. San Diego, CA 92116
Ticket Prices: From $18.00 to $35.00
Venue: Diversionary Theatre
Photo: Daren Scot

Sunday, July 15, 2018

“Queens” A Closer Look Into The Immigrant Conundrum At Playhouse

There isn’t anyone who best knows the plight of an immigrant than an immigrant herself. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (“Cost of Living”) and author of “Queens”, by Martyna Mojak, now getting an earnest airing at The La Jolla Playhouse, hails from Poland.

As a child, she emigrated from her Motherland with her mother to New Jersey where her mother cleaned houses. In her play “Ironbound”,that played at Moxie Theatre last year she talks of her mother’s experiences as a new immigrant in this country and the highs and lows of her job, earnings, relationships and finding a place for herself.

Perhaps as a continuation and as a now adult living in Queens she puts herself or others like herself looking for refuge, in a time capsule between 2001 and 2016 some arriving on the shores of New Jersey others in Florida all to gain some ground for them, but mostly under the radar.
The Cast of Queens
Six strong women played by Jolly Abraham, (Aamani/ Yara), Leslie Fray (Pelagiya/Dragana), Rae Gray (Inna/Tanya), Brenda Meaney (Renia), Melissa Miller (Agata and Xochitl Romero (Isabella/Glemys) all share a rundown (read illegal) basement apartment in a tenement building that is supposed to be a sanctuary for immigrant women; no questions asked. But there are more questions asked that there are answers. Or maybe that’s her intention.

The play takes place over the course of 16 years and bounces back and forth in time muddying the waters. The women’s place of origin reads like a United Nations lineup: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Kosovo, Syria, Afghanistan, and Honduras. While the reasons they left are as varied as the countries from which they came they are tied together now because of geography and or fear of the unknown or of forming bonds.   

Phone calls are made, flashbacks come into the picture and when all is said and done we the audience will hopefully gain more insight into the mindset of those seeking asylum in a country that since its inception, opened its arms to all. 

As of now anyone coming to this land built on the backs of refugees seems to be playing a losing game. It’s no wonder these women want to stay under the radar!

Making its west coast premiere “Queens” brings us into the mindsets of these hardworking women; women who work at jobs no one else will take. Some babysit, clean houses work as dishwashers, collect belongings like badges of courage since discussions revolve around how many hours worked equals a sleeveless top in say Walmart.
L to R Jolly Abraham, Xochitl Romero, Brenda Meaney, Leslie Fray
All this is reflected in David Israel Reynoso’s set design with heaps and piles of clothes stacked up on the stage, clothes hanging from the rafters and clothes worn by the refugees designed by Denitsa Bliznalova representing, in some cases, their homeland. The dim lighting design by Lap Chi Chu is basement appropriate and Mark Bennett’s sound design is just this side of subtle enough to barely hear.

Personalities differ but the fears are the same; fear of being forgotten, fear of being found, or of losing track of loved or of finding unwanted news of loved ones and fear of getting too close to one another for fear of losing that someone.

Director Carley Perloff (“A Splendid Thousand Suns”) has a most gifted and talented group of women, most making their La Jolla Playhouse debut, with which to work. Most play multiple roles and with accents to match their country of origin a reality that yours truly really found difficult to understand.

The play that runs two hours and some will surely need some paring down and perhaps give more definition into the changing times frame, although most could relate the fears of 9/11.
Brenda Meaney and Xochitl
At a time when refugees are being treated like criminals instead of human beings Majok’s play is about as timely as any play in production right now. Would that the accents were easier to digest and morethe story lone defined, yours truly and those I’ve spoken with would have a better understanding.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 29th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858-550-1010
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Starts at $25.00
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre
Photo: Jim Carmody

OnStage Playhouse Razzle/ Dazzles With Fast Moving Fun Filled “Xanadu”

Charles Isherwood, in The New York Times wrote after the opening night performance of “Xanadu” on Broadway, it is "simultaneously indefensible and irresistible... there’s so much silly bliss to be had...”

The story, convoluted as it is, has all of these ingredients. Douglas Carter Beane wrote the Book. Music and Lyrics are by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar based on the Pictures Film Screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane is quoted as saying he was influenced by 60’ television. His final influence came after he saw the film “Clash of the Titans” that he asked all of his actors to watch. 
Olivia Berger 
Between that film and his fascination with Greek Mythology, he knew, on the first drafts of “Xanau”, that he wanted a trip to Mt. Olympus.  He called set designer David Gallo who designed the flying Pegasus to take Clio back up to Mt. Olympus. It is truly a trip. His flair for camp is written all over the show.

The 2007 Broadway musical arrived at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 thanks to Playhouse Artistic Director, Christopher Ashley. Ashley, who as a teenager saw the film in the ‘80’s and while he thought the story bad, he loved the music, he later admitted. 

Fast-forward and the same Christopher Ashley, who brought this Tony nominated hit to our fair city in its West Coast Premiere, was just in the throws of directing the Broadway musical, when he was tapped for the La Jolla slot after Des McAnuff announced he had taken a position in Canada at Stratford Shakespeare Company.

And now we’ve come full circle again with a very exciting and fun filled production of “Xanadu” at OnStage Playhouse in National City through Aug. 18th with artistic director Terri Brown’s staging this tongue in cheek delightful production.

In the story, the main “Dude”, Sonny (handsome Joshua Tyler Powers) is a struggling artist suffering a little depression (what artist don’t?). He just can’t seem to get the images of Greek Muses (daughters of Zeus) he is painting on a sidewalk mural on Venice Beach the one in So. Cal.

His conclusion; he’s a failure and better of dead. He writes a note to that effect and then attempts commit suicide. Just as he is about to jump off the sea wall, an intervention happens. Unbeknownst to Sonny, Kira/Clio, (Olivia Berger) and her Muse sisters are watching his frustrations from Mount Olympus.
Roxie Peters, Olivia Berger, Joshus Tyler Powers, Debbie David
She persuades her Muse sisters to travel to Venice Beach to inspire Sonny to continue with his painting. Magically, his unfinished mural comes alive with the Muses stunning Sonny and causing him to rethink his suicide note after a little intervention by Clio/Kira. She tells him that he is, in fact worthy of greatness.

He confides to her that his real passion is opening a roller-disco. He wants to call it Xanadu! She nods that anything is possible. Flash back to some 40 years before, when another artist, Danny Maguire (Todd Sutton) was helped along by another Muse who happens to look very much like Clio. They go to his office to ask to use the very same space he originally built for another “Xanadu”.

Only then Danny was interested in making money more than fulfilling his dream. Sonny wants to create his roller- disco in an abandoned building in Venice Beach. Coincidentally, Danny confesses he still owns the building.

Now if it were all that easy, we wouldn’t have much to write about. The complications that set in are many. To begin with, Muses must always be disguised from mortals. All agree that Clio must now be called Kira.

Decisions are made quickly for the transformation from Muse to Mortal: She will appear on roller skates; wear legwarmers, and carry weird Australian accent. (Remember Newton-John is from Australia and coincidentally Cleo’s given name is Olivia Berger).

Evil is lurking in the wings when Melpomene/Medusa (an outrageously funny Debbie David) one of Clio’s sister Muses puts a curse on Kira/Clio and causes her to fall in love with Sonny (a no -no for Muses).

The fun begins as soon as the lights fade and for the next 90 or so minutes, we are taken on a fun filled magical carpet ride that begins on a beach in Venice, Ca., travels to Mt. Olympus, skates around a story that’s loaded with plot holes (but who cares), weaves at least fourteen very recognizable Olivia Newton-John hits like “Magic”, “Evil Woman”, “Strange Magic” (both made popular by Lynne’s rock band ELO), “Suddenly”, “All Over The World” “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” and of course “Xanadu” into the script  and drops us back to reality with smiles from ear to ear.

The cast is more than up to the task. They are vivacious, energetic and talented and just plain having fun! Oliver Berger is spunky, but not overly demonstrative and still and manages those roller-skates quite well. As soon as she opens her mouth puts on that heavy Australian accent and blinks those beautiful peepers at us, we are off and running.

She and Powers compliment each other to a T. Powers has the starry eyed look as well, but it turns out to be the deer in the wilderness look rather than a bright star look.  But his singing voice is beautiful and together they make wonderful music. (“Suddenly”)
Olivia Berger, Seejay Lewis, Roxie Peters, Debbie David, Doniella Sebastian, Ryan Dietrich and Jovi Olivas
The Muses are a trip. Two are played in drag Seejay Lewis is Thalia and Ryan Dietrich is Terpsichore and others. Debbie David is Melpomene/Medusa and Roxie Peters (is a blast) is Calliope and Aphrodite.

Both are the troublemakers who cast a spell on Clio and leave her vulnerable to fall in love and later to damnation but whose looking? Muses never fall in love and what fun it is watching them having fun causing trouble for Clio/Kira. But love conquers all and when all is  said and done sthe ‘magic’ kicks in and everyone finds their place in and out of “Xanadu”

The creative crew consists of choreographer Jonathan Mayuyu, with Roxie Peters assisting, musical direction by Martin Martiarena, Julan Sinks sound went somewhat amiss on opening night but by now all should be good to go, Ryan Dietrich and Pam Stomply-Ericson created and made the eye popping costumes (congrats). Chad Oakley is responsible for the sets lit in soft colors with Oakley's lighting behing the Greek Colums. 

A ride to Mt. Olympus on Pegasus (Dietrich), a phone booth that appears on Venice beach, a Centaur with Seejay holding up the rear (Too funny to define) and a Cyclops (Dietrich) and skating Muses are all there waiting for you to join them.
Debbie David and Roxie Peters
It’s a fun packed evening of pure pleasure if you can transform yourself back to the ‘80’s, Olivia Newton-John, spandex, head bands sock warmers, really, really short cut off jean, roller disco, Greek Mythology and especially if you believe in “Magic”.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 18th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619-442-7787
Production Type: Musical
Where: 291 Third Ave, Chula Vista, CA 91912
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Venue: OnStage Playhouse
Photo: Adriana Zuniga-Williams

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“The Lorax” Hits The Stages At the Old Globe With A Wise Message.

The Old Globe and Children’s Theatre Company in partnership with The Old Vic in London is currently presenting the world premiere of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” based on the book “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. It was adapted for stage by David Greig. Charlie Finn wrote the music and lyrics adding a magical touch to Suess’s ode to corporate greed and environmental ruin.

If the Lorax could see us now, he would keep himself hidden away in some other -worldly place until we (the country on loan to us) comes to its senses. In case you just landed on planet earth “The Lorax” is the creation of Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. In a sense the Lorax is Seuss’s alter ego. Accordingly, “The Lorax” ‘came out of my being angry’.
Seuss, best known in Old Globe circles for “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” is still a holiday treat. My three girls cut their teeth on “One Fish Two Fish” and “Green Eggs and Ham”, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”,  “Horton Hears a Who!” and “Dr. Seuss’s ABC”. Hopefully it will remain on their ‘let’s make a seasonal event of “The Lorax”.

Our family belonged to the Dr. Seuss book club, if you will. Yours truly displays with pride her very own “You’re Only Old Once” (A Book For Obsolete Children). Try reading it some day if you are over, say 50 and you might throw away your Medicare card.  

With a creative cast under the deft direction of Max Webster and lively choreography by Drew Mconie, gorgeous, eye popping scenic and costume designs by Rob Howell, Jon Clark, lighting, and sound by Tom Gibbons, outstanding puppet direction by Finn Caldwell and puppet design by Caldwell and Nick Barnes and musical direction by Elan McMahan, the charming yet oft times adult, oft time dark story of the Lorax and how we got to this place of darkness, unfolds on stage.
The Once-ler's
It’s not always a pretty story and some young-un’s in the audience might not have gotten the full implications. However if you’ve opened a news paper or happened to catch the news just in passing, its about a journey for a young man, ‘a wee Oncelet in the town of Once Hill where his family ran a moof muffering mill.  

As the lad grew into a Once-ler he was asked to leave his family home to make room for a stranger who might be able to bring some money into the home and pay for his stay. His family sent him off with ‘a pot of green miff’, ‘a bent banjolele, ‘an old ax’ and some knitting needles. “Why not go and seek your fortune? Come back old, fat and wealthy.”  And off he went!

Steven Epps, 
And wealth was what the Once-ler accumulated after settling in a beautiful fluffy forest filled with wonderfully colorful Truffula Trees and a Lorax! When push came to shove Once-ler started to cut some of the trees down and use the tufts to knit some (what he called) ‘Thneeds, “It’s a shoe, it’s a shirt, it’s a glove, it’s a hat But it has other uses, yes, far beyond that It’s a carpet, a pillow, a nightcap, a sheet A curtain, a cover for your bicycle seat.
In the course of cutting the trees down (“The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk/and they had the sweet smell of sweet butterfly milk”), an orange little person -puppet with a walrus looking blond moustache comes crashing down to the ground with the tufts.

Not at all happy with the situation around him -“I speak for the trees”- the Lorax wants him to stop cutting the trees and think more of protecting the environment assuring him that there is room for both trees and people. They come up with a ‘contract’ of sorts agreed upon and signed that Once-ler promises to abide by. 

Unfortunately, the Once-ler’s obsession to make more money is aided by judges, friendly to big corporations that allowed him to spread his operations into more protected forests and ignoring the Lorax’s warnings.

His Thneeds were selling like hot cakes. Greed overtook the need to stop making more products. As they sold, people came, wealth was amassed roads were built, until factories, communities and pollution filled the air. Animals began to look for other places to live. Water supplies and air quality were making them sick, “and the money kept rollin in”. (Watch out for some fart jokes about this time.)

My ten year Jr. reviewer, my sometimes theatre buddy had to lean over, during the show, to tell me that Once-ler (an amazing Steven Epps) was too greedy; he was not happy about that. 
Steven Epps, Meghan Kreidler, Rick Miller and H. Adam Harris
 Three talented puppeteers Meghan Kreidler, Rick Miller and H. Adam Harris, who is the voice of the Lorax, control his every movement so convincingly they if my eyes were closed, I would see a full sized man-puppet come to life.

Epps' energy as the Once-ler is captivating. Dressed in shades of green from head to toe and with elf like movements, he seems stunned at first that his invention is so successful and that he is wealthy beyond any expectations. With that he even trusts his family (the ones that more or less evicted him) to help run the business.

With greediness as their mantra and the EPA on their tails they couldn’t see the that business grew so big and fast, was so polluting the air and forcing the animals to move, that they were actually stunned when they ran out of tees to cut; no trees through forest, no forest through trees, in fact no trees.

Strong support comes through as the entire ensemble, puppeteers, Storyteller (Ryan Dean), elegant dancing swan Emily Michaels King, Mommy Once-ler (Autumn Ness) who also warmed up the kids before the show with a variety of cool instruments, a variety of Once-ler story tellers and, to my grandson’s chagrin a trio of black clad characters wielding large axes cutting down the trees frightened him a bit. Ten year olds are still young enough to get that fright feeling.
Steven Epps, The Lorax, Meghan Kreidler, Rick Miller and H.Adam Harris
Ted Geisel, who died in 1991 twenty years after “The Lorax” was written and published, was man for all ages. His works were magical, his ideas fantastical, and children all over the world were enthusiastical to read his books.

“The Lorax” isn’t just another reincarnation of his writing, or a movie or a sighting; it’s authentic and hallucinogenic. It’s one of the most entertaining, well spent two -hour’s plus/ that you might use with your pals being The Lorax for all of us.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 12th
Organization: The Old Globe Theatre
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park.
Ticket Prices: Start at &40.00 for adults/ $30.00 for children
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Dan Norman