Wednesday, May 22, 2019

“The Gods Of Comedy”: Madcap, Over The Top Farce Aims To Be A Crowd Pleaser

Old Globe Program Pic
Playwright Ken Ludwig's (“Lend Me A Tenor”) world premiere “The Gods Of Comedy”, in association with McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey, and currently on the Donald and Darlene Shiley stage of the Old Globe Theatre through June 6th,  is quite a diversion from his last world premiere production at the Globe, “Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood”.  

His earlier work  “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” that played some years ago, was clever and of course, starred that master of solving crimes Sherlock Holmes who was able to solve the…well you get the picture.

“Robin Hood”, with some gags, swords and bows and arrow fights, plays on words, music and wily humor, was a fun romp and Robin himself was able to serve the poor.

“Lend Me A Tenor”, another farce won three Tony’s and 4 Drama Desk Awards; no slouch, he. “The Gods Of Comedy” his current farce, finds me scratching my head to find anything particularlly wonderful  about this new offering. That said, from the reaction I heard on opening night those young ‘un’s around me sounded pleased, so go know!

If you thought Stephen Sondheim’s “Forum” was a funny, bouncy, farce/spoof on the ancient Romans, you are right. “Gods” is just a plain madcap silly and over the top farce with humor and laugh bites, groaning and gfawing coming from a certain age group in the audience.  But to the greater audience who, at this time in history, might just be looking for something, anything to chuckle about,the laughs came fast and furious. 

With all the hyperbole and shots across the bow going on in Washington, mega frustration and, dare I say corruption, at least half of the nation, perhaps you among us might be wishing for some special powers to make things right. Say a visit from some gods?
Brad Oscar with Jessie Cannizzaro
“The Gods of Comedy” might just bring you some good news like making all the witnesses subpoenaed appear before you. Or if you were in possession of a rare book, a one of a kind, and it mysteriously disappeared before you had a chance to check it out carefully-yup you would call on the gods to help you as well. 

Ludwig’s latest mish -mash and oft times looking for some coherence,  “Gods’ gets off to a  slow start setting up the characters the likes of whom bear little resemblance to anyone yours truly ever knew or knows now, but it matters not. These guys just have to be funny.

I’m willing to meet new people, like the American scholar Daphne (Shay Vawn) a high strung and almost socially inept young woman sitting outside a café and marketplace in Greece working on her next project; that of directing a production of Euripides’ Medea as part of her internship. (She’s not one of the funnies.)

Scuttling about is Aristide (George Psomas who plays multiple roles) a street vendor who gives her a brief history of Naxos, the island where the myth and legend of Zeus, King of the Gods who was said to have been born (in cave), etc. etc. We will see a reasonable facsimile of him in other roles further on.

In an unusual token of appreciation and before she heads back to her college, he gives Daphne an amulet or charm for helping him in a bind, by telling her to wear it and use it to get help from the ‘gods’ if and when she needs it. (She will need it.)
Shay Vawn and Jevon McFerrin
Add to the high-energy list of characters Professor and classic scholar, Ralph Sargent (Jevon McFerrin) is also vacationing on the island. He can’t believe that he found the complete almost unknown lost text/play written by none other than Euripides’ “Andromeda and Perseus”. (He's not one of the funnies.)

He is in need of someone, anyone to help him organize his notes back at the university. After some gentle persuasion Daphne accepts the job as his assistant.  He gives the manuscript to Daphne for safe- keeping.

By some crazy intervention, Psomas who is now part of the work crew back at the school, well…the book goes bye- bye. Or better yet, in one collective gasp from the audience, he takes to shredding some of the pages! He’s Russian and even then, who can read Greek? As part of his janitorial duties, he gets rid of what he thinks is trash. Wouldn’t you? (He is funny.)
Stephanie Leigh and George Psomas
Meanwhile Dean Trickett (Keira Naughton), Dean of the Collage takes the finding of the ‘find’, the unearthed script, and uses it as the theme for the school’s fundraiser for her alumni Roman Dress party where she dresses up as Artemis. 

Also there, Hollywood actress Brooklyn (Stephanie Leigh) struts about trying to impress those who might be in the know, know she is auditioning for the possible lead if and when the new discovery is to be made into a movie.

As Ludwig’s scripts would have it, neither Daphne nor Ralph knows where or how the precious script went missing, but life goes on, or does it? Let’s just say not as we knew it.

Time for the Gods to intervene and intervene they do with all the bells and whistles the Globe’s fight consultant (Samantha Reading), scenic designer (Jason Sherwood), sound designer (Darren West), lighting designer Brian Gale), choreographer (Ellenore Scott), costumer (Linda Roethke), illusion designer (Jim Steinmeyer) and director worth her weight in garlands, Amanda Dehnert can muster.

Once Dionysus, (an insanely excellent Brad Oscar), God of Comedy and his Muse Thalia, Jessie Cannizzaro, Muse of Comedy and Poetry appear on the scene to save the day for Ralph and Daphne, well it’s a whole new ballgame. Call it Ludwig Chaos 101.   

Brad Oscar, Jessie Cannizzaro and Shay Vawn
When the ‘Gods’ first burst on to the scene they are dressed in their ancient Roman attire but as Dionysus surveys the campus and all the junk food available he turns into food junkie wearing the school colors looking like any other, say freshman chomping on a triple chees burger. If you have ever seen any of the old Jackie Gleason Shows, picture Oscar there.

As for Cannizzaro, she’s equally as nutty but not as over the top as both the nutty professors she is assigned to help. Both, if you hadn’t guessed, were made for each other from the start, something we didn’t (not) know from the outset.

The plot if there is one gets thicker, not funnier. It includes a fundraiser that becomes a gala fashion show with themes of, what else, Ancient Greece (and here is where Linda Roethke’s costumes shine). Lo and behold, Ares (Psomas, such a showman) struts in dressed in his armor and carrying a sword. No one bats an eye. As just another character, he wanders about googling after one of the beautiful glamorous movie stars.
George Psomas and Keira Naughton
Helping the production along is the stunning and well-appointed set by Jason Sherwood. First on the outside veranda in Greece, then the library of the Ralph’s office and outdoor settings of the college campus. As mentioned above, technical support is up to its usual high standards on the Shiley stage, a saving grace for all the visual effects throughout the evening.

The cast is a bit uneven with some traces of strain. Both Psomas and Oscar are at the top of their game. Psomas, while recognizable as Aristide, Aleksi (the Russian janitor) and Ares in his finery goes to the top of the list. He’s funny and charismatic, unassuming yet deer in the headlights, straight laced and amusing as Ares.  

Oscar is just plain right for the role he’s taking on. His all in appeal as the human side of a burger munching student is as funny as his role as God of Comedy, sent down by Zeus to fix a problem here on earth. The right person for the job, he is the god of wine and revelry, ‘a joy for mortals, with a hearty appetite for all things sexual’… he loves the good life and it shows through in Oscar.

Both Vawn and McFerrin work too hard  to be as over the top as they are supposed to be. Fine actors both, these might not be the best roles for them. Their main task, that  of finding a manuscript, gets bounced around, put off and almost becomes irrelavent in a series of daffy off shoots that in the end, ends well.  (It’s a comedy after all.)
Jessie Cannizzaro, Jevon McFerrin, Stephanie Leigh, Brad Oscar and Shay Vawn, 
I can’t believe how many times in a day I say “O God” this or that. I’m going to have to do a mind shift or I may be in big trouble one day.

You be that judge of this one going forward.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 16th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Comedy/Farce
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: start at $30.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Jim Cox

Monday, May 20, 2019

“Yoga Play”: To Thine Own Self Be True.

What comes first, what you wear in your yoga classes, or signing up for yoga? It has never been a big problem for moi, because I just don’t do yoga but the ‘clothes’ matter according to what I see coming from yoga classes. 

For Joan (JoAnne Glover) newly hired CEO of Jojomon HQ in Southern CA’s high-end yoga clothes line and someone that watches the numbers on the market, revenues and revenue growth, yoga wear is of the utmost importance.

Tamara Rodriguez and JoAnne Glover
In Dipika Guha’s “Yoga Play” now making its west coast premiere at Moxie Theatre through June 2nd, and with first time out of the box director Callie Prendivelle directing, expect a solid, fast paced, up to the minute, eye-opening, funny, somewhat bordering on the spiritual side, (umm) bright new play in the small venue in Rolando.

Frantically hysterical Joan and her two sidekicks, Fred and Raj (Albert Park and Sri Chilukuri) are at wits end thinking of new and innovative ideas to push their yoga line apparel Jojomon to new limits. Customers are complaining about the quality and size of the apparel.

Horror of horrors, they want to start manufacturing the pants in a size 10 or maybe even 14. In the past customers balked at the size limitations since one size does not fit all. Now, bigger sizes with an added bonus, lavender scented pants.

After convincing the company’s owner Bernard (Matthew Salazar-Thompson playing several roles and very well, thank you) to give the OK to the larger size, one might think their bottom line would drop because of their image. But to the contrary, it skyrocketed to the top, bigger sizes and all. Just when you think everything is going along in your favor, ‘life gets in the way’.  

Sri Chilukuri, JoAnne Glover and Albert Park
Unfortunately, a BBC investigative team got hold of the facts that the company in Bangladesh portioned out some of the manufacturing to Lotus Factory and conglomerates outside of Dhaka, and was using children workers instead of women, in sweathouses; locking them in the sweat shops and forcing them to work long hours under less than satisfying conditions.

The emails and tweets that followed after the story broke, forced them to reinvent themselves as customer friendly and authentic in order to reign in, convince and bring their customers back to the fold. “We are having an authenticity crisis.”

Closing out its fourteenth season, Guha’s satire “Yoga Play” fits right into Moxie’s playbook of covering women’s issues with plays by women playwrights, directed by women and with major decisions made by all female board. 

So it would seem natural that Joan, the new CEO of Jojomon is a woman. But she cannot do it alone. She calls on her two -team members Fred and Raj to help her come up with a solution and this is where Guha’s story gets a bit wonky. Don’t misunderstand it’s fun and bit kooky but does get to the nitty -gritty of a theme repeating itself, to ‘thine own self be true’. 

Albert PArk and Sri Chilukuri
The team comes up with the idea of bringing a spiritual leader to represent their company while lending an authentic face to the cause. Raj born, raised and educated in the states but whose parents are from India has no clue about his culture past, present and or future. He relies heavily on his parents to supply him with names of Guru’s, if you will, to bring back to the states to represent the company.

Swami Satyachandra, they are told is of the authentic Vedic culture of ancient India, and word somehow gets back to him (hiding in a cave) of his need to help with the messaging of authenticity for this company. After some heavy negotiation (of donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars to several Indian orphanages in the region), Raj’s uncle goes to bring him back to the company headquarters. (“I have known this day would come.”)

Fred, not so much down with all the plans, is forced into going along with it all if he wants Joan to sign off on his Visa to Singapore so he can go home and visit his parents and an old flame he left behind.

In the interim Raj and Joan seek out well known to ‘the stars’ yoga teacher, Romola (a hoot and howl Tamara Rodriguez) to help them overcome their own lack of spirituality.  (“Twenty-five is the new nineteen that’s what they say.”)

Albert PArk, JoAnne Glover and Sri Chilukuri
Jo Anne Glover, a yoga instructor herself, knows from whence she comes. I’ve never been in any of her classes (why would I?) but I have seen her coming and going to classes and I surely can attest to the fact that she is one hell of an actor. Put the two together and we have strength, high anxiety and the knowledge that she can put this company on top again; and that starts at the top.

Both Fred and Raj (Park and Chilukori) are as thick as buds sharing weird dreams during company breaks. Revealing some would take the fun out for future audiences. Just be prepared for ‘unusual’. Both young men, Sri Chulukuri making his debut at Moxie and Albert Park (Jade Heart”) are the yin and yang of the production and play well with and off each other.

But the most fun, actually hysterical, is watching Raj doing his thing as the real deal Guru dressed in some get up with a natty beard (Danita Lee) addressing the nation on how Jojoman will, when all else failed, bring the company back to basics and restore their brand of yoga as most knew it. If you are old enough to remember some 70 or 80’s TV comedy shows, this skit of his will look familiar.

Hats off to director Callie Prendiville.  While picking a terrific and most apt cast/ensemble for this particular production she manages to keep the audiences at bay for some time before revealing the true identity of the famous Guru while pacing the rest of her crew giving them time to let us in on some of their innermost secrets, dreams and desires.

The big surprise comes at the end of Act I, after giving Guruji  a very long monologue, Guha slams a MICKEY into our drink and all gasps come at once.

Time to get yourself to the theatre and join in on the fun and games.

Divya Murthy designed the well functioning set into several playing areas. Christopher Renda’s lighting is effective only allowing silhouette of faces to be seen. Matt Lescault-Wood sound design and Alicia Ynfante is responsible for the props. I was especially impressed with Tamara Rodriguez’ athleticism and her turn as an acrobat.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 2nd
Organization: Moxie Theatre
Phone: 858-598-7620
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego CA 92115
Ticket Prices: $18.00-$44.00
Photo: Daren Scott

Saturday, May 18, 2019

“Venus In Fur” Finds A Home At OnStage

Call it whimsical, kinky, funny, delicious, sensual, mysterious and spooky, off the wall or misogynistic; award winning playwright David Ives is no stranger to San Diego audiences having just seen a fun packed production of “All In The Timing” at North Coast Rep. Several of our local theatre companies have produced that along with “Time Flies”, “The Liar”, “School for Lies”. Every so often “Timing” shows up on some or other season. "Venus In Fur" is his as well.

“Venus” is rarely produced. For OnStage Playhouse, replacing its original fluffy “Pump Boys and Dinettes”, it’s a step into the unknown for unsuspecting audiences. I might offer that for OnStage playgoers, although the last award winning production “Frankie And Johnny And the Clair de Lune” with Teri Brown and Charles Peters was also out of the box, might just be a braver adventure.  

Sandra Ruiz as Vanda
I do recommend a little background reading (not too much to spoil the fun). Current managing director James Darvas has nailed the characters’ to a T with style and aplomb.
His top notch cast of two, the lovely and seductive Sandra Ruiz as Wanda/Vanda and the flummoxed casting director and author of a script he wants to mount, Thomas -Tom Steward pull you in from the outset and like it or not, you find yourself on both sides of their kooky and very erotic relationship.

It might appear that the playwright may have a thing about time, but “Venus” is a different coat of fur. It’s quoted as being “90 minutes of good kinky fun”; publicity words not mine. That said I must concur. 

The one act / 90 plus minute play unfolds in a run down rented space where Thomas is on the phone speaking with his fiancée Stacey about wrapping up the auditions for his upcoming piece.

He’s lamenting the fact that none of the women that auditioned for the part of Vanda, a 24 year old sexy, fleshy woman with smarts, classical training and a brain who can pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor has bothered to show up. In other words he’s convinced that she doesn’t even exist. 

But wait! A crash of thunder (Kelsie Morris) brings Sandra Ruiz’ Vanda/Wanda character stumbling in to the audition room. She is out of breath and carrying a shoulder tote almost as big as she.  She swears like a sailor, cursing because she might be out of luck for the auditioning as the character of Vanda in Thomas’ adaptation of the 1870 play “Anatomy of Shadows”. “Am I too late? Am I too late?”

While he tries to convince her that everyone’s already left over ‘a half hour ago’, she takes off her raincoat and reveals herself to be wearing a short (read mini/mini) black leather skirt, silver studded dog collar and studded patent leather bustier (Lisa Burgess). “I mean it’s basically S&M, right?

The play?” The play in question is an adaptation the German sadomasochistic novella written in 1870, called “Venus in Fur”, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: Mr. S&M himself.

Thomas soon loses the argument that she should leave and come back the next day because before he knows it she has a period dress that she had in her carry on bag out and on. She straightens the wrinkles out of her dress and voilà!

Tom Steward and Sandra Ruiz
He marvels that she can transform herself from a kinky looking street hooker into 19th century proper woman of class. He’s left with no alternative than to read with her. She changes the lighting from florescence to soft colored reds (Santiago Vengas) and the let the games begin.

The fire smolders; the power play begins. From the get go the two characters playing both Thomas and Vanda and especially when Vanda is playing the goddess Venus to Thomas’ Kushemski and maybe even Thomas himself, the battle of the sexes, the sexual fantasies and the suggestive games between the two are as revealing as are the characters themselves. 

As the play within the play, the erotic little dance within the dance unfolds, the temperature within sizzles finally leading up to a struggle no one can foresee.  (No spoilers)  

At times you will see Thomas the aggressor and other times Vanda will do the leading. Traditional roles are reversed and oft times, during the reading, she steps outside her role and takes over in giving him direction. In some instances she takes control and she becomes the domineering dominatrix. Her journey becomes our journey.

Thus the play goes back and fourth with no one (unless you’ve seen it before) the wiser as to the outcome. Try not to outdo yourselves guessing just enjoy the magic.

As mentioned above without strong actors playing opposite each other and sans chemistry established between the two, “Venus in Fur” might fall flat on its furry face. Given that the two actors in this production are so compatible, so into each other that the chemistry literally charges, especially when Vanda goes nose to nose, chin to chin, body to body  with Thomas is a tribute to both. This production hums or should I say steams along.

Why and how Vanda happened on the scene this night, how she happened to be so prepared (she knew the script by heart) that she had a bag filled with period costumes and that she knew more about Thomas than he cared to reveal will remain a mystery.
Sandra Ruiz and Tom Steward
We do know though, that Sandra Ruiz (“The Madres”, “Time of the Butterflies”, “Enron”) is an enchanting and alluring actress turned seductress who can transform herself from a savvy street fighter into the dignified Vanda von Danayev tempting her prey or adverasry at the turn of a dime. We see her pole dance, flex her sexuality and force herself into a frenzy when needed.  

She can memorize an entire script that she supposedly just got her hands on and glanced at on the subway ride to the audition.  Sex exudes from her every pore, look and stance. Her performance is charming, effortless and intense.

We also know that Tom Steward can take it on the chin in his role as Thomas the playwright and frustrated director of his first play. We know also that even though he, Thomas, is engaged and has a fiancé who manages to call him at the most inopportune times, and that he is more than susceptible to the wiles of the sexy Vanda than he would care to admit and that he would love to bed Vanda.

She has him completely seduced and in her power. We even get the picture that in his role-playing with Vanda as they change genders just to mix it up, he is much more aggressive as a woman than he is as a man. Put that in your drink and mix it.

Technical support as pointed out earlier also makes this nontraditional piece to work on the long stage in Chula Vista with the creative genes of set designer Duane McGregor. It is converted into a theatre surrounded by all kinds of throw away theatre left overs with a small round lounge on the stage and a pole in the center supposedly used in the ‘old days’ for heat conduction.

A small desk with scattered papers, a lamp find themselves at one of the long stage, and on the brick wall a schedule for auditions and across the room a table with coffee, and stairs with a door out to the street.  

Lisa Burgess’ costumes are to be complimented on her choice of clothes that range from kinky modern to traditional 19th century. Kelsie Morris’ sound design can scare the bejeesus with the crackling thunder and Santiago Venegas’ lighting creates the atmosphere.

My first reaction after reading the Playbill and seeing the first time was that I don’t do kink. Well, along with the kink are some very funny takes on gender switching and dominance, mind over matter challenges and just plain good theatre. Tho’ seldom produced, this is my second go-a round. You  ight feel that way after seeing it once. Do see for yourself. It’s worth a try.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 15th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619-422-7787
Production Type: Comedy/Fantasy
Where: 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista, CA 91910
Ticket Prices: $22.00
Photo: OnStage Playhouse