Charlayne Woodard’s “Flight” in Long Beach, “Elevada” in Anaheim

Latonya Kitchen in “Flight.” Courtesy of Long Beach Playhouse.
Latonya Kitchen in “Flight.” Courtesy of Long Beach Playhouse.
Charlayne Woodard may be best known for her remarkable one-woman shows, but she is by no means limited to the genre. Her imagination really takes “Flight” in the show of the same name (now on Long Beach Playhouse’s mainstage through June 16). It’s not the story you tell but the way you tell it, as has oft been observed, and Woodard’s stellar technique shines through; what might be a loose-knit collection of folk takes in a lesser playwright’s hands becomes a powerful evening of theatre.

The play is set on a Georgia plantation in 1858, where Woodard’s storytellers are not simply entertaining themselves but passing on their traditions to a younger generation, thereby keeping them alive. A charismatic ensemble makes the most of the material under Rovin Jay’s attentive direction. Latonya Kitchen (Oh Beah) and Rayshawn Chism (Nate) make the strongest impression with their vocal and physical presence, with Ebonie Marie, David P. Lewis and Felicia Baxter-Simien providing fine support; Sonya L. Randall’s choreography and Karl Lundeberg’s music add to the magic.

Gracie Lacey and Ahmed T. Brooks in “Elevada.” Courtesy of the Chance Theater.
Gracie Lacey and Ahmed T. Brooks in “Elevada.” Courtesy of the Chance Theater.
A blind date between a perky public relations gal and a nervous guy who’s a self-described “content whore” might be more than meets the eye. In the case of Sheila Callaghan’s “Elevada” (now at the Chance Theater in Anaheim through June 3), the unlikely coupling of Ramona and Khalil, both of whom plan to “disappear” before long, captivates us from the opening scene and never lets go.

From script to execution, this odd-titled comedy-drama is worthy of South Coast Repertory; nabbing the West Coast premiere and staging it with gusto is a feather in the Chance’s cap. Callaghan’s razor-sharp dialogue is catnip for the quartet of actors, from Gracie Lacey’s Ramona and Ahmed T. Brooks’ Khalil, to Lola Kelly’s June (Ramona’s uptight sister) and Jonathan Fisher’s Owen (Khalil’s goofy roomie). Guys, beware: Lacey’s Ramona is a thief of hearts; she stole mine right off the bat.

Nicholas C. Avila’s direction is a perfect match for Callaghan’s quirky comedic sensibilities. The Chance’s production team—notably Vincent Olivieri’s music and sound design, Kristin Campbell’s scenic design, David Aaron Hernandez’s lighting and Hazel Clarke’s choreography—scores a home run with the bases loaded. Circle this one on your dance card before you fill it with less worthy offerings, folks.

“Good People” at the Chance, “Conversation,” “Urinetown” at Stages

Taj Johnson and Amanda Zarr in “Good People” at the Chance. Courtesy Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
Taj Johnson and Amanda Zarr in “Good People” at the Chance. Courtesy Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
Where’s the comedy in a “dramatic comedy” about a single mother struggling to keep her head above water? Trust me, there’s plenty of it in “Good People” by David Lindsay-Abaire (in its Orange County premiere at the Chance Theater in Anaheim through May 18). This is an edgy study of class distinctions, set in South Boston, and what it may take to survive when push comes to shove. It’s a tad too long, but the explosive second act packs a wallop.

Amanda Zarr (“In a Word”) delivers another outstanding performance, with a dialect as authentic as any you’ll hear; we never really warm to her unlikeable character but we do come to understand her, to Zarr’s credit. Taj Johnson offers a wonderfully nuanced characterization as the wife of her well-to-do old flame, to whom she’s reached out for a helping hand. They’re supported by a fine ensemble under the sharp, sensitive direction of Jocelyn A. Brown.

Across town, Eugenie Carabatsos’ “We Will Not Describe the Conversation,” is getting a fine production that should not be missed by anyone who enjoys original theatre. This chamber drama (at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton though May 19) begins as a character study of a by-the–button masseuse, a tardy customer, and her estranged brother.

It’s a quirky, intense little piece shifting back and forth in time, and slightly confusing at first. Only a highly skilled director like Katie Chidester could pull it off; somehow she juggles it all brilliantly. Her staunchest ally in the solid three-person cast is Andrea Marie Freeman, who gives us an intricately layered performance (as Sonya, the needy customer) that’s a marvel. The set and staging are deceptively simple.

“Urinetown the Musical” (at STAGEStheatre though May 20) is yet another musical that’s ultimately too long, too loud and too silly. But wait. Mark Hollmann’s and Greg Kotis’ show isn’t quite like any other musical. It’s not afraid to make fun of itself, and the in-jokes start flying almost immediately. And while there are a few “gross” moments, it never descends to the sewer-level of “The Book of Mormon” and is unlikely to offend anyone but the bluest of blue hairs.

Though things get a little chaotic by the finale, there’s a lot to like in a show with clever lyrics and snappy music that mocks musical theater. Standouts in the huge high-energy cast include Brian J. Cook, Brian Wiegel, Garrett Chandler, Debi Tuiolosega, Mario Andrew Vargas Jr. and Mady Durbin. Director-choreographer Edgar Andrew Torrens has somehow corralled the whole thing onto a very small stage without that squeezed feeling.

“Little Black Shadows” at South Coast Rep, 19th annual Newport Beach filmfest

“The Bill Murray Stories,” courtesy NBFF.
“The Bill Murray Stories,” courtesy NBFF.
“Little Black Shadows” by Kemp Powers (at South Coast Repertory through Apr. 29) is as much about the power of storytelling as it is about the story being told. The tale—of young slaves who acted as servants to their master’s privileged children—was one the playwright found mothballed in a plantation museum, in the form of narratives collected in the 1930s. Powers has turned it into something magical, enhanced even more than usual by SCR’s ace production team.

Giovanni Adams and Chauntae Pink, as the slaves or “shadows” at the heart of the story, lead a fine ensemble cast. Mary Adrales’ direction is abetted by David M. Barber’s stellar scenic design and Hana S. Kim’s Projection & Puppet Design. Audience members who have a problem with the dialect employed, however authentic it may be—and the use of the N word—may be distracted from the play.

The 19th annual Newport Beach Film Festival opens Thursday and runs through May 3. The event, which has attracted over 55,000 attendees to Orange County in the past, will showcase more than 350 films from 50 countries. NBFF offers the largest shorts program within a major U.S. film festival, showing well over 200 short movies; this year sees the introduction of a new documentary film program that celebrates emerging and prominent gourmet chefs.

Documentaries are always a highlight of NBFF. This year’s crop includes “The Bill Murray Stories,” in which a documentarian tracks random encounters with the actor; “California’s Forgotten Children,” which delves into child sex trafficking; “Turning Point,” about Alzheimer’s disease; “Time Well Spent,” about four surfers exploring the waves of Panama and reaching out to people in need while there; and “Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story,” about four contemporary performers in New York City.

Among the International films at the festival are “ULAM: Main Dish,” a celebration Filipino food and Filipino culture; “End of Summer” (China), about a young boy bonding with his elderly neighbor over the World Cup fever that is sweeping the country; and “The Desert Bride” (Chile), about a live-in maid in Buenos Aires forced to take a job in a distant town. The vintage film offerings include John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948), and Disney’s animated “Peter Pan” (1953).

The Collegiate Showcase presents films by student filmmakers from UC Irvine, Chapman University, OC School of the Arts and other local institutions. The Free Industry Seminar Series includes Cinematography Master Class, a Screenwriting Seminar, and Building a Career in Animation Presented by Women In Animation.

Amy Freed’s “Shrew!” at South Coast Rep, “Triplets of Belleville” at the Barclay

Susannah Rogers and Elijah Alexander in Amy Freed’s “Shrew!” at South Coast Rep. Photo by Tania Thompson/SCR.
Susannah Rogers and Elijah Alexander in Amy Freed’s “Shrew!” at South Coast Rep. Photo by Tania Thompson/SCR.
If Amy Freed tripped herself up in her last at-bat at South Coast Repertory (in my estimation), she has scored a solid home run with “Shrew!” While the first act of 2017’s “The Monster Builder” was so ingenious she couldn’t follow it up with a worthy second, her adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is consistently clever and often laugh-out-loud funny. That’s no small accomplishment considering the Bard’s evergreen romantic comedy is one of the most frequently parodied and spoofed plays in the canon.

There isn’t a weak link in the 13-member ensemble under Art Manke’s attentive direction. Susannah Rogers is a vibrant Katherine, doubling as an aspiring playwright (Freed’s alter ego) in the prologue. Mike McShane shines as Gremio, an elderly suitor to Bianca; Danny Scheie and Bhama Roget are delightful as the clowns. The show (which runs through Apr. 21 in Costa Mesa) is further enhanced by Ralph Funicello’s scenic design and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes.

Pianist Joyce Yang’s recent collaboration with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was one of those offbeat experiments we seldom see in Orange County but are more than welcome. The show at the Irvine Barclay Theatre courtesy The Philharmonic Society provided choreographed counterpoint to the music of Philip Glass (seemingly improvisational at times) and Leoš Janáček (much more vigorous and often poetic). The most imaginative and polished choreography, that of Jorma Elo set to the music of Robert Schumann, was saved for last—an athletic piece accented by whimsical humor, all too rare in modern dance.

The Barclay serves as the venue for another special mixed media event this Friday when it screens the surreal 2003 animated French film “The Triplets of Belleville” with a live score. Not just any score mind you, but the original Oscar-nominated “Le Jazz Hot” score, recreated by its composer, Benoit Charest. The film, written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, is a convoluted farce set in Pre-World War II France and involves the kidnapping of a Tour de France cyclist.

Hot tip: South Coast Rep’s 21st annual Pacific Playwrights Festival (Apr. 20–22) offers five staged readings, including a new work by Qui Nguyen (“Vietgone”). The festival, which draws theatre professionals from across the US, has introduced 136 new plays.

9th annual TCM Classic Film Festival returns to Hollywood

vidor-show people-lobby

If “millennials don’t really care about classic movies,” as the New York Post proclaimed last year, there are many young people who most assuredly do. Meeting and chatting with them is one of the unheralded pleasures of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which returns to Hollywood Apr. 26-29. Like it or not they are the future of our film heritage, and I thoroughly enjoy witnessing their discovery of movies older than themselves and engaging in conversation with them about it.

This year the festival will honor Oscar-nominated actress Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) with a hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX (nee Grauman’s) forecourt, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who will receive The Robert Osborne Award for his efforts in preserving motion picture history. Other special guests include directors Mel Brooks, John Sayles, Gillian Armstrong and William Friedkin, actresses Eva Marie Saint, Jacqueline Bisset and Sally Field, and Sara Karloff, daughter of actor Boris.

As usual, the programming offers an embarrassment of riches, including a 90th anniversary screening of director King Vidor’s silent “Show People” (1928) starring Marion Davies, with New York-based accompanist Ben Model providing the soundtrack; several Pre-Code films, including the risqué “Girls About Town” (1931) with Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman, and a restoration of the long lost “I Take This Woman” (1931), starring Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper; and a pair of 1940 Rosalind Russell comedies, Howard Hawks’ hysterically funny “His Girl Friday,” which memorably co-starred her with Cary Grant, and the forgotten “This Thing Called Love” with Melvyn Douglas.

Actress Marsha Hunt, who celebrates her 100th birthday this year, will be feted with a showing of her favorite film, “None Shall Escape” (1944), which prophetically anticipated the Nuremberg Trials by a year. Ground-breaking actress-director Ida Lupino’s centennial will be marked by a screening of “Outrage” (1950), her pioneering look at sexual harassment and rape.

Hitchcock-Strangers on a Train lobby copy

Alfred Hitchcock will be doubly honored with screenings of “Spellbound” (1945), with its Surrealist dream sequences designed by Salvador Dalí; and “Strangers On A Train” (1951), my personal favorite of the director’s work. Akira Kurosawa will be represented by his adaptation of “Macbeth,” the 1957 “Throne Of Blood,” arguably the best film ever based on the works of William Shakespeare.

More recent films aimed largely at younger attendees include a 50th anniversary showing of “Bullitt” (1968) starring Steve McQueen, remembered for its iconic chase scene; Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), which gave rise to the Blaxploitation movement; a 40th anniversary screening of “Animal House” (1978) with John Belushi; Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion” (1979); and the Coen Brothers’ cult film “The Big Lebowski” (1998) with Jeff Bridges.

Special presentations include An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation, featuring a panel of artists who worked on such classics as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasiaand more recent films; home movies from Hollywood Golden Age, including footage of Marilyn Monroe on location, George and Ira Gershwin at home, and Carmen Miranda’s wardrobe tests; and a special edition of the Library of Congress’ film identification workshop Mostly Lost, together with a program on how silent film comedians used camera trickery presented by Ben Model.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Joyce Yang & Aspen Santa Fe Ballet headline concerts, Irish TV’s “Striking Out”

Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony (courtesy of michaeltilsonthomas.com).
Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony (courtesy of michaeltilsonthomas.com).

If you read the publicity put forth by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, you’ll note Michael Tilson Thomas is not only a National Medal of Arts winner but presently the longest-tenured music director of a major American orchestra. That’s far too modest, in my opinion—MTT (as he’s known to his admirers) is far and away the greatest conductor I’ve ever seen. I’ve long since forgotten the program I saw him offer in 2005 but his performance on the podium was nothing less than phenomenal. Talent runs in the family; he’s the grandson of legendary Yiddish actors Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.

The San Francisco Symphony (which Thomas has led since 1995) is making its first Orange County appearance in nearly 10 years on Mar. 29 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. They’ll present Mahler’s iconic Fifth Symphony, the masterwork of a composer MTT has long championed. Gil Shaham, who may be the best violinist you’ve never heard of, joins the ensemble for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

The Philharmonic Society’s Eclectic Orange Series brings pianist Joyce Yang back to OC in a new collaboration with the award-winning Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on Apr. 5. The program at the Irvine Barclay Theatre will feature works by renowned choreographers Jorma Elo, Jirí Kylián, and Nicolo Fonte, set to the music of Philip Glass and Leoš Janáček.

Yang, who made her mark at age 19 by taking the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will present the world premiere of a new work by Elo, a Philharmonic Society co-commission. Fonte’s “Where We Left Off” is accompanied by Glass’ “Mad Rush” and “Metamorphosis II,” while Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” is set to excerpts from Janáček’s “Diary of One Who Disappeared,” “On an Overgrown Path” and Sonata “1905.”

Now that the Irish television drama “Striking Out” is in its second season, I’ve finally caught up with the first (available on DVD from Acorn Media). Tara Rafferty (Amy Huberman in an award-winning performance) is a solicitor, or an attorney as we call them, who strikes out on her own after she catches her boss and fiancé Eric cheating on her with a colleague. This series created by James Phelan is well written and well acted but apart from the Dublin and rural Wicklow locations, a few idioms unique to Ireland and of course the accents, there’s little to distinguish it from an American TV show.

Joshua Bell and Beethoven’s 6th at Segerstrom, Woody Allen’s “Bullets” at the Gem

Beth Hansen and Robert Edward (center) in One More’s “Bullets Over Broadway.”
Beth Hansen and Robert Edward (center) in One More’s “Bullets Over Broadway.”

Woody Allen may have put one over on Broadway with the musical adaptation of his 1994 film “Bullets Over Broadway”—to the tune of six Tony nominations—but So Cal has higher standards. At least I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an entertaining show (playing at The GEM Theater in Garden Grove through Mar. 18) but the story has been shaved to the bone; those who enjoyed the movie about a playwright whose new musical is financed by a mobster may well be disappointed.

“Bullets” (written by Allen with musical adaptation and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly) is crammed with hit songs from the 1920s including evergreens like “Let’s Misbehave” and “Runnin’ Wild.” Its core is much like the soundtracks of Allen’s films, but at the sacrifice of his trademark one-liners. Not what I’d call a fair swap. As audiences might well ask, “Where’s Woody?”

It’s largely to director/musical director Damien Lorton’s credit that One More Productions’ revival is as much fun as it is. There are some fine performances here—notably OC stalwart Beth Hansen as an aging diva, Robert Edward as a gangster who thinks he’s a writer, and Nicole Cassesso as a ditzy moll and wannabe actress. There are also some stunning costumes (designed by Larry Watts) and some inspired choreography (Heather Holt-Smith). But at the end of a very long evening it’s little more than a garden variety jukebox show stuffed with vintage popular music.

Seldom does a concert season go by anywhere without Beethoven’s 6th, I suspect. But equally seldom do we have the good fortune to hear the Pastoral Symphony performed by Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. That opportunity comes to Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall this Friday, Mar. 9, brought to us by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

The 6th was premiered in 1808, the same evening as the 5th. If it seems less revolutionary today it is equally radical, notes Tom Service of The Guardian, “in some ways, more so. I think both pieces are experiments in symphonic extremity, because both are pushing completely different musical boundaries to their limits, and beyond.”

Bell, who was named Music Director of the Academy in 2011, is the only individual to hold the post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the celebrated chamber orchestra in 1958. Friday’s program also features Mendelssohn’s Overture from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Meyer’s Overture for Violin and Orchestra—written for violinist Bell and the Academy by composer and double bassist Edgar Meyer. The concert begins at 8 p.m. with a pre-concert lecture by Brian Lauritzen at 7p.m.

Hot tip: The Skirball Cultural Center will offer “Leonard Bernstein at 100, the Official Centennial Exhibition” Apr. 26-Sept. 2, curated by the Grammy Museum.

Rediscovering Max Linder and Marcel Perez, finding Lois Weber’s lost “Shoes”

macel perez DVD2

Do we need superheroes today? Of course. Not the drek Hollywood is spewing out by the bushel but guys like silent film accompanist Ben Model—and the 153 people who funded his latest project on Kickstarter. “The Marcel Perez Collection, Volume 2” (available on Amazon later this month) presents eight more rarities starring the largely forgotten silent film comic whose rediscovery Model spearheaded with the first award-winning DVD in the series for his Undercrank Productions.

The rubber-faced buffoon, who began his career in Europe and was known under a variety of aliases, is seen here in one of his earliest surviving comedies from 1907; the remainder of these short films (all newly scored by Model) were made 1916-1921 during Perez’s American career. Some of these 2K scans look terrific, others not so much; many have scenes missing. But what Model has rescued from the scrapheap of history offers substantial evidence this was one very funny man. Perez’s leading ladies, Nilde Baracchi and Dorothy Earle, are also seen to good effect in these shorts, as is character actress Louise Carver.

“Max Linder: Father of Film Comedy” by Snorre Smári Mathiesen (available in paperback and hardcover from BearManor Media) is apparently the first English language biography of the pioneering French comedian. It attempts an overview of his life and career, rather than a definitive bio of the funster who was arguably the first superstar—most of whose hundreds of films, like Perez’s, are lost. Mathiesen succeeds admirably in his intent, an effort hindered by mounds of misinformation available heretofore, much of it perpetuated by Linder himself.

The author, a Norweigan cartoonist, gives us a sense of Linder on screen and places him in the context of his times to give us the broader picture. Mathiesen was assisted by the comedian’s daughter, Maud Linder, as well as a competing biographer whose book has yet to materialize. The book includes dozens of photographs, a scrupulous filmography, bibliography and footnotes but lacks an index.

mary maclaren-SHOES DVD copy

There aren’t many films I’ve waited 40 years to see. Silent film actress Mary MacLaren whet my desire to see Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916), the film that made her a star, when I interviewed her in the ‘70s; I never expected to see it at all, until word surfaced of a new restoration by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films).

The tale of a teenage shop girl whose meager paycheck supports her parents and siblings, and the pickup artist who takes advantage of her, the film is a ground-breaking social drama radically different from D.W. Griffith’s epic “Intolerance,” made the same year. MacLaren’s performance is remarkably understated compared to the broad style of the era; Donald Sosin provides an appropriate score. Bonus features include a commentary track by Weber biographer Shelley Stamp, and an interview with MacLaren by Richard Koszarski.

The Silent Treatment is now programming films at The Autry Museum in Griffith Park and the Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood, since the closure of the venerable Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. last year. They’ll present the latest Universal restoration of Lois Weber’s “Sensation Seekers” (1927) on DCP, March 10 (2 p.m.), at Arena Cinelounge; and a 35mm presentation of Victor Sjöström’s “The Wind” (1928) with Lillian Gish at her best, at The Autry on April 21.

Also on March 10 (7 p.m.) at Christ Lutheran Church in Burbank, Famous Players Orchestra presents Clarence Brown’s “The Goose Woman” (1925), plus “City of Stars” (1924), a behind the scenes promo film for Universal Pictures. Both films will have orchestra scores performed live.

My favorite silent film, widely considered the greatest silent ever made, premiered 90 years ago today–February 18, 1928–at the majestic Capitol Theatre in Manhattan. My book, “King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic,” which tracks the film from rough idea to finished product features and includes a foreword by Kevin Brownlow, is available in ebook and paperback formats.

 

 

 

Q&A with Simon Levy, director of “The Chosen” at The Fountain in L.A.

Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in "the Chosen." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in “the Chosen.”
Photo by Ed Krieger.

“The Chosen,” based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel about two brilliant young men growing up five blocks and worlds apart in World War II Brooklyn, has been transformed into a play that’s somehow even more compelling than the book. Adapted by Potok and Aaron Posner and newly revised by Posner, it continues through Mar. 25 at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, on the edge of Los Feliz.

Director Simon Levy makes striking choices in staging the play, beginning with a baseball game between Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew (Sam Mendel), and Danny Saunders, an ultra-religious Hasid (Dor Gvirtsman), that turns into a Holy War; Levy’s use of sound effects is particularly noteworthy. The cast of four, fleshed out by fathers David Malter (Jonathan Arkin) and Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), is uniformly excellent; Blumenfeld’s outsized performance almost knocks you out of your seat.

Levy, who previously produced Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain, agreed to a Q&A.

Q: I feel “The Chosen” is The Great Jewish American Novel, but it’s universal in its themes. What resonates most with you?

A: The play begins, “Ayloo v’ayloo.” “Both these and these.” Among the myriad themes that run through the book, Potok gives life to the concept that we can bridge chasms, that we can hold opposing ideas and views that can both be true—Zionism and Hasidism, the secular and the sacred, the modern and the traditional, adolescence and adulthood, fathers and son, the head and the heart. In this polarized world we live in we need to be reminded that not everything is about being right, about winning, that it’s possible, just possible, that two rights can exist at the same time.

Q: What compelled you to choose “The Chosen” to direct?

A: I was searching for a project that would be an antidote to all the negativity and toxicity we’ve endured for the past two years. I wanted to say to our audiences, “Even if we’re different, even if we disagree, we can still respect each other and communicate our differences with tolerance and understanding.” Not everything has to be right or wrong, left or right, good or bad, fake or real. Human relationships are far more complex than that. We are a complicated species. Let’s honor those differences without resorting to rancor and bullying and polarization.

Q: I was struck by the utter simplicity of the adaptation when I read the script (at least the original version).

A: Potok and Posner found a way to streamline the play so it focuses on the fathers and sons, two households with opposing points of view, and how a friendship can blossom in spite of those differences. It streamlines the coming of age story for both Reuven and Danny while giving life to the deeper themes in the novel.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the directing the play?

A: I wanted to make sure I got it right. The specificity of both the Hasidic and Orthodox aspects of the play require authenticity. Verisimilitude is very important to me. Although I’m Jewish, I’m a typical modern American secular Jew. So it was important to me to do in-depth research that included consulting with two rabbis, Rabbi Jim Kaufman and Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. Both were immeasurably helpful! I couldn’t have done it without their wisdom and generosity. Not only did they help with the Hebrew and Yiddish and prayers and clothing and books and behavior and the cultural underpinnings of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, they also shared their time with the cast and our designers.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research for the play.

A: I must have watched, listened to, dozens and dozens of YouTube videos, music recordings, and viewed hundreds of photographs. I also read through all the commentaries in the 50th Anniversary Edition of “The Chosen,” as well as Chaim Potok’s exhaustive “Wanderings: History of The Jews”… And, “Judaism For Dummies,” which is actually a pretty fabulous book. Like most directors, I love the research part of my job.

 

 

“Importance of Being Earnest” at the Attic, “Dear Brutus” at Stages

Christopher Diem, Rose London and Kayla Agnew in “Earnest” at the Attic.
Christopher Diem, Rose London and Kayla Agnew in “Earnest” at the Attic.

Two visits to the theatre this weekend to see two actor friends, after a much-needed hiatus of more than a month; plenty of family drama, mind you. J.M. Barrie’s rarely-staged 1917 fantasy “Dear Brutus” (through Feb. 11 at Fullerton’s STAGEStheatre) is a play about second chances that’s been called “Peter Pan for adults.” The underlying message, to quote one character, seems to be, “We have the power to shape ourselves.”

The ensemble cast did a fine job under Alexis Stary’s direction with a stellar performance coming from the youngest member, a sprightly little redhead by the name of Scarlett Clark (Margaret). Stand outs also included Paul Burt (Lob) as an eccentric host who invites an odd selection of guests to his house on a summer eve; and Kerri Hellmuth (Mabel) and Elizabeth Rodrigues (Joanna) as two of the guests.

First performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s wickedly funny Victorian era farce “The Importance of Being Earnest” (at the Attic Community Theater in Santa Ana through Feb. 4) rarely gets a production worthy of it. Bob Fetes’ attentively directed staging, buoyed by a talented cast, exceeded my expectations—no small accomplishment considering the cavernous space of the venue. The uncredited costumes (designed by Rebecca Roth in conjunction with the Long Beach Playhouse) did much to enhance the show.

Rose London triumphed as the no-nonsense dowager aunt Lady Bracknell, as did Kayla Agnew (as Cecily). Kyle Patterson (Jack), Maggie King (Gwendolyn) and Mark Bowen (as the butler) were exceptional in their characterizations, giving this Wilde soufflé about using the well-crafted fiction to escape one’s obligations just the light touch it requires.