“Monster Builder” in Costa Mesa, “Hanna’s Suitcase” in Laguna, the problem with actors

Danny Scheie and Annie Abrams in “The Monster Builder.” Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Danny Scheie and Annie Abrams in “The Monster Builder.” Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

A two-act play with a gangbuster first act has a built-in problem—proceeding with a worthy follow-up which meets the heightened expectations of the audience. That’s the problem in a nutshell with Amy Freed’s “The Monster Builder” (through June 4 at South Coast Repertory).

The first half of this witty farrago about a superstar architect—and by extension pompous ass egomaniacs in every arena, including the Oval Office—is such a wild, zany ride it’s literally a tough act to follow. Freed almost sets herself up to fail by virtue of her talent.

Art Manke’s direction takes the bull by the horns and runs with it for all it’s worth. Danny Scheie is a hoot as Gregor, the architect in question. Annie Abrams delights as his trophy wife, transcending the stereotype; Susannah Schulman Rogers holds her own as his protégé. Thomas Buderwitz outdoes himself (as usual) with his scenic design, while Rodolfo Ortega’s original music and soundscape artfully complements the production.

Some Holocaust stories die forever because there’s no one left to tell the tale. “Hanna’s Suitcase,” adapted by Emil Sher from the book by Karen Levine, is a true story that thankfully survives. An orphan’s luggage compels an educator and her young charges to learn what happened to its owner when the long-forgotten suitcase turns up in a Holocaust education center in Tokyo, in this inspirational one act play recently presented by Laguna Playhouse’s long-running Youth Theatre.

Directed by Donna Inglima, the company acquitted itself with eloquence. The children (notably Claire Tigner, Nathan Schrodt, and Abigail Williams as Hana) turned in sensitive performances, matched by the adult cast (headed by Marita de Lara). The only problem with the show, and it’s a growing problem, is that actors—even Equity actors—are seemingly no longer being taught to project their voices.

It may well be that performers are being handicapped by directors who aren’t checking the volume from the back of the house. This faux pas is by no means limited to Laguna; it’s a perennial problem at South Coast Rep (though not with “Builder”) and other theatres. For the price of the ticket, audiences deserve to hear the actors. ‘Nuff said.





San Francisco silent filmfest, “Behind the Door” on Blu-ray, North Carolina’s silent era

“Get Your Man” (1927) with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers.
“Get Your Man” (1927) with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival gets under way June 1 at the city’s treasured silent-era movie palace, The Castro. Harold Lloyd’s popular “The Freshman” (1925), featuring a climactic football game filmed at UC Berkeley, is slated for opening night. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. headlines the closing night June 4 in “The Three Musketeers” (1921). In between the schedule promises some real gems, including the definitive restoration of Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin” (1925), about the 1905 revolution—one of the greatest films ever made by anyone, anywhere, any time.

The 22nd annual SFSFF will screen two silents directed by women, the reconstructed version of Dorothy Arzner’s “Get Your Man” (1927) with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers, and Lois Weber’s “The Dumb Girl of Portici” (1916) with ballet legend Anna Pavlova, the first blockbuster ever directed by a woman. African-American director Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” (1925) features Paul Robeson in his film debut.

Also showing: Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law” (1920) with Lon Chaney in a dual role and Anna May Wong; the brilliantly photographed Japanese silent, “A Page of Madness” (1926); Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Doll” (1918); the first film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1925) in a new reconstruction; Cecil B. DeMille’s long lost “Silence” (1926); and footage from a lost Wallace Beery-Louise Brooks comedy. Music scores will be performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne and others.

“Behind the Door” is a 1919 film (available on Blu-ray and DVD from Flicker Alley) that shows us some things have changed a great deal in the past century while other things haven’t changed at all. Xenophobia, which rears its ugly head early in the film when World War I is declared, is as virulent as ever. The heavy melodramatic style of acting has gone the way of the buggy whip but is fascinating to watch. Hobart Bosworth chews the scenery as the working-class hero; Wallace Beery, not to be outdone in his role as a villainous submarine commander, sneers into the camera in his first close-up.

This silent Thomas Ince production (newly restored in a collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress and Gosfilmofond of Russia) belongs to a genre called revenge films. It’s “one of the most outrageous” pictures of its era according to film historian Kevin Brownlow, who gives us the lowdown on director Irving Willat and the cast in a superb bonus interview. The original color tinting scheme is painstakingly recreated; composer tephen Horne provides an appropriate score. A booklet full of erudite essays is included, par for the course with Flicker Alley.

“Asheville Movies, Volume I: The Silent Era,” a handsome volume by Frank Thompson, provides a vivid account of North Carolina’s early days as a magnet for film production. The book (available in paperback from Men with Wings Press) is crammed with rare photos and memorabilia from this forgotten period in the state’s filmmaking history, circa 1910-1929. Thompson makes you want to see many of the films, but sadly only nine of the nearly 350 silent movies made in NC are extant.

“Killer Angels” at Maverick Theater, Wajda’s “Afterimage” in cinemas

“Killer Angels” at Maverick Theater.
“The Killer Angels” at Maverick Theater.

The best way to comprehend the Battle of Gettysburg—the turning point in the Civil War—is to tour the battlefield with an historian. At present, your best bet on the Left Coast would be to check out “The Killer Angels” at Fullerton’s Maverick Theater (playing through June 24). Brian Newell’s adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel is a fine dramatization that focuses on the strategic effort behind the scenes, on both sides of the conflict.

Brian Kojac heads a strong ensemble cast as General Robert E. Lee, in a beautifully understated performance that lends a gravitas to the proceedings. Frank Tryon (Col. Chamberlain, commanding the Union army), Mark Coyan, Brock Joseph, Paul Jasser and others too numerous to mention contribute finely-etched portrayals of officers and soldiers, putting a human face on the conflict of 1863 that consumed a horrific number of lives.

Newell (who has toured the battlefield, as I have) is practically a one-man show behind the scenes, producing and directing this epic 2.5 hour production as well as designing lights, sound, and costumes. The show repurposes the music of the late film composer James Horner (“Glory”). The Gettysburg Address, delivered by several cast members, provides a fitting conclusion to the proceedings, marking the 150th anniversary of the war’s end and Lincoln’s assassination.

Polish painter Władysław Strzemiński, co-founder of the National School of Fine Arts in Lódź, was the kind of professor who told his students, “The purpose of art is to impose its truth on reality.” The renowned avant-garde artist is the subject of “Afterimage,” the last film directed by the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda before his death in 2016. Film Movement presents the US theatrical release, opening in NYC on May 19th and in LA (at Laemmle Theaters) on May 26th.

Strzemiński (played by Boguslaw Linda) fights a no-win battle with the Stalinist government, clashing with their socialist agenda and campaign against “decadent art” in post-war Poland. Wajda, as uncompromising as his subject, conveys the indomitability of the human spirit and evokes the bleak mood of the era with a muted color palette.

Hot tip: Laguna Playhouse is offering free tickets for all theatergoers 21 and under (ID required) to “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” an inspirational one-man show written and performed by Academy Award-winner James Lecesne (June 11-25).


“My Son the Waiter” in Huntington Beach, “Middletown” in Anaheim

Brad Zimmerman in “My Son the Waiter.”
Brad Zimmerman in “My Son the Waiter.”

Will Eno’s “Middletown” (in its SoCal premiere at Anaheim’s Chance Theater through May 21) reminds you of Thornton Wilder’s celebrated “Our Town” from the get-go. This may or may not have been a conscious decision on Eno’s part but he’s trying to accomplish the same thing; the play is simple as well as profound, but not as profound as it endeavors to be. (A clever moment has actors portraying audience members, discussing the play and what it’s about).

What happens on stage is what might happen in any town on almost any given day: a librarian helping a patron find a book, a cop interrogating a drunk, a doctor telling a new mother her baby could grow up to be another Beethoven and suggesting she buy him a drum. There are some odd goings on and that’s as it should be in theatre; we can just watch TV if we want everything wrapped up in nice little packages.

Lola Kelly makes a strong impression as Mary, the new mother; Chance regular James McHale does likewise as John, a handyman. Ahmed Brooks (as a doctor and other characters) and Karen Webster (doctor/librarian) offer fine support. Trevor Bishop’s attentive direction is aided by Bruce Goodrich’s scenic design.

What happens when a nice Jewish boy wants to be an actor but ends up shlepping soup instead? Brad Zimmerman provides the answer in “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy” (at Huntington Beach Library Theater through May 14). This autobiographical one-man show is essentially standup comedy; the jokes fly fast and thick but writer-performer Zimmerman leavens the laughs with self-reflection and personalizes the shtick with family anecdotes.

Would a gentile enjoy the show? No question. But Jews will derive an extra level of meaning from it. “I’m as far from a practicing Jew as you can get,” we’re assured. “I’m one step above a Muslim.” The comic, a former opening act for Joan Rivers and George Carlin, uses a technique not unlike Jackie Mason—he circles around a target and keeps firing on it from all sides. The result is pretty much a dead hit on the collective funnybone.

“Heart, Baby!” and shorts at Newport filmfest, “Tanna” on Blu-ray & DVD

Shawn-Caulin Young in “Heart, Baby!”
Shawn-Caulin Young in “Heart, Baby!”

One of the great things about the annual Newport Beach Film Festival—which wrapped its 18th edition last week—is the abundance of short film programs. If you don’t like what you’re watching, wait a few minutes. You’re bound to see something like the clever animated “Anatomie” or the surreal “Dreamkeeper” that’ll knock your socks off.

Prison films have changed radically since “Cool Hand Luke” reinvented the genre 50 years ago. What Angela Shelton’s “Heart, Baby!” (which screened twice at the festival) lacks in a name-brand star like Paul Newman it makes up for in strong naturalistic acting that pulls you into its unlikely scenario—based on a true story. Though it contains a scene that is almost an homage to “Luke” with a woman using her body to tease a busload of prisoners, “Baby!” is a love story at heart and a singular one at that.

A powerfully built African American with a knockout punch in the boxing arena, George (Gbenga Akinnagbe) has been incarcerated since he robbed a house at age 18; his cellmate, Crystal (the charismatic Shawn-Caulin Young), is a white transgender female junkie. When George rejects a shot at competing in the 1984 Olympics, only his boyhood friend and fellow prisoner, Doc (Jackson Rathbone), can handle the truth of their relationship.

Though the brutality—stabbings, beatings and more—makes “Baby!” difficult to watch at times, this film about people who want acceptance on their own terms is as inspiring as it is uncompromising. (The true happy ending occurred off-camera during the making of the film when the real-life George and Doc were reunited.)

Another tale of forbidden love based on a true story is the award-winning “Tanna,” set on an island in the South Pacific (available on Blu-ray and DVD through Momentum/Sony, also Amazon Video and iTunes). The picture was Oscar-nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film, the first time a movie from Australia has been represented in that category.

Dain (Mungau Dain) and Wawa (Marie Wawa) are lovers no less star-crossed than Romeo and Juliet; unfortunately they’re members of the same tribe, the Yakel, thus their relationship goes against age-old customs. When their shaman is killed by the rival Imedin tribe, Wawa is betrothed as a peace offering. None of the cast members had ever seen a movie before making “Tanna,” much less acted in one (Marceline Rofit nearly steals the picture as Wawa’s little sister Selin).

Written by Bentley Dean, Martin Butler and John Collee in collaboration with the people of Yakel, the film was directed by Dean and Butler. The excellence of the picture belies the simplicity with which it was made. Dean shot the film on a single Canon camera, with its batteries charged each night by a single solar panel; his photography is stunning.