“King Henry IV” in Garden Grove, “Understudy” in Lake Forest, OC-centric in Orange

David Edward Reyes and Talia Goodman in Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot” at OC-centric. Photo by Kirk Huff Schenck.
David Edward Reyes and Talia Goodman in Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot” at OC-centric. Photo by Kirk Huff Schenck.

Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy” (at Modjeska Playhouse in Lake Forest through Sept. 3) is an example of what can happen when a playwright makes a name for themselves. This is not the ingenious author of “Seminar” and “Mauritius” at her best; put another name on the script and it would have a hard time getting produced. Director Deb Marley and two-thirds of her cast—Robert Downs and Hailey Tweter—appear to be giving their all, but their best efforts aren’t quite enough to make it work; Jaycob Hunter is less successful in the lead role but has his moments.

Actors will get the most entertainment out of this metatheatrical comedy. The play is full of existential jokes that fall flat on their face; though it aspires to the likes of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” it sadly misses the mark. The highlight is a heart-felt rant about the lack of good roles for women, an all-too-real situation that will resonate with theatre folk but is none too amusing. Next up at Modjeska: “Cut” by Crystal Skillman, about the world of reality television.

A better bet is OC-centric’s 7th annual New Play Festival (at Chapman University in Orange through Aug. 27), one of So Cal’s best offerings of original works of theatre. A program of one-act plays pairs Sara Saenz’s “Crimson,” a clever get-even scenario hatched in the aftermath of a rape, with Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot,” a compelling family drama pitting a stubborn Irish woman against her kid brother’s American wife. Karly Thomas’ full-length “Fair” is an offbeat fantasy that spins the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” aphorism on its head.

Though I agree with the concept of colorblind casting in theory, I’m not sure I would have chosen a Latina to direct an Irish-themed play—or cast Latino and Asian American actors in it. Yet in “Celtic Knot” director Angela Cruz magically transports us to a farm in the middle of Eire, as well as an Irish pub in Chicago, with a surprising degree of authenticity. This drama, perhaps the most satisfying of the three plays, would be right at home on the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Candice M. Clasby (Mary), David Edward Reyes (her brother Sean), and Bill Carson (Eamon, their father) all sound like the real deal; Talia Goodman (Beth, the wife) provides an ideal contrast.

If you haven’t had your fill of the Bard yet this season, Shakespeare/Summerfest Orange County is offering an intimate and innovative staging of the seldom-produced “King Henry IV, Part I.” Yes, this is one of the history plays, but it features Shakespeare’s most enduring comic character, the larger-than-life Falstaff. Furthermore, you can sit on the stage, smack in the midst of the action. It promises to be anything but boring. The catch is that the show just opened (at the Garden Grove Amphitheater in downtown Garden Grove) and it’s closing Aug. 26.

The play takes place in 13th century England. Henry IV, who has just seized the throne, is rarely onstage. The focus of this coming-of-age story is Prince Hal, the king’s ne’er-do-well heir. Will the crown prince stop wenching and carousing about town with his buddy (and surrogate father) Falstaff and sober up, and if so when? Will he best his rival, the volatile Hotspur, whose actions inspire him? And which one’s the real hero of the play? Don’t ask me, I haven’t seen or read it since I caught it up in Ashland, Oregon, 40 years ago; I’m coming this week to find out.

 

 

 

“Slapstick Divas” celebrates funny girls, Marion Davies comes to Blu-ray

The cover features funny lady Alice Howell.
The cover features funny lady Alice Howell.

Carol Burnett may be a pioneer of sorts, but women were taking pratfalls decades before she was born. As Steve Massa sees it, the Boy’s Club “myth” of silent film comedy started with James Agee’s seminal Life magazine cover story in 1947, which revived widespread interest in the efforts of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy but minimized the contributions of the ladies in their midst. In what seems destined to become the definitive text on the subject, Massa’s groundbreaking “Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy” gives the gals their due—and it’s long overdue.

The 633-page book (available in hardcover and paperback from BearManor Media) is encyclopedic in its coverage and scope. But Massa gives us far more than names and faces and film titles. He describes the comediennes so vividly we can see them. He gives us a sense of their surviving films; trade magazine reviews and news items flesh out the details, along with still photos, advertisements and posters. The chapter on Mabel Normand, the most influential funny girl of ‘em all, includes an eloquent discourse on her abilities as a director at Mack Sennett’s fun factory.

The more familiar names—Marion Davies, Thelma Todd, Colleen Moore—largely get short shrift in order to shift the focus to their lesser known sisters in slapstick. To name a few: Flora Finch, a name only vaguely familiar to silent comedy mavens as pioneer funster John Bunny’s partner-in-crime; Victoria Forde, who became Tom Mix’s love interest on and offscreen; Dorothy Gish and Constance Talmadge, who were obscured by their more famous sisters; and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who helped write and direct the light comedies in which she co-starred with her husband. Virtually no one is overlooked; even Josephine the monkey and Cameo the dog are covered.

Marion Davies-WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER-title lobby

Marion Davies is highly visible at the moment with the gorgeous restoration of her 1922 film “When Knighthood Was in Flower” (available in Blu-ray + DVD Combo from Undercrank Productions). As Mary Tudor, kid sister of Henry VIII sold into an alliance with the King of France, the actress has ample opportunity to display her charm, beauty and comedic talents—indeed, her indelible screen presence. William Powell, in his second film appearance, is well in evidence as the villain of the piece—the nephew and heir to the elderly French king, who has designs on her himself.

This release also enhances composer Ben Model’s reputation as an indie producer of home video editions of silent movies. In a manner befitting this lavish costume drama made on an epic scale (one of the most expensive films of its era at $1.5 million) Model spares no effort, digitally reinstating the picture’s original tints—not to mention creating a sumptuous new theatre organ score. Davies’ biographer, Lara Fowler, provides erudite notes on the film. This “road-show” version seems a tad too long at 115 minutes but the movie holds up well; we should all look this good and hold up this well at age 95.

 

 

 

 

New Swan’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Alchemy’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

 Ryan Imhoff and Grace Morrison in New Swan’s “Taming of the Shrew.”

Ryan Imhoff and Grace Morrison in New Swan’s “Taming of the Shrew.”

August. Time to swelter in the city. And brush up your Shakespeare. Those who love the Bard’s comedies—as well as those who tend to avert their eyes and ears for fear they won’t understand it—are in for a treat this summer with both the New Swan Shakespeare Festival (in their sixth season at UC Irvine, through Sept. 2) and the Alchemy Theatre Company (in their fifth annual production at Huntington Beach Central Park Amphitheater, through Aug. 19.)

New Swan’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is an extraordinarily physical show, considering the intimate confines of their unique theatre-in-the-round venue. Ryan Imhoff is pure animal as Petruchio, in an outrageous balls-to-the-wall performance that goes as far over the top as any I’ve ever seen. Grace Morrison gives as good as she gets in a smart, feisty portrayal of Kate, and does much to nullify the misogynistic aspects of the play that often give one pause.

Beth Lopes directs this wildly energetic free for all with aplomb; though the ‘70s era “rock ‘n’ roll” setting may not be to everyone’s taste, it works better than one might imagine. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, with Rosemary Brownlow (Tranio), Thomas Varga (Hortensio), Grace Theobald (Grumio) and Chynna Walker (Bianca) doing particularly good work. Varga and Theobald (as Caliban and Ariel, respectively) virtually steal the show in Eli Simon’s more traditional production of “The Tempest,” which runs in rep with “Shrew.” Kathryn Wilson’s costumes for both shows are deserving of special mention.

Alchemy seems to have come of age with this year’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” perhaps their best show yet. Longtime offstage collaborators Jeff Lowe and Jesse Runde have terrific chemistry as Beatrice and Benedick, the sparring lovebirds at the heart of the Bard’s wittiest play. Lowe demonstrates once again why he should be teaching other actors how to project, and do it with distinction; Runde rises to the occasion in a rare turn out of the director’s chair, a delightful one at that.

There’s never a dull moment thanks to EB Bohks’ unusually attentive direction. Casey Moriarty (Don Pedro), Sawyer Dolson (Borachio), Loralee Barlow-Boyes (Conrade), Daniel Conder (Dogberry) and Wade Williamson (Leonato) are especially good. The ensemble moves beautifully, in no small measure due to Kathleen Switzer’s choreography; Rome Fiore’s costumes are also worthy of note.