August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at South Coast Rep, Britcom binging on DVD

Preston Butler III and L. Scott Caldwell in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.
Preston Butler III and L. Scott Caldwell in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” (at South Coast Repertory through Nov. 11) is one of those quirky character-driven plays it’s hard to get a handle on at first. It may be “monologue-heavy” as one of my fellow playwrights has observed, and it takes a while for something resembling a plot to develop. But my advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride, and not to miss it if you appreciate the distinction between live theatre and pre-recorded media. Vive la différence! After all, Wilson made up his own rules when it came to playwriting.

“Gem” has one of the richest characterizations of Wilson’s oeuvre in Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old matriarch who anchors the tale—which employs as a backdrop the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the racist North in search of a better life, in the first decade of the 20th century. The 2.5 hour length of the play affords Ester and others time to tell leisurely stories, creating a spellbinding tapestry of language.

Director Kent Gash has meticulously assembled a first-rate ensemble cast, most notably including L. Scott Caldwell as the feisty Ester, but also Cleavant Derricks (Solly Two Kings), who reminisces about his first taste of post-slavery freedom in Canada; Preston Butler III (Citizen Barlow), who visits Ester to have her “wash his soul clean”; Shinelle Azoroh (Black Mary), his love interest; and Arnell Powell (Caesar), her hot-headed brother. Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes and his colleagues collaborate to produce one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at SCR in 30+ years of attendance on and off.

Binging on Britcoms is easier than ever thanks to Acorn Media. Not that I do a lot of it, but lately I’ve been gobbling up BBC adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse on DVD like there’s no tomorrow, first with the juicy “Blandings” and then “Wodehouse Playhouse.” Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders are wonderfully wacky in the former; John Alderton and Pauline Collins wrap their tongues around Wodehouse’s whimsical dialogue in delightful fashion (her vocal range is phenomenal) in the latter.

Few British TV shows are more consistently satisfying than “Doc Martin,” featuring the ever reliable Martin Clunes as village curmudgeon/physician and set indelibly on the coast of the Cornwall. Series 8, recently streamed on Acorn TV, is due out on DVD and Blu-ray from the company in mid-December; Sigourney Weaver returns for the season’s finale.

Musée Picasso in Paris, Museum of Modern Art in Slovenia

Musée Picasso, Paris. Photo © 2017 by Jordan R. Young.
Musée Picasso, Paris. Photo © 2017 by Jordan R. Young.

The Musée Picasso seems to be closed every time I’m in Paris. I finally managed to visit the museum devoted to the celebrated artist on a recent trip to Europe, though it was (natch) partially closed. Better yet, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Slovenia.

The Picasso is not the only Parisian museum housing the work of an iconic Spanish painter, of course; there also Espace Dalí in Montmartre. The former, housed in a private mansion in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement, is the more imposing of the two. The current exhibition, “Picasso 1932,” is a chronological survey of the artist’s work for the year, organized in partnership with Tate Modern in London.

The exhibit of more than 100 works (on view in Paris through Feb. 11, 2018) is drawn from public and private collections. His best known painting that year, “Le Rêve” (“The Dream”), depicts his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. More intriguing are the obscure sketches and studies of nudes and couples engaged in lovemaking and erotic games. The exhibit is in fact subtitled “The Erotic Year.”

The comparatively little known Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia (aka the Moderna galerija), is nothing short of a revelation. If you think New York City’s same-named institution offers more or less everything you need to know regarding 20th century art, you should have a glance at what you’re missing in the Balkans.

The museum’s permanent collection, “Continuities and Ruptures,” is anything but a boring survey of nationalistic art. The influence of such artists as Picasso and Rene Magritte is evident among the more avant-garde works on display, which exhibit an unexpected streak of originality. The work produced by Partisans, those active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, is particularly surprising.

 “Slovenian Artists Exhibition” by Hinko Smrekar, National Gallery of Slovenia.
“Slovenian Artists Exhibition” by Hinko Smrekar, National Gallery of Slovenia.

My favorite work in the museum is a drawing by painter-illustrator Hinko Smrekar, who was murdered by Italian fascists in 1942, at the start of WWII in Slovenia. This piece, drawn circa 1910 and titled “Slovenian Artists Exhibition,” transcends time and place like all great art. More than 100 years later, it speaks volumes.




“Curious Incident” at SCFTA, “Once” at SCR, “In a Word” at Chance

James McHale and Amanda Zarr in “In a Word.” Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
James McHale and Amanda Zarr in “In a Word.” Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.

Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle—gets ‘em every time. I have no evidence this thought passed through Simon Stephens’ brain en route to adapting “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” from the novel by Mark Haddon, but it very well might have. This mega-theatrical show about an extraordinary 15-year-old named Christopher, who’s accused of killing his neighbor’s dog and attempts to find the culprit, is nothing if not big.

From scenic design (Bunny Christie) and lighting (Paule Constable) to music and sound effects, the Tony Award-winning musical (at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through Sept. 17) is strikingly conceived and executed. Marianne Elliott’s astute direction is the key to making it all work smoothly; Adam Langdon is first-rate as Christopher. Unfortunately, Maria Elena Ramirez fails to project in the key role of Siobhan; between her British accent and the theatre’s acoustics, she’s largely unintelligible. (I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear her—there was a queue for hearing devices at intermission).

“Once” may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying the stage production (at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through Sept. 30) based on the 2007 movie written and directed by John Carney is hugely entertaining. The performance I witnessed drew one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve seen in years at SCR. This musical romance, which boasts a book by Enda Walsh with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who co-starred in the film) is a wholly different animal from the picture but captures its essence.

There’s nothing particularly Irish about “Once” on stage or screen though it’s set in Dublin and centers on the relationship between an Irishman and a Czech woman, and that seems a missed opportunity. I don’t think you need 13 actors/musicians to tell this guy-meets-girl story; the Tony-winning stage version has a more substantial plot but I for one prefer the intimacy of the film. Rustin Cole Sailors is more than capable as Guy, while Amanda Leigh Jerry is exceptional as Girl. Kent Nicholson’s direction keeps it moving on a splendid set by Ralph Funicello.

And my favorite of the three shows I managed to see this week? That would be Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” (in its So Cal premiere at Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills through Oct. 8). Sometimes smaller is better. “Curious Incident” has more words, but “Word” arguably has more love of words. “Curious” and “Once” unquestionably have more pizazz but “Word” does a better job of telling a story. And story wins over spectacle every time, at least in my book. What the Chance lacks in budget it makes up for in imagination, and Christopher Scott Murillo’s set is a perfect example. Jocelyn A. Brown’s direction is simply magical.

I won’t spoil the story. Let’s just say this quirky dramedy concerns a missing boy, his adoptive parents and their day-to-day relationship as they ride a rollercoaster of emotions. Amanda Zarr gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Fiona, the boy’s mother, as those emotions play across the surface; Chance Dean provides good contrast as her somewhat detached husband. James McHale largely steals the show as the one-man supporting cast, playing the boy, a detective, a cat burglar and other roles with deft physicality and a wonderfully expressive face.


“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.





Teatro alla Scala Ballet’s “Giselle” in Costa Mesa

 Nicoletta Manni and Claudio Coviello in Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company’s Giselle. Photo by Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano.

Nicoletta Manni and Claudio Coviello in Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company’s Giselle. Photo by Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano.

If you hurry you can catch Teatro alla Scala Ballet’s “Giselle” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts today before they leave town. This is a rare event—the first time the company has visited the US of A since July 2001, when they performed at SCFTA and in New York.

The bad news is that Misty Copeland has left the building. The good news is that virtually the entire corps de ballet is as close to perfection as the company’s soloists, and Teatro alla Scala’s take on this tale of unrequited love is a pure unadulterated delight for lovers of classical ballet.

Copeland lived up to her reputation as a superstar opening night, dancing the titular role of the peasant girl with a beauty and grace rarely equaled on So Cal stages. La Scala star Roberto Bolle is dynamic as Albrecht, the prince who pays court to Giselle though he is, shall we say, otherwise engaged. Nicoletta Manni, who co-stars as the queen of the Willi maidens—the vengeful spirits of brides who have died prior to their wedding day—is sheer poetry, as delicate on her feet as a dandelion in the wind.

Bolle and Manni will perform today with Argentinian dancer Marianela Nuñez, a star of the Royal Ballet. “Giselle,” a triumph at its world premiere in 1841, is one of the most popular and most performed classical story ballets. The La Scala production is enhanced by Aleksandr Benois’ costumes and sets—both the Act I village setting and the Act II graveyard are richly detailed as one would hope, but rarely finds.




“Sex in Cinema” examined, women in film spotlighted, slapstick found in “Paris”

Joan Blondell in the 1931 Pre-Code, "Blonde Crazy."
Joan Blondell in the 1931 Pre-Code, “Blonde Crazy.”

Lou Sabini’s “Sex in the Cinema: The ‘Pre-Code’ Years (1929-1934)” is a solid, well-researched introduction to the films of that brief period between the end of silent movies and the enforcement of Hollywood’s prudish Production Code. Leading ladies with loose morals, ribald dialogue, overtly sexual situations, nudity and gratuitous undressing scenes were the stuff dreams were made of in the Depression era, and Sabini is more than familiar with the territory.

From the raw violence of James Cagney’s breakthrough film, “The Public Enemy,” to the risqué plot of Barbara Stanwyck’s “Baby Face,” Sabini delivers the goods. The author virtually salivates when talking about the decadence of “The Story of Temple Drake” and the salacious William Faulkner novel it was based on; he gleefully points out the scantily clad hula dancers censored from many release prints of Laurel and Hardy’s “Son of the Desert.”

For a book titled “Sex in the Cinema,” however, there isn’t quite enough sex. To his credit, Sabini is a historian rather than a tabloid reporter trying to exploit the topic. But he comes up short-handed on some entries, like the one on Wheeler and Woolsey’s “Cockeyed Cavaliers,” which notes the spicy exchanges between Woolsey and Thelma Todd but offers no examples. However, the book (available from BearManor Media) includes tidbits of info that will surprise even those who know these films well, and lots of great stills that may well entice readers to check out some of the more obscure films.

“Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology” (available from Flicker Alley on Blu-ray and DVD in a dual format edition) shines the spotlight on the cinema’s largely unsung and underappreciated contributors. Among the European directors featured in this 3-disc box set are the prolific Alice Guy Blaché, Germaine Dulac and the notorious Leni Reifenstahl, whose work glorified the Third Reich; there are three intricate short films by stop motion animator Lotte Reiniger, including one viewed as an anti-Nazi allegory.

The socially relevant dramas of Lois Weber, Hollywood’s most important silent filmmaker of the fair sex, are typified by “The Blot.” Comedienne Mabel Normand, actress Dorothy Davenport (billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid), and avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren (the still striking “Meshes of the Afternoon”) are also part of the package. Dorothy Arzner, the preeminent woman director of her time, is represented here only by a four-minute excerpt—the sole disappointment in this invaluable video release produced by the late David Shepard and Serge Bromberg.

Fiona Gordon is an actress-writer-director who has made a series of films in collaboration with her husband, Dominique Abel. Somehow it has taken until now, with the recent release of their charming comedy “Lost in Paris,” for this reviewer to discover them. The tale of a Canadian woman (Gordon) who goes to Paris in response to a call of distress from her elderly aunt, and meets up with a homeless character (Abel) who only complicates her adventure, is sure to win the duo new admirers. (The film opened in Los Angeles earlier this month).

Gordon proceeds to loose her passport, luggage and cell phone almost as soon as she arrives in Paris, and things only get worse from there. The film is crammed with wild sight gags, interrupted by a delightful musical sequence that has to be seen to be believed; Gordon seems to be channeling Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, not to mention the slapstick queens of the silent era, while Abel is clearly an admirer of Chaplin, Keaton and their successor, Jacques Tati. The late Emmanuelle Riva plays the aunt and Pierre Richard her friend, lending an extra touch of class to the proceedings.

Eifman Ballet’s “Red Giselle” in Costa Mesa, Hollywood Fringe Festival returns

Eifman Ballet in “Red Giselle.” Photo by Evgeny Matveev.
Eifman Ballet in “Red Giselle.” Photo by Evgeny Matveev.

The Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company’s “Giselle” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts July 28-30 is certain to be a must-see event—especially with Misty Copeland in the title role on opening night. But Eifman Ballet’s “Red Giselle” (closing today at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa) is not to be missed by any aficionado of ballet and modern dance.

Eifman’s muscular, highly stylized ballet is dedicated to Olga Spessivtseva, a great 20th century ballerina who identified with the role of Giselle so strongly she was unable to escape the heroine’s tragic fate and ended up spending 20 years in a mental clinic. Eifman and company make striking use of music (by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke, and Georges Bizet) and lighting. There’s an eclectic range of styles, including a surprising parody of ballroom dancing in a scene set in Paris during the Jazz Age.

At times the influence of German Expressionism is apparent (think Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”), at other times a more contemporary sensibility (as in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”). The show may disappoint audiences unprepared to take the bold leap of faith its creator does, but even the patron who told me she wasn’t sure if she liked it admitted it was very powerful and would stay with her.

I’ve seen two shows I can highly recommend at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in recent weeks. Ché Walker’s “Been So Long” begins with a guy walking into a bar…but it’s not what you think. There’s a humor aplenty in this offbeat seriocomic drama of love, lust and murderous jealousy. It takes Walker about a minute to grab your attention; once he does he never lets go, and Austin Iredale’s attentive direction makes the seemingly impossible work on stage. The five-actor ensemble is first rate, with Maia Nikiphoroff’s wonderful rubber face and Carlo Figlio’s stoic countenance of special note. This US premiere is not to be missed.

“Hello Again!” is solid entertainment because Linden Waddell clearly has great reverence for Allan Sherman’s material and genuine stage presence. Many of the song parodies she performs, like the forgotten “Chopped Liver” (a dead-on spoof of “Moon River”), weren’t among Sherman’s most successful but they work wonderfully with a live audience. Never heard of Allan Sherman, the “Weird Al” of the ’60s? No matter; nor had many of the young people in the audience (apart from maybe “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”) but they clearly had a great time.


“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.