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20th-century tumult in 'Ragtime' and 'Twilight'. A healing 'Tempest' and two new musicals.
'Walter Paisley,' 'Lonely Few,' 'La Egoista,' 'Lifespan of a Fact'
Both “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and “Ragtime” are panoramic theatrical creations. Experienced in close sequence, which you can do right now in Greater LA, they bookend powerful stories from opposite ends of the previous century.
But they employ diametrically different techniques. “Ragtime” is a mostly fictional musical. “Twilight” is a non-musical collection of non-fictional interview excerpts.
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They’re both capable of quickening pulses and misting eyes — as we consider our shared humanity, our hopes and disillusionments, somewhere between the ideal and the real.
“Ragtime” might be the better place to start. This isn’t only for the chronological reason that its story launches in New York soon after the century begins, while “Twilight” primarily covers events in the 1990s. It’s also because the 5-Star Theatricals production of “Ragtime” in Thousand Oaks closes next Sunday, while “Twilight” — at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown LA — continues one more week, through April 9.
“Ragtime” is probably more familiar to many younger Angelenos. Its US premiere occurred in Century City in 1997. Based on the late E. L. Doctorow’s novel, the show was revived in LA County as recently as 2019 — at Pasadena Playhouse. But the playhouse stage was — in retrospect — not big enough for “Ragtime.”
By contrast, the Kavli Theatre, in Thousand Oaks, has a stage expansive enough to make room for 44 players. Only three cast members are identified in the program as Actors’ Equity members — Misty Cotton’s Mother, Michael Scott Harris’ Father, and Marty Austin Lamar’s Coalhouse — all of them superb. The use of non-Equity talent probably helped pay for such a mammoth production. But Hank Jacobs’ Tateh and Brittany Anderson’s Sarah are also strong in the two other leading roles, as are most of the major supporting players.
Jeffrey Polk’s staging honors all of the musical’s unforgettable moments, assisted by Tom Griffin’s 18-piece orchestra. While many of these moments stem from the thrilling score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the late Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Doctorow’s complex narrative is also masterful. McNally’s version of the “Ragtime” story might be remembered long after many of his less collaborative plays have been largely forgotten.
I don’t like to give away spoilers, in case anyone who’s new to “Ragtime” cares. But I can’t resist discussing how “Ragtime” ends when I’m also about to discuss “Twilight.”
“Ragtime” demonstrates how upper-class whites in New York’s suburban New Rochelle (which sounds similar, demographically, to today’s Thousand Oaks) met and mingled with African-Americans and the incoming wave of poor European Jews. Initial signs of optimism appeared. In “Wheels of a Dream,” the pianist Coalhouse, a virtuoso of the then-newfangled ragtime music, sings of driving his shiny new car as far as California.
But then we see a group of white firefighters vandalize his car, followed by a incident in which security officers shoot the woman who is pregnant with his child. This leads to a confrontation between Coalhouse and the cops — in a setting that is somewhat more sophisticated than the racially charged battles depicted in “Twilight.”
I won’t give away what happens to Coalhouse, but at the end of “Ragtime”
we see that a new family has formed from members of all three of the aforementioned demographic groups. And that family is on the move to a presumably sunnier future in Los Angeles, the city of angels.
We also hear an allusion to an idea for what would become the “Our Gang” series of short movies, which were created in Hollywood between 1922 and1944. The “Ragtime” script describes the premise of the series in these words:
“A bunch of children, white, black, Christian, Jew, rich, poor — all kinds — a gang, a crazy gang getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, but together despite their differences…a dream of what this country could be.”
Traversing the ‘Twilight’
Of course, by the final decade of the century, that word “gang” had fallen far in public repute. Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles” reflects on two types of gang members — the mostly white police officers who assailed Rodney King in 1991 and those who participated in the riots after those officers were acquitted (in Simi Valley, just a few miles from Thousand Oaks) on April 29, 1992.
Spurred by Center Theatre Group’s founding artistic director Gordon Davidson, the Taper’s original “Twilight” opened on May 23, 1993. Smith had not only interviewed real-life Angelenos about the turbulent events of the previous two years and assembled a script of scenes from the interviews, but she also played all the roles of those whose interviews made up her script. Although she made subsequent changes in the selection of the verbatim material, “Twilight” still remained a solo in New York and elsewhere, including a Rubicon Theatre production in Ventura less than a year ago that featured Chris Butler as the soloist.
However, in 2021, Smith worked with Signature Theatre in New York to create a five-actor version of “Twilight,” and that script is being used by the five actors (Hugo Armstrong, Lovensky Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Reneé Pitts, Jeanne Sakata, Sabina Zúñiga Varela) who are now at the Taper.
It was a smart choice. If Smith had tried to repeat her previous stint as the sole actor, it would have seemed more like a stunt. Each of the three women and two men in this “Twilight” still plays several roles. But when the vast diversity of LA — in race, ethnicity, gender, income, perspective — is one of the central facts of the script, it makes sense to provide more variety in the casting.
It’s more captivating, as well as more representative, to see these five sometimes joining each other in various combinations. Watch them physically enact the chaos of the riots, overturning set pieces as they run across the stage.
Forget the limits of the “white, black” phrase used in the “Our Gang” description (above). Indeed, people who aren’t white or black play such significant roles in “Twilight” that it was important to cast Asian-American and Latinx-American actors (in this case, Sakata and Zúñiga Varela).
After intermission, the production resumes with the words of a wide-ranging interview with Cornel West that involves all five actors. Within this scene, Armstrong leads the charge in an unexpected discussion of the glories of Chekhov. How appropriate, considering Armstrong’s own tour de force as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, last June at the Pasadena Playhouse (Zúñiga Varela was in the same “Vanya” cast).
The second act of “Twilight” also includes a “dinner party that never happened,” featuring the entire quintet playing disparate characters — chef Alice Waters, young activist Paul Parker, Korean-American immigrant Jin Ho Lee, former Black Panther chairwoman Elaine Brown and Sen. Bill Bradley — sitting around one table, offering sharply contrasting views. Apparently these were excerpts from individual interviews swirled into one lively conversation. Obviously it would have been extremely awkward for only Smith to have played these ensemble scenes.
Early reviews of this production indicated that some of the actors were struggling with lines. However, at the performance of Gregg T. Daniel’s staging that I saw in the middle of last week, the performances sounded flawless. They’re supplemented by a range of video clips, including the excruciating original footage of the beatings of King and truck driver Reginald Denny and the shooting of Latasha Harlins.
If only the late Gordon Davidson could have seen this…
From the ‘Twilight’ into ‘The Tempest’
If all of the fractious disputes within “Twilight” get you down, you could walk or drive about a half-mile from the Taper to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles for a dose of healing in Ben Donenberg’s new staging of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” a play with a title and an opening that cloak its concluding surge of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Chris Butler (yes, the same actor mentioned, above, for his solo in “Twilight” in Ventura) is the masterful magician Prospero, stranded on an island in the Mediterranean but planning to force accountability on his former tormentors from the mainland, starting with a shipwreck. He makes magic with the aid of his miraculously efficient servant/spirit Ariel (Jin Maley), who gets quick results, even with a back that initially appears to permanently lean forward. But at a key moment, the hunchback straightens.
This production is billed as “immersive.” The audience is first ushered into a room which serves as the tempest-tossed ship, which we’re supposedly aboard. When the shipwreck occurs, we are figuratively “immersed” into the ocean, which literally means that we then enter the main theater, configured with a 165-seat thrust stage. Around its sides are a variety of small designed spaces, intended to suggest the haunts of the island spirits. We can explore these before the play begins or during intermission. In order to keep the pre-show less crowded, the entrance times are divided into three shifts. This last stroke struck me as unnecessarily complicated.
Beyond Butler and Maley, some of the most extraordinary moments of this production are in the scenes with the tipsy butler (KT Vogt) and court fool Trinculo (Daniel T Parker). Their banter is much sharper and funnier than usual. And Michael Roth’s score rises to the level of intense choral singing at a couple of critical moments. The play’s the thing, not the pre-show.
Two new musicals that need better names
Speaking of music, two new musicals are currently in world premieres in the LA area.
La Mirada Theatre’s brisk and jocular “Did You See What Walter Paisley Did Today?” is the better of the two. But its title is so cumbersome and difficult to remember that after it closes on Sunday, the next step should be to acquire a more compact title.
The second step should be to start mentioning in promotional materials or future programs that the show is based on the original “A Bucket of Blood,” a low-budget comedy-horror film that appeared in 1959 from Roger Corman and Charles Griffith. This is the same team that would, a year later, offer the somewhat similar “Little Shop of Horrors,” which became a 1982 Ashman/Menken stage musical and then in turn a big-budget movie musical in 1986.
Any new title for the latest stage musical probably shouldn’t be “A Bucket of Blood,” which was already the title of a 1995 movie remake (with an updated setting in LA instead of San Francisco), as well as at least one (in 2009) earlier stage musical. That could lead to confusion. However, the title should be shorter than eight words, and the publicity and programs should acknowledge the source.
After all, a lot of fans of the Corman/Griffith films are still around. Of course some of them might already go to La Mirada because they recognize the name of the leading character Walter Paisley, a hapless waiter who becomes a murderous artist in the search for recognition.
Randy Rogel’s book, music and lyrics create considerable satirical humor at the expense of beatnik-era pretensions. Steven Booth is an amusing Walter, helped by a change in his looks during intermission, abetted by Ann Closs-Farley’s costume/wig/makeup design.
Many of the characters are in transition from previous incarnations. The poet Maxwell (Ross Hellwig) has turned from an encouraging friend in the original movie into Walter’s chief nemesis, and Walter’s tough boss (Kingsley Leggs) suddenly becomes eager to capitalize on his incipient fame. Vanessa Sierra is terrific as the admiring friend of Walter who stops short of becoming his girlfriend.
The entire design team deserves cheers, including puppet creator Aran de la Peña (no real animals were harmed in the making of this show) and sound designer Cricket S. Myers. Was director BT McNichol, who is also the producing artistic director of the venue, instrumental in the decision to temporarily shrink seating capacity from 1251 to 399? However it happened, it helps make the experience more intimate.
The importance of sound design in a musical couldn’t be clearer than in contrasting “Paisley” to “The Lonely Few” (another mediocre title) at Geffen Playhouse. It’s also a new musical about aspiring artists. Most of its characters are talented, contemporary rock-oriented singer/musician/songwriters — they’re more authentic than Walter Paisley. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand most of what they’re singing, at least at the performance I attended.
The sound design was probably expected to emulate the excessive amplification of the music in a small club (the set design also makes the Geffen’s smaller space look clublike). But lyrics matter more in a musical than they do in a club. We’re trying to follow these characters’ arcs, and we assume that the lyrics as well as the music of Zoe Sarnak’s score were custom-designed to fit them — if only we could decipher them.
Then again, the dramatic arcs are somewhat cliched in Rachel Bonds’ book. It’s about two women attracted to each other in small-town Kentucky. Amy has already achieved mid-level performing success outside the town and invites equally talented Lila — who’s stuck in a dreary big-box job — to join her on a tour of somewhat larger cities. Their only problem is that Lila has a co-dependent brother whose problems require her to remain in Podunk, despite her dreams of escape.
The performances of the two leads, Tony winner Lauren Patten as Lila and Ciara Renée as Amy, are charismatic, despite the inaudibility of the lyrics. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that these modern troubadours haven’t already moved on to gigs and contracts in LA, closer to recording-industry big shots. With Patten’s talent, her Lila should be making enough money to send her brother into a Malibu-based rehab program.
An egotist? As a matter of ‘Fact’…
I’ve seen more shows this month in smaller theaters than I can possibly cover without going far beyond the limits of online attention spans, but I’ll mention two of my favorites.
Compared to “The Lonely Few” (above), Erlina Ortiz’s “La Egoista,” at the Skylight in Los Feliz, is a much more convincing dramatization of a relationship between a performing artist and a dependent sibling. In Ortiz’s play, Josefina (Lys Perez) is an irreverent LA-based comic, while her younger sister Betsaida (Chanel Castañeda) clings to their late mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, back home in Pennsylvania. When Betsaida becomes ill, Josefina faces some big choices. Because of Josefina’s chosen career, this isn’t as grim as it might sound; as in “Walter Paisley,” funny puppets emerge. Daphne Sicre’s staging is a fine springboard for the play’s West Coast premiere — just a few weeks after the world premiere took place at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” has already been on Broadway, but it’s receiving its West Coast premiere at Fountain Theatre in east Hollywood. It’s based on a 2012 book by essayist John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, who copy-edited D’Agata’s article about a suicide in Las Vegas, more than 20 years ago. The play is not about the article or the suicide. It’s about the contentious fact-checking of the article, which results in a titanic battle between a somewhat heedless and self-aggrandizing author (Ron Bottitta) and the pesky younger guy (Jonah Robinson) who keeps reminding him of his departures from strict fidelity to the facts, even pursuing the author across the country to his home in Las Vegas. In between them is the increasingly panicked editor (Inger Tudor) who has a deadline. Although the script — by writers Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell — might be exaggerated for comic effect (no, I haven’t fact-checked that), it certainly merits the laughs it gets under Simon Levy’s direction. And it’s timely in an era when facts don’t matter to some very powerful people.
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