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A cluster of classics - in South Pasadena, Griffith Park, Topanga, Glendale, Boyle Heights
Plus 'Into the Woods,' Ali meets Fetchit, 'The Ants,' 'Beetlejuice' musical.
Summer is classics season in Greater LA theaters, almost as surely as it’s the season for cherries in the markets.
But this summer’s crop of classics includes a genuine surprise in the usual list of venues. Have you heard of South Pasadena Theatre Workshop?
I had not, until a few weeks ago. But last weekend I entered this company’s 60-seat theater, where I was transported to Russia, two turns-of-the-century ago, in mesmerizing productions of “The Seagull” and, yes, “The Cherry Orchard,” which are alternating in rep, in a package called “The Chekhov Project.”
These plays are universal but also ripe for right now. Most of “The Seagull” is set in summer at a lakeside estate. The script includes an outdoor performance of a play-within-the-play (the “Project” itself, however, is entirely indoors). Only the last of four acts is set in the winter — two years later.
Although “The Cherry Orchard” begins in May, at a similar estate, most of it is set in the subsequent summer. In this production we witness, on a chalkboard at the side of the stage, the countdown of days remaining until the estate will be sold at an auction in August.
“The Seagull” — the first of Chekhov’s four masterpieces — is famous for its focus on the pain and inadvertent comedy of unfulfilled romance. Just about every character is falling for someone else, who is falling for someone else…and round and round the feelings fracture. The company is using the version that Dakin Matthews adapted in the '80s, with Sydney Walsh directing. Three understudies appeared at the performance I saw, but not one moment seemed amiss because of the subs.
“The Cherry Orchard” — the last of the four masterpieces — develops a much stronger undercurrent of the conflicting social forces that would ravage Russia throughout most of the 20th century (and on into the age of Putin?). We’re listening to Tom Stoppard’s English script, staged by Sam Cass.
A majority of the casts are Actors’ Equity members. Many of them have credits in both productions. Artistic director Sally Smythe shines as Arkadina in “The Seagull” and as Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard.” Clay Wilcox’s versatile set serves both plays well.
As for the rest of Chekhov’s central quartet of plays, “Uncle Vanya” was at South Pasadena’s northern neighbor, the Pasadena Playhouse, just last year. Antaeus, in nearby Glendale, staged readings last year of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of “Three Sisters,” but it didn’t land in the group’s recently announced 2023-2024 season. Are the “Sisters” waiting in the wings elsewhere?
LA’s two professional companies that focus on alfresco productions in the summer, Independent Shakespeare Company and Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, are back in business for their prime-time seasons.
The free-admission but donation-reliant ISC returns to its Old Zoo space within Griffith Park with “Julius Caesar,” after two seasons in a much smaller dell just to the west, deeper within the park (following the COVID-caused cancellation of ISC’s outdoor activity in 2020). The temporary location was used primarily because the city had planned to use the COVID years to build a permanent stage on the Old Zoo lawn — but this has not yet happened. The permanent stage is still on the city’s to-do list, so who knows how long the ISC’s return to the Old Zoo area will last?
David Melville’s staging of “Julius Caesar” on a still-temporary stage encourages the audience (which has numbered as many as 2000 at performances in years past) to play the role of the unruly crowd, shouting responses in the play’s big public scenes. The crowd’s cues are provided by a pair of screens above the stage, just as the many screens in our lives these days provide manipulative cues 24 hours a day. Most of the crowd on opening night readily joined in the clamorous responses, although perhaps with a mood that was closer to “kill the umpire” than to “kill the politician.”
Melville, who also plays the doomed title character, is confronted by a group led by William Elsman’s Brutus, with women in the key roles — traditionally male — of Caesar’s enemy Cassius (Sabra Williams) and his ally Mark Antony (Hiwa Chow Elms). The set is almost bare, with effects engineered by lighting, costumes and choreographed movement. As usual, the play itself climaxes too soon — before and immediately after the intermission. The later post-Caesar politics are a little murky to those who don’t know the history. But the production is strong, and the flow of memorable lines continues almost until the end.
Meanwhile, Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga opened with a magnificent “Macbeth,” which of course has the benefit of keeping its title character alive much longer than the title character in “Julius Caesar” — and even gives him Shakespeare’s most memorable moment of introspection shortly before he dies. Ellen Geer’s staging is full of taut, strong performances, especially those of Max Lawrence and Willow Geer as the titular couple but also Aaron Hendry’s Macduff and Jeff Wiesen’s Banquo.
Of course Geer knows how to maximize the many sub-stages of her vast venue, so even from a seat on the side I felt as if I were almost in the middle of the maelstrom. And the venue also has the advantage of being surrounded by what could pass as the Birnam Wood, even long before that phrase plays such a vital role in Macbeth’s downfall.
Unfortunately I can’t recommend “Queen Margaret’s Version of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses,” also playing at the Theatricum in rep. Geer compiled it from Shakespeare’s more obscure history plays “Henry VI, parts 1-3” and his “Richard III,” perhaps my least favorite of his more familiar plays. The script concentrates — but perhaps not enough — on Queen Margaret, the French-born wife of Henry VI, played here at many ages by Melora Marshall. She is only one of 40 characters listed in the program. Too much happens without sufficient narrative clarity. The play lasts 2 hours 45 minutes (including one intermission), which is simultaneously too long to sit on the Theatricum seating and too short for the story to be satisfyingly coherent.
The Theatricum also has opened its annual “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Independent Shakespeare, which did “Macbeth” just last year, will open its own “Midsummer” in August.
And back indoors
While we’re on the subject of Shakespeare, let’s move indoors to “The Tempest” at the aforementioned Antaeus Theatre in Glendale.
Earlier this year I experienced and wrote about the Shakespeare Center’s “Tempest,” which was somewhat “immersive” in its attempt to suggest the dreamy setting of the original. I liked it, but I was eagerly hoping for something completely different in this second “Tempest” of 2023.
We certain got something different. The Antaeus “Tempest,” devised by director Nike Doukas (who also directed those “Three Sisters” readings), appears to be in a contemporary radio studio where a cast is performing a halfway-musicalized version of the play — and then some. The lyrics of the sung passages in this production include not only lines from “The Tempest” but also from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “As You Like It.” John Ballinger wrote the music.
The actors speak and sing into live mikes. In fact, so many microphones are on the stage that occasionally I had trouble quickly spotting the location of the actor who was speaking or singing. Cast members also play instruments and create a variety of playful sound effects.
I had fun at this “Tempest.” But I’m not sure what it says about Shakespeare’s play. Some of the actors are costumed for 2023, others are seemingly costumed more specifically for “The Tempest” — does this mean that some are playing radio actors in 2023 while others are more specifically playing the characters in “The Tempest”? Unlike the original, the setting is completely indoors — in other words, a room in which people could take shelter from a real tempest. This is a rather tentative “Tempest.”
By the way, two of the actors from the Shakespeare Center’s “Tempest” are also in this one, but in different roles. One of them, Peter Van Norden, plays Prospero here. Another actor, Adrian LaTourelle, is the only cast member who doubles in two (very different) roles. Why?
Corky Dominguez’s revival of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman”, closing Sunday at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights has the opposite problem — it’s completely straightforward, with no bells or whistles. No attempt was made to bring the 1949 original closer to the 21st century. Meanwhile, the notion of “traveling salesmen” has more or less died, in the wake of digital sales and COVID. In 2023, the Linda Lomans of the world are likely to have jobs instead of simply paying the bills from a husband’s dwindling wages. The production doesn’t offer the slightest suggestion that this might be in Boyle Heights as well as in Brooklyn. It’s a moving period piece, majestically constructed, but I wonder if it still counts as a “classic.”
And back outdoors
“Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” isn’t usually considered a classic, but it played an important role in LA theater history as the first lesbian-themed play to have a long run — more than two years at the Fountain Theatre after a 1981 opening. This summer the Fountain has revived “Last Summer” as the company’s annual alfresco production in the theater’s parking lot in east Hollywood.
Each theatergoer receives a pair of earphones before the show starts, in order to give the actors a better chance to compete with the urban sounds around the Fountain. Unfortunately, for me this had the same effect as the many microphones had in “The Tempest” — occasionally I couldn’t immediately locate which actor’s voice I was hearing.
I now realize why the play isn’t revived very often. After an interesting first act focusing on an ostensibly straight newcomer who stumbles into a lesbian summer colony and suddenly falls for one of the women, the second act devolves into a formulaic dying-while-young story.
What’s happening at the unTapered CTG?
Since the Center Theatre Group’s bombshell announcement that all programming at the Mark Taper Forum is on hold, it’s mildly comforting to point out that at least CTG is currently hosting a splendid “Into the Woods” in the adjacent and larger Ahmanson Theatre, as part of a tour of the recent Broadway revival.
As far as I’m concerned, “Into the Woods” has now attained “classic” stature. Some might quibble with that designation because the premiere of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical was relatively recent — in 1986 (at San Diego’s Old Globe, but changes were made before its Broadway premiere in 1987). However, “Into the Woods” certainly has been revived a lot more frequently than “Death of a Salesman” in the last few decades, and Lear DeBessonet’s staging offers some new perspectives. Still, if you’re a rare first-timer in the “Woods,” you might want to read a synopsis before you see it. It’s complicated.
CTG’s other, lesser-known summer production is “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” which closes Sunday at Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Will Power’s 2010 play, in its local premiere, explores an acquaintance between Muhammad Ali, at the peak of his pugilistic power in 1965, and Stepin Fetchit, the shuffling Hollywood comedian who was long past his greatest fame, decades earlier, when he was touted as the “Laziest Man in the World.” In 1965, Ali had recently shed his previous name “Cassius Clay” and joined the Nation of Islam.
Debbie Allen’s sizzling staging is powered by two championship performances — Ray Garcia as Ali and Edwin Lee Gibson as Fetchit. It’s hard to take your eyes off these two, even though three other actors also make lesser contributions. However, Power’s play leaves a few too many questions lingering unanswered to qualify as a championship script.
‘Ants’ and ‘Beetle’ scripts
The same is true of Ramiz Monsef’s “The Ants,” in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Set in an unnamed city with rampant homelessness and rampant wealth (does this ring any bells?), the script and Pirronne Yousefzadeh’s staging kept me on the edge of my seat and provided a few laugh-out-loud moments.
But as I thought about it later, I began to conclude that it either needs a clarifying, less bloviating rewrite or, perhaps, should instead become a screenplay (if it isn’t one already). The visual spectacle of both the homelessness and the wealth would be possible in a movie in a way that isn’t possible in the Geffen’s smaller space.
By the way, a few indications in Monsef’s script indicate that the Iranian-American brothers in it and perhaps the playwright himself are fans of “The Night of the Living Dead.” I watched the low-budget film, from 1968, after seeing “The Ants,” and it has a sense of no-nonsense precision that’s missing from “The Ants.” Of course it was purely a horror thriller about the undead, not a commentary on contemporary homelessness, but its economy might be something for Monset to consider in the rewrites.
Speaking of the undead, the stage musical version of the 1988 movie “Beetlejuice” opened at the Pantages in Hollywood last night. If you haven’t seen the movie, it also focuses on characters and ghosts in the afterlife. But its tone is almost entirely flippant, and its plotting is even more convoluted than that of “Into the Woods” — but without the latter’s moving insights on the lives of its characters before they die.
As I started watching the Alex Timbers-directed stage version of “Beetlejuice,” with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, I momentarily hoped for an improved version. Perhaps the more focused framing of the stage, the presence of actual human beings on it, and the addition of musical numbers would create a better “Beetlejuice.” But by the end I had lost hope. I itched to leave my seat and resume my post-”Beetlejuice” life, which finally happened after nearly three hours of overkill.