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A mid-autumn 'Night's Dream.' Daydreams in 'She.' An implausible dream at SCR.
Plus 'Baby Foot,' "Engagement' and 'Wild' parties, 'Love Among the Ruins,' 'Methusalem'
The most important word in the title “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is “Dream,” not “Midsummer.”
Most people dream every night, regardless of the season or of whether they remember their dreams, say sleep researchers. But a second common meaning of a “dream” exists — a wide-awake aspiration for what will happen in a person’s future. If we think of Martin Luther King Jr., we remember his words “I have a dream.” He certainly wasn’t asleep when he spoke them.
These varied concepts of “dreams” are among theater’s most fertile narrative components. A nocturnal dream often contains ingredients from our waking lives but mixes them into strange new patterns — sometimes funny, sometimes scary. Our more durable, wakeful dreams — those that might also be called “ambitions” — are, by definition, yet to be dashed or deferred or fulfilled. This uncertainty about the future propels many a plot.
Right now you can see sterling examples of both of these “dream” genres in LA-area theaters — the former in A Noise Within’s dazzlingly inventive staging of Shakespeare’s classic “Midsummer” in Pasadena, and the latter a few miles away in the premiere of the moving “She,” by Marlow Wyatt, at Antaeus Theatre in Glendale.
I experienced my own weirdly askew dream during the night after I saw A Noise Within’s “Midsummer.” In my dream, I saw a poster announcing that the Mark Taper Forum would fill part of its current “pause” in programming with a previously unknown play by August Wilson…about Lenora Slaughter?
Who? When I woke up, I wasn’t sure, but when I Googled the name, I was reminded that Slaughter was the woman who long ago overhauled the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, away from its swimsuit-oriented roots in order to include scholarships and competitions in talent and evening gowns — but still no Black women.
OK, like many young children in suburban homes during the pre-Beatles era, I had seen my share of televised Miss America pageants, when Slaughter was still in charge. I have no memories of seeing her on the TV screen, but I probably heard about her.
Yes, A Noise Within has produced a lot of August Wilson’s plays recently — plays that the Taper had previously produced in their LA premieres.
But why did my dream combine these disparate ingredients? Perhaps more than any other famous American playwright, Wilson wrote almost exclusively about Black characters. Need I mention that Slaughter wasn’t Black? How did her name enter my dream?
I laughed out loud as I thought about it. Perhaps Shakespeare did the same, centuries ago, when he created the unexpected juxtapositions within his own “Dream.”
To quote Theseus in the play’s last act: "Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief? That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow! How shall we find the concord of this discord?”
At A Noise Within, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott found “the concord of this discord” more successfully than in any of the recent productions of “Midsummer” that I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot — so many that “unexpected” is no longer a word that I associate with this play. But I was surprised and delighted by many of the stage pictures and sounds — the fresh noises within, so to speak.
By not staging the play outdoors in the summer — which is where it’s often staged in the LA area — the directing couple generated interior landscapes and soundscapes that have the hallmarks of unreal and sometime dark dreams but that yield even greater laughs than usual.
As an example, I’ll begin to cite only the first scene — because, after all, you too should have the chance to be as surprised as I was by the rest of it. That first scene involves a couple of unexpected features — a lot of rhythmic clapping and a brief appearance of a major character who normally arrives later in the play.
The directors marshaled a remarkable design team of veterans doing some of their most captivating work: Frederica Nascimento (sets), Angela Balogh Calin (costumes), Ken Booth (lighting) and Robert Oriol (composer and sound design). I can’t mention everyone in the superb cast, but I must acknowledge Kasey Mahaffy’s ubiquitous and dexterous Puck, who takes the final bow at the curtain.
Isn’t ‘She’ Lovely
And now on to the daydreamer in Wyatt’s “She,” which is not only the name of the play but also the name of its central character, a 13-year-old Black girl in an American “factory town” that is not in the South, according to the script (but there is no additional information about where it is).
She (Camille Ariana Spirlin) lives with her hard-working but largely uneducated mother Bernice (Karen Malina White) and occasionally with a man (Jon Chaffin) who wants She to call him “Daddy,” which She utters with a pronounced degree of sarcasm.
Her savvy, for a girl just entering her teen years in these straitened circumstances, is confirmed by her grades at school — which have resulted in an offer for a scholarship that would cover tuition at a prestigious high-achievers academy for her high-school years. But the offer comes with a catch. She and her family would have to pay room and board.
While her mother is preoccupied with raising enough money to pay immediate bills, She and her closest classmate, a preacher’s grandson (Lorenz Arnell), try to figure out how to raise some money for the academy. She is initially hopeful but gradually begins to realize that her chances are slim. I won’t say what happens, except to say that my eyes moistened during the last scenes of “She.”
She’s dream is to become a writer. She frequently writes in notebooks, which are represented in Andi Chapman’s staging with projections on the backdrop that suggest some of the sensibilities of an artsy 13-year-old girl, including quotes from She’s idol, Langston Hughes — especially his short poem “Dreams.”
Hughes’s similarly short poem “Harlem” provided not only the phrase “a dream deferred” but also the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a revival of which is opening this coming weekend at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. That’s play’s premiere was in 1959, so it had been around for nearly the entire length of the life of the She in Wyatt’s play. I hope She finally got a chance to see it.
Man of La Plancha
When present-day Americans think of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, especially if they’re theater fans of a certain age, they might first start humming “The Impossible Dream,” the most famous song from “Man of La Mancha,” the 1965 musical adaptation of “Don Quixote.”
As “Raisin in the Sun” opens at SCR (see above, two paragraphs back), but through Saturday only, you could also go there and see a stage adaptation of the Cervantes classic, “Quixote Nuevo,” by Octavio Solis.
It’s set in the present day, in the fictional town of “La Plancha,” Texas — across the Rio Grande from Mexico. It’s not a musical. But cue the “Dream” melody if you must, changing the adjective in the song title from “Impossible” to “Implausible.” I admire Pablo Santiago’s gorgeous lighting, but that’s about it.
The script is excessively cluttered. Six of the nine actors play more than one role, in addition to serving in the demonic “calacas” chorus line that torments Quijano (Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash fame), an elderly man with dementia. This confuses the audience as well as Quijano. Inside the program are brief but serious essays about immigration and elder healthcare issues, but inside the play itself these real-life topics are mostly overshadowed by fantasy and comedy — even though the fantasy and comedy elements aren’t up to the standards of “Man of La Mancha.”
It’s too bad that “Quixote Nuevo” doesn’t revive the use of double supertitles in Spanish and English, which was so successful last year in South Coast’s “Clean/Espejos.” Lisa Portes, who directed that production, also staged this one. But perhaps SCR had no say in this decision — this version of Solis’ play originated last year in Denver.
The people on three (out of the four) sides of my center-aisle seat at “Quixote Nuevo” didn’t return after the intermission. I have no idea why they left, but I wondered if they didn’t understand enough of the frequent Spanish phrases and lyrics. Supertitles might have been more challenging in this play’s shorter exchanges, compared to the longer speeches in “Clean/Espejos,” but perhaps those spectators might have stayed for act two.
By the way, without having seen “Quixote Nuevo,” I had earlier suggested that Center Theatre Group should have considered importing it to the Mark Taper Forum to interrupt the long “pause” in Taper programming (yes, the same “pause” that even invaded my mid-autumn night’s dream, above). Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think that would have been smart.
However, recently CTG announced that the Taper “pause” will have a few brief breaks. Comic Alex Edelman will perform his “Just For Us” at the Taper Nov. 10-26, and performances of Michael “Feinstein’s at the Taper” will occur on December 3, February 10 and April 13. The latter will include “star-studded guests” in addition to Great American Songbook master Feinstein.
Going Rogue on Melrose
Last weekend the LA Times published a big guide on what to do in the Fairfax district, which was defined to include hot spots all the way east to La Brea (and beyond, in one case on Melrose). In a symptom of how seldom the Times now notices LA theater, the guide completely overlooked the Matrix Theatre on Melrose — or any other playhouse.
Don’t follow that bad example — especially right now. The Matrix is actually two small theaters, currently operated by Rogue Machine, and the smaller upstairs theater, with only 32 seats, is one of the tiniest but also one of the hottest spots in the Fairfax district.
It’s the site of “Baby Foot,” written and directed by Tim Venable. In an Oregon rehab center’s rec room (presumably the play’s title is a reference to the 12 steps of many such programs), a patient (Hope Lauren) who has completed her 30-day program encounters a newcomer (Daniel Dorr) who’s 27 — about her age. An older man (Paul DeBoy) who arrived decades ago, and who works there, occasionally observes from the other side of the room — which is actually farther from the action than I was.
The course of subsequent events might seem conventional in a more conventional stage configuration, but in this remarkably intimate space, we feel so close to these people that it’s harder to put them into a mental box.
Plays that are named after a particular “party” (a social event, not a political group) sound festive. But of course parties that don’t go off the rails wouldn’t be very dramatic.
In Samuel Baum’s “The Engagement Party,” at Geffen Playhouse, we’re at a wealthy couple’s pre-nuptials celebration, for the couple and their friends and family, in a pricey Upper East Side apartment in 2007. Alexander Dodge’s revolving set emphasizes all that ritz. But as the initially placid surfaces begin to show cracks, we realize that the festivities are about go on the fritz — and beyond. Revelations and embarrassments tumble out. At first I admired Baum’s deconstructive skills, and director Darko Tresnjak’s cast’s facility with the breakdowns. But in retrospect it all feels a bit mechanically disassembled. Really? All of this would emerge in one event on one night?
Meanwhile, in a revival of Andrew Lippa’s musical “The Wild Party” (one of two musicals with the same title, based on the same poem, that appeared in the spring of 2000), an already wild Roaring ‘20s party keeps getting wilder. Most of this version of the tale is told through song and dance — the book is slight. Director and choreographer Jeremy Lucas ably whips up his large cast into a no-holds-barred ensemble, but because they start at 80 mph and go up to about 100, the dramatic contrasts aren’t as notable as they are in “Engagement Party.”
Of course most “wild” parties are a bit predictable, in their own fashion. Jaxx Theatricals produces this “Wild Party” in east Hollywood, at the former MET Theatre (which previously was the former Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre before that company moved downtown into the then-new LATC).
Let’s not party
“Love Among the Ruins,” at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, could be called the opposite of a wild party. It’s a courtroom drama — but not in a murder case or anything remotely wild. In London, a relatively young English man is suing a wealthy widow for “breach of promise” — in other words, her promise to marry him.
Based on James Costigan’s script for a 1975 TV movie, which was set in 1911, this stage adaptation by James Hirsch and Robert Papazian takes place in 1934. Why? Because a few potential spectators might even remember 1934? Still, the whole concept of “breach of promise” lawsuits was fading by then, and according to Wikipedia, only women — not men — could sue for breach of a marital promise in England.
The drama is really about the woman (JoBeth Williams) and her attorney (Peter Strauss). They had an affair when they were much younger, but he can’t discern whether she even remembers him.
Michael Arabian’s staging opened first at Laguna Playhouse, a year ago, before re-uniting at El Portal. Even if the play is mostly piffle — and of course a star vehicle — I’m glad to see a three-week run of an adult-oriented play at El Portal, where once such runs were more common. It closes on Sunday.
Finally, the Actors’ Gang is reviving a much older and wilder play, “Methusalem or The Eternal Bourgeois,” by Ivan Goll. First produced in 1924 Germany, it was influenced by the dose of surrealism that the writer soaked up in France during the ‘20s. The Gang had produced an earlier revival as one of its early efforts, in 1985, at the long-gone Wallenboyd in the downtown LA wholesale district — far from the group’s current parkside home in Culver City.
This play is no party. “Methusalem” feels like someone’s surreal but uninvolving dream. I have no idea who is the dreamer. I certainly don’t have dreams like this one — no one mentions the Mark Taper Forum, A Noise Within, August Wilson, or Lenora Slaughter. (P.S. If you don’t understand that last reference, please consult the beginning of this post, above).