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Barding in the park, after dark
'Macbeth' in Griffith Park, 'Comedy' in Irvine. CTG's month of emulating Netflix. 'Beach People,' 'Lavender Men,' 'Valley Song.' Jason Alexander charts his Abby road.
Have you savored Shakespeare in the park this summer? This coming week might be the best possible moment for this annual ritual, as well as one of the last such opportunities. A daytime heat wave is expected this week, so you might not even need that extra wrap that you take, for example, to Topanga in June.
I’m recommending two productions far from Topanga — suiting different moods and, perhaps, with different ticket availability. If you want something wicked and wild, go to a dell in Griffith Park for Independent Shakespeare Company’s “Macbeth.” If you want something whimsical and witty, try the errrantly spelled “Comedy of Errrorrs” at New Swan Shakespeare Festival in Irvine.
Angelenos live a lot closer to Griffith Park than to Irvine, but most of them haven’t seen the dell that is currently inhabited by “Macbeth.” It’s just west of the larger, more open Old Zoo area which the company used for a decade starting in 2010 — and which will eventually resume its use as ISC’s summer venue, assuming that a permanent stage is built there by the city, as planned but postponed.
Last summer, the company found temporary quarters for a “Tempest” in the adjacent but smaller bowl next door, and that’s the setting that “Macbeth” now fully inhabits.
I use “inhabits” because David Melville’s staging expands far beyond its small bare stage into many corners of the audience and the visible backstage area. Although many ISC productions make brief forays into the audience, this one — enhanced by Bosco Flanigan’s eerie lighting and Melville’s robust sound design — deserves the adjective “immersive” more than most.
The location and the timing of each night’s performance complement what goes on in the play. As the characters’ mayhem grows, so does the literal darkness over this relatively remote venue. The sense that we’re in a space that resembles the chaotic but largely rural landscape of 11th-century Scotland is about as strong as one could ever hope to experience near the center of a bustling California megalopolis 12 centuries later.
The only exception to that feeling of immersion is in the scene in which a drunken porter answers a knocking at the castle gate with a riff about the gates of hell — and, then seizes the opportunity to engage in mildly naughty repartee with the visitors about the effects of alcohol. Director Melville, who plays both the porter and the first king, Duncan, expands the subject matter to include some audience participation and a few pointed comments about current politicians in both the US and his native UK. Purists might object, but this scene is traditionally considered the play’s one moment of comic relief — so think of it also as a pre-intermission moment of contemporary relief, too.
But laughter quickly subsides as we follow the ambitious king (Sam Breen) and his still-steely queen (Kalean Ung) on their destructive pursuit of total power. While it’s easy to detect parallels to our own would-be dictator, these aren’t made explicit — there are no references to Castle Mar-a-Lago. However, the production ends not with the usual feeling that, well, at least the rightful heir Malcolm is about to be crowned, so surely the reign of terror has ended. Instead, in the final moment, the three witches meet again to discuss the next round of seemingly perpetual hurlyburly.
The maximum capacity in the dell is only 450 — compared to the 1000 or even 2000 who flooded into some of the previous ISC performances in the Old Zoo site. So advance registration is required. Prepare for a slightly longer hike from the parking areas, some of it uphill (but the ISC website includes a phone number to call to make arrangements for disabled access). Most people bring their own low seating or sit on blankets, but the company can provide seating in exchange for a donation.
Meanwhile, the mood of New Swan’s “The Comedy of Errrorrs,” a professional production on the campus of UC Irvine, is diametrically opposed to ISC’s “Macbeth.” Director Eli Simon rigorously maintains an updated concept throughout the machinations, although it’s updated only to the disco-funk era of the late 20th century, not to the 21st.
Perhaps concluding that an unadorned presentation of Shakespeare’s potentially confusing plot might quickly tire contemporary audiences, Simon and company (with rousing contributions by choreographers Allison Eversoll and Michael Polak, costumes by Katie Wilson, music by Mike Hooker, sound by Meghan Roche, lighting by Karyn D. Lawrence) turn a Shakespearean-style in-the-round space into the hottest nightspot in Ephesus, circa 1975.
We’re outdoors, across a walkway from the edge of the circular Aldrich Park in the center of the suburban campus. But this production feels very urban, as opposed to ISC’s “Macbeth.” Although there is no roof on the portable structure that is rebuilt for each of New Swan’s summer seasons, you probably won’t see the night stars if you look up. You see the bright lights of a nightclub.
The story about two sets of identical twins hasn’t been changed or re-set in an antique version of a club or turned (again) into a musical. The concept doesn’t get in the way of the Shakespearean elocution or the plot. No, it’s just that these particular brothers — and other characters at times — move as if they “can’t stop the beat,” to quote from the Shaiman/Wittman song in “Hairspray,” and they wear threads to match their moves. The result honors the spectacle as much as it honors the speech.
Netflix, without the screen?
Meanwhile, Center Theatre Group opened two productions in August that raised the question — go to the Music Center or to Netflix? Mike Birbiglia’s “The Old Man and the Pool,” a mildly engaging “comedy show” (to use Birbiglia’s own description of his solo during opening night), closed over the weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, but it almost seems inevitable that it will eventually reach Netflix.
After all, his “The New One, “ which CTG presented at the Ahmanson less than two years ago, was available on Netflix immediately after it closed its Music Center run. Previous Birbiglia solos are also on Netflix. “The Old Man and the Pool” is now going on tour, so its post-CTG streaming might not begin as quickly as that of “The New One,” but why should anyone doubt that it too will end up on Netflix?
Yes, I‘ve often argued that the in-person experience is distinctive from a video. But I feel less certain of that at solo comedy shows — because of the possible advantages of closeups and the modulated sound — than I do at most multi-actor productions.
Which brings us to the multi-actor “The Prom,” now at the Ahmanson through September 11. This musical comedy opened first on a stage in 2016, landed on Broadway in 2018, and then became a movie, opening in 2020 on Netflix, where it remains even now. After I saw the local premiere of the stage production this month, I watched the movie on Netflix.
The filmed version of “The Prom” is much better.
On stage, “The Prom” begins on Broadway, with an opening-night party where the actors receive a devastating pan of them and their show about Eleanor Roosevelt, triggering its immediate closing. The script then seems to waver uncertainly between some high school students in small-town Indiana, where a prom is canceled because one girl wanted to bring her girlfriend, and these amusingly narcissistic New York actors, who seize this girl’s cause as a form of self-promotional therapy, going to Indiana in the process.
The movie, by contrast, opens in Indiana, showing us what happened there before the New York actors arrive. This clearly establishes which story is primary and which is secondary. We also see some of the supposed Indiana locales (although most of the movie was actually shot around LA) and get a fuller picture of the girl’s family, including characters not in the stage version. Netflix’s “The Prom” isn’t a great movie musical, but it’s better-built and more entertaining than the stage version.
CTG should keep its stages busy with live theater that can’t be easily matched or even improved by streaming productions.
Definitely not on Netflix
Speaking of Netflix adaptations of plays, you would think that someone at some streamer would be interested in Charles A. Duncombe’s “Beach People,” at City Garage in Santa Monica, just because of its title. Can you imagine a title that might appeal more to a mass audience, especially if a Netflix exec also notices that the four actors wear somewhat revealing swimsuits throughout the entire 80-minute production?
Is this the 2022 version of “Beach Blanket Bingo”?
Uh, no. Duncombe’s play, directed by Frederique Michel, is billed as “an existential farce.”
The central couple in “Beach People” are prone to cerebral philosophical riffs (Henry Thompson’s Paul) and fast-talking nervous breakdowns (initially Angela Beyer’s Anna’s turf, but then…). They apparently spend a lot of time on the beach, but Anna graphically describes how much she hates it. The other two characters (played by Kasey Esser and Naomi Helen Weissberg) are seemingly more satisfied in their roles as content, more optimistic eye candy.
A chronological break in the middle of the 80 minutes is barely noticeable at first, which could lead to some confusion. A more prominent indication of this break might help, but so will knowing in advance that the second half is a prelude to the first half.
The action apparently takes place at Annenberg Community Beach House, the restored remnant of what was once the Hearst estate on the Pacific sands, about three miles west of City Garage. I’ve long applauded theatrical productions that are set within their own communities — so two cheers for that. I’d give a third cheer if the script actually mentioned the current venue, but instead it refers only to the long-ago Hearst era and to the fact that “Beverly Hills 90210” shot some scenes there in the pre-restoration years. It’s a little hard to tell if the first act takes place in 2022, or maybe years earlier.
Another new play that’s unlikely to hit Netflix anytime soon in any form is “Lavender Men,” by Roger Q. Mason, in a production by Skylight Theatre and Playwrights’ Arena, at the Skylight in Los Feliz.
The playwright stars as Taffeta (Mason), a “fabulous queer creation of color” who guides us through a “fantasia” about Abraham Lincoln (Pete Ploszek) and Elmer Ellsworth (Alex Esola). Ellsworth was a real Lincoln protégé who became famous as the first “conspicuous casualty” (says the National Park Service) of the Civil War, when he was killed in May 1861, while leading a unit of soldiers who were dismounting a Confederate flag that had been planted in Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington.
Staged by Lovell Older, “Lavender Men” is lively, but also a bit annoying. Speculation about Lincoln’s sexuality has been around for decades, to the extent that there is an article devoted to the subject in Wikipedia. But I couldn’t find Ellsworth mentioned in any of the references I read.
Ellsworth was 24 when he died — 28 years younger than Lincoln. This age gap isn’t reflected in the casting at the Skylight, perhaps because even boundary-breaking Mason didn’t want to suggest that Lincoln might have been a significantly older predator? Many other sources on Ellsworth attribute to him the quality of a surrogate son.
I have no objection to seeing Lincoln’s sexuality explored in a play, but why not stick to the men who have been cited as possible lovers in the historical research? Why throw another real-life figure into the speculation, without any evidence? Isn’t that perilously close to the sort of rewriting of fact-based history that Ron DeSantis and others are promoting for their own political purposes?
Finally, a brief note on another production that isn’t likely to land on Netflix — a revival of Athol Fugard’s “Valley Song” at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Its LA County premiere was at the Taper in 1997, with Fugard himself playing two of the three roles. It hasn’t been seen much since then — perhaps because its story of a aged man, who wants to keep his granddaughter down on the farm instead of letting her go to the big city to become a singer, feels generic and predictable compared to the more sizzling subjects of Fugard’s earlier plays.
While Fugard probably had his own reasons for wanting to play both roles in 1997 (and perhaps a veto over casting decisions), the absence of a third actor now feels odd and somewhat distracting. But Michael Shepperd is excellent in the two Fugard roles, easily distinguishing between them with his accents.
Jason Alexander won’t ‘Forget’ dear Abby
After writing my recent comments about Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget” at the Fountain Theatre, I was still wondering about director Jason Alexander’s decision to create a physical presence of Abby, the daughter of the leading character Michael, when Levenson’s script only referred to her indirectly.
As I described it, “Alexander added dancer Caribay Franke to the cast as a non-speaking embodiment of Abby’s personal struggle. Her presence is an intriguing contrast to the otherwise extremely verbal and literal texture of most of the play.”
In the interviews with Alexander that I had read about the production, this topic wasn’t discussed — perhaps because many of these interviews occurred before the show opened.
So I asked Alexander, via the production’s publicist, for a more detailed explanation. Here, only slightly abridged, is his response:
“I did discuss it with Steven Levenson. I explained the challenges of doing the play in the setting he dictated at the Fountain Theatre. I told him my idea of having the [family-owned] store be the primary setting and then as a result making the play into a memory piece for Michael as he ‘recalls’ the moments that led him to closing out the store. And then I told him about the Abby idea and he was fascinated with all of it and gave it his blessing.
As for how this all came to be — necessity is sometimes a wonderful mother.
My set designer Sarah Krainin and I knew we couldn't begin to put the rooms of the house into that theater [the relatively small Fountain]. We knew it would have to be some abstract representation of the house. And I was always wrestling with the communal tone poem at the end of the play.
It is such a stark change from the realism that precedes it throughout the play. So using the images of the tone poem, we first thought about creating blocks that would resemble stone of the Wailing Wall. And we thought maybe those stones could be assembled and re-assembled to be furniture and walls of the rooms for the house. But the more we tried to flesh that out, the more we realized how cumbersome and ugly that would be.
As we were sitting in the theater working on ideas, the previous show was loading out. There were handcarts and boxes and little piles of props and we suddenly realized that it looked like a loading dock of a store. And then the idea of how important the family store is in the story struck us. And immediately we thought — if we set it in the store of the last day of business, most of the inventory sold, the rest in boxes — we could use chairs and tables and bric-a-brac to create the rooms of the house. The only thing required would be that we somehow establish that Michael was living the events of the play in memory. But none of that would require a re-write or even much of an explanation. We were ecstatic.
Then, we went into rehearsals. And we learned that moving the pieces around was trickier than we imagined. It took about a minute to change the set and it changes eight times in the play. And it was ugly and dull. I was beset with how to make it more interesting so that the wonderful story-telling of the play wouldn't crash to a halt every time we executed our room switch. What could we do to keep telling the story?
And that's when it hit me — Abby. She is such a presence in the play but she is never on the stage. Could I use a representation of Abby — in Michael's mind — to pull him into the scenes by representing her own journey and her own experiences? And could I do it without asking Steven to write anything? And so I conferred with Allison Bibicoff, my assistant director who is also an experienced choreographer and the idea of doing that story-telling in dance was born. I made the request first to the theater and then to Levinson who was quick to agree.
It was all born out of creative necessity, not out of my wanting to impose anything on the play. But it evolved into an element that I find complements the play beautifully and has its own emotional power. I'm very pleased with it and very grateful that everyone allowed us to do it and implemented it so wonderfully. I also think it makes the introduction of the tone poem at the end feel far more integrated into the play.”
The rest of the “If I Forget” run is sold out — despite the fact that the LA Times covered it only in the form of an interview with Levenson, not with the review that it deserves.