Comebacks for Pasadena Playhouse and St. Clare. A big boom backs boomers into a bind.
'Head Over Heels.' 'Poor Clare.' 'The Children.' 'The Serpent.' 'A Hit Dog Will Holler.' '@Playaz.'
Theatergoers throughout the LA area should be “head over heels” about the first public re-opening, since COVID struck, of the nearly century-old Pasadena Playhouse.
But some of them will use their heels more than their heads during the playhouse’s re-opening attraction — “Head Over Heels.”
That’s especially true if they grab some of the 100 general-admission tickets that are available at each performance, providing entrance into the central first-floor audience area. Don’t expect to see the usual seats. They’re removed. Anyone with these tickets will stand, not sit, throughout the show — so strong heels might help. However, the reward for remaining upright is more freedom to move and groove, closer to the action.
Meanwhile, the traditional stage itself has been turned into a raked lower-level seating space that accommodates 72, facing eastward. The usual upper gallery still offers seats, for 190, looking westward. So the total audience capacity at “Head Over Heels” is 362, down from the playhouse’s normal 640. Might this reflect an effort to incorporate some social distancing? Perhaps, but of course vaccination cards are checked at the door.
It’s a kick to see a company with a grand old playhouse breaking away, at least for a few weeks, from its usual proscenium staging (as this company did on a much smaller scale in 2018 with “The Pirates of Penzance”) while also breaking away from its recent COVID slumber.
With a jukebox-style score derived from Go-Go’s hits from the 1980s, “Head Over Heels” offers its own musical kicks. As in many jukebox shows, the music and the design are the main attractions. The cast and the band deliver most of the hits with extra punctuation marks. The designers create a convincing disco-fantasy atmosphere with 21st-century costumes, sets and lighting.
Unfortunately, the non-musical script for “Head Over Heels” is derived from Philip Sidney’s “The Arcadia,” a late-1500s English literary hit. So the connections to the Go-Go’s stop between the songs.
Instead, the story is about royal-family shenanigans in a long-ago and faraway fantasyland, as filtered through Elizabethan syntax. At first, it seems almost ridiculously remote from either today’s LA or the ‘80s era of the Go-Go’s hits. Then we gradually perceive a more-or-less contemporary message, about gender identity and orientation. But in 2021 it’s not a particularly fresh message, especially when the characters expressing it are so superficially sketched.
Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton co-directed, co-choreographed and co-conceived this version of “Head Over Heels.” But it’s the descendant of a three-hour (!) version at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then shorter adaptations in San Francisco and on Broadway — which were conceived by Jeff Whitty and later adapted by James Magruder.
A few too many chefs, perhaps?
After struggling with my lack of interest in the ostensible narrative, I went home and refreshed my memories of the Go-Go’s online. I soon concluded that this production might have been a lot more interesting if it had focused on the story of the Go-Go’s.
They were the first all-female group to reach the top of the charts while performing their own songs and playing their own instruments. They also were a group that was formed and became famous in LA.
I’m aware that many biographical jukebox shows — such as the recent Temptations-focused “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Ahmanson — were criticized for weak scripts, even as they understandably focused more on providing drama via moments of musical memories than through biography. Also, I’d guess that enlisting all of a living group’s members to sign off on a biographical jukebox musical would be a formidable challenge.
Still, for the Pasadena Playhouse re-opening, it would have been great to have experienced a story, as well as a score and design elements, that evoked an era closer to our own time and place.
“Listening to the Go-Go’s feels like driving around LA,” says co-director Pinkleton in a YouTube interview, “and I don’t know anything else like that.” So why does the script drive us out of LA and into an Elizabethan version of ancient Greece?
A show about the Go-Go’s would have been much more immediate and meaningful for those of us who remember living in LA during their heyday. Younger Angelenos, who might have barely heard of them, might enjoy learning more, especially if they “got the beat” while standing in the club-like ambience in the middle of the playhouse.
The Troubies, in their recent “Lizastrata” at Getty Villa, also used a story supposedly set in a cockeyed version of ancient Greece. But they packed it with musical numbers associated with L.A. resident Liza Minnelli — who actually showed up on closing night — and with other local and current references, as is their usual habit. It was much fresher and funnier than “Head Over Heels.”
From what I can tell, nothing else in Pasadena Playhouse’s announced 2021-22 season is specifically set in LA, or related specifically to LA or California or even the West, to the extent that at least the “Head Over Heels” music is. But that score hardly makes the entire production feel home-grown.
Grocery stores sometimes promote certain products as “LOCAL.” Major theater companies should consider doing something similar at least once during a season.
‘Poor Clare,’ Santa Clarita-style
While the characters in “Head Over Heels” look as if they’re in 2021 but speak in an antiquated form of English, the characters in Chiara Atik’s “Poor Clare” converse in 21st-century English even as they live in, and dress for, the early 13th century — in Assisi, Italy.
The 21st-century English they use is often teenspeak. The central character, Chiara Offreduccio, is 18. While she initially looks as you might expect from a young woman in one of Assisi’s wealthier families in 1211, she sounds as if she might be living right now in…Santa Clarita?
And that would be so appropriate, considering that the name of LA’s northern suburb is derived from St. Clare — which is the title that Chiara Offreduccio received when she was canonized in 1255, two years after she died.
Yes, as an 18-year-old, the future St. Clare left her wealth and privilege and joined her more famous Assisi contemporary, Francis, to serve the poor. The nuns of Clare’s order are still unofficially known as “the Poor Clares.”
Does playwright Atik’s use of modern jargon, in order to enliven a musty historical character. sound familiar? Are you aware of “Hamilton,” another show that is currently playing in LA? It also popularized the precedent of casting actors of color as historical figures who definitely would not have been people of color, way back when.
The same type of casting occurs, at least in the title role, in Alana Dietze’s superb staging of the premiere of “Poor Clare,” for Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre. Jordan Hull, who is African-American, confidently plays that part, with a sharp sense of nuance. Michael Sturgis, who is white, plays Francis, but this Francis speaks with surprising acerbity, not endless patience. This is not a religious-school pageant.
In fact, considering the subject matter’s potential for stifling piety, playwright Atik’s conjuring of sly amusement is welcome and essential. Yet the contemporary resonances aren’t restricted to the droll speech patterns. At the end, Clare begins Francis’ famous “make me an instrument of your peace” prayer, but its temporal framework expands to include a few specific comments about conditions in our world today.
Instead of braiding these 21st-century updates throughout the play, Atik is smart to save them mostly for the ending. They land “Poor Clare” on a more provocative plane as we exit. This is a play that will make you chuckle inside the theater and then think more deeply about your own response to the homelessness encircling us, after you’ve left.
Could “Alley of Misfits,” a Loft Ensemble production in North Hollywood, offer a look at the contemporary homeless, for those who prefer realism on this subject? Sorry, it strays too far away from its two homeless characters into the lives of the non-homeless who pass through the New York alley they share.
‘Children’ should be seen…and heard
However, if you’re looking for a seemingly small slice of realism that nevertheless offers a huge and troubling perspective on contemporary concerns, check out Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” at the Fountain Theatre. Director Simon Levy’s terrific cast makes every moment matter in this provocative play.
It’s set on the east coast of England after a nuclear accident at a power plant has caused severe damage and danger, abetted by the rising sea. Living nearby are Hazel (Lily Knight) and Robin (Ron Bottitta), married scientists who retired from jobs at the plant. Suddenly they’re visited by Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman), another ex-colleague with whom they have a somewhat complicated past.
Rose has a plan for what these sixtysomethings should do in their retirement. I won’t be more specific, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but it’s a proposal that could bounce through baby boomers’ brains for months and might easily arouse a lot of thought among people of the playwright’s own generation (Kirkwood, and “Poor Clare” playwright Atik for that matter, are still in their 30s).
By the way, the title “The Children” should not suggest that any onstage character is younger than 60. However, it might remind some Angelenos that Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena produced the premiere of another play with exactly the same title, “The Children,” in 2012. In that earlier “The Children,” Medea’s doomed offspring are kidnapped and taken to Athens, Maine — an actual town west of Bangor — circa 2012.
Titles can’t be copyrighted. But imagine the reaction of Michael Elyanow, who wrote the previous “The Children,” when he heard about Kirkwood’s play. Actually that situation could be the premise for another play.
A long odyssey for ‘The Serpent’
After boomers or their children see Kirkwood’s “The Children” and contemplate their current situation or their future, some of them might enjoy retreating into the less realistic, experimental theater of the boomers’ salad days. Ron Sossi’s revival of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “The Serpent” is here to help satisfy that yearning, at the Odyssey Theatre.
In 1970, the Odyssey produced the West Coast premiere of “The Serpent,” van Itallie’s ensemble-based “ceremony,” as its second production, with Sossi directing. In evoking how human beings lost our innocence, van Itallie called on imagery from the ‘60s-defining JFK assassination, then morphed into an account of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel.
The current production actually opened in 2020, but it was quickly suspended by the arrival of COVID. Yet Sossi resolutely assembled his ensemble again this year and re-opened on October 23. In both of Sossi’s productions, five decades apart, he added a ritualistic recitation of some audience members’ names, presumably drawn from the reservations list at each performance, so that we — or at least our names — briefly join the ensemble experience in a slightly more personalized way. He also sprinkled in a few references to more recent events in the news.
The current ensemble is a smooth and supple unit. And the production also serves to memorialize the memory of van Itallie, who died at the age of 85 on September 9.
I’ll add only this one footnote — that van Itallie also had his own connection to the Boston Court Theatre (see the section about “The Children,” above). The premiere of his “Light” — about the trio of Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Emilie, Marquise de Chatelet — occurred there in 2004, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, who also directed Elyanow’s “The Children.”
No actual dogs were harmed in ‘Hit Dog’
In a post-COVID world, co-productions probably make more economic sense than ever. Two of LA’s enterprising small companies, Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight Theatre, have joined forces at the Skylight in Los Feliz for “A Hit Dog Will Holler,” with Playwrights Arena’s Jon Lawrence Rivera directing.
Playwright Inda Craig-Galván throws together two Black activist women with completely different styles.
The older (Cheri VandenHeuvel) is a podcaster who literally does everything online, because she is an extreme agoraphobic — a fact that she tries to conceal from her followers by using Photoshop to insert herself into images at protests that she didn’t really attend.
The younger (Kacie Rogers at the performance I saw) is a daredevil who reportedly ventures out at night to hang protest signs from bridges or to attack Confederate statues. But she keeps her real name anonymous and avoids social media except for Twitter.
The play begins to glimpse beyond the proclamations and bumper stickers of protest movements to examine, if not to deeply probe, some of the inner lives of the protesters.
In the last section, however, the emphasis shifts, somewhat unrealistically, toward the viewpoint of one of the two, at the expense of the other (I‘m trying to avoid indicating which direction is dominant in order to preserve a modicum of surprise). It then ends with a frustrating lady-or-the-tiger-style non-resolution. A rewrite might help.
‘@Playaz” is a play, set in LA
Because the first part of this post included a lament about the lack of the local in Pasadena Playhouse’s re-opening production, it’s fitting to conclude with a comment about a play that’s definitely set in LA.
Dana Schwartz’s “@Playaz” is set in a residence “right by” Silver Lake, according to one of the characters. It’s being produced by Moving Arts at its new home on Casitas Avenue in Atwater — an entire neighborhood that could easily qualify as being “right by” Silver Lake, on most Angelenos’ mental maps.
But those who frequent the nearby Atwater Village Theatre complex (currently the home of Echo’s “Poor Clare,” see above) should know in advance that the Moving Arts space is a few blocks to the south. Yes, this area has become the new “Theater Row” of the small-theater scene.
Because I don’t know much about gaming, I thought I might get a bit lost in “@Playaz.” But director Darin Anthony keeps making sure that it’s about the gamers more than the game.
Two men — quickly approaching middle age — are building an online gaming presence as a side hustle that also allows them to continue pursuing their adolescent passions. They’re former brothers-in-law, but they have grown even closer since the death of the woman who was the twin sister of one of them, and the wife of the other.
Their primary careers are as a hospitalist physician (Justin Huen) and as a public-broadcasting sound designer (Brandon Bales), but we don’t see them in those workplaces. I’m dubious about the idea that the hospitalist would have enough time for this particular avocation, especially during the COVID era.
This clearly is a play of the current COVID moment. One of them speaks wistfully about the private pleasures of the earlier lockdown. The two men try out a younger , somewhat temperamental player (Dustin Green) as a possible new team member. Complications ensue, especially when the spectre of long COVID is introduced in the background. Still, I doubt that “@Playaz” is likely to transcend the current moment.