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How did Angeles Stage mark its first birthday? Via 'Uncle Vanya,' 'Drive My Car'
Plus a merry but muddled 'Windsor' at the Theatricum, 'King James' and two new musicals on opposite poles of the gender discussion.
Angeles Stage first appeared a year ago, as masked audiences were beginning to return to LA stages in person, after more than a year of mostly virtual-only activity. I urged “LA theater,” which meant audiences as well as creators, to “rise and shine.” A lot of productions arose within greater LA during the past year.
‘Uncle Vanya’ in Pasadena — and in Hiroshima
Pasadena Playhouse’s “Uncle Vanya” shines more brightly than any other currently-running production I’ve seen. But take heed — it will close this coming Sunday.
If you don’t know Anton Chekhov’s “Vanya,” or the acclaimed Japanese film “Drive My Car” that was deeply inspired by “Vanya,” now is a great opportunity to combine them into a powerful one-two exploration of the all-too-human emotions that adults frequently face, at least during the last couple of centuries.
Begin with Michael Michetti’s staging of “Vanya” in Pasadena. It introduces a new English-language translation and adaptation of the play — by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — to the LA area. This trio streamlined Chekhov’s script, eliminating the entire onstage presence of the subsidiary character Telegin, aka “Waffles.” The text cuts straight to the heart of the conflicts within each of the play’s central characters, using natural language that allows us to forget it’s a translation.
Originally produced by Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, the play explores the plight of each of these characters so thoroughly that you might wonder why it was named after any one of them in particular. In fact, Chekhov’s earlier version of what would later become “Uncle Vanya” was titled “The Wood Demon,” which was a nickname of another of the play’s characters, the visiting doctor Astrov — whose environmental concerns seem increasingly prescient with each new production of “Uncle Vanya.”
In 1994, Center Theatre Group staged one of the rare revivals of “The Wood Demon,” the “Vanya” prototype, at LA’s Mark Taper Forum. It was a project of the then-brand-new Antaeus Theatre Company, which was initially devoted to double- or triple-casting each role, thereby encouraging audiences to return for different interpretations of the same texts. I reviewed that production for the LA Times twice — first, with the opening-night cast and later with different actors in many of the roles (Antaeus no longer uses this casting technique on a regular basis, in its current Glendale venue).
Anne Gee Byrd, who played the matriarch in that 1994 “Wood Demon,” is playing the same character — with consummate professionalism, as usual — in the current “Vanya” in Pasadena, although that fact isn’t mentioned in her program bio. She also was one of the two actors playing the matriarch in an Antaeus production of Annie Baker’s adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” when Antaeus was based in North Hollywood in 2015.
The current production makes clear why the play eventually became “Uncle Vanya” instead of “The Wood Demon.” While Dr. Astrov (Brandon Mendez Homer) is an important character, he is a provocateur, an unrelated outsider to the family at the center of the drama. And director Michetti further emphasized Vanya’s centrality by casting the physically imposing (six-feet-four-inches) Hugo Armstrong as Vanya, the most visibly frustrated of the family members, most of whom might nowadays be seeking professional counseling.
Armstrong is superb at capturing the image of a big man squirming in his own psychological prison, failing with every tentative attempt at a jailbreak. He and Byrd are well-matched by the other members of the tangled family web — Sabina Zúñiga Varela’s Sonya, Brian George’s Serebryakov and Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz’s Elena. In the absence of a professional therapist, they’re lucky that Jayne Taini’s sympathetic housekeeper listens to them.
A few days after tears appeared in my eyes while watching Pasadena’s “Uncle Vanya,” I turned to streaming to catch up with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” which won the Academy Award for best “international” (in other words, “foreign”) feature film at the same Oscar ceremony where Will Smith’s slap monopolized much of the attention, three months ago. “Drive My Car” also became the first non-English-speaking movie to be named the best film of the year (regardless of nationality) by the three top film-critics’ groups (including LA’s).
Again, I found myself wiping away tears, near the end of this three-hour film. It’s about a 21st-century theater director who is hired to stage a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima following several difficult personal losses — and the human connection he finds with the young woman who is assigned by the theater company as his driver. The best time to watch it is soon after seeing an actual production of “Uncle Vanya” — you’ll spot the connections between the two scripts all the more easily.
You’ll also appreciate the universality of Chekhov’s script in a way that you might not notice if, say, “Drive My Car” had been set in the United States or even in Russia. Its final fictional production of “Uncle Vanya” is multilingual to the extent that its set apparently includes projected titles in at least four different languages. The actress playing Sonya is mute and uses only Korean sign language in the role.
I immediately thought of South Coast Repertory’s recent bilingual production of the Cancún-set “Clean/Espejos,” which used titles in two languages, as well as the simultaneously double-cast bilingual productions from Deaf West Theatre that I’ve experienced over the decades. More theater companies should consider incorporating such translations into their own productions, particularly in a city as multilingual as LA, particularly with productions that might naturally involve characters who speak different languages. Costs might rise (perhaps depending on grant availability for this purpose), but larger and more diverse audiences could be the result.
Michetti’s staging of “Uncle Vanya” is English-only, but — as with most productions of classics these days — its sense of universality is enhanced by some non-traditional casting. This type of casting across literal racial and ethnic boundaries is now so pervasive, at least in the LA area, that eventually it will seem, well, traditional — at least in theater, as distinct from the often more literal medium of similarly realistic movies.
Why do these ‘Merry Wives’ live in ‘50s Connecticut?
While “Drive My Car” meditates on the meaning of the Russia-set 19th-century “Uncle Vanya” in 21-century Japan, the setting of Theatricum Botanicum’s season-opening “The Merry Wives of Windsor” mutates from 16th-century Windsor, England to 1950s Windsor, Connecticut. Not familiar with that area, I looked up the Connecticut Windsor and learned that it’s a real town, just north of Hartford.
I understand the probable reason for the time switch. It provides an excuse to insert brief moments of ‘50s-era songs and dance steps, which are lively enough to perk up one of Shakespeare’s more antiquated comedies — the one in which the women of Windsor expose Falstaff as a fraud.
But I didn’t understand why director Ellen Geer chose the Connecticut Windsor, from the 13 towns named Windsor that are in the United States. One of the 13 is in California, in Sonoma County — not close to the Theatricum but a lot closer than Connecticut. It’s roughly the same size as the one in Connecticut, and they probably shared a similar ‘50s culture.
Anyway, the Theatricum’s adaptation needs a few more alterations to seem comfortably at home in any part of the United States in the 20th century. Yes, the opening line changes a reference from the “Star-Chamber” to the “Supreme Court.” But soon thereafter a parson refers to a young woman as a “pretty virginity” — a phrase that I can’t recall hearing in, say, the ‘50s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.”
Indeed, the opening scenes are so clogged with so many archaic phrases about relatively irrelevant subplots that I suggest a careful reading of a detailed synopsis before seeing this production.
In the absence of a more thoroughly updated and rehauled re-imagining of the play, the best reason to see it is to visit the enchanting Theatricum grounds in Topanga, preferably at dusk during the long days immediately after the summer solstice. But you could appreciate the Theatricum’s quality as a rural retreat in evening performances at the season’s other three productions as well.
This ‘King James’ is no LeBron
I’ll admit that when I first heard of Rajiv Joseph’s new play “King James,” and that the title indeed referred to the basketball star LeBron James (as opposed to the 17th-century monarch who commissioned the translation of the Christian Bible), my first impulse was to be grateful that Center Theatre Group was introducing a new play about a contemporary icon of LA culture. But how could they possibly cast the presumed title character? How many actors are tall enough?
I obviously hadn’t read far enough into the description of the play.
This “King James” is not about LeBron James. It’s about two of his original Cleveland fans and how their mutual interest in talking about basketball helped cement their friendship over the years 2004 to 2016 — in other words, before James even joined the Lakers in 2018. Oh.
Fortunately this somewhat deflated my hopes for the play before I attended the opening at the Mark Taper Forum — and then Kenny Leon’s staging was somewhat more engaging than I expected. It has a couple of strong performances, a few solid laughs, a brief moment in which race becomes an issue between the friends. But would it be more exciting as a movie, with at least a few scenes shot courtside?
By the way, unlike two other Joseph plays that opened first at the Taper, this production opened first at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, which is co-producing the premiere with CTG. This raises another question — was there no way to arrange the premiere of this play in Cleveland?
One of the characters particularly resents James’ 2010 move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat. But if I were a Cleveland playgoer, I might equally resent that “King James” wasn’t introduced within the city where it’s set — and where the playwright was born and raised.
A gender spectrum from ‘Pretty Woman’ to ‘Interstate’
Two new musicals, about characters with almost diametrically opposite attitudes toward gender, opened recently. I can’t recommend either of them.
At least “Pretty Woman,” at the Dolby, has the LA elements that “King James” so surprisingly lacked. Indeed, the first musical number is a cliched “Welcome to Hollywood” extravaganza, sung and danced in a theater at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland — how much more local can you get?
But the show is still stuck in the ‘80s, not now. And the second number directly contradicts the sentiments of the first. Titled “Anywhere But Here,” it’s a declaration by streetwalker Vivian (Olivia Valli, quite strong) that she wants to be “anywhere but here,” plying her trade in Hollywood.
Of course the musical is based on Garry Marshall’s 1990 romcom movie about a rich guy (Adam Pascal here) who falls for the Hollywood prostitute he hires. This story hasn’t aged well. If you think the ending of “My Fair Lady,” a revival of which was seen last year in this same theater, is problematic, compare it to the ending of the slightly superficially similar “Pretty Woman.”
You’ll soon see why the much older classic is, in fact, more up-to-date. The creators of the newer “Pretty Woman” should have refreshed their own material for the 21st century, as did the director of that recent revival of “My Fair Lady” and the makers of “Tootsie” — another musical based on a late-20th-century film comedy (it also played the Dolby, just a few months ago).
The Bryan Adams/Jim Vallance score for “Pretty Woman” (which does not include the title song, except in the curtain call) is pretty woeful. The Jerry Mitchell-directed tour will be at the Dolby through July 3, then move to the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa for a July 5-17 run.
The musical “Interstate,” an East West Players production in Little Tokyo, is completely set in the 21st-century, to the extent that it’s all about Asian-American characters who are either exploring their gender identities or proudly gay. However, the date isn’t as current as 2022 — the action takes place in 2008, before gender became as talked-about as it is now.
The three central characters are a trans man and a lesbian friend who perform as a musical duo called Queer Malady, based in New York but about to hit the “interstate” on a national tour — plus one of their fans, a teenager who’s uncomfortable in the female identify of her childhood but who feels so alone in deepest Kentucky.
These two stories stay largely separate but cut back and forth through most of the show. The time spent on the story of the Kentucky teenager and the unexpected arrival of the lesbian’s partner on the tour seemingly limit our understanding of the backstory of the central duo. Melissa Li and Kit Yan collaborated as the show’s creators.
Especially considering that the story sometimes focuses on a professional musical act, the songs aren’t particularly distinguished or memorable, and the amplified sound of the backstage band sometimes prevents us from hearing lyrics clearly enough. Jesca Prudencio directed. Like “Uncle Vanya,” “Interstate” will close next weekend.