'Just for Us'...and Elon Musk? Two sides of the 1920s in 'Castle' and 'Inherit the Wind'.
Plus 'Freight', 'Spring Awakening,' 'Radical,' 'Insulted. Belarus' and news from SCR.
The Mark Taper Forum’s long “pause” in programming was momentarily interrupted on November 11 with “Alex Edelman’s Just For Us,” which will continue through next Sunday. That title might sound innocuous, but subsequent events have actually made the production even more topical since the Taper’s opening night.
Edelman’s solo comedy originally opened in 2018, before the current post-COVID tour. One of the questions it raises is whether Edelman, who was raised as a Modern Orthodox Jew, is “white” enough to infiltrate a small gathering of white supremacists. He covertly attended such a gathering, after learning about it on Twitter. Spoiler alert — he ultimately failed to pass the group’s whites-only test. When he was asked to leave, he complied.
On opening night, Edelman’s act created a lot of laughter and offered plenty of insights about people who are raised in a rather restrictive culture and how they might extend their perspectives outward. (A preview of Edelman’s show occurred on Friday evening November 10 — in other words, he worked on Shabbos, which might raise eyebrows among religious Jews. But he didn’t mention this on opening night).
Of course Twitter, which led Edelman to the white supremacists, has since been bought by Elon Musk and re-branded as “X.” And last Wednesday, Musk endorsed a post on X that accused Jews of “pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim they want people to stop using against them.” This was “the actual truth,” wrote Musk — who is often called the world’s richest individual.
So suddenly the question of whether a white-appearing Jew is “white” seems much more current than it did even on opening night of Edelman’s show at the Taper. I haven’t seen “Just For Us” since opening night. But as I was handed a copy of the script that night, I was warned that “it might change.” In the script Edelman mentions that he doesn’t usually incorporate politics into his shows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he adds at least one Musk moment, when the gazillionaire is providing such rich material.
On opening night, “Just For Us” was engaging yet somewhat discursive, in the style of many stand-up acts. But Edelman tied his many strands together quite convincingly by the end. And this 34-year-old comic’s agile lopes around the stage and occasional involvements with nearby audience members keep us watching almost as much as we’re listening. (By the way, the photos of the show on the CTG website are from an earlier production, with Edelman wearing very different pants in front of a very different backdrop. Also, the title of the show on the printed program is “Alex Edelman Just For Us” instead of the website’s “Alex Edelman’s Just For Us.”)
I’ll briefly discuss one other one-man show with a Jewish theme, even though it closed Sunday at the Wallis — Yonatan Esterkin’s “The Jewish Dog,” adapted from a novel by Asher Kravitz, performed in Beverly Hills by Roy Abramsohn. It never should have been a solo. Too many characters are played by the same actor, usually wearing the same dog’s hat, even when playing human beings. This leads to moments of narrative confusion. And illustrating the Holocaust primarily through the eyes of an anthropomorphically precocious dog struck me as trivializing.
A much more successful mostly-one-man show is currently at the Fountain Theatre — Howard L. Craft’s “Freight.” The subtitle is “The Five Incarnations of Abel Green.” It reflects Craft’s premise that an African-American soul named Abel Green appeared in five incarnations in the century between the 1910s and the 2010s — first as a minstrel performer, then as a preacher in the ‘30s, an FBI informer on black radicals in the late ‘60s, a struggling Hollywood actor in the ‘80s, and a broker “who suckered people into loans they couldn’t afford” in the 21st century. After the real estate market crashed, Abel’s last incarnation wound up homeless himself.
You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to acknowledge the different varieties of psychological “freight” that all of these Abels carried. Actor J. Alphonse Nicholson displays remarkable virtuosity in all five incarnations, assisted by the silent Sidney Edwards, who is more or less a gracefully choreographed stagehand and costume assistant. Joseph Megel, who staged the New York productions of the the script, ably performs the same duties here, in tandem with a group of terrific designers.
Over the top with the Oviatts
Speaking of terrific design, take a gander at James Oviatt’s penthouse atop the Oviatt Building, a 1928 Art Deco high-rise in downtown LA. That’s the site of “Castle in the Sky,” an immersive theatrical experience from Under the Rose Productions.
Anastasia Cerankosky’s script focuses on wealthy haberdasher James Oviatt and his troubled family, staff and friends a century ago, when they actually spent time in these same rooms. However, you won’t hear all of the script. During most of the performance, audience members wander among several scenes happening simultaneously in different rooms. It’s impossible for anyone attending only one performance to see all 34 scenes; it’s probably difficult to see even half of them. I like the ambience, the direction and choreography by Denna Thomsen and Tracy Phillips, plus the performances, but I don’t necessarily know what happens in the entire script.
For example, I don’t know if any of the scenes mentioned Oviatt’s political leanings in the ‘20s, although he was later exposed — in the ‘60s — as a white supremacist, which reportedly contributed to the 1966 closing of his business. I heard nothing about this while I was there, but maybe there were hints of it in scenes I didn’t see.
Even if his racism isn’t mentioned, a reincarnated Oviatt probably wouldn’t enjoy the depiction of him in “Castle in the Sky.” In the closing scene — apparently witnessed by the entire audience — the previously stylish fashion designer looks lost and forlorn, stumbling around in his underwear on an outside terrace, while the others characters engage in a wordless, artfully choreographed ceremony in which they more or less consign him to oblivion. This was the second such danced and wordless scene that I saw.
By the way, an LA Times article about “Castle” was written by “game critic” Todd Martens, not by Times theater critic Charles McNulty. This is a little misleading. “Castle” is immersive, in the style of John Krizanc’s similarly ‘20s-set play “Tamara,” which ran for nine years in Hollywood starting in 1984. But it isn’t “interactive” except — from what I saw — in a few scattered moments, most of which didn’t resemble anything like an ongoing “game.” Martens also reviewed Boston Court’s immersive “Measure STILL for Measure” in September.
Still, with all of the radical cutbacks in Times coverage of LA theater in recent years, I’m grateful that Martens is allowed to provide an alternative route to coverage for immersive theater productions, even if they’re not “games.” “Castle” is currently scheduled to run through Dec. 2. I hope that it might catch on and run longer.
‘Inherit’ the ‘Awakening’
We’re also supposedly back in the 1920s in “Inherit the Wind,” the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee fictionalization of the famous Scopes “monkey trial,” which occurred in 1925. Michael Michetti’s revival of the 1955 play, which was a response to the anti-Communist hysteria of its own period, is at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 3.
The play sounds as if it’s set in the 1920s, but visually Michetti’s staging looks closer to the 2020s, in casting and costuming. The mixed signals are a bit confusing.
The location of the playhouse itself doesn’t help. It’s about 10 blocks from Caltech, one of the most important scientific centers in the world. Does anyone in a typical Pasadena audience consider the clash between evolution and creationism as an unsettled and current concern? At times, “Inherit the Wind” seems to exemplify the word “dated.”
On the other hand, yes, recent years have brought some skepticism about the scientific consensus behind vaccines. At the performance I saw, the actor playing the defendant — who is a schoolteacher who wants to teach evolution — was wearing a mask. I briefly wondered if this was an intentional and contemporary reference to the his character’s pro-science position. But later I was told no, that the actor wore a mask only because of a real-life COVID concern, even though he had tested negative. OK, but his mask not only raised questions but also muffled a few of his lines.
Not that this teacher is the one of the leading characters. Those are the opposing attorneys, played here by Alfred Molina for the defense and John Douglas Thompson for the prosecution. Did the fact that Molina was wearing denim jeans and a short-sleeve shirt that exposed a tattoo on his arm make his character seem more contemporary? Not really— I haven’t heard that attorneys dress like that in the courtroom even now. Yet Molina’s lines still sound like something from a century ago.
A more cohesive example of combining an older source with more modern sensibilities is the musical “Spring Awakening,” now in a strong revival directed by Tim Dang at East West Players, marred only by distractingly flashy lighting.
The symbiosis within “Spring” is due to the fact that this 2006 musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik was written in order to accomplish that precise goal of uniting the past with the present. Its creators borrowed characters and narrative components from Frank Wedekind’s 1891 non-musical play, but the addition of the 2006 score made the updates seem comfortably contemporary — after all, we don’t expect rigorous fidelity to the original in a musical.
Did anyone ever think of turning “Inherit the Wind” into a modern rock musical? Elvis Presley recorded an Eddie Rabbitt song with that title, but no, it wasn’t about the Scopes trial. The Elvis/Rabbitt version was actually closer in meaning to the original phrase as used in the Biblical book of Proverbs, as opposed to its use by Lawrence and Lee in 1955 as part of their stance against McCarthyism.
A ‘Radical’ on the border, a dictator in ‘Belarus’
Let’s briefly consider two new plays in small venues. The better of the two, “Radical, or Are You Gonna Miss Me?”, is by Isaac Gómez, produced by Iama Theatre in Atwater Village, staged by Jess McLeod.
Set in Gómez’s home turf in El Paso, it examines two estranged Latina sisters who find themselves thrown together in their late mother’s home despite growing political differences — and a non-Latina woman who draws one of the sisters into a potentially dangerous affiliation. The script is intriguing, but the set is perhaps a shade too realistic — it works for the primary location but not for the secondary. The performances by Elizabeth Ramos, Anna LaMadrid and Kim Griffin are edgy enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.
By contrast, the English-language fully-staged premiere of “Insulted. Belarus” by Andrei Kureichik, translated by John Freedman and staged by Frédérique Michel, is rather predictable for anyone who is at all aware of the notorious Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
It’s mostly about his attempts to suppress his opposition in real-life events that happened three years ago. But the narrative is awkwardly arranged, starting with far too many direct addresses to the audiences by characters whom we hardly know, and whose real-life counterparts aren’t even named. For example, the character who corresponds to Lukashenko is identified in the program as “Oldster, the Moustache Man” instead of “Lukashenko”. This long prologue is followed by too many scenes of explicit brutality during 2020.
Much of the same material is covered, more thoroughly and efficiently as well as with footage of the real-life drama, in the 52-minute documentary Challenging Lukashenko - Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's fight for Belarus”, available on YouTube.
News from Orange County
South Coast Repertory managing director Paula Tomei will retire after three decades in her job — and a total of 44 years at SCR, thereby defying the general assumption that steady careers are few and far between in the theatrical world. Congrats.
Congrats also to SCR for its recent “A Raisin in the Sun” revival, which opened after my last post and unfortunately closed before this post. Director Khanisha Foster and the cast made her revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s play an exceptional experience — more or less the opposite of a raisin expiring in the sun.