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'Mean Girls'. Mean men. Mean times.
The 'Mean' musical. Mean men in 'Angry' and 'Brothers'. The missing mean in 'Home Front'. Theater community rallies 'round CA arts funding and massacre survivors.
The word “mean” means so many different things.
It’s a verb, as in the above sentence, but it also can be an adjective and a noun. “Mean streets” aren’t inviting, but being “lean, mean” sounds enviable. The noun “mean,” expanded beyond its literal mathematical significance, refers to something in the middle, between two extremes.
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The title “Mean Girls” — whether it’s attached to the 2004 movie or the 2017 stage musical adaptation — takes advantage of several meanings of the word.
If you’ve seen either version, the title guides you to think first of the Plastics. They’re the girls at the center of the social scene at North Shore High in the Chicago area, led by the fearsome “Regina George” — as in “Queen George,” who is played by Nadina Hassan in the terrific touring cast at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, in the show’s LA debut.
But the central character of “Mean Girls” is Cady Heron (English Bernhardt). She’s a naive newcomer, previously home-schooled by her professorial parents while living in Kenya. Her first friends at North Shore are artsy rebels Damian (Eric Huffman) and Janis (Lindsay Heather Pearce), who inspire Cady to infiltrate the Plastics as a spy and disrupt Regina’s rule.
Cady soon shows signs of becoming a Mean Girl herself.
Never fear — Tina Fey’s inspired narrative turns the tables again, transforming Cady from a potential Mean Girl into a “mean” mathlete and eventually a healer who points out the potential of everyone in the class to become “a star.” She unites the extremes of the school’s social divisions.
Improbable? Perhaps. But this is a cartoon, with a satisfying arc. The staged version, with music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, is even more of a cartoon than the movie — but it’s also more enjoyable.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his crack design team deserve much of the credit. A dazzling display of images and sounds unfolds with unerring precision before our eyes, creating an inherent theatricality and a richer sense of satire than we saw in the more realistic surfaces of the film.
The stylized influences of Cady’s background in Kenya, where she observed socializing strategies among the wild animals, are more vividly suggested by Nicholaw’s choreography than they were in similar moments in the film. And in the stage design, digital devices — which spread rumors so much faster — are abundant, updating the look from the clunky communications devices of 2004.
Of course, with Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” fame producing, as well as Fey’s book (is Fey a descendant of Feydeau?), “Mean Girls” is also a lot funnier than the last teen-oriented musical that played the Pantages. The references to casual drug use in “Mean Girls” are light-hearted, as opposed to the inter-generational problems that we saw in the aptly-named “Jagged Little Pill.”
When the run of “Wuthering Heights” at the Wallis was canceled because of rain damage in the theater, “Mean Girls” became the only big-deal opening in a larger LA-area theater in January. It will re-appear nearby, at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, March 7-19, in case you can’t tickets in Hollywood — but in that case, you’re not the only one who missed it in LA.
The LA Times ignored “Mean Girls” at the 2700-seat Pantages, although it was easily the most popular theatrical production in LA so far in 2023. Instead, LAT’s theater critic Charles McNulty reviewed two productions in New York, one of which was about to close. Back in LA, he reviewed “Home Front” at the 93-seat Victory Theatre in Burbank (see my thoughts on it, below) and the solo “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” with John Rubinstein, at the 99-seat Hudson Mainstage — a week before it closed, after it had already moved from the larger Theatre West where it had opened in October.
As those who read my earlier comments on “Eisenhower” and my thoughts, below, on “Home Front,” might have deduced, I’ll borrow Queen George’s favorite accolade and report that “Mean Girls” was a lot more…fetch.
But back to “mean.”
That word pops up a lot in Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s “Do You Feel Anger?” which is currently in its West Coast premiere, produced by Circle X Theatre and directed by Halena Kays in Atwater.
“Empathy coach” Sofia (Paula Rebelo) has just been hired by a debt-collection agency, in an apparent attempt to restrain the bullying behavior of the workers during their phone calls to debtors. Eva (Tasha Ames), the first employee Sofia meets, immediately informs her that “everyone is so outgoing and mean,” resulting in “a really scary work environment. Someone keeps mugging me when I’m walking around the office” every day — although we never witness any of this offstage mugging.
Like “Mean Girls,” “Do You Feel Anger?” is a cartoon in which the central character — Sofia — is thrust into a venomous environment and gradually begins to compromise some of her own standards in order to survive. The cartoonish angles here are even more exaggerated than they are in “Mean Girls.”
In “Anger,” however, no venom spills from the women. It spews entirely from the men. All of them are over-the-top male chauvinists. These heedlessly tone-deaf sexists include not only the two endlessly horny guys (Napoleon Tavale, Rich Liccardo) who are brought in for empathy training but also their boss (satire virtuoso Casey Smith) and a supposedly 130-year-old man (the actors in this role change each week — I saw Bob Clendenin).
Meanwhile, in Sofia’s private life, her unseen father has just left her mother after revealing that he has a second family. For reasons not well enough explained, Sofia keeps in touch more with him than with her mother, who leaves plaintive telephone messages for Sofia from the side of the stage.
The play generates shocked laughs in response to the jaw-dropping remarks of the men. These apparently literate adults are unfamiliar not only with “empathy” but also with the fact of women’s menstrual periods. Their idea of heaven is unending oral sex for them, but no reciprocation for women. They’re straw men, conceived for nothing but ridicule.
The play doesn’t end well — for the audience as well as the characters. The ending strays too far into the arena of hazy fantasy. It might help if you know in advance that Janie, a barely-mentioned woman who previously worked with these men, shows up only in the next-to-the-last scene, although her current status isn’t crystal-clear.
Men also behave badly in the premiere of Matthew Doherty’s “Brothers Play” at Legacy LA, adjacent to LA County/USC Medical Center northeast of downtown LA. Here, however, three basket cases — er, grown-up brothers (Rob Nagle, Jeffrey Nordling, Jamie Wollrab) — mistreat each other more than anyone else, perhaps because no one else is on the stage. The performances are vivid, but the play suffers from the onstage absence of other characters who might have provided a little context — which finally arrives too late, but only in the brothers’ long-suppressed memories.
The presence of only three actors is also a problem with Warren Leight’s “Home Front,” at the Victory Theatre in northwest Burbank. It’s about an interracial romance in post-World War II New York, focusing on the pernicious effects of other people’s racism on the couple’s relationship. But the drama would be stronger if we occasionally got a firsthand glance of racists. Besides the couple, James (C.J. Lindsey) and Annie (Austin Highsmith Garces) the only other character is a saintly gay neighbor (Jonathan Slavin). Strained monologues from James, describing his troubles in South Carolina, don’t do the job.
By the way, this is billed as the “West Coast premiere” of “Home Front,” but its previous incarnation — in Cincinnati, in 2003 — had a different title, “James and Annie,” and rewrites occurred since then.
Theaters support SB1116 and Monterey Park survivors
Supporters of more state funding for small and midsize theaters cheered last year, when Governor Newsom signed California Senate Bill 1116, authorizing an “Equitable Payroll Fund” for smaller non-profit arts groups, which had been promoted by Theatre Producers of Southern California and Actors’ Equity.
Unfortunately, the fund hasn’t yet been funded.
On Friday, a “Catch Up, California!” rally to urge the flow of the funds is scheduled for Antaeus Theatre in Glendale. Presumably its chief legislative sponsor Sen. Anthony Portentino (D-Glendale), Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle and local activists will discuss how this long-running drama might have a happy ending.
Meanwhile, to get in the mood, enjoy the zippy video “SB#1116 The Musical!” at equitablepayrollfund.org. It was produced last year during the initial campaign for the bill.
East West Players, long the dominant Asian American theater group in LA, is suggesting donations for victims of the Monterey Park massacre to the Monterey Park Lunar New Year Victims Fund, a GoFundMe website organized by Asian Americans Advancing Justice. In a written statement, artistic director Snehal Desai wrote that he believes in “the resiliency of our community. As we collectively grieve this tragic loss, please know EWP is here to support in mending our broken hearts and healing these deep wounds. Please reach out to us if there is anything we can do to help.” He also suggested that anyone in need of trauma support could contact AAPI Equity Alliance.
By the way, the 130-year-old character in “Do You Feel Anger?” is a would-be workplace shooter who can no longer lift guns, but he erroneously believes that he has brought bombs to the debt collection office. I mention this in case anyone feels that this just isn’t the right moment and place to witness this scene.
With yet another massacre in northern California yesterday, these are indeed mean days — and these real-life shooters defy any attempts at satire, at least for now.
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