Troubies, Tanner, and a Top Tenth list
Plus 'Annie,' 'Clyde's,' 'Invincible,' Sheldon Epps' memoir.
'Tis the season for Troubadour Theater’s annual holiday hoot. As usual, it’s a refreshing antidote to too many competing “Christmas Carol”s.
This year Troubies director Matt Walker takes aim at the 1988 shoot-’em-up film “Die Hard.” Its setting — a corporate holiday party in a Century City high-rise — is the excuse for the timing in December. The Troubie title is “Die Heart,” because the show includes melodies and riffs, if not the precise lyrics, of some of the songs from the rock group Heart.
I had never seen “Die Hard” until I heard that the Troubies were going to parody it. Watching the movie, I wondered how a stage production could possibly suggest the variety of hiding places and combat zones that the hero enters while waging a one-man war against the criminal gang that invaded the high-rise. Because I was often unable to see exactly how these spaces related to each other in the movie, I was often confused about where the characters were, in relation to each other.
No problem. “Die Heart” is at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, a 268-seat venue that offers a range of small spaces that are visible to most of the audience most of the time, on the side walls, in the back, in the aisles — in addition to the wide main stage.
Walker, who’s not only the director but plays protagonist John McClane — not to be confused with John McCain, as McClane himself notes in “Die Heart” — incorporates occasional wide-screen clips from the movie at the back of the stage. These also help orient those who have seen the film. (If you’re not familiar with the movie, I urge you to do so before seeing “Die Heart”. Otherwise you might not get a lot of the jokes. Of course this advice might be moot, as “Die Heart” appears to be almost entirely sold out).
In front of those screen images, the main stage is big enough to provide room for the band and for rousing choreography by Walker and Suzanne Jolie Narbonne.
I won’t reveal the punchlines or describe the many sight gags, which often involve Julian Amaro’s costumes and Narbonne’s wigs. But I must mention Rick Batalla’s sterling turn as the villain Hans and, of course, Beth Kennedy’s annual but still somehow surprising appearance as the Winter Warlock.
The Troubies are masters of their rehearsed material to the extent that seemingly spontaneous moments can be allowed to generate even more laughs along the way, with no problem. The troupe repeatedly hits this sweet spot.
The incessant laughter at the Colony was in stark contrast to the silence that often prevailed at a performance last week of LA’s 2022 version of “A Very Die Hard Christmas,” produced by Theatre Unleashed at the tiny studio/stage on Western Avenue. Yes — this Christmas season offers two different staged “Diehard” parodies.
The Theatre Unleashed rendition dates from 2015, but it’s the offspring of a Minneapolis production that’s currently marking its tenth production. This year the LA variant includes a brief reference to “the other Diehard” parody in Burbank, without naming the Troubies or the title “Die Heart.” Unfortunately, the Unleashed production has barely a tiny fraction of the budget, the comic ingenuity, or the musical textures of “Die Heart.”
If you want to see a contemporary, unorthodox small-theater holiday show, try “Shambles,” a “cirque-influenced panto” at the Actors’ Gang, created by Cirque du Soleil veteran Stefan Haves. I can’t be much more specific about it, because I saw it on a potentially rainy night that resulted in sudden changes in the original indoor/outdoor staging. But I will say that some of the variety performers, especially comedy juggler Michael Rayner, are certainly worth the wait through what seemed like an unnecessarily complicated start of the show.
“Die Heart” parodies aren’t the only comedies in town that might initially seem unlikely Christmas-season shows. “Annie,” while hardly in the “Christmas Carol” category, is also set during the Christmas season, in the ‘30s. Remember “We’re getting a New Deal for Christmas”? A non-Equity touring production of “Annie,” at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, is quite proficient, all things considered.
Don’t forget that the original “Annie” was a comic strip and that the Strouse/Charnin/Meehan musical isn’t all sentimental mush, as some assume. Its satirical moments (OK, not as many as “Die Heart” has) vastly outnumber the moments when Sandy, the dog, is onstage.
Bitter women run a ‘Little Theatre’ and ‘Clyde’s’
Let’s move from the Dolby, the biggest regularly used theatrical venue in LA to…“Little Theatre.” That’s the title of Justin Tanner’s new, somewhat autobiographical play, opening in a Rogue Machine production at the 99-seat Matrix Theatre, on Melrose.
In 1994, I wrote a profile of Tanner in the LA Times, in connection with the opening of “The Collected Plays of Justin Tanner,” which consisted of seven of his plays in repertory at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, where they had all originated.
Here are the opening words of my article:
“If you call the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, the man who answers the phone may very well be the same guy who writes the plays. And directs them. Besides being a remarkably prolific playwright-director, Justin Tanner works part-time in the box office for the Cast…”
And here we are, 28 years later, with a new Tanner play, two miles west of the former Cast neighborhood. It depicts how Tanner got a box-office job at the Cast, had some trouble learning the ropes of the phone answering, but gradually saw the venue become a forum for his own much-discussed comedies — despite stormy confrontations with the woman in charge.
In 1994, Tanner’s plays were still somewhat of an “L.A. secret” (to quote from the headline on my article), and they remain so today on the national theatrical scene. After all, plays that begin and end in little theaters — which is largely but not totally true of Tanner’s — seldom enjoy a long afterlife nearly three decades later. However, American Theatre’s New York-based editor and former Angeleno Rob Weinert-Kendt recently interviewed Tanner on the occasion of the “Little Theatre” opening.
In his new play, Tanner doesn’t use the real names of the people who inspired the characters. The younger playwright in “Little Theatre” is James (Zachary Grant), not Justin. The bossy, volcanic artistic director and dramaturge is named Monica (Jenny O’Hara), instead of her model, the late Diana Gibson. The real-life managing director/set designer/financial backer Andy Daley is now known as Danny (Ryan Brophy) in “Little Theatre.” Obviously Tanner took some liberties, probably in order to gain more flexibility in the focusing of the story.
The play ignores the historical context of the building where the Cast was located, on the east side of El Centro Avenue, just north of Melrose. It opened as a movie theater, the El Centro, more than a century ago. It was converted into a “legit” theater in 1946 by a group that included Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney. In this play, Tanner calls the building the El Centro, not the Cast, which was its name during Tanner’s most prodigious period.
It’s too bad that Tanner couldn’t find the time within the play to also mention Ted Schmitt, who ran the Cast when Tanner first became involved there. Schmitt died of AIDS in 1990, which left Gibson in charge — enabling her to turn it into the three-person operation that is the focus of “Little Theatre.” A few allusions to the history and Schmitt might have provided a little more depth, especially for younger theatergoers who might have never heard of Tanner or the Cast.
Still, “Little Theatre” is as entertaining as most of the vintage Tanner plays — which is saying quite a lot. O’Hara convincingly depicts Monica’s sudden switches in mood. Under the direction of Lisa James, the other two actors also display unexpected quirks within their characters. James, by the way, was the first director of Tanner’s work other than the playwright himself, when she directed a 1999 revival of Tanner’s play “Bitter Women.”
In the second act of “Little Theatre,” the plays by the character “James” (as opposed to the actual director) have attracted enough buzz that he starts getting real money from TV producers, as did Tanner. But he remains ensconced at the Cast longer than almost anyone else might have. For a non-fictional account of this period, look at Steven Mikulan’s 1998 article “The Prisoner of El Centro Avenue” in the LA Weekly, which is briefly referenced in the “Little Theatre” script.
By the way, “Little Theatre” is not a December holiday-themed play. But Tanner’s oeuvre includes a play called “Happytime Xmas,” which hasn’t been seen for a long time in LA. Of course, Tanner probably would want to revise it before remounting it…something for 2023, perhaps?
Monica in “Little Theatre” isn’t the only tyrannical boss on one of LA’s stages. The title character (Tamberla Perry) of “Clyde’s”, in a Goodman Theatre/Second Stage production directed by Kate Whoriskey at the Mark Taper Forum, is even more of a despot. She runs a truck-stop sandwich shop, and she and all of her wage slaves are ex-cons, without many other employment options.
This sounds grim, but “Clyde’s” is surprisingly light. Especially in the first half, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the old TV sitcom “Alice,” except that in “Clyde’s,” the boss appears in a new snazzy outfit every time she makes an appearance, with no explanation. Indeed, the character is underwritten.
Playwright Lynn Nottage apparently created a crowd-pleaser — with 11 planned stagings nationwide in the 2022-23 season, “Clyde’s” is the most produced play in the country right now among the 551 member theaters of Theatre Communications Group and Broadway (although this list always excludes “A Christmas Carol”). But “Clyde’s” seems more predictable and superficial than most of Nottage’s plays.
The Bard bumps into Benatar
At least the title of “Clyde”s sounds fitting, as opposed to “Invincible,” the new musical at the Wallis, based on “Romeo and Juliet.” Think about that match of moniker and source material for, oh, 10 seconds, and you realize that “Invincible” is a dreadful title for any play based on “Romeo and Juliet.” Anyone who knows Shakespeare’s play (or even “West Side Story”) would not describe these lovebirds as invincible — unless the playwright has changed the ending.
And that’s exactly what writer Bradley Bredeweg has done. I won’t reveal the details, but Shakespeare fans who already have tickets, brace yourselves.
Bredeweg is more interested in showcasing the hits of Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo — and some of Benatar’s other songs — than in fidelity to Shakespeare. But his coupling of music and story isn’t a comfortable fit. If “Invincible” is going to be the title of a musical, it might work better in a non-satirical version of a “Diehard” musical. (By the way, the song “Invincible” isn’t even by Benatar and/or Giraldo; it was written by Simon Climie and Holly Knight.)
The Wallis “Invincible” is set in “a modern, post-war Verona,” whatever that means. The characters look fashionably hip for the present day, which makes the whole idea that R & J must get married so quickly much more puzzling than it is in the original play. I could go on about “Invincible,” but Charles McNulty of the LA Times already wrote one of his most devastating reviews ever, so I’ll refrain from hitting “Invincible” with my best shot.
Sheldon Epps recalls his ‘Own Directions’
If “Invincible” models how not to adapt a Shakespeare classic into a musical, Sheldon Epps demonstrated the opposite when he united “Twelfth Night” with Duke Ellington’s music in “Play On!” — first at the Old Globe Theatre where he was the associate artistic director, then at other theaters throughout America, including Broadway.
Of course Epps is better known in LA as the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse for 20 years, beginning in 1997. He was the first non-white artistic director at any of Southern California’s professional, larger-than-midsize theater companies. And he achieved considerable box-office and critical success there, with productions that attracted younger and more diverse audiences, although his tenure also included a brief period when the playhouse had to close because of its debt load.
He writes about all of this and more in his new memoir “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre.” That he uses “Black Man” in the book’s subtitle might surprise many Epps observers, because, as Epps notes, he never wanted to be identified primarily by race.
However, the book describes moments in his Pasadena career when he felt that others — mostly donors and board members — were thinking about him in those terms, worrying that he would make the venerable playhouse’s programming and audiences too…Black. He doesn’t name many names, but his concerns along these lines sound plausible.
The book points out that Epps’ relationship with the playhouse goes back farther than I had realized. When he was an adolescent preacher’s kid growing up in Compton, he was part of a church group that attended “The Member of the Wedding” at the playhouse (apparently in 1964, though he doesn’t mention the date). The production featured Ethel Waters in one of her signature stage roles, including her performance of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” He fell in love with theater at that moment, he recalls, although at the time his professional aim was to be a lawyer.
But the book covers many other chapters of Epps’ career, including the development of “Play On!”. Epps expressed doubt that the playhouse could afford it, in an LA Times interview upon becoming the artistic director in 1997. But he changed his mind and staged it there in 1999.
Epps paints a picture of everyone at the playhouse breathlessly awaiting the LA Times review of “Play On!”. When it finally arrived, he writes, the review was “a rave of raves…The sun was shining, and the stars were bright!” He doesn’t mention the name of the raving Times critic, so I won’t either. But I will say…you’re welcome.
And finally, my alphabetical list of 15 theatrical highlights of 2022, with links to my original commentaries on them. I attended about 150 productions this year, so we can call this “the top tenth”:
Animal Farm, A Noise Within
Assassins, East West Players
Clean/Espejos, South Coast Repertory
Everybody, Antaeus Company
Freestyle Love Supreme, Pasadena Playhouse
If I Forget, Fountain Theatre
The Inheritance, Geffen Playhouse
The Lehman Trilogy, CTG/Ahmanson Theatre
Macbeth, Independent Shakespeare Company
On the Other Hand, We’re Happy, Rogue Machine
Penelopiad, City Garage
The Play You Want, Road Theatre Company
Tootsie, Dolby Theatre
Tiger Style!, South Coast Repertory
Uncle Vanya, Pasadena Playhouse