When memories meet the present moment
Don't forget 'If I Forget' at the Fountain. Plus 'Dear Evan Hansen,' 'A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill,' 'King Liz,' 'Trouble the Water,' 'Freestyle Love Supreme,' 'Cookin' with Gas'
The present moment is the essence of live performance. Everyone in the audience — or on the stage, for that matter — experiences an event that will never again be exactly replicated. More than filmed or “live” electronically recorded productions, live theater happens right now.
Of course improv-based stage productions, such as the current “Freestyle Love Supreme” at Pasadena Playhouse or the Groundlings’ “Cookin’ With Gas”, emphasize this quality. They rely on suggestions from the spectators, so the actual words and topics can change dramatically at each new performance (more about them later).
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On the other hand, many scripted plays grapple so much with memories of the past that they sometimes ignore the relevance of the past to the present moment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the memories don’t feel musty.
Much of Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget,” in its local premiere at Fountain Theatre, is about memories of the past. It was first produced in 2017, but the memories under discussion here go back much farther. Yet it’s vibrantly alive in 2022. It certainly doesn’t feel musty in the hands and mouths of director Jason Alexander’s brilliant ensemble.
Its leading character Michael Fischer (Leo Marks) is a progressive professor of Jewish studies. In the book that he’s finishing, he contends that contemporary Jews spend excessive time memorializing their memories — of even the Holocaust — instead of grappling with more recent developments.
This perspective also affects his attitudes toward the histories of his father Lou (Matt Gottlieb) and deceased mother, Michael’s two sisters Holly (Valerie Perri) and Sharon (Samantha Klein) and other family members as they gather for Lou’s 75th birthday at Michael’s childhood home in northwest Washington DC, shortly after the beginning of the present century.
Lou’s worldview was shaped to a great extent by his participation, as a young GI in 1945, in the liberation of Dachau near the end of World War II. Michael’s sisters’ views are closer to Lou’s than they are to Michael’s.
Playwright Levenson, who is only 38 years old, seems to understand and express Lou’s and Michael’s viewpoints equally well, as he previously did with the character of Evan Hansen, the much younger center of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Pasek/Paul musical for which Levenson wrote the book.
An excellent touring version of “Dear Evan” is currently at the Ahmanson, under Center Theatre Group auspices. Re-visiting it reminded me that its story also deals with the issue of memories — in this case, made-up memories that are supposedly designed to heal. It even references young Jews in a line about the culture’s bar-mitzvah parties. It’s a refreshing tonic for anyone who might be tempted to give up on big musicals after seeing the utterly vacuous jukebox extravaganza “Moulin Rouge” — which is more of a pop-music trivia game than a full-fledged musical — at the Pantages.
But back to “If I Forget.” The familial friction in its story creates moments of rich comedy. Some might glance at the name of the director of this production, Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame, and assume that the laughs were his main contribution to the success of the production. But they might be wrong.
While Alexander is surely gifted at crafting comic exchanges, his most obvious contribution to the play actually enhances the poignance, not the comedy. In the script, there is no onstage presence of Abby, the somewhat troubled daughter of Michael and his non-Jewish wife Ellen (Síle Bermingham), although we do see and hear Abby’s parents talking to her on the phone as she tours Israel as part of the Birthright program. However, Alexander added dancer Caribay Franke to the cast as a non-speaking embodiment of Abby’s personal struggle. Her presence is an intriguing contrast to the otherwise extremely verbal and literal texture of most of the play.
By the way, the Fountain production opened just two weeks before Tisha B’Av (this year, August 6-7 on the secular calendar), the Jewish holiday that commemorates many of the calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history, including the destruction of two temples by the Babylonians and the Romans. I don’t know if this was considered in the scheduling, but it’s easy to imagine that Tisha B’Av might be Michael’s least favorite holiday. The final moments of “Forget” could serve as a particularly eloquent and modern addition to a creative English-language Tisha B’Av service.
Two at the Geffen
“If I Forget” isn’t the only Jewish-themed meditation on memory that LA has experienced recently. Geffen Playhouse produced the premiere of Matt Schatz’s musical, “A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill,” which re-visits a shocking New Jersey murder case, in which a popular but adulterous Reform rabbi was convicted in 2002 of commissioning the 1994 murder of his wife.
The first lyric in the sung-through musical is “Why do we recount and recall?” Unfortunately, the 90-minute no-intermission show doesn’t sufficiently answer that question.
“Cherry Hill” is structured as a ceremonial re-telling of the story by a musical group within the congregation, or perhaps at a Jewish community center — with each actor playing multiple roles. But I learned more about the real-life story from watching a Barbara Walters segment of “20/20”, now on YouTube, than I did from “Cherry Hill.” For example, the Walters report mentions the couple’s third child, who’s missing from the musical, even though he was the only one of the three who testified in his father’s defense. The musical sometimes seems more concerned about self-consciously clever rhymes that it does about the narrative or its meaning.
“A Wicked Soul” closed last weekend, after most of its initial opening week had been postponed by a COVID outbreak, so I won’t dwell on it. Perhaps the unexpected hitch gives Schatz more time to fix it and, perhaps, find a better title.
In the meantime, the Geffen is also offering Fernanda Coppel’s “King Liz” in the smaller theater next door, through August 14. It’s a relatively absorbing story about a NBA-specializing New York sports agent (Sabrina Sloan) and a young hoops prodigy. However, it seems somewhat like a pilot for a TV series — and in fact, it has been optioned for TV with a twist that apparently would transfer Liz from a sports agent into a music-industry agent. If that bears fruit, it might eliminate some of the potential confusion that faced LA theater this summer, which began with the Taper’s “King James,” about NBA fans, and then moved on to “King Liz,” about the NBA biz.
‘Trouble’ in the era of ‘CRT’
When everyone who directly experienced an event has finally died, the event is transmuted entirely into “history.” The new “Trouble the Water,” at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, is about Robert Smalls (1839-1915), a historical figure whose story I had never seen on a stage or screen. But “Trouble the Water” isn’t “musty” history, in part because of its immediate relevance in a time when contrived protests against “critical race theory” threaten truth-telling about slavery in America’s schools.
Smalls was born and raised as a slave in antebellum South Carolina, but he dramatically liberated himself and others in 1862, when he commandeered a Confederate ship and steered it into Union waters (yes, we hear comparisons to the Torah story of Moses leading the Jews through the sea to the promised land). Smalls then went on to a fascinating career, in Congress and elsewhere, fighting Jim Crow from a different vantage point.
The Theatricum production, adapted by Ellen Geer from a novel about Smalls by Rebecca Dwight Bruff, concentrates mostly on Smalls’ early life as a slave — perhaps because the Theatricum’s outdoor amphitheater is ideal for scenes set on a plantation? The venue isn’t quite as appropriate for the depiction of the watery escape to freedom. But then the script pays hardly any attention to Smalls’ post-war career.
Director Gerald C. Rivers pulls off the double tasks of directing the production and also playing the older Smalls as a narrator, while Terrence Wayne Jr. plays the younger Smalls. The production works well as far as it goes — and it’s much better than the other two shows I’ve seen at the Theatricum this summer — “Merry Wives of Windsor” and a revival of the flimsy “West Side Waltz.”
I’ve read reports of a possible Amazon biopic of Smalls’ saga — which presumably could turn into a streaming series? That might be the best way for mass audiences to see a fuller dramatization of this man’s remarkable life.
Wizards of improv
Finally, I’ll briefly recommend both “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the improv show at the larger Pasadena Playhouse (I saw the July 15 edition, with guest Wayne Brady) and “Cookin’ With Gas,” the ongoing Thursday-night all-improv show at the smaller Groundlings theater on Melrose (I saw this week’s edition).
I won’t go into details, because, as I wrote above, those details change at each performance. But I laughed a lot at both of these ultra-present-moment events.
“Freestyle” has a more ambitious structure. You get to know a lot more about a couple of audience members during an emcee’s live interviews in search of material for more personalized improvs. At “Cookin’ With Gas,” the audience participates only in the usual format of shouting out potential cues for the next improv.
But both productions offer the impressive feats and fun of witnessing actors responding nimbly to the demands of the present moment.
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