English National Opera mounted the first production in England of “The Death of Klinghoffer” last month. Protests had been promised over the staging of John Adams' opera about the American Jewish passenger who was killed and thrown overboard in his wheelchair on a hijacked Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985. There were fears that performances would be disrupted by demonstrators who felt that the opera expresses elements of anti-Semitism. But on Feb. 25 a mere lone figure showed up with a placard in front of the London Coliseum, ENO’s home.
A week later, when I attended, the picketer had packed up. This was simply a Saturday night at the opera, and one for which there was now some buzz. The reviews were highly favorable of what is an inoffensive, realistic production by Tom Morris, mastermind of “Jerry Springer, the Opera” and “War Horse.”
Despite an unfortunate lack of cultural nuance and context, the theatrically vivid performance of Adams’ intense and moving score makes a strong point. Most important of all, this is probably the right production at the right time. The Metropolitan Opera will ship it to New York in a coming season (no dates have yet been announced), and certainly both companies are eager to avoid the charges of anti-Semitism that have made “Klinghoffer” an operatic hot potato.
The cozy hotel suite in “The Fall to Earth” makes you want to take off your shoes and order room service. But don’t get too comfortable: Playwright Joel Drake Johnson and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble aren’t heeding that “Do Not Disturb” sign in this taut, claustrophobic psychodrama.
Fay (JoBeth Williams) and her successful daughter, Rachel (Deborah Puette), arrive in a small town for an unnamed errand. As they bicker, the impetus for their visit emerges: Fay’s troubled gay son, Kenny (Ian Littleworth), who has cut off contact with his parents. As Kenny’s dark history emerges, the family’s secrets begin to crack open.
The show’s collaborators achieve real chemistry here. Robin Larsen’s sharp direction, Tom Buderwitz’s set, John Zalewski’s sound design, and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting all combine to cast an eerie spell. Inexorably, this anonymous hotel room becomes a haunted house: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
As a kind of Medea dressed in JCPenney, Williams brings warmth and immediacy -- along with her demons -- while Puette signals years of pain with a mere tightening of the lip. And the ever-reliable Ann Noble finds the unruly edges of her “Fargo”-esque small-town cop.
“Have you taken up transvestism?” demands the psychiatrist’s wife in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” after catching her husband furtively clutching a dress. “I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion.”
If it sounds like something out of Oscar Wilde, there’s a reason: the shortest distance between “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Orton’s 1967 farce is a line straight through Sigmund Freud. Both plays waged war on hypocrisy through brilliant epigrams, but where Wilde couched barbs in the guise of frothy triviality, Orton brought subversive psychosexual subtext to the surface in this final work, completed just before his tragic, untimely death.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s revival nails the savagery in Orton’s assault on the (literal) straitjacket of middle-class morality, but stumbles over too much of the required comic timing.
A nicely detailed insane asylum is the ideal setting for Orton’s libido-driven characters, starting with the head shrink’s (John Walcutt) attempt to seduce his would-be secretary (Amanda Troop). Orton masterfully employs lost clothing, gender-switched mistaken identities, absurd coincidences, and other deconstructed sex farce conventions to mock psychiatry, sexual deviance, politics, religion and sanity itself. Most of the satire holds up admirably, but a little English historical context (homosexuality had just been decriminalized and reverence for the recently-deceased Winston Churchill was universal) helps fully appreciate the outrage the play first caused.
The image of Roy Cohn on his deathbed is so appealing to playwrights that the 1950s villain, the heavy of the Rosenberg trial and the Army-McCarthy hearings who died of AIDS in 1986, has embarked on a lively posthumous showbiz career. He and his deathbed starred in Tony Kushner’s “Angels of America" as well as in the 1992 cable movie “Citizen Cohn.” Now they're in the world premiere of Joan Beber’s “Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn,” directed by Jules Aaron at the Odyssey Theatre.
Here the deathbed is a king-size rococo gilt and wine-colored affair in a fancy hotel room (designed by John Iacovelli), where the hallucinating Cohn (Barry Pearl, as affable as always) dances with his nimble alter ego, “Young Roy" (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), and receives visits from his domineering mother (Cheryl David), lover G. David Schine (Tom Galup), sexy housekeeper/dominatrix (Presciliana Esparaolini), friends Ronald Reagan (David Sessions) and Barbara Walters (Liza de Weerd) and an unexpectedly butch Julius Rosenberg (Jon Levenson).
Beber, who earned her master of fine arts degree from USC at age 67, is unusual for a new playwright in that she watched the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings on live TV. In a program note she recalls feeling “intrigued” by the “dashing” Cohn, recognizing only later how many lives he destroyed. And although her characterization doesn’t redeem him, it is tinged with a maternal pity.
The Times’ Theater Beat reviewers – Philip Brandes, F. Kathleen Foley, Margaret Gray, David C. Nichols and Charlotte Stoudt – spend the year prowling Los Angeles area theaters, especially the smaller ones, and providing their opinions of what they see there every week on Culture Monster and in the Friday Calendar section.
Here are some of their favorites (and a few less favored) of 2011 theatrical offerings.
Best New Play:
Charlotte Stoudt: Tie between “Pursued by Happiness,” by Keith Huff, staged at the Lankershim Arts Center by Road Theatre Company and “Extraordinary Chambers” at the Geffen
Kathy Foley: A tie between Nick Salamone's “The Sonneteer” at the Gay and Lesbian Center's Davidson/Valentini Theatre, and Tom Jacobson's “House of the Rising Son,” Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles' production at the Atwater Village Theatre.
David C. Nichols: “House of the Rising Son” by Tom Jacobson
Philip Brandes: Penned in the early 1900's, the pair of one-acts from “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie in “Barrie: Back to Back” weren't technically new, but leave it to Pacific Resident Theatre to re-discover long-neglected chestnuts with tremendous heart.
Margaret Gray: “Girls Talk” by Roger Kumble
Theater and history can intersect in haunting ways. The Odyssey Theatre’s production of “Way to Heaven” tells the story of Jewish prisoners at the Theresienstadt camp who were forced to act as though they were well treated; they "performed" in a fake village built to convince Red Cross officials that rumors of extermination were false.
German-born Norbert Weisser, who plays the camp’s commandant, has his own complicated relationship to the legacy of Nazi Germany. The veteran of stage and screen (“Midnight Express,” “Chaplin,” “Schindler’s List”) sat down to talk about how his experience connects to Juan Mayorga’s play.
You grew up in West Germany — what was the atmosphere after the war?
I was born in 1946, right after the war. My teachers in junior high and high school had been teaching during the Third Reich. When they taught this particular subject, they tried to change their spots because they had to. But their old beliefs were still there. We as children caught a certain dissonance, but couldn’t quite decipher it.
I saw [Alain Resnais’ Holocaust documentary] “Night and Fog” when I was 12. I thought there was something genetically wrong with Germans, including myself.
How did your family deal with it?
The Third Reich’s mastery of stagecraft is a chilling fact of history, but the forced performances of Theresienstadt’s Jewish prisoners may be Hitler’s darkest perversion of theater. Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s stiff, harrowing “Way to Heaven,” now at the Odyssey Theatre, details this strange acting exercise with the rigor of a surgeon.
The audience enters the stark, shadowy theater space to see a desk, a bookcase, a bench and a ramp: banal exhibits of a lost world that then comes to life. (The scenic design is by Frederica Nascimento.) A Red Cross worker (Michael McGee) recounts his uncanny visit to the camp — a trip he must make again and again in his mind, as he failed to see what was right in front of him: that the contented children and smiling young lovers of Theresienstadt’s Jewish community were putting on a show for visiting officials to quell rumors of Nazi atrocities. Bad actors faced with expulsion and certain death; these prisoners were literally giving the performance of their lives. The bulk of the play is a two-hander in which the commandant (Norbert Weisser) and a prisoner (Bruce Katzman) “collaborate” on scripting and blocking this bizarre production.
Mayorga’s outrage can become oppressive, and sometimes director Ron Sossi treats his subject matter with too much reverence. (Both are understandable responses, but they turn drama into preaching.) “Way” isn’t easy viewing, but there is something bracing about its clarity and moral power. Mayorga’s true-life fable anatomizes our persistent urge to see what we want to, instead of the truth.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Way to Heaven,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. See schedule for performance times. Ends Dec. 18. $25 and $30. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Photo:: Norbert Weisser, left, and Bruce Katzman in "Way to Heaven." Credit: Enci.
A drinking game for L.A. theatergoers: do a shot whenever a play ends too soon. Still sober? Don’t lose hope. You may need a designated driver for “Day Drinkers,” Justin Tanner’s knockabout comedy of booze and heartbreak, now at the Odyssey Theatre.
L.A.’s poet laureate of self-medicators turns his gimlet eye to the joys of a liquid breakfast more bracing than a double latte at Starbucks. And you’ll definitely feel like ordering your favorite libation on Gary Guidinger’s evocative set, a wood-paneled watering hole with a taxidermied fox as its animal totem.
It’s 9a.m., and the bar is open: that means a scotch omelet for retiree Mick (Tom Fitzpatrick), bracing for the arrival of his priggish son, Bradley (Jonathan Palmer), intent on stopping dad from marrying loopy Val (Danielle Kennedy) and squandering what little remains of the family fortune. Rubbernecking on their way to an annual dose of familial homophobia are squabbling lesbians Sharon (Maile Flanagan) and Kate (Melissa Denton). Even the (married) bartenders have issues: Jenny (Chloe Taylor) has the hots for Caleb (Cody Chappel), who just happens to be the brother of her husband, Daniel (Todd Lowe). Ah, love. Preppy Kate counsels Jenny to stick to her vows: “There’s a reason you two have been together for years.” Jenny: “Yeah, low standards.”
Tanner isn’t breaking new ground here, but his ability to sustain a single comic scene over the course of 90 minutes is impressive. The cast, under Bart DeLorenzo’s fluid direction, sets a rolling, punchy rhythm, and the evening’s single song, “My New Old Flame,” is in fine keeping with the overall tone. Kennedy’s Val, a walking non sequitur with a truly hideous handbag, serves as the unofficial “Day Drinkers” muse. Batty, well-meaning, and blithely needy, she could be any of us at our worst relationship moment.
The play has its lazier side: Bradley is more surprising being incisive than pompous, and he tells a creepy ghost story that is one of the show’s best moments. Tanner never convinces us that Jenny fell for Caleb — her swain is woefully underimagined — but the playwright finds enough dark nooks and absurd crannies in everyday monogamy to send us out into the night feeling love is worth it, as long as the single malt is within reach.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Day Drinkers,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Additional performances 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21 and Oct. 5. Ends Oct. 9. $25 and $30. (310) 477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Photo: Chloe Taylor, left, Danielle Kennedy, and Jonathan Palmer in "Day Drinkers." Credit: Ed Krieger.
What if you learned from an unimpeachable source that the Rapture was coming — next Wednesday? In Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “End Days,” now at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Sylvia Stein calls a few friends, warns the rest of the world in the Penny Saver and gathers her family to await salvation. But her family is more interested in snacks than repentance. “Could we all just stop with the chips?” Sylvia asks.
All of Laufer’s deliciously human characters get distracted from their existential despair by trivialities like chips (and sandwiches and social-studies quizzes). Even Sylvia’s personal relationship with Jesus (the wonderful Andrew Ableson, who also does a turn as Stephen Hawking) is mired in the mundane. Ableson’s Jesus looks like he stepped off a 6th century panel painting, but he behaves in ungodly ways, tapping Sweet n’ Low into his coffee, agreeing to “blink once for no, twice for yes” to Sylvia’s questions about the Rapture, and testily calling “Love you, too!” as he flees his needy disciple like an exasperated teenager.
Two years after 9/11, the Stein family is still reeling. Dad Arthur (an amiable Loren Lester) can’t get out of his pajamas. Sylvia (the mesmerizing spark plug Abigail Revasch) has embraced evangelical Christianity. Their high school daughter, Rachel (Zoe Perry, lovely and intense), is a disaffected, snarling Goth. On paper they're ingredients for a standard dysfunctional family drama. (Yes, Tolstoy: Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but after you’ve seen enough plays, all the ways start to look alike.). And get this: Their unlikely savior, Nelson (the unfailingly charming Charlie Saxton), is a teenage Elvis impersonator.
But Laufer’s unique sense of humor, Lisa James’ lighthearted direction and the actors’ enthusiasm ensure that “End Days,” even at its least plausible, sheds authentic light on the human condition. Jeff McLaughlin’s realistically drab kitchen set may promise a sitcom, but Laufer is as much an heir to Ionesco as to Sherwood Schwartz — and a playwright to watch.
“End Days,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 16. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Photo: Jesus (Andrew Ableson, right) looks on approvingly as Sylvia (Abigail Revasch) proselytizes to Nelson (Charlie Saxton) in "End Days." Credit: Enci
An eerie fascination attends "Blood Wedding" at the Odyssey. Frederico Garcia Lorca's 1933 folk tragedy about a bride who runs off with her lover on her nuptial night receives an impressive, conservatory-poised staging by director Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Like counterparts "Yerba" and "The House of Bernarda Alba," "Blood Wedding" is an academic staple, with supernatural, sociological and emotional elements that transcend era and region. Rivera here sets the piece in Central California, circa 1952. The audience enters to find Death (Robert Almodovar) and the Moon (Ochuwa Oghie) on designer John H. Binkley's lunar-dominated circular platform, playing out the impending drama with dolls.
In Tanya Ronder's mega-poetic adaptation, Mother (the formidable Sharon Omi) worries over her surviving son (appealing Willie Fortes) marrying a young woman (Nikki McKenzie, playing from her nerve ends) whose previous liaison was with Leonardo (the potent Joshua Zar), connected with the clan that made Mother a near-childless widow. As Death and the Moon eavesdrop, Leonardo and the bride escape, bringing the title into full bas-relief.
Rivera maneuvers simple chairs and a wooden table with typical resourcefulness, aided evocatively by Derrick McDaniel's lighting, Mylette Nora's costumes and Bob Blackburn's sound. His non-traditional cast embraces the stylized attack, with Donna Pieroni's frenetic neighbor, Alberto Isaac's father of the bride and Ivan Davila's gender-switched duenna among the standouts.
It's a heady, near-hypnotic take, although Ronder's translation can be as formal as it is visceral, at times creating an airless quality, likely to be resolved as the run progresses. Certainly, students of rethought classics and Lorca devotees must catch this festival-ready realization.
— David C. Nichols
"Blood Wedding," Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (with exceptions, see schedule). Ends Aug. 14. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Photo: Sharon Omi, left, and Willie Fortes. Credit: Enci.