Category: Philip Brandes

Theater review: ‘Early and Often’ at Open Fist Theatre

April 12, 2012 |  3:00 pm

"Early and Often" at Open Fist Theatre
The mob murder of a crooked state assemblyman poses a daunting though not insurmountable challenge to his reelection prospects in the West Coast premiere of “Early and Often” at the Open Fist Theatre.

Named after the notorious adage about voting in their Chicago hometown, Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe’s retro political satire is set on the day of the 1960 presidential election. The sharp-edged black comedy is strictly local, however, as party operatives try to cover up the death of their hack assemblyman until he’s officially won his seat. Sporting an ensemble nearly as populous as the Windy City itself, this who’s-got-the-body caper entails complicity among the corrupt factions that comprise the city’s political landscape — elected officials, cops, reporters and even priests.

If there’s a “hero” to be found in this cesspool, it’s conflicted precinct captain Art Ruck (skillfully played by Bryan Bertone). To say that Art is facing a crisis of conscience would be far too romanticized — it’s more a question of where his loyalties lie after his sleazy Ward boss (Bjørn Johnson) refuses to adequately reward his efforts. Jessica Noboa, Catherine Urbanek and Amanda Weier effectively illuminate the frustrated powerlessness of women amid the boy’s club mentality of the era.

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Theater review: ‘Hello! My Baby’ at the Rubicon Theatre

March 28, 2012 |  3:15 pm

“Hello! My Baby”
Dramatist Cheri Steinkellner shrewdly sets her thoroughly charming new jukebox musical in a time before there were jukeboxes, in order to connect a new generation with a fading, uniquely American cultural legacy. Developed and launched with brio by Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, Steinkellner’s “Hello! My Baby” is a ticket back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley heyday, when people enjoyed popular music the old fashioned way — they played it. 

Feeding the public’s appetite for popular hits back then provided livelihoods for the scrappy young sheet music pluggers whose streetwise story lines Steinkellner serviceably employs to thread (with occasional plot-advancing additional lyrics) more than 30 classic tunes by such diverse songwriting talents as George and Ira Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan, Eubie Blake and of course Irving Berlin, who began his own musical career as a plugger. 

The production abounds with promising fresh-faced talent, starting with Ciaran McCarthy as the neighborhood’s cocky top plugger, Mickey McKee, an aspiring lyricist whose dream of emulating Berlin’s success is hampered by one small detail — he can’t write music. The proverbial luck of the Irish pairs him with Nelly (Evie Hutton), a Jewish factory worker and pianist who’s more than his match in talent and spunk. 

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Theater review: ‘Diary of a Madman’ at Actors Circle Theatre

March 21, 2012 |  2:22 pm

"Diary of Madman"
Maniacal laughter echoing through the opening sound montage doesn’t pose much spoiler risk, given that the name of the monologue we’re watching is “Diary of a Madman.” Still, in the classic Nikolai Gogol short story on which Ilia Volok and Eugene Lazarev’s new stage adaptation is based, the protagonist’s mental unraveling follows a distinctly accelerating progression — an arc that’s somewhat obscured when the character comes charging out of the gate in full-blown nutcase mode.

Manageable length and first-person narration have made the work a recurring choice for solo performance. This effort benefits from director Lazarev’s and star Volok’s shared Russian heritage—their original translation feels crisper and more contemporary than ubiquitous public domain versions.

It’s particularly effective in evoking the Gogol story’s vivid mix of the comic and horrific.

With demonic glint and flamboyant gestures, Volok certainly lives up to the title as Poprishchin, a mid-grade civil service nonentity. Opening with his stalker-ish obsession with his boss’ daughter, the narrator’s delusions become increasingly grandiose and his grip on reality more tenuous.

Rather than stressing period specificity, the adaptation (down to the threadbare set) frames his breakdown as a timeless response to a colorless, dehumanized existence.

But the fact that Poprishchin’s madness is obvious from the outset leaves Volok nowhere to go except the no man’s land of over-the-top, actorly clichés of madness, and a tendency to embellish lines with pregnant dramatic pauses makes the piece slower going than it needs to be. 


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-– Philip Brandes

“Diary of a Madman,” Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 31. $20. (323) 960-7770 or Running time: 1 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Ilia Volok. Credit: Rochelle Perry.

Theater review: ‘Jesus Ride’ at Son of Semele

March 15, 2012 |  6:30 pm

Mike Schlitt in "Jesus Ride"
From the 33 biopics he's studied quite, um, religiously, writer-performer Mike Schlitt reached an inescapable conclusion about the way the story of Jesus has been portrayed on the silver screen: “The guy had father issues.”

With ample supporting evidence from movie clips ranging from camp to classic, Schlitt’s funny and slyly perceptive multimedia solo show, “Jesus Ride,” recounts his first-hand experience with the crass commercialization of theology as a roundabout way of coming to terms with father issues of his own.


The son of a successful TV writer, the self-described “Jew-ish” but unapologetically secular Schlitt weaves his lifelong passion for movies through an engaging narrative about his unlikely post-production job (for which he was totally unqualified) at the newly opened Sony Pictures High Definition Center. His first project at the short-lived facility involved a wooden, vacuous retelling of the New Testament for the video portion of a motion control ride installation in a religious theme park (hence the monologue’s title). 

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Theater review: ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ at Open Fist Theatre

March 1, 2012 |  5:00 pm

MOON OVER BUFFALOOpen Fist Theatre Company continues to flaunt its retro screwball comedy chops with Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” a follow-up to last year’s hit revival of “Room Service.” Sporting much of the same manic energy as its predecessor (not to mention several cast and crew holdovers), the production is helmed once again by Bjørn Johnson, whose facility with orchestrating whirlwind slamming doors, mistaken identities, arch innuendos and other tropes of backstage farce is once again apparent. B.H. Barry’s fight choreography adds stylized panache.

Set in 1953 Buffalo, Ludwig’s showbiz satire depicts the behind-the-scenes unraveling of a matinee performance by a touring repertory company run by fading stage veterans George (David Ross Paterson) and Charlotte (Wendy Phillips), whose marriage is on the rocks. The ragtag troupe grapples with keeping Charlotte from running off with the family lawyer (Johnson), sobering up George from his despairing bender, finding a replacement for the trusting ingénue (Laetitia Leon) he’s knocked up, and a career-reviving film opportunity hanging in the balance with the news that Frank Capra is in the audience. Their inability to figure out whether they’re performing “Cyrano” or “Private Lives” results in a disastrously loopy mash-up of the two plays.

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Theater review: 'Sarah's War' at the Hudson Mainstage

February 21, 2012 |  2:30 pm

Abica Dubay and Terry Davis in "Sarah's War"
Amid the endless polarized chaos and bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, is there any space between protecting human rights and supporting terrorists? Seeking that elusive territory of meaningful compassion is the goal of Valerie Dillman's thoughtful and heartfelt original drama, "Sarah's War," a Freedom Theatre West production at the Hudson Mainstage. 

Dillman's play is based on the life and death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American peace activist who in 2003 was crushed by a bulldozer manned by Israel Defense Forces when she tried to intervene in their demolition of a Palestinian home. Already the subject of several dramatic adaptations, Corrie's fate at the intersection of American, Israeli and Palestinian agendas has made her a lightning rod for political rhetoric on all sides.

In this fictionalized version of events, Dillman looks past easy labels. Neither heroic martyr nor naive dupe, protagonist Sarah (Abica Dubay) finds herself in over her head trying to apply the nonviolent protest tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King in volatile Gaza, where she's mistrusted by everyone. 

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Theater review: ‘New Jerusalem...’ at Pico Playhouse

February 16, 2012 |  5:45 pm

New Jerusalem
Take Spinoza. Please.

That pretty much sums up the views of both Jewish and Christian leaders toward the theological hot potato at the center of David Ives’ “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” Ives’ 2008 play is a speculative riff on the historical trial convened by Jewish elders at the insistence of the Dutch government in an attempt to suppress Spinoza’s dangerous philosophy.

Though best known for his cerebral sketch comedy anthology, “All in the Timing,” Ives' intent here is a serious play of ideas. The religious as well as political tensions between dogma and original thought are taken to heart in Elina de Santos’ staging for West Coast Jewish Theatre, notwithstanding telltale signs of insufficient rehearsal. 

The stakes are high: A guilty pronouncement by the senior rabbi (Richard Fancy) would subject 23-year-old Spinoza (a miscast Marco Naggar) to excommunication and expulsion from his Jewish community; failure to silence him threatens the precarious safe haven extended to the Jews by the Dutch representative (Mark Bramhall). Using inventive anachronistic liberties, Ives offers a concise “Spinoza Primer” on the views that threatened religious orthodoxy on both sides.

Breathing life into those ideas, however, requires performers who understand them. Setting aside flubbed lines, cadences and delivery frequently do not reflect a good handle on their meaning. Instead, emotional peaks arrive at arbitrary overacted moments, with insignificant sound and fury.

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Theater review: ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the Odyssey Theatre

January 26, 2012 |  3:00 pm

"What the Butler Saw"
“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.

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Theater review: ‘Absolute Black’ at ZJU Theatre Group

January 17, 2012 | 12:06 pm


This review has been corrected, as detailed below.

A beautiful dame winds up dead, her mug plastered all over the papers. Can a hard-boiled gumshoe beat the clock to find the real killer before the coppers settle on some patsy who’s “just guilty enough” to close the case?

That’s the 64-simoleon question in writer-director Vanessa Cate’s new retro-noir thriller from Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group. With bloodshed somewhat toned down from ZJU’s usual Grand Guignol indulgence, this stylish period piece serves up a smart, snappy hommage to the pulp detective genre of the 1940s, though some allowances are required for the venue’s bare-bones aesthetic.

In an ADD-friendly run time, Cate’s elegantly crafted plot weaves a tightknit web of sinister motives and betrayal around the violent demise of aspiring starlet Minnie Walters (Carolyn Hayver), a promiscuous peach who bought the farm on the eve of her big-screen debut. Turns out plenty of folks had reason to bump off Minnie the smoocher, and in a series of flashbacks the suspects spill their guts under relentless grilling by an unnamed private eye (Willy Romano-Pugh).

The shamus is mainly there for the sake of efficient narrative exposition, a device neatly turned on its head in one of the show’s  funnier self-aware moments.Though some of the hardworking ensemble are cast younger than ideal for their roles, Cate’s articulate dialogue and expressive staging capably evoke the tough-talking, rapid-fire delivery and heightened intensity of classic noir melodrama. Atmospheric authenticity is furthered by Natalie Hyde’s superbly swanky costumes and a sultry soundtrack that includes original tunes by Carmelita Thomas and Joshua Kranz. 

Just as satisfying is the finesse with which Cate pushes past the tropes of the detective procedural to some insightful, touching reflections on sexual politics and unfulfilled physical and emotional longing. All in all, a square deal for your 15 clams.

For the record, 8:34 p.m., Jan. 18: An earlier version of this review misspelled actress Carolyn Hayver's name.


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-- Philip Brandes

“Absolute Black,” ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Feb. 11. $15. (818) 202- 4120 or Running time: 1 hour.

Photo: Carolyn Hayver, Kyle Devero and Melissa Gentry. Credit: Vanessa Cate.

Theater review: ‘Seatbelts Required’ at Actors Workout Studio

January 12, 2012 |  8:00 pm

Seatbelts Required
Three psychologically scarred sisters reunite for their mother’s funeral with predictably melodramatic results in Kimberly Demmary’s “Seatbelts Required” at the Actors Workout Studio. As the venue name suggests, this homegrown drama provides a showcase vehicle for honing skills, although in both performance and scripting it leaves considerable room for further working out.

After the funeral, the sisters (half-sisters, actually, as they each have different fathers — one of several narrative details with slender dramatic payoff) gather in the house where they grew up, where they spend the afternoon revealing dark secrets and throwing their dead mother’s scrunchies at one another, as estranged siblings are wont to do.

Aside from the house, their principal inheritance from their self-absorbed, neurotic mom is their self-absorbed neurosis, which come in three flavors: uptight, angst-ridden suburban housewife Janet (Elizabeth Kimball), flaky twentysomething aspiring beautician Maggie (Chelsea Pitillo) and insecure “middle sister” Agnes (Cynthia Manous), a theater artist who ended up a reluctant crutch and caretaker during their mother's downward spiral.

John Barker’s staging features a nicely detailed set (by Brian Graves) but hasn’t solved the strained credibility in what unfolds on it. After a slow, fairly innocuous first act, the nasty revelations start piling up as multiple beers and tequila shots take their toll, culminating in a somewhat ludicrous implication that past disregard for human and animal life can somehow give rise to bonding and reconciliation.


More theater reviews the Los Angeles Times

-- Philip Brandes

“Seatbelts Required,” Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 12. $15. (818) 506-3903 or Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Elizabeth Kimball, Chelsea Pitillo, and Cynthia Manous. Credit: Brian Graves.


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