Category: The Spotlight

The Spotlight: Playwright Penny Gunter at the Road Theatre Company's Summer Playwrights Festival

July 13, 2011 |  6:00 am

A party crashed by fairies. Detectives investigating a deadly accident involving Wendy Darling. Neverland as a state of mind.

“Following Wendy,” British playwright Penny Gunter’s startling new take on J.M. Barrie’s classic, will be read Sunday as part of the Road Theatre Company’s Summer Playwrights Festival. The hit at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival doesn’t exactly conjure Cathy Rigby in tights.

“It’s ‘Peter Pan’ as a thriller,” says director Amanda Massie. “It’s dark. It’s not Disney.” 

The 21-year-old Gunter started writing at 13 when a friend dragged her to a playwriting class. She’s always been intrigued by people’s need “to believe in the impossible” and loved “Peter Pan's” depiction of two worlds that play off each other.

“When you’re very young, you don’t get all of Barrie’s adult references,” she explains. “I wanted to explore all the clues hidden in the story.” With its “Gossip Girl” cool and hallucinogenic sequences, Gunter’s play may not look much like Barrie’s, but both works explore friendship, desire and the consequences of not growing up.  

“Our generation creates so many alternate realities to escape life,” says Massie, who will stage a full production of the show at Pepperdine University in December. “We don’t communicate in person that much, and we don’t deal with the consequences of that. This play is a young person saying, ‘Maybe we’re not doing everything right.’ ” 

Gunter has already attracted attention in Britain. She recently won a place in the BBC’s new mentoring program Writersroom 10, and next month she’ll take a second play to the Edinburgh Fringe. “32 Teeth” follows a desperate plot to save a baby with the help of the Tooth Fairy. A very scary Tooth Fairy.

“The wonderful thing about Penny is how she blends realism and fantasy,” says Massie. “She deals with real issues but with an element of fun.”

Gunter just wants to keep writing. “I guess I’m young enough to make mistakes,” she says. “So I’m trying to experiment as much as I can.”

— Charlotte Stoudt

The Road Theatre Company’s Summer Playwrights Festival runs July 11-17 at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.

Above: The actors reading Penny Gunter's "Following Wendy" at the Road Theatre's playwrights festival are, from left, Sierra Fisk, Camille Montgomery, Keelia Flinn, Sean Wing, Adam Al-Rayess and Ken Korpi. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times.

Theater review: 'Kowalski' at Two Roads Theatre

July 7, 2011 |  4:00 pm

KOWALSKI-3-COLOR Theatrical lore is at the well-intended heart of "Kowalski," Gregg Ostrin's ambitious rumination about Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando during the run-up to "A Streetcar Named Desire."

It's well-documented that Williams (Curt Bonnem) vacationed in Provincetown, Mass., in 1947, with longtime advocate Margo Jones (Alexa Hamilton) and partner Pancho Rodriquez (Les Brandt) in tow. Also verifiable is that director Elia Kazan sent 23-year-old Brando (Ignacio Serricchio) to meet Williams, staking him to bus fare, which the future Method icon spent on food, hitchhiking up the Cape with a girlfriend (Sasha Higgins, a discovery) and arriving three days late.

Playwright Ostrin turns this fabled scenario into a zinger-laden crowd-pleaser, with various plot shifts reflecting Brando's breakthrough role. Yet scholarly groundwork doesn't automatically equal dramatic truth. Ostrin's premise holds the potential for ambiguous sizzle and even surprise, but, under Rick Shaw's direction, this script could change names and references and play the same. Thus, a momentous occasion becomes an ineffably conventional dramedy.

The darkly handsome Serricchio, visually closer to Farley Granger or Alain Delon, deploys measured intensity and technique to approximate Brando's mannerisms, at least nominally. Bonnem's features and physicality more closely resemble Williams, yet his generic drawl and obviated beats amount to a standard-issue, Southern-lavender turn.

Hamilton and Brandt are competent actors saddled with extraneous, functional roles, and when the sparky Higgins turns up midway, her seriocomic spontaneity instantly exposes what's gone missing. "Kowalski" will be a hit with stage trivia buffs, some gay viewers and fans of the central combatants. Still, to parrot Blanche DuBois, I don't want realism, I want magic. Regrettably, there's little to be found here.

-- David C. Nichols

"Kowalski," Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 4. $30. (818) 762-2282 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: Ignacio Serricchio, left, and Curt Bonnem. Credit: Mamood-Vega Photography.

The Spotlight: Greg Watanabe in 'Extraordinary Chambers' at the Geffen Playhouse

June 1, 2011 |  6:00 am


Tour guide, photographer, witness to genocide: the character of Sopoan carries a shattering secret in David Wiener’s haunting play “Extraordinary Chambers.”

Played by Greg Watanabe, Sopoan is partly based on a high school physics teacher the playwright met during a trip to Cambodia in 2008. A survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, the teacher became the impetus for Wiener’s drama.

In the play, Sopoan calmly recounts crawling into a termite mound to avoid capture — his crime was wearing glasses, which meant that he could read — and his anguished search for his young bride. But that was the past. In his new life, Sopoan works for the enigmatic Dr. Heng (François Chau), a “facilitator” who strikes a desperate alliance with an American businessman (Mather Zickel) and his restless wife (Marin Hinkle).

“Sopoan is our emotional conduit into the dark part of Cambodia’s history,” explains Wiener. “The role required someone who could bring incredible sensitivity and power to the role. Greg is instantly credible.”

The Japanese American Watanabe, raised in Orange County, was recently nominated for an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for “The Happy Ones”; he played a Vietnamese emigrant who befriends a man whose family he inadvertently destroyed. But the charismatic Watanabe doesn't just do serious drama: “I'm part of an Asian American sketch comedy troupe, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors. We do a lot of cultural satire.”

Watanabe plays Sopoan with an uncanny self-possession, as someone who lives in the now out of necessity. “He has a line, ‘You cannot think about things you do not have.’ He’s taken that to heart.”

Or has he? The play’s title refers to both the special courts convened to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders and the mysterious chambers of the heart.

“The play becomes Sopoan’s story,” Watanabe says. “[Director] Pam MacKinnon has me doing all the set changes so my character is continually present. So much is destroyed in his world. But there is a burning ember he keeps alive.”


--Charlotte Stoudt

At the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse through July 3.

Above: Greg Watanabe at the Geffen Playhouse. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times


The Spotlight: Brian Shnipper of 'Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays’

May 18, 2011 | 11:30 am

When California voters banned gay marriage in 2008, Brian Shnipper didn’t take to the streets in protest; he called his playwright friends. It was the beginning of what would become “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays,” a collection of nine one-act plays by writers such as Neil LaBute, Paul Rudnick and Wendy MacLeod. Two-and-a-half years and a couple of benefit performances later, the show, directed by Shnipper, is running at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and with a rotating cast of celebrity performers.

When you first asked these playwrights to do this, did you give them any guidelines?

The only thing I told them was that I didn’t need 10 love letters to gay marriage.

Some of the plays were written by straight, married-with-children playwrights. Were you surprised by their insights?

In terms of somebody like Neil LaBute, whose characters tend to be misogynistic and definitely come from a heterosexual world, you don’t think he’s going to write with such tenderness and such beauty about these two men who love each other as much as they do.

Do you have a favorite?

I love all my babies. What’s really great about the evening is that there’s no clunker.

Do you think the people who are seeing this show aren’t necessarily the people who need to be seeing this show?

This is the first time it’s been done in a theater that you could consider preaching to the choir. But now that we’re open and we’re getting amazing [reviews], we can reach out to a wider audience … [We’re hoping to go] to regional theaters, to Kansas, Mississippi, to universities, to places where people need to hear this.

Is this social activism on a stage?

Yes it is. But I try to make it as personal as possible, because I don’t think you reach people through politics; you reach people through the personal. I really set out to create an evening that — sorry to be cliché — made people laugh, made people cry, made people think, because that’s how you change people’s ideas.


Theater review: 'Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays" at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center

— Jason Kehe

Above: Shnipper is the director of "Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays." Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times


Spotlight: Philip Baker Hall in "I Never Sang For My Father"

April 20, 2011 | 12:15 pm


 Days before the opening of the New American Theatre’s revival of “I Never Sang for My Father,” the actor cast as the senile, rage-prone father, the pulsating center of Robert Anderson’s 1968 family drama, withdrew because of illness.

Anne Gee Byrd, who plays the mother, made a desperate call to her friend Philip Baker Hall, best known as a character actor in movies such as “Magnolia,” “The Insider” and “Bruce Almighty.”

Hall, 79, hadn’t performed on a stage in years but considers the theater his home. After a three-week delay, the show opened with Hall as the father.

You only had three weeks to prepare, right?
They already knew their lines and had already begun to develop a rhythm and a pace. I had to catch up. But they had some catching up to do too, because I brought a different kind of energy.

You go from 0 to 60 in the first minute of the show, and basically maintain that energy throughout. Is it physically or psychologically taxing?

Some of these scenes are very physical, so you need to be in good shape, [but psychologically] not really. American theatrical literature is filled with these troubled older men. … You can’t let them affect you, you can’t live the part.

You’re a character actor in movies, but on the stage, you’re a star. Is it nice to be in the spotlight?

It’s fun to have a role that is challenging and requires the best of what I can muster up. In film, with a few exceptions, I don’t get the opportunity to sustain a character for two hours, to have an arc of a full character.

Have you ever considered playing Lear?

I have mixed feelings about Lear. I love the first half. I love the complexities in the character of Lear, I love the challenges it presents to the actor who plays him. But once Lear gets out there on the heath, once he loses his mind, I find the character really uninteresting. Sorry, Shakespeare. … I want to play it. I want to find the key that unlocks that second part. I haven’t seen any actor, including Paul Scofield, convince me that, there’s the key, that’s how you do it. Until that time … .

—Jason Kehe

Above: Hall in "I Never Sang for My Father." Credit: Daniel G. Lam


The Spotlight: Carlie and Doni do a benefit for Santa Monica Playhouse

April 6, 2011 | 12:00 pm


Any good comedy duo is a study in contrasts — and Carlie and Doni, a rising musical comedy act in Los Angeles, is no exception. “She’s the lesbo and I’m the straight girl,” Carlie says.

A few years ago Carlie Mantilla and Doni Carley were rolling their eyes through theater classes at community college. Now they’re playing all over Los Angeles, including a benefit performance this weekend at — and for — the Santa Monica Playhouse, presented by Lily Tomlin, whom Carlie and Doni met in Las Vegas last year (a “horrifying and amazing” experience, Doni says) and her longtime partner Jane Wagner.

Your bio says you two met in a community college theater program and dropped out together. You must have formed some kind of bond.

Carlie: Her last name’s Carley, and my first name’s Carlie. They called roll and we were like, “What the …?” And then we became friends really quickly.

Doni: We were both like, “This is such a joke.” People took it very seriously … the teachers would get really teary-eyed talking about it.

How did you get into comedy?

D: We knew we wanted to act and perform — so we just started writing. I got a bikini wax for the first time — the most horrible experience of my life — and we wrote a song about it, just for fun.

How would you characterize your dynamic?

Continue reading »

The Spotlight: Katharine Ross in 'Judgment at Nuremberg' at the Santa Monica Playhouse

March 23, 2011 |  5:30 am

Katharineross “The Graduate,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Stepford Wives”-- actress Katharine Ross has appeared in a slew of boomer-defining classics. Her latest role may surprise longtime fans: the widow of a German general in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” directed by Diane Namm at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Set in 1947, Abby Mann’s courtroom drama puts four German judges on trial for their complicity in the Nazi war machine. Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, which United Artists feared would be a flop, was nominated for 11 Oscars and won two, including one for Mann’s screenplay. It was staged on Broadway in 2001. 

What was your interest in this play? 

I’m always looking for something to do, but I have a lot of other things going on. I got the part sitting next to Diane at the hairdresser’s. We had never met before. 

In 1961, “Judgment” was groundbreaking. But after “Schindler’s List” and so many other Holocaust stories, are audiences jaded? 

No. They get really quiet. They’re in the grip of this. It’s a period piece, but so pertinent. There are still genocides. There is Libya. Even what’s happening in this country now is relevant.  During the trial, the prosecuting attorney shows a reel with images from Buchenwald. It’s hard to watch, but it brings home the play’s question: What is an individual’s true moral responsibility, regardless of what is legitimized by a government? You can’t help but ask yourself, What would I do in that situation?

Your character, Frau Bertolt, doesn’t want to accept her husband’s — or her own — part in the Holocaust. How did you find your way into the role?

Continue reading »

The Spotlight: Food and family secrets in 'The Frybread Queen' at the Autry National Center

March 9, 2011 |  6:00 am

Ghosts. Secrets. Self-rising flour. Native American tradition clashes with modern life — in and out of the kitchen — in Carolyn Dunn’s new play, “The Frybread Queen,” opening Saturday at the Autry National Center as a production of Native Voices at the Autry.

Dunn (Muskogee Creek, Cherokee), a playwright, poet and San Francisco State University professor, talks about putting food and family on stage. 

NV FryBreadQueen-123What is fry bread?

It’s basically the pizza of Native Americans.  The modern version comes out of powwow culture: You’ll see Indian taco booths, or Navajo tacos — they think they invented everything! It’s a staple. You serve it with beans, meat and cheese as a meal, or sprinkle it with powdered sugar. 

But there’s a history: Much of the government food commodities given to Natives were substandard. The flour often had bugs in it — my husband remembers his mother picking out weevils with her fingernails. So women took to making fry bread. It killed the germs. Fry bread originally represented colonization. Now it’s become a cultural identifier. 

How does fry bread figure in the play?

When the play opens, the matriarch, a full-blood Navajo, is making fry bread. The daughter-in-law comes in with groceries and the mother says, Did you get “your” flour? The teasing starts right away.  Underneath, of course, there’s a deeper question: Who is a good mother? Who is not? 

The four female characters are all dealing with the death of the mother’s son, who was separated from his wife. There’s also a generational and cultural gap: The wives are from other tribes. They’ve come into this Navajo family where things have been done a certain way. There’s tremendous tension. There are secrets. It’s very explosive. All the men are offstage; the women are the center of the play.

You give each character a “fry bread monologue.”

The play’s three adult women are competing to be the fry bread queen. Their monologues live outside of the action; they serve as each woman’s chance to plead her case. Why her culture is the best. Why her fry bread is the best.

How’s yours?

I’ve been told my fry bread is pretty darn good. One of the fry bread monologues is my recipe, but I’m not going to tell you which one.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Through March 27 at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center.

Photo: Jane Lind, left, and Lily Gladstone at the 2010 developmental production of "The Frybread Queen." Lind will reprise her role for the 2011 world premiere presented by Native Voices at the Autry. Credit: Terry Cyr.

The Spotlight: Rob Nagle in 'Play Dates' at Theatre Asylum [Updated]

February 16, 2011 | 12:30 pm

Whether he’s a G-man questioning Betty Draper in “Mad Men” or a bewigged composer in “Bach in Leipzig,” actor Rob Nagle brings a classical precision to his work. Now this L.A. stage favorite displays his sharp timing in “Play Dates,” Sam Wolfson’s cheeky rom-com about the slings and arrows of love, from the kindergarten playground to marital errand runs at Target.

PD_00385I hear you dance a mean minuet. Discuss.

When I was 12, my family moved from Illinois to Williamsburg. Instead of looking for a paper route, I tried to join the fife and drum corps -- it’s like colonial marching band. I was told the waiting list for the corps starts in utero, but there was availability in the colonial dance troupe. There were more girls than guys, so that worked out. Then I became a character interpreter at CW. 

That’s Colonial Williamsburg, not the “Vampire Diaries” network.

Yes. My character, James Innes, died of dropsy.

Even in contemporary plays, you give off a certain classical technique.

 What interests me with the classics is making them resonate in a modern sense. Illuminating the text to the ear we have now. 

You’ve been in L.A. 14 years. What’s the biggest myth about theater here?

I was told L.A. is not a theater town and was prepared to hate it. You can argue about the waiver money. But staying home and not doing theater is just fulfilling the myth. So I say yes a lot. When you get out there, people call you for other things. 


In “Play Dates,” you play a guy who gets his heart broken in kindergarten and grows up to become a relationship expert. What reactions do you get talking to the audience as the Love Doctor?

Utter terror. Once the audience realizes they don’t have that safe fourth wall anymore, it’s like, "this is a large talk show personality and he’s coming toward me." I’m asking about their first heartbreak, so I have to coax them to speak. One night a woman called out an unusual male name. Later, someone e-mailed us with the man’s Facebook profile. It was like, this guy’s still out there…

Back when you were a single guy, what would you have asked the Love Doctor?

Whether it’s really true that you can fall in love with a friend. My wife and I were friends for four years before we started to date. We’ve been married 16 years, which I guess is like 140 in Hollywood years.

One of the play’s more outrageous scenes is a married couple grooming each other in the bathroom. It really strikes a nerve in the audience.

People can’t believe what they’re seeing. There are groans of disgust and laughs of recognition at these strangely intimate practices. There’s definitely the feeling of, I shouldn’t be watching this. 

But you never judge.

Nope. I’m just trying to hold the bathroom mirror up to nature. 

-- Charlotte Stoudt

At Theatre Asylum through April 17. Read Kathleen Foley’s review here. [Updated Feb. 21, 12:20 p.m.: "Play Dates" was extended to run through April 17.]

Photo: Rob Nagle supplies advice to the lovelorn in "Play Dates." Credit: Ed Krieger.

The Spotlight: Nicholas Kazan on 'Mlle. God' at Atwater Village Theatre

February 9, 2011 |  9:00 am

Nickkazan From Claus von Bülow to Patty Hearst, Oscar nominee Nicholas Kazan has brought to life his share of controversial characters. His latest play, “Mlle. God,” riffs on Frank Wedekind’s notorious fin de siècle dramas about Lulu, a libidinous free spirit for whom sex is a sacrament. Staged by Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A., “Mlle. God” inaugurates the new Atwater Village Theatre. 

What inspired you to reconsider Lulu?

Kazan: Watching Louise Brooks in “Pandora’s Box,” G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film adaptation of Wedekind’s plays. Wedekind saw his story as a tragedy; Louise Brooks sees it as a triumph. 

Your Lulu not only uses sex for pleasure but also as a form of radical honesty.

People say “Mlle. God” is a feminist play. I don’t write from any political personality, but I do have a lot of empathy for women. A woman who overtly seeks and acknowledges her own pleasure is almost always punished. That seems like an awful message, and contrary to the character Wedekind created. 

“Mlle. God” begins as a rather bittersweet comedy, becomes a door-slamming farce, and ends on an intensely dramatic note.

I’m replicating the spirit of the original material. Wedekind’s famous for mixing farce and melodrama. And I guess I always look for the comic angle.

Even in a film like “Patty Hearst”?

The SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army] basically told the press, we’re an army and you should be scared of us.  Well, there were only eight of them, and factions within the group. They were a bunch of woolly-headed lefties who didn’t know quite what they were doing. So there was this wild comic landscape against which dramatic events were taking place. Paul [Schrader] made a much more austere film than I wrote.

You’ve created a number of complicated heroines for the screen: Patty, Frances Farmer, Sunny von Bülow. Do you seek out these characters, or do they find you?

I didn’t even want to write “Reversal of Fortune.” I just said OK, let me play with this. It started to write itself. 

The scene where Jeremy Irons goes into the pharmacy and asks for insulin is one of the great movie moments. 

That last scene was the first thing I wrote. 

“Mlle. God” features plenty of skin and adult talk. How do you approach writing about sex? 

A lot of people are deeply ambivalent about sexuality. To me, sex is a form of play. I wanted to approach the material with that spirit. If you can give people some of that feeling, maybe it’ll diminish their fear. What we all want is to be freely alive in all contexts. Particularly in the activity that’s the foundation of our creation. 

How are audiences reacting to the show?

A few people have walked out. I think if no one left I’d be disappointed! But the other night, one of the actors said, 'You can hear the audience listening. They’re really with the play.' That pleases me. The last thing I want to do is bore people. 

-- Charlotte Stoudt

At the Atwater Village Theatre through March 6. Read Stoudt's review of "Mlle. God" here.

Photo: Nicholas Kazan. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times



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