Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Treasure found

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Pianist Billy Childs, three vocalists, and a ten-piece
chamber-jazz orchestra bring Laura Nyro's music back to glory.

Pianist-composer-arranger Billy Childs brought two "Map to the Treasure" tours to the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on October 17.

The first was the Costa Mesa stop on his nationwide tour supporting Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. That CD, released last month, features Childs and a score of marquee musicians, including Chris Botti, Renee Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, and Esperanza Spalding, exploring ten tracks from the singer-songwriter's first four albums.

Childs' chamber-jazz arrangements, performed with three vocalists and a ten-piece orchestra, proved Nyro's highly personal lyrics and genre-blurring compositions continue to provide fertile material for both contemporary artists and their audiences.

About half the musicians who appeared on Friday night also participated in the recording: vocalists Lisa Fischer and Becca Stevens; harpist Carol Robbins; bassist Carlitos del Puerto; and violinist Alyssa Park and violist Luke Maurer, who are half of L.A.'s Lyris Quartet. They were joined by violinist Shalini Vijayan and cellist Timothy Loo, the other half of Lyris, vocalist Moira Smiley, cellist Maksim Velichkin, guitarist Peter Sprague, drummer Donald Barrett, and Bob Sheppard on saxophones and flute.

Nyro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 15 years later, wrote many songs that provided Top Ten hits for others, including The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Three of those chart-toppers, "And When I Die," "Save the Country" and "Stoned Soul Picnic," are among the ten chosen for this project.

Words and music

With "The Book of Laura," as Childs called Nyro's collected works, comprised of equal parts words and music, the three vocalists were responsible for much of the evening's impact. Performing one or two songs in rotation, they drew us inside Nyro's lyrical garden, sharing a world where "trains of blossoms and trains of music" run among beds of rebirth and demise.

Among the standouts was the second number, Smiley's "Gibsom Street." She gave Nyro's ominous warning about life's dangers a sense of both mystery and beauty. It also featured a jazz piano break that established the template for Childs' balanced blend of jazz and orchestral music. Smiley also energized "Save the Country," Nyro's urgent, optimistic message for an America reeling from riots, assassinations, and war. Fischer, one of the stars of 20 Feet from Stardom [read more about her], rendered a heartbreaking "Been on a Train," a song from the darkest corner of Nyro's garden. In it, the singer watches helplessly as a rebounding friend slips back under the influence and away from her for a final time.

Childs generously shared the spotlight with the other musicians. Velichkin, Robbins, del Puerto, Park and Shepard all soloed. He ended the first half and began the second with his own “Into The Light” from Lyric (2005) and “The Red Wheelbarrow” from Autumn in Moving Pictures (2009). The latter, a duet with Sprague, was another high point.

The second tour came first

The second "Map to the Treasure" tour actually took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it is redrawn at every performance in the collected introductions Childs gives the ten songs. He explains how each affected the adolescent Childs, creating an "alternate universe" filled with imagery, sound, guidance, and inspiration. As each new description was added, a map emerged that revealed much of how Childs developed as an artist and a person. So much he heard and visualized would become indelible, including the debt he feels he owes to this songwriter.

Childs' CD should earn a Grammy® nomination. Co-producer Larry Klein was involved in a similar, ground-breaking effort by Herbie Hancock. His River: The Joni Letters is the first Album of the Year win for any jazz recording. But, as the live performance made clear, at the heart of the music is Childs' interpretations, which have done more that reimagine Laura Nyro. They have revived her.

Photos: (top, left to right) vocalist Moira Smiley, Billy Childs, cellist Timothy Loo, violist Luke Maurer, harpist Carol Robbins, violinists Shalini Vijayan and Alyssa Park, bassist Carlitos del Puerto, guitarist Peter Sprague, drummer Donald Barrett, and saxophonist Bob Sheppard; (bottom) Lisa Fischer joins Childs. Credit: Doug Gifford/Yamaha.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Balancing acts

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Aaron Posner's adaptations of Chekhov and Shakespeare seek to
provide new audiences with access to the true magic of theater.

A scene from The Tempest at South Coast Repertory: Nate Dendy, Joby Earle, Tom Nelis, and Charlotte Graham
Photo: Smith Center/Geri Kodey

By Cristofer Gross – In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the Duke of Milan, deposed and cast off with his daughter, has used his powers to draw passing strangers to the isolated island where he masters his art. The strangers represent needed opportunity for Prospero's daughter Miranda, who will exclaim:

Oh Wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!

In the way Prospero's magic attracts new life to Miranda's parched world, Aaron Posner and Teller, the mute, diminutive half of magicomics Penn and Teller, are using it for an inviting, big-tent concept of the play, beginning its West Coast premiere tonight at South Coast Repertory. It is a co-production with the Smith Center in Las Vegas, where it premiered in April, and American Repertory Theatre in Boston, where it ran in May and June.

Among the adaptation's ambitions is attracting the passing stranger to experience the magical world of theater. To do that Posner and Teller, who co-adapted and co-directed the production, have something up their sleeves. In addition to Matt Kent of Pilobolus Dance Troupe, singer-songwriter Tom Waits, and top designers, their collaborators include veteran magician Johnny Thompson. As Teller said earlier this year, "The Tempest is a story about a magician. So there ought to be some magic in the darn thing!"

"We knew that this was all going to be about the balancing act," Posner told me earlier this year. "We've been very gratified to hear people and reviewers say, literally, 'What an amazing balancing act.' We knew that as you add magic and music and movement into an already rich text you need to make sure it didn't turn into an excuse for a magic show or a Tom Waits concert interrupted by people talking funny. We needed to make sure we were fully respectful of all the elements and got them all speaking to each other in an appropriate balance."

Posner said that achieving that balance "has taken years of conversations and workshopping and trying things. It continued through the rehearsal process and the production at ART, and we have new ideas for the production at South Coast. It's an ongoing process as we fine tune and we continue to strike those balances."

Read the entire interview with Posner here.

This is Posner's second headline-making contribution to Southern California theater this year, following his adaptation of Chekhov's Seagull. Stupid Fucking Bird, also a West Coast premiere, was directed by Michael Michetti at Pasadena's Theatre @ Boston Court in June. It quickly earned rave REVIEWS and an extension.

While Bird does not employ magic, it does directly engage the audience in the way an experienced illusionist does, establishing a direct link before undercutting it with manipulation. It is evident from the play's opening moments, when actors stroll onto the stage with houselights up and survey the audience. Eventually one actor says we'll start when somebody tells us to.

SCR was fortunate to get a shot at the third leg of the production, which had been rumored to be on its way to Broadway after Boston. The connection is SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson, who knows something about using magic to attract the attention of strangers. Before his interest in theater, he was practiced in the art of deception.

"I did children's birthday parties from the time I was 11 until the time I was 17," he said. "And then performed at magic conventions and stuff like that. And my girlfriend was a magician."

"Aaron started talking to me about Tempest when it was just a concept, and I had just come to SCR at that point," said Masterson, who met Posner in the early 1990s when he was running The City Theatre in Pittsburgh and Posner was a co-artistic director of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company.

"We started working together and did a number of projects when I was in Pittsburgh and then later when I moved to Actors Theatre of Louisville," he said. "He's prolific as both a director and an adapter and as you saw with Stupid Fucking Bird, he's increasingly moving beyond adaptation to where there is much more of an original voice of his own in that play."

So, while audiences keep their eyes on the illusions, levitation, appearances and disappearances on stage in Costa Mesa, a grander balancing act will be at play: giving the faithful their full draw of Shakespeare while attracting the attention of those who will hopefully become converts. As Prospero was prompted to reach out by his daughter Miranda, Posner is partially prompted by his daughter Maisie.

"We can ask audiences to step up and in and be part of the process and to enjoy the dizzying nature of simultaneous realities," he said. "I don't know that we exploit it in the theater as much as we can.

"Amazement is my favorite word in the theater," he added. "My 3-year-old daughter is named Maisie partly because of its connection to amazement. The capacity for amazement, for wonder, for disbelief, and to find yourself in awe: that's fun and theatrical."

Friday, August 01, 2014

Stayin’ Alive

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Shakespeare OC goes from Polynesia to Polyester in 'Midsummer'

To launch his first summer season as Artistic Director of Garden Grove-based Shakespeare Orange County, John Walcutt offered two musical variations on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The first was a homegrown Polynesian affair produced by SOC in association with Garden Grove's own Hitia O Te Ra Polynesian Dance Troupe. It was popular enough to earn a two-performance return engagement.

The second was a polyester import from L.A.'s Troubadour Theater Company. The Troubies, a theatrical snake-in-a-can that turns playhouses into parties, have a repertoire of a couple dozen original works that mix classic plays, classic rock, and off-the-rails improv. Each year they make a stand at Burbank's Falcon Theatre before storming several other SoCal venues. Walcutt hopes to make Garden Grove one of their annual stops.

The inspiration behind their take on the classic Shakespeare comedy springs from the disco era grooves of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. In standard Troubie entitlement, it becomes A Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream. The music is primarily identified with the Bee Gees, but also includes one-hit-wonders by Yvonne Elliman, The Trammps and others. The album, according to Rolling Stone, was "the ne plus ultra of mainstream disco," so popular it "knocked Fleetwood Mac's Rumours off the top of the charts and stayed there for six months straight.

Grand Troubie-Poobah Matt Walker, center, with (l-r) Suzanne Narbonne, Liz
Beebe, Monica Schneider and Joseph Keane flying about the stage / Chelsea Sutton
Fever Dream gets underway with cast member Lisa Valenzuela warming-up the crowd with a late '70s sing-along that shows off the Troubie band, a powerhouse of L.A. musicianship under the direction of drummer Eric Heinly. It's hard to believe all the music coming out of the quartet as they revive Tavares' "More Than a Woman," the Gibbs' "You Should Be Dancing," Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven," KC and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes" and others. Kevin McCourt's keyboard provides everything from funky organ to orchestral synch, and Dana Decker diddles his bass-strings into rhythmic ecstasy while guitarist Linda Taylor muscles her way to the heart of every tune – whether it's showing the way to wah-wah on Peter Frampton's "Show Me The Way" in the pre-show, or scruff-chording the opening bars of "Jive Talking" during the show.

Katherine Donahoe and Beth Kennedy,
with Tyler King
After a full-cast "Stayin' Alive" puts the company onstage and the audience on notice, the play begins. Because the Troubies strain their Shakespeare through a cheesecloth of pop culture asides, breaks for latecomers and flyovers, and enough booger and boner jokes to satisfy a frat initiation, the plot can get trammpled in the rush. Still, for those who need a night of Shakespeare like a Marx Bros' night at the opera, this is it.

We begin in Athens, where Duke Theseus (Morgan Rusler) is preparing to wed Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Suzanne Narbonne). Egeus (Mike Sulprizio) asks him to force his daughter Hermia (Katherine Donahoe) to marry the man of his dreams, Demetrius (Joseph Keane), instead of Lysander (Tyler King), the man of hers. Demetrius hopes such a hitching will finally shake off the lovesick shadowing of Helena (Beth Kennedy). Unable to sway the elders, Hermia hies into nearby woods with Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena on her heels.

In the forest, Faerie King Oberon (Rusler) and Queen Titania (Monica Schneider) are having a spat, which Oberon will win with a love potion he sends his aide Puck (Matt Walker) to find. With it dropped in her sleeping eyes, Titania will awake to fall for the next creature she spies. Having secretly observed Hermia's plight, he directs Puck to save a drizzle of the potion to help sort out her situation.

The Mechanicals in front of Walker's Puck:
Rob Nagle, Rick Batalia, Mike Sulprizio, and Lisa Valenzuela
The third group of characters are tradesmen who are preparing to stage their version of "Pyramus and Thisbee" at the big wedding. Walker is back as Peter Quince, the adapter-director. His cast includes Rick Batalia as Bottom, Rob Nagle as Flute, Mike Sulprizio as Snout, and Valenzuela back as Starveling.

The narrative wobbles its way through the two-and-a-quarter hour like a medicine show with warped wheels, breaking down every time a siren or firework goes off or an aircraft flies overhead. It's all part of the spontaneity and the crowd loves feeling part of a truly unique evening that is completely in the moment. On the other hand, the acting is actually very good, and the singing and dancing are so exciting, that the break-out moments, which can feel routine after awhile, feel like time taken away from what really makes the troupe superior.

Among the dancing, the lissome captain Narbonne sets the barre high. She, Schneider, and Donahoe, a superb musical theater creature, kick the chorus work up a notch. Batalia is an improv fireball, and Kennedy is the next generation Carol Burnett, a fearless champion in the land of the musical comedy goofball.

Party on. The Troubies bring A Midsummer Night's Fever Dream to the Laguna Playhouse at the end of August.

Among the talented company's side projects are many notables. Guitarist Taylor has worked with Art Garfunkel and others, including the guitar work on Terri Lyne Carrington's Grammy-winning Mosaic project, a landmark for jazz fans. She has her jazz fusion CD, which is a treat in that neglected field. And Liz Beebe, unrecognizable flitting about faerieland in Night's Fever, is lead singer of L.A.'s acclaimed Dustbowl Revival.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How history plays

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All the Way puts a Broadway spin on OSF's 'American Revolutions'

It wasn't part of his plan to direct on Broadway, but after six seasons as Artistic Director of the oldest and one of the largest regional theaters in America, Bill Rauch was the acclaimed director of a Tony Award®-winning hit.

Robert Schenkkan, Bill Rauch, Bryan Cranston
Unlike many regional Artistic Directors who reach the Rialto, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Rauch didn't take administrative leave to freelance in New York. He wasn't riding an ill-fitting vehicle out of subscription-subsidized, non-profit security and into heady commercial waters. The play, Robert Schenkkan's All The Way, had solid artistic pedigree. It was one of the first six scripts to emerge from "American Revolutions," an ambitious, audacious, decade-long commissioning program launched shortly after Rauch took the OSF reins in 2008.

Before that, Rauch had been the Artistic Director of the Cornerstone Theatre Company, which he co-founded in Los Angeles with Alison Carey and Amy Brenneman in 1986. He and Carey, who joined him in Ashland as Program Director for American Revolutions, would oversee awarding 37 play commissions. That number, the same as plays in the Shakespeare canon, signaled their desire to make a significant and lasting contribution to theater.

"Part of what we wanted to do with the canon of American Revolutions plays," Rauch said by phone a few weeks before the Tony Awards, "was to tell stories on a big canvas, and contribute not just to the professional body of plays that are produced, but to the amateur canon – the plays that high schools and colleges will be doing years down the line."

The commissions, to veteran and emerging writers, came with a minimum of guidelines and a large helping of respect.

"We believe in you: We believe in your voice," was Rauch's simple message. "If you're interested in the idea of moments of change in United States history, you figure out what you'd like to write about."

As of our conversation in May, 21 of the 37 commissions had been handed out and six had been produced or were scheduled. See full list on OSF site.

In addition to All The Way, the most familiar in Southern California is Culture Clash's American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, which premiered in 2010, was then staged at American Repertory Theater, and arrived here in a co-production by La Jolla Playhouse [where Theatertimes reviewed it] and the Kirk Douglas Theatre beginning in February 2012.

Others include Ghost Light by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone in 2011; Frank Galatti's adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow's The March, produced by Steppenwolf in 2012; Party People by UNIVERSES – Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja, also in 2012; and The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace last year. This season's The Great Society, by Schenkkan, is a sequel to All The Way, but not commissioned through "American Revolutions."

Susannah Schulman, Reed Birney,
Bryan Cranston, Betsy Aidem at ART
"It was commissioned by Seattle Rep," explained Rauch, who again directs. "We want to keep spreading the wealth, but it was heavily developed by OSF. So we certainly consider it part of American Revolutions, but it doesn't count as one of the 37. It's like 37B. We're premiering it here in Ashland [INFO] and then Seattle Rep will produce both plays – All the Way and The Great Society – for the first time ever in rep this November and December, with mostly the OSF cast supplemented by some of Seattle's great actors.

Anytime a production makes the leap to Broadway, casting changes occur and in the case of All The Way, the opportunity arose for Bryan Cranston to join the cast as LBJ. Though his credentials have been eclipsed by two high-visibility televisions series – "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Breaking Bad" – Cranston is an exceptional stage actor.

"Bryan is a hardworking actor who respects the stage," confirmed All The Way cast member Susannah Schulman, who joined the show in Cambridge. "He's an awesome guy: laid back, generous, and nice as can be. The best you would want in a celebrity."

I was convinced back in 2006, when the Geffen staged Sam Shepard's God of Hell [review], out of which Cranston's demented character rose with consistent clarity otherwise lacking throughout the production. With "Breaking Bad" the most discussed show in years, Cranston's appeal is impossible to separate from the play's box office success. Still, as insiders who saw both Cranston and originator Jack Willis are quick to point out, the play is an achievement on its own merits.

"I like All The Way," Manhattan Theatre Club's Jerry Patch told me. "I saw it in Ashland, then in Boston, and then in NYC, and chatted with Bill about it each time. It breaks some new ground, and it works. Cranston is wonderful, and Jack Willis at Ashland was equally fine – so it's a good part. What I like about it most is that it opens a door for the kind of history plays about kings Shakespeare wrote that can be pulled from American history. Other than Lincoln, we haven’t done much of that in plays of size and with social/moral/historical implications."

For Rauch, he sees it as an institutional success, flowing back to the commissioning, the company, the community, and the legacy of which he is currently principle custodian.

"It's really helpful," he told me. "Absolutely. And I certainly don't think every play we do at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival belongs on Broadway, or that that's the ultimate aspiration for anything we do, but it's one exciting way to share a play with the larger world. And the fact that it's a 20-actor history play, straight play, not a musical, that has found success on Broadway, is exciting.

"One of our hopes – dreams – was that the pieces we were developing and premiering would go on and have a longer life elsewhere. To have a play be successful on Broadway increases the likelihood that it will be done a lot more."

Read the updated interview in "Theatertimes Intermissions: 15 Minutes with Bill Rauch."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Turning the hood around

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Six new plays mark anniversary of verdict in George Zimmerman trial

On the anniversary of the jury verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, New York's Public Theater and L.A.'s Center Theatre Group presented a program of short plays entitled Facing Our Truth.

Hoping "to incite serious discussion in our collective communities around these urgent issues," New York-based New Black Fest had commissioned six playwrights to write 10-minute plays "on the topic of Trayvon Martin, race and/or privilege."

Students at 'Facing Our Truth' | Ryan Miller
Center Theatre Group held its staging at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. CTG's Education Department got involved with a Saturday, July 12 matinee for students. Some of them were brought back for a post-show discussion on the impact of the crime, trial, and play that followed the public matinee on Sunday, July 13, the one-year anniversary of the acquittal. The Public Theater, with separate cast, directors, and features, held its program that evening in New York.

Facing Our Truth was promoted to the press as a reading, but except for one or two occasions where an actor carried a few pages which likely held last-minute rewrites, directors Shirley Jo Finney and Michael Matthews had their ten actors solidly off book. By calling it a reading, the theater activated the universal policy that protects plays-in-development from premature criticism – or praise – by theater critics applying full-production standards. While it does defang the reviewers it may discourage attendance by some who, like a couple of longtime theatergoers, subscribers, and supporters I recently met, never attend what they assumed to be substandard fare.

It is not only possible but important, however, to cover, without a thumb up or down on the merits of the scripts, an event that ended with the audience on its feet for a well-deserved ovation.

The three plays in the first half were Winter Miller's Colored, in which passengers on a New York subway are drawn into a discussion about income disparity; Dominique Morisseau's Night Vision, in which we meet a husband and wife before he slips into a sweatshirt and out for something she needs at the store; and Dressing by Mona Mansour and Tala Manassah, about a mother and son disagreeing over the messages his clothes send.

After the break, it was No More Monsters Here by Marcus Gardley, a high-concept satire on racial identity; The Ballad of George Zimmerman by Dan O'Brien and composer Quetzal Flores, which incorporated transcript and testimony to look at the original confrontation, killing, and court verdict; and Some Other Kid by A. Rey Pamatmat, which imagines a teenager heading out to buy some candy and drinks for two friends he just helped get together.

The hooded sweatshirt – or hoodie – that Martin wore the night he was killed had been part of why Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community, challenged the 17-year-old that night. For Zimmerman, that hood had removed Martin's individuality and identity as completely as if it had covered his face. It was a unifying symbol for the program of plays, as it had been for the thousands who demonstrated following the murder and verdict. Another common element in several plays was to let the audience get to know a character, with his rich individuality and identity, and then send him out to become faceless in the eyes of authorities.

In reading fashion, Finney and Matthews brought actors to center stage while the others watched from upstage platforms of varying heights. Richard Peterson's lights and Adam Phalen's sound design helped create locations for the actors' movement. Lamps from the recent production of Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing set, were recalled to add their illuminating symbolism from the sides of the stage.

The excellent ensemble of veteran actors was made up of Lorenz Arnell, Demetrius Grosse, Deidre Henry, Aaron Jennings, Ameenah Kaplan, Erick Lopez, Linda Park, Deborah Puette, Tessa Thompson, Kevin Yungman. While Henry, Park, Puette, and Thompson have all earned praise in past Theatertimes' reviews, these readings provided welcome introductions to the others among whom Grosse and Kaplan were especially impressive.

Whitney Oppenheimer designed the costumes and cast member Kaplan choreographed movement and added percussion on the Ballad of George Zimmerman.

Thanks to Keith Josef Adkins, director of The New Black Fest for instigating this fine program, to The Public and CTG for endowing it with their resources, and to the onstage artists who once more proved the "reading" is the best kept secret in theater. You can hear Adkins speak discuss the project on a Soundcloud podcast

And, if you're getting excited about play readings, read this post about one earlier this year.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Down for the Count

Directions to Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo home and childhood.

Between June 28 and July 12, some aspiring theater critics gathered in Waterford, Connecticut for the annual National Critics Institute, a ‘boot camp’ for working writers interested in reviewing theater. The two-week program sits in the middle of the O’Neill’s six-week musical and play development festival at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a cluster of century-old structures that house theaters, offices, meeting rooms, residences and a bubbling watering hole named Blue Gene's.

It's located a short drive from Monte Cristo, Eugene O'Neill's boyhood home. Six years ago, I was part of the nine-member Class of 2008, which marked the NCI’s 40th Anniversary. We ranged in age from 23 to 55 and in point-of-origin from Vermont to California.

I had come the farthest, by either measure.

It is no exaggeration to say that within 24 hours of arriving on campus, we had penetrated deep into the heart of American drama.

Our first morning, July 8, was to be spent getting the stage director’s perspective on theater productions from J Ranelli, a previous Interim Executive Director at the O’Neill. His classroom would be Monte Cristo Cottage, Eugene O’Neill’s boyhood summer home and the setting for Ah, Wilderness, his only comedy, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a searing autobiographical exposé.

The two-story New London cottage, a few miles east of Waterford, has the same wide porch that young O’Neill looked from a century ago. The hedge he would have seen (the one Edmund and his father trim in Journey) still grows at the bottom of the raked front yard. Beyond it, across narrow Pequot Avenue, are more old homes and Connecticut’s Thames River. The O’Neills sold the house in the 1920s. Two subsequent owners made no substantial renovations in 50 years and, in 1971, it was declared an Historic Landmark. Three years later it was purchased by the O’Neill Theater Center and used for meetings and a library for scholars and artists to read O’Neill documents in the rooms where he once read. In 2005 it was opened to the public for tours and study.

Ranelli was alone in the house when we arrived and greeted us like its proud custodian. He led us to a small, paneled sitting room where windows on three sides blazed with morning light. We gathered folding chairs around a center table and opened our copies of Long Day’s Journey to O’Neill’s instructions for how the set should look. The stage directions were extremely detailed, which seemed odd for a play that his will would stipulate could never be performed, only read, and not until 25 years after his death.

As it turned out, only three years after his death in 1953, his widow, Carlotta O’Neill, who had received the play as an anniversary present, sanctioned its production in Sweden, New Haven, and New York. The impact was extraordinary. José Quintero’s Broadway staging earned O’Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and set off a string of revivals that re-established him as a founding father of American dramatic literature.

O’Neill’s father, James, had purchased the home when he was a superstar of the American stage in the latter 1800s. In the 1870s, his acting was so respected that Edwin Booth, considered the greatest American actor of that century, alternated lead roles with him in a production of Othello. According to O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, that was “a ritual only followed, as a rule, when two stars of equal fame occupied the same stage together.”

By the time Eugene was a boy, however, James’ fear of poverty, love of popularity, or both had reduced his repertoire to a single, money-raking role: The Count of Monte Cristo. For years, he accompanied his father on his tours across the country, watching the same show, night after night from the wings.

Eventually, normal teenage resentment for a parent grew into a maturing writer’s resentment of a great talent squandered on hollow mass entertainment. It sent the son into diametric opposition, writing plays that explored what people really experienced. If in the process they exposed his father's folly, so much the better.

ln a very real way the birth of true American drama at the dawn of the 20th Century was happening in this one family. O’Neill’s writing, which would provide our nation’s first authentic stage literature, would be as much in response to his father as to the art he represented. Two generations of one family would literally straddle the divide over a dinner table, arguing or fuming in silence in a room that became the crucible of American drama.

And on this sunny morning in summer 2008, we nine critics in training were in that room, around that table.

As we read Journey’s stage directions aloud, a sentence each in turn, Ranelli occasionally had us stop and look around the room. It was an exact match, down to the book titles.

Ranelli wanted us to hear a section of the text and picked the group’s oldest male to read the part of James Tyrone, the character based on James O’Neill, and a DC-area freelance writer with acting experience to read Mary Tyrone, based on his mother. We worked through the opening pages several times, stopping repeatedly as Ranelli led the group on a search for more nuance to work in our performance.

Zev Valancy and Scott McCarrey, two writers in their 20s with plenty of fresh stage experience (McCarrey had recently performed Shakespeare in England), had been assigned the parts of the Tyrone sons. Ranelli had them make their entrance from the actual adjacent room that O’Neill had in mind. They arrived in a cloud of laughter that caused their father, assuming they were laughing at him, to react to with anger. They bounded in, once more filling the old house with youthful energy.

I read James’s lines, hiding my resentment for the wife and sons I was sure were conspiring against me, and as the words came out of my mouth I felt the old sitting room stirring around us. Ranelli had re-animated the spirits of this pivotal theater family in the very site of American drama’s ‘big bang.'

And, for just a moment, I wasn't a neophyte critic reading from the American theater’s Book of Genesis. I was home with my family on New London’s Pequot Avenue, both father and star of stage. And they were going to show me respect.

An earlier version of this article appeared in a 2010 Theatertimes newsletter.

Photos: Top, Today the room appears just as it did more than a century ago; bottom, the NCI Class of '08, with program directors. Left to right in back, Sarah Roquemore, Scott McCarrey, Charlotte Sommers, Helene Goldfarb, Dan Sullivan, Cristofer Gross, Lauren Yarger, and Lori Ann Laster, and front row, Zev Valancy, Pasha Yamotahari, and Carrie Chapter.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

We gathered together . . .

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Over the last weekend in April, many of the American theater's artistic directors, literary managers, and dramaturgs congregated in Costa Mesa, California for South Coast Repertory's 17th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival.

Seven new plays – three in the midst of fully produced runs and four receiving single-performance readings – could be attended in the 48 hours beginning at 1 p.m. Friday, April 25. According to the theater, more than 2,000 did that. In the audience were 165 industry folk representing nearly 50 theaters and presenting organizations, nine agencies, four universities, three service organizations, and two foundations.

Melissa Ross with 'Future Thinking' director Lila
Neugebauer and Associate Literary Director Kimberly Colburn
(All photos by Debora Robinson/SCR)

More than 100 actors, playwrights, directors, designers and stage management staff worked behind the scenes and a record 48 playwrights were there to enjoy the work of their fellow dramatists.

The productions, all of which have been reviewed at, were Samuel D. Hunter's Rest, Rachel Bonds' Five Mile Lake, and Adam Rapp's The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois. Find the reviews here.

The readings were Theresa Rebeck's Zealot (directed by SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson) and Eliza Clark's Future Thinking (directed by Lila Neugebauer), read consecutively on Friday; Rajiv Joseph's Mr. Wolf (directed by Matt Shakman) on Saturday morning; and Melissa Ross' Of Good Stock (directed by Lynne Meadow) on Sunday morning. It immediately followed a panel discussion with four of the writers moderated by playwright Julie Marie Myatt.

SCR gives the readings incubation protection from the invited media, who may not review them. It's a safeguard I helped codify as the theater's Director of Public Relations, and then enforce for the first seven festivals. It still leaves room for some post-festival reflections.

Festival feasting
Rehearsing 'Future Thinking': Greg Derelian, Linda Gehringer,
Justine Lupe, and Arye Gross.

When consuming more plays than meals in a two-day stretch, it is fair to look for commonalities of theme, tone, topics and structure. Most scripts straddled the ever-popular drama-comedy overlap, providing hearty laughs on their way to honest resonance. Among those tilting more towards comedy were Future Thinking, Clark's tale of a SciFi-series-obsessed fan (Arye Gross) meeting the show's star, a 20-year-old Lolita (Justine Lupe), at Comic-Con, and Ross' Of Good Stock, in which the three very different daughters of a New England novelist (Tessa Auberjonois, Kathleen Early, and Katie Lowes) spend an epiphanic weekend with their partners (Noah Bean, David Denman, and Evan Handler) at the ancestral home. The darker plays were Rebeck's Zealot, in which a male British diplomat and a female American diplomat differ over how to resolve an incident in the Mideast, Joseph's Mr. Wolf, Hunter's Rest, and Rapp's Joppa Illinois. Somewhere in the middle was Bonds' beautiful Five Mile Lake.

A theme running through many of the plays was loss of, or estrangement from, a loved one. This was the bind that tied the father and daughter in Joppa [review and the parents and their missing girls in Joseph's Mr. Wolf. The loss to dementia of someone very present was the keel line under Hunter's Rest [review]. SCR Founding Artist Richard Doyle and veteran company member Lynn Milgrim made this a memorable production, creating the couple with one memory unable to share its past.

Rajiv Joseph and Jon Tenney
Anchoring Acting

Doyle's and Milgrim's work was the rule rather than the exception. Underpinning the writers' showcase was an equally impressive acting showcase. These supporting artists were able to quickly get at the heart of their characters and, with scripts in hand, perform with textual precision balanced by an intuitive looseness that might be hammered out of them during a full rehearsal period. While all seven casts were uniformly superb, each attendee likely had his or her personal favorites. Here are mine.

In Ms. Clark's comic fantasia on celebrity worship, Lupe and Gross gave these new creations remarkable truthfulness while mining all the humor. For the haunting Mr. Wolf, Kaitlyn Dever provided a convincing young teenager convinced she was a superior prophet by a misguided mentor. From her opening scene with the formidable John de Lancie in the title role, she would first maintain and then slowly loose her disassociation, reluctantly easing back after 12 years, into the family formed by the excellent Jon Tenney, Laura Heisler, and Mia Barron.

Post-festival viewing

Thanks to Howlround, the Sunday morning panel discussion was streamed live and is now archived for viewing here. Joining Ms. Myatt that morning, and now keeping the Festival spirit going, are playwrights Rachel Bonds, Eliza Clark, Rajiv Joseph, and Adam Rapp.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On the thresholds

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Because commencement, which means beginning, is also the ceremony at the end of college, the word has a curious duality that puts a yin-yang spin on this symbolic threshold between adolescence and adulthood.

Amelia Rose Blaire
In writer-director Steve Albrezzi's Commencement, which screens at the 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival on April 26 (click for info), Christa, a flawless Amelia Rose Blaire, is the graduating senior whose story drives the film. With her rite-of-passage as both catalyst and cover, threshold events ripple through the lives of all the major characters, reminding us that change is the currency of life regardless of age.

The storytelling bears its own duality. The excellent cast's performances and Joe Pennella's cinematography create a world of realism as detailed as Renaissance portraiture. At the same time, Albrezzi's writing creates fully realized and recognizable characters with the minimal strokes of an impressionist.

The film begins just after Christa's commencement ceremony at a university in upstate California. Unfortunately, some things do not make it through the threshold with her: her belongings are stolen from her packed car while the boyfriend she adores opts out of her future with a curt "Let's take a break."

Things only get worse on the drive down the 5 the next day. The broken-into car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. She reaches her parents, Gillian (Marin Hinkle) and Nate (Arye Gross), by cellphone while they are decorating the house and garden for that evening's big Congratulations Christa Party. While sorting out options with dad, she is joined by a motorcyclist stranger who stops to check her fuming engine.

Rick Gonzalez, Blaire
Though Javier's (Rick Gonzalez) kindness is initially rejected by her, Christa will accept a ride home on his bike while his uncle repairs the car. The wall of suspicion she sets between them dissolves during the ride back to Los Angeles, and their parting on her porch suggests there could have been a connection. But, he heads home as she heads in to help.

On his ride back to Central California, he hears her phone ringing in his bike's saddlebag and is soon goin' south.

The various stories within the story will gently unfold. The crossroads that Gillian and Nate face, both as a couple and as individuals, references the economic crossroads America was facing in 2012 when the film was made. Gillian's mother, Jennifer (Jennifer Warren), and Nate's father, Peter (Alan Rachins), are also wrestling with life changes. All these stories are rich, believable, and woven smoothly into the overarching story of Christa's post-Commencement commencement.

Albrezzi, a member of the directing faculty at USC School of Cinematic Arts, has roots in American theater, which deepens his work as he draws on lengthy associations with many of these actors. Blaire, who since filming Commencement gained fame on TV's "True Blood," and Gonzalez have a performance maturity that helps ground the storytelling from the first frame. Plot twists that in less-talented hands might choke the film's flow and stick out as too convenient or unlikely, with Blaire and Gonzalez arouse no more suspicion than a neighbor's home movie.

Arye Gross, Blaire
Film and TV veterans Hinkle and Gross are also busy stage actors. Their work is routinely lauded in Theatertimes, including one play, Our Mother's Brief Affair, in which they appeared as brother and sister. Another local stage actor who appears as Gillian's friend Rosalie is Joan Almedilla, who starred in 2012's Tea, with Music, reviewed here.

Commencement is also a threshold event for Albrezzi, whom I met nearly 30 years ago when we were approaching that grandest of transitions, parenthood. We would soon have only-child daughters, who became childhood friends, and were around the age of only-child Christa when Albrezzi began his script. That this film, despite being made on a shoestring, never compromises – whether it's in storytelling, performance, or production – adds to its strength of purpose. Films from the heart, like this one, that honestly capture one individual's experience, can resonate for the rest of us as we navigate through countless thresholds of change. It's likely that, like me, you'll find a change of heart has occurred as you pass through the theater exit and head home.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sisters are doing it for themselves

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by Cristofer Gross | Friday, September 9, 1983 was the first day of my first full season as a theater publicist. The 1983-84 Season at Orange County's South Coast Repertory began that evening with the first preview of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, with Ron Boussom as Mozart and Dan Kern as Salieri.

It was also the first day – period – for Zoe Kazan, whose Trudy and Max in Love is currently making its bow at SCR. The future screenwriter/playwright/actress was born that very day just up the road in Los Angeles, to playwright Robin Swicord and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan.

Having left SCR at the end of 2004, I return occasionally to review for, and was back last week for a review of Trudy and Max.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Lila Neugebauer's staging of Trudy and Max is its musical cues and references. I especially loved Trudy's choice of a recent Edward Sharpe tune. But it was a song that came out around Kazan's second birthday that popped into my head when I read the production credits: "Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves" by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox.

Although it likely has happened before at a major theater, this marked a landmark in my theater going: aside from lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, the entire "production vertical" for Trudy and Max is made up of women.

While the excellent cast of Aya Cash, Celeste Den, Tate Ellington, and Michael Weston is necessarily outside this headcount, the design, production, and administrative team behind Trudy, Max, Zoe, and Lila lines up like this: Laura Jellinek (set), Melanie Watnick (costumes), Cricket S. Myers (sound), Kimberly Colburn (dramaturg), Jackie S. Hill (production manager), and Kathryn Davies (stage manager). And the list goes on with casting by Joanne DeNaut and her assistant Stephanie Marick, public relations by Tania Thompson and Madeline Porter, graphic design by Crystal Woolard, program coordination by Heather Van Holt, production photography by Deborah Robinson, front of house management by Stephanie Draude and the oversight of longtime Managing Director Paula Tomei and General Manager Lori Monnier.

The men behind the scenes, veterans like Artistic Director Marc Masterson, Associate Artistic Director John Glore, Marketing Director Bil Schroeder, and Production Manager Josh Marchesi, who oversee the various departments, must also appreciate the serendipity of so much distaff staffing. Back on that night of firsts in 1983, when the houselights dimmed for Salieri's first speech and the maternity ward lights rose for baby Zoe's first cries, only four of SCR's 136 previous productions were plays by women: Ann Jellicoe, Shelagh Delaney, Elizabeth Diggs, and Terri Wagoner. While women writers remain woefully under-represented on American stages, this creditable collaboration is my salute to the alma mater on its 50th Season, which features productions of plays by Carla Ching and Amy Herzog in addition to Kazan.

Cue Annie and the Queen of Soul.

Photo of Zoe Kazan and Lila Neugebauer at opening night of Trudy and Max in Love by Deborah Robinson