Claudio Raygoza in "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll." Photo by Daren Scott
The atmosphere in little ion theatre is choked with testosterone and angst in its presentation of Eric Bogosian’s one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. Part of ion’s “Double Dare” rotating repertory with E.M. Lewis’ The Gun Show, SDR&R stars ion’s executive artistic director, Claudio Raygoza, who immerses himself in 10 characters living and ranting during the post-Reagan/Daddy Bush era. His is a manic, chameleonic performance of admirable stamina, though much of the subject matter comes off as dated, even anachronistic by the standards of today’s faster paced, social-media-driven society.
Tellingly, most of the laughter in the audience came from the male contingent, as Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll preoccupies itself to a considerable extent with the frustrations and anxieties of those men perpetually trapped between neurosis and machismo. (Review originally published in San Diego Citybeat on 10/11/17.)
James Lecesne in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey." Photo by Jim Cox
James Lecesne’s one-man show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey succeeds on multiple levels. It’s a murder mystery presided over by a hardboiled Jersey shore detective who’s more sensitive than he lets on. It’s a character study of an eccentric yet typically American community where, when all is said and done, people care for each other. Most profoundly, it’s a story about the need to accept, to even love, people for what they are.
In the 80-minute performance based on Lecesne’s 2008 young-adult novel “Absolute Brightness,” he portrays nine characters, from a precocious teen girl to the elderly man who runs a clock shop. They’re all deeply impacted one way or the other by the ultimately discovered hate-crime murder of a 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey who lived among them and in a short time touched their lives. A gay boy who wore rainbow-colored sneakers, donned fairy wings in a production by the Buddy Howard School of Drama and Dance, and advised the local ladies on their hair and clothes, Leonard was proudly who he was. A dreamer with a generous heart, he saw the adults around him, one townsperson recalled, not as how they were but how they hoped to be.
Lecesne’s seamless embodying of these individuals’ full idiosyncratic selves is impressive on its own, but he also deftly enacts conversations between them without the distracting awkwardness of trying to switch on a dime from one persona to another. Furthermore, his script balances the gravity of the town murder and the subsequent grief with the delightful quirks of some of the citizens detective Chuck Desantis interviews – Otto Beckerman the clock man, the binoculars-wielding mob widow Gloria Salzano, and chainsmoker Marion Tochterman, to name three.
Lecesne is a co-founder of the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth that is named for his earlier one-man show Word of Mouth. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, directed by Tony Speciale, has much to say about being true to oneself and about tolerance, reminders that should reside in every American town, today more than ever. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/11/17.)
Alexander Guzman (left) and Jacob Caltrider in "Homos, or Everyone in America." Photo by Jim Carmody
Jordan Seavey’s Homos, or Everyone in America takes a worldview, or at least an America-view, of the complexities of gay relationships. But it is the one between The Writer and The Academic (otherwise unnamed) that is most compelling about this play. In Diversionary Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Homos, Jacob Caltrider and Alexander Guzman deliver skilled, vulnerable performances as lovers in Brooklyn navigating the sexual thrills of being together as well as the doubts, anxieties and flare-ups that make all relationships, gay or straight, not for the timid. If anything, Seavey packs too many dramatics into his rapidly paced one-act play, which wavers back and forth between the past and the present of the lovers’ relationship. Yet from start to finish, it’s a rewarding trip in time. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/4/17.)
Wrekless Watson (left) and Antonio TJ Johnson in "Father Comes Home from the Wars." Photo by Daren Scott
“Hero” is an intentionally conflicted name for the protagonist of Intrepid Theatre Company’s lyrical staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars. The three-act, three-hour drama follows Hero (a very intense Wrekless Watson) over the course of two years during America’s Civil War -- from slave, to soldier indentured by his cruel owner (Tom Stephenson) to his returning home to West Texas. Through Hero, a complicated man who has both caused hurt and been hurt, the elusive dream of freedom aches to be made real.
While beautifully brought to life by a cast that also features Cortez L. Johnson, Antonio TJ Johnson and Leonard Patton, whose vocals accompanied by guitarist Jim Mooney enhance the sweeping production’s resonance, Father’s three acts are uneven. The first is the strongest, with all of Hero’s internal and external conflicts at the fore. The second act feels long, although it’s a tour de force for Stephenson. The third act, which includes everything from Hero’s talking dog to a near-killing, is tonally at odds with itself. Though Hero, too, is a man at odds with himself as he tries to embrace a new life. In the end, the horrors of war and slavery are rightfully indicted, and racism is shown for what it is: inhuman. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/4/17.)
Jeffrey Scott Parsons (left) and Richard Bermudez in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Photo courtesy of Welk Resorts Theatre
Argentinian novelist Manuel Puig probably had no idea what would spring from the publication, in 1976, of his largely stream-of-consciousness novel “”El Beso de la Mujer Arana,” or “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Seven years later, the book would become a stage play, and two years after that a critically acclaimed film starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. But that wouldn’t be all. In 1993, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” was adapted into a Broadway musical, with a book by Terrence McNally and songs and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the duo that gave the theater world Cabaret and, later, Chicago. The visceral and frank story of two men in a Latin American prison who are drawn to each other amid the torture and misery is now onstage at the Welk Resort Theatre, of all places, which is reminding its audiences that the material is “PC-17.” Having presented Cabaret at its darkest, which is how it was meant to be presented, a couple of years ago, staging Kiss of the Spider Woman is not as dramatic a leap for the Welk as you might think. Producer Joshua Carr deserves credit for the choice, as does Ray Limon for directing a production that is a little bloated but highly emotional and certainly gripping.
The Welk production of Kiss of the Spider Woman benefits from potent performances from its three leads. Jeffrey Scott Parsons is heart-rending as the gay prisoner Molina, who the guards love to humiliate. As the political prisoner Valentin, who becomes Molina’s roommate and more, Richard Bermudez shares with audiences a powerfully beautiful singing voice. As Aurora, the film star of Molina’s fantasies and also the titular Spider Woman, Natalie Nucci does what she does best: dazzle with her dancing.
Some of those charged dance numbers feel right out of the Copacabana, clashing with the grim tone of McNally’s story, and the show’s title tune that Nucci renders sounds like a Bond-film theme song. But the agonized and often tender ballads in the score, which represent the softest moments of this occasionally brutal narrative, provide avenues for really caring about the fate of not only Molina and Valentin, but of anyone persecuted for what they believe in or who they are. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/27/17.)
Left to right: Cecilia Harchegani, Dallas McLaughlin and Wendy Waddell in "American Hero." Photo by Daren Scott
There’s nothing like listing “sandwich artist” to burnish one’s resume, right? But for Sheri, Ted and Jamie, three worker bees at an in-mall sandwich shop in Somewhere, U.S.A., it’s not about resumes – it’s about living paycheck to paycheck while retaining if they can at least a slice of dignity. When it looks like the sandwich shop won’t be able to, through no fault of Sheri, Ted and Jamie’s, cut the mustard, Bess Wohl’s comedy “American Hero” turns existential. Its principals’ internal questions beckon: Why must awkward teen Sheri toil in not just one dehumanizing fast-food joint, but two? (She also works at a taco shop in the same mall.) How could middle-aged Ted, a casualty of corporate downsizing at Bank of America and a possessor of an MBA, be reduced to slapping two pieces of bread together? What did Jamie do to deserve having to wear a ridiculous vest and visor just to keep from losing custody of her kids?
But the truth is, “American Hero” is existential lite. Its plastic-gloved, assembly line trio may be mired in cringe-worthy circumstances ripe for pathos, but Wohl’s 2013 one-act is played largely for laughs. This is the case at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, Director Kristianne Kurner and a game ensemble of four (Cecillia Harchegani, Dallas McLaughlin, Wendy Waddell and Kamel Haddad) emphasize the play’s physical and visual comedy, which are its definite strengths. The script’s narrative dead spots stem from its taxed flirtations with sobriety. While playwright Wohl may have intended otherwise, Chaplin-esque commentary on the dehumanization of the American worker (think “Modern Times”) this is not.
That distinction aside, “American Hero” is frequently funny during its 90 minutes. Inhabiting the story’s most outlandish character, Waddell as Jamie brassily lets insults and profanities fly with equal ferocity and velocity. Often in their line of fire is Ted, whom McLaughlin makes the most officious but also the most sympathetic of the hapless sandwich artists. (In their task-defined roles, he’s the “finisher,” Jamie is the “wrapper,” and Sheri is the “baser.”) As for Sheri, Harchegani turns in a promising debut at New Village Arts in a low-key part that in lesser hands could be totally upstaged by the two broader characters behind the sandwich counter. Another newcomer to New Village Arts productions, Haddad rounds out the ensemble, playing four way over-the-top roles, including a costume-wearing talking sandwich – that’s not a misprint.
The ambient touches at New Village contribute to the fun – or to the surrealism of the play, depending on your perspective. Kristen Flores’ sandwich-shop set boasts the requisite enforced sterility and cheerfulness of such places in its bright colors and serviceable furniture. Signage including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sandwiches” speaks to the clueless franchise approach to “humor” and relatability. The transition music between scenes or in significant moments leans heavily on classic rock, though there are snippets that smack of retro lounge records, and, of all things, there’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” A little samba with your sandwich, sir? (Review originally published 9/25/17 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
Jacque Wilke in "Ironbound." Photo by Daren Scott
At one point amid the crushing drama and disappointment of Polish immigrant Darja’s life in a New Jersey at its seediest, she confides: “I’m not someone who wonders why.” She’s not someone who gives up or gives in, either, which makes the central character of Martyna Majok’s one-act “Ironbound” such an indomitable figure in the face of life’s misfortunes. But as intuitively played by Jacque Wilke in Moxie Theatre’s production, Darja is also a vulnerable woman, hiding behind her pride and her grit, but more alone inside than she wants to admit.
“Ironbound” is the opening show of Moxie’s 13th season, its first with Jennifer Eve Thorn as executive artistic director (succeeding Delicia Turner Sonnenberg). Thorn, along with Turner Sonnenberg among Moxie’s original co-founders, selected “Ironbound” to kick off the company’s new season. She also directs its earnest cast that includes Eric Casalini as Darja’s housemate and wayward lover, Tommy, a postal worker; Arusi Santi, who appears in flashback scenes as her Polish first husband Maks, who dreams of playing the blues in Chicago; and Carter Piggee as a teenage hustler whom Darja meets in another, harrowing flashback.
The one constant in the play’s shifts in time – 22 years between 1992 and 2014 – is a desolate bus stop in Elizabeth, N.J., designed at Moxie by Divya Murthy Kumar. Barb-wired, graffiti’d, strewn with trash bags and old tires, it’s there that 42-year-old Darja waits and waits – for a bus that never seems to come, for a happiness in her adopted country that seems ever out of her reach. Whether working in a miserable factory job or cleaning houses for the rich, Darja does what she can to survive, and along the way in this reflective piece, the sheer will and energy required for that survival costs her two marriages (one of them abusive), and, she fears, a troubled son whose whereabouts are in question.
Yet the resiliency of Majok’s heroine – again, endearingly portrayed by Wilke – is as persistent as Darja’s Polish accent and her hold on her self-respect. She also has a biting sense of humor and, in one of “Ironbound’s” welcome comedic left turns, a clever ingenuity when it comes to catching Tommy at his cheating (with the woman whose home she cleans, of all people) and with meting out her little brand of justice. (The latter puts an end to that particular cleaning job.)
Majok’s good-hearted cad Tommy is a familiar type, and his sentimental evocation of Bruce Springsteen practically a Jersey trope. The harmonica-playing Maks, whose English is just as broken but determined as Darja’s, is a more inspired character, though the two men are equally adamant about Darja abandoning the malaise and the inertia of the bus stop. The piquancy with which this all plays out is the heartbeat of “Ironbound,” and make no mistake: It’s Darja’s stalwart heart that’s beating as the story unfolds, its present and past intertwining.
Besides being a thoughtful character study, “Ironbound” is a reminder of the struggles of the immigrant experience, and of the dignity that those who brave it can achieve. (Review originally published 9/25/17 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
Steven Lone and Carla Harting in "Roz and Ray." Photo courtesy of San Diego Repertory Theatre
Beneath all the medical jargon and the repeated indictment flogging of the system that forces doctors into untenable positions and feeds a greedy pharmaceuticals community, Karen Hartman’s Roz & Ray is a sensitive love story. Roz (Carla Harting) is a committed doctor specializing in treating hemophiliac children, Ray (Steven Lone) the divorced father of two such children. In a story that stretches from 1978 to the early ‘90s, they are brought together in Hartman’s play initially via their doctor/patient relationship, but another, more intimate relationship begins to form between Roz and Ray. The whole thing’s further complicated by a terrible blood-contamination crisis brought on by the AIDS epidemic. This tense and thoughtful play, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, starts off very slow and talky, but gains emotional momentum as its circumstances, based on true events, tragically unfold. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/20/17.)
Hannah Ellis and Bryce Pinkham in "Benny & Joon." Photograph by Jim Cox
“Benny and Joon,” the 1993 cult film, was quirky and sweet. Benny & Joon, the world-premiere musical at the Old Globe Theatre directed by Jack Cummings III, is quirky and sweet. So it follows: If you liked the movie, the star of which was neither Benny (Aidan Quinn) nor Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) but Johnny Depp as the quirky Sam, you’ll like the musical (written by Kirsten Guenther, Nolan Gasser and Mindi Dickstein), which is completed heisted by Bryce Pinkham as the quirky Sam.
Though the narrative of the film and this show on which it’s based address serious underlying issues – schizophrenia, grief, fear of love, to name the most salient -- the story of siblings Benny and Joon, and Sam, the stranger who changes their lives, thrives on charm and even cuteness. In addition to Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway), who has a magnetic Chaplainesque quality ideally suited to the role of Sam, Andrew Samonsky and Hannah Elless are sympathetic and more than up to the demands of the show’s modest but melodic score. The upshot is a musical fairytale with a few dark corners on the road to happily ever after. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/20/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat