Monday, December 7, 2009

Dr. Suess' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Clearly I have a weakness for excellent musicals geared toward children, and combine that with Dr. Suess? and CHRISTMAS? Safe to say I bought my ticket in advance.

This production of Dr. Suess' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! has been running at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre for twelve successive years, and apparently despite the recession it is continuing as their biggest sell of the year. Balboa Park is gorgeously decorated for Christmas and the newly renovated Plaza in front of The Globe is complete with a Suess- inspired Christmas tree. The stage is set with pieces that look like the iconic drawings just suddenly popped into 3-D.

By far my favorite part of this Christmas tradition (confession: this is the second time I've seen it) is watching the audience full of young families decked out in their holiday finest (bows, poofy dresses, and mini suits) watch the Grinch and the Whos as the story unfolds. They have no reservations about answering the little Whos on stage or shrieking in fear at the terrifying Grinch (played this year by Jeffrey Skowron). My favorite moment happened at the end, after the snow fell out over the audience, when the Whos (and newly Christmas-converted nice guy Grinch) sing their chorus of "Who likes Christmas?" and the little boy in front of me raised his hand as high as he possibly could whispering, "Me! Me!"

Me too, kid. Me too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Songs For A New World

It's just been a Jason Robert Brown kind of fall for me. His first musical, Songs For A New World, produced by the International City Theatre in Long Beach, was the second I've seen in the last few months, and while it's a completely different animal from Parade, I still left humming.

The stage was mostly bare except for some scaffolding off to one side and a large metal half cross with some cloth draped over the side- I think it was unintentionally channeling an Easter Sunday altar. Pictures of random sights and events hung upstage near a screen that quasi-covered the band. This play has no story and is more of a string of songs that are unrelated dramatically but have a strange musical coherence. The four actors, two men and two women, without exception, had incredible voices and the acting ability to carry an audience for two hours without an overarching story. The shift in characters from song to song was impressive, but not as wonderful as the four part harmonies and chords that they belted out. Each actor had standout moments individually, but my favorite thing about this music are those harmonies and gorgeous group dynamics.

Friday, October 16, 2009


The West-Coast premier of Eclipsed, Danai Gurira's new play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, is a gripping and graphic story about five women caught in Liberia's bloody civil war in 2003.

Three women are the "wives" of a rebel commanding officer in a military camp; one of them is a young girl. They are occasionally summoned off-stage to fulfill their sexual obligations to him in return for the safety of the camp and the agreement that the other soldiers will not forcefully take their turns with them. There are no men on stage in this play, it is the story of the women that are forced to survive in a violent war, their lives dictated by the murders and rape of the offstage men. They are given food, clothes, and trinkets from the conquered villages from the general. They receive a book and the girl, the only one among them that can read, regales them with the tale of American "big man" Bill Clinton. Their understandings of what the Bill-Hillary-Monica situation must have meant through the lens of their own "marital" situation is a great moment.

Even with moments of humor, the play is gut-wrenchingly tragic. A former wife-turned soldier convinces the girl that she can control her own fate with a gun and never let a man rape her again. Attracted by the idea of such freedom, the girl joins the army only to find herself holding other young girls at gun-point so that other soldiers can rape them instead. The question of "it's them or me" takes on gruesome, horrific weight. Meanwhile, a woman peacemaker has entered the wives' camp and is using her education and loss of her own daughter to rebel soldiers to try to inspire the wives to leave camp, as the war will soon be over.

With no education or skill set, the women are unsure of what to do: All they know is a life of violence and survival. The haunting question of how to move forward leaves the women, and the audience, at a loss. Not exactly the feel-good hit of the season, Eclipsed is a beautiful, challenging play about the resilience of women and the frailty of hope in war-torn countries.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I have been waiting for this production of Parade to come to the Mark Taper Forum for over a year, and so with my expectation set so high I was a little concerned I might come away disappointed. I shouldn't have worried.

Set in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, a young girl is tragically murdered during the Confederate Memorial Day parade in the pencil factory in which she works, and her Jewish, Yankee boss is accused and convicted without much of a trial. The town is in a frenzy reminiscent of The Crucible and wild anti-Semitic tales come out of unreliable sources, creating a tension and distortion of the truth that brings about more heartbreak and destruction.

T.R. Knight, of Grey's Anatomy fame, plays Leo Frank, the man accused of murder, with perfect meticulous, controlling tics required for the often-cold, displaced Brooklyn Jew. His wonderful speech patterns conveyed his change from a distant, difficult husband to a loving and appreciative one. His wife Lucille, played by original London Donmar cast member Lara Pulver, has an effortless, beautiful voice that also shapes her journey from a meek and lonely housewife to a powerful woman determined to seek justice for her husband at all costs. The entire ensemble was great at playing multiple characters, but one standout actor was David St. Louis, whose physical and vocal power on stage left the audience in awe.

Tony-award winning composer Jason Robert Brown was in the audience the night that I saw the show, and it was so fun to watch him watch his own work. He was mouthing the words and conducting from his own score from his seat, and absolutely beamed whenever the audience laughed at his words. The visual appeal of this show was outstanding: There was a tattered old gray painting of a Confederate scene hanging over the factory, which at times was lit to restore its full color, or even evoke other images altogether.

If you can get to downtown Los Angeles before November 15th, go see this beautiful show. The Mark Taper Forum is a part of Center Theatre Group and so has the Hot Tix program, where every performance has tickets available for $20. Definitely worth it for this story.

Monday, September 28, 2009

August: Osage County

With more incest, deception, abuse, and dysfunction than a Greek tragedy, August: Osage County is not your typical family drama. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning, three-hour-plus saga is intricately written, exhaustingly well-acted, and stomach-wrenching to watch.

At 82, Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons blew all pastoral images of a Great Plains family matriarch out the window with her abrasive, pill-addicted character. Her poet husband has just walked out the door and into the lake, causing her three daughters and other assorted family members to come home for his funeral in a cloud of old hurts and confusion. A family this dysfunctional trapped in one house is a ticking time bomb, and with each lie that unravels, no one escapes unscathed: adultery, child abuse, addiction, incest, and general cruelty.

The howlings and shrieks of a family in pain, with the ramblings of the oft-high mother, made the show a bit hard to hear and understand at times, but it did add a distinct sense of mass confusion. Shannon Cochran, as eldest daughter Barbara, matched Parsons in sheer power on stage, as she slowly grew into a slightly younger but equally cruel version of her mother. The feeling of entrapment in their Great Plains home is palpable, and the play ends with no more hope than when it began. Unlike the Greek tragedies where someone usually repents after the bloodshed, the family of August: Osage County is left with nothing but their own wreckage with which to try to salvage any kind of life.

Friday, September 25, 2009


The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre in Minsk. Because they are not approved by the Belarusian Committee of Culture, their performances are illegal and must be performed in secret locations that their audience members discover when they call a special phone number hours before to prevent being caught by the police. Even with such precautions, the actors and company have been arrested and have been black-listed from state-approved jobs.

Their performance of DISCOVER LOVE at the University of San Diego's Institute for Peace and Justice was a part of their international tour to promote awareness of their little-discussed home country, which they say is the last dictatorship in Europe. Three actors and an almost bare stage tell the true story of Irina and her husband Anatoli in Russian with English supertitles on a screen, which sometimes featured video projections. Anna Solomianskaya plays Irina from childhood into a young woman who meets, falls passionately in love with, and marries a dynamic and uniquely intelligent man. The portrait of their marriage as they struggle to make ends meet in poverty-stricken Minsk while caring for their two young daughters is searingly truthful and beautiful. After years of exhausting work, the two somehow manage to become successful enough to live comfortably. Anatoli is passionate about helping others achieve similar success, and just as the pair begins to discover their love all over again, one night Anatoli does not come home.

Irina frantically searches for her husband, praying that there was some sort of accident that prevented him from calling home. The police raid their home before she even has a chance to report him missing, saying she might be the culprit. Soon they find pieces of his car and the true story unravels: Anatoli and his friend were attacked in his car, dragged into the forrest, beaten, and shot in the back of the head by government forces as a result of their public support for a democratic Belarus. Irina is reeling with heartache and despair as she realizes that he was a victim of a "forced disappearance," a common fate for anyone who opposes the Belarusian government: Men simply don't come home. Sometimes their bodies are found, like Anatoli's, and sometimes they are not.

But as tragic as the story is, it is not about Belarusian politics. It is completely and absolutely about the incredible love between two people and its power. Anatoli allowed Irina to discover love. After the performance, co-writer and director Nikolai Khalezin said that people who see the show as a political play have missed the point: "It is not a political play. It is a love story that is interrupted by politics." Someone in the audience asked Solomianskaya, who played, Irina, how she conjured such an emotional and powerful performance from someone else's story every night. She recounted watching the real Irina watch DISCOVER LOVE from the audience, and replied, "There is no story that doesn't belong to you. If you can imagine even for a moment that that could happen to you... how can someone have such strength?"

The Belarus Free Theatre has no home, no money, and no support in Minsk. Yet DISCOVER LOVE is one of the most beautiful love stories and powerful artistic performances I have ever seen. The passion, wit, and intelligence of this group, coupled with incredible talent and bravery is one of the most inspiring examples of theatre as a vehicle for the human experience.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The other day I tried to explain to someone how much I loved this show and realized that I was totally ill-equipped to do so. Author Bill Cain has woven so much history, Shakespeare, and edge-of-your seat tension into Equivocation that words completely failed me in any attempt to do it justice.

Director Bill Rauch's world premier of this text could not have been more impeccably cast. The story takes place in London, 1605, and Prime Minister Robert Cecil is commissioning William Shagspeare (Cain's preferred spelling of "Shakespeare") to write a history play out of a current event: The Powder Plot, in which Catholic rebels supposedly tug a tunnel under the Parliament building in an attempt to blow up the King and his family for outlawing their religion. Shag and his men must decide how to discover and tell the truth of the story without being hanged by the powerfully evil and manipulative Cecil. In a world where the torture taking place in the Tower of London is a very real threat, the fear and tension is thick.

A cast of five men (and one woman, playing Shag's intriguing surviving twin daughter) play countless roles, spinning between members of the acting company, then the actors playing other characters, and the historical figures themselves. Anthony Heald plays a passionate Shag, and Richard Elmore plays the father figure of the acting troupe as well as the Catholic priest on trial for the Powder Plot. John Tufts plays the hotheaded young actor in the Globe and Scottish King James seemingly without taking a breath in between.

The title of the play comes from Father Henry Garnet (Elmore) and his need to equivocate: To tell one truth in order to reveal another. Shag and his men must write Cecil's play or die a torturous death for it, but also cannot lie to their audiences and to history. Their challenge is, as in all theater, to tell one story to reveal a greater truth.

Having just come from London and my history-nerd-near-heart-attack from being in the Tower of London and the Globe itself, and being somewhat well-versed in Shakespeare, I felt like I surely got most of the references and details. But the more I think back on this amazing text and performance, I am quite sure that my understanding of Bill Cain's incredible words and research only scratched the surface.

(P.S. The Geffen in Los Angeles is going to be doing this text this season... Look out for it!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Paradise Lost

Clifford Odets, commonly thought of as the American Chekhov, wrote Paradise Lost in 1935, and it was first produced by the Group Theatre in New York City later that year. Odets transformed the tumultuous economic upheaval of the Great Depression into a story of a family coping with the loss of dreams and of their familiar way of life in the face of a harsher reality. With so many jobs being lost today, the story could not be more timely.

The production in the Angus Bowmer Theatre directed by Libby Appel reflected the ensemble-focused traditions of the Group Theatre: No star-stolen moments, but a solid unit of a Jewish family, the Gordons, and their world with the characters that inhabit it. Despite great talent and promise, the adult children are unable to find work, and the parents have mortgaged the family home in order to keep the handbag business that stands between them and poverty. The wife, Clara, wonderfully played by Linda Alper, is trying to forestall the imminent ruin of her family, constantly attempting to ease their concerns with offers of fruit. The husband Leo is sure that despite the hard times, they will succeed by doing the right thing: When he learns from the labor union the condition in which his employees toil, he wants to help them. When a stranger offers to burn down the handbag factory to receive the insurance money, Leo throws him out of his house.

But the attempts to do right are not met with reward. Their oldest son is killed by police fire in a botched job attempt for a mobster friend. The daughter, although a talented pianist, cannot find employment and since her fiance cannot either, he leaves town, leaving her behind to grieve. The youngest son is dying from a long, drawn-out disease. Eventually, they lose the house.

And here's the kicker: This is a play of hope. The characters may be ultimately unsuccessful in their endeavors, but their lives hold significance. Their piece of the American Dream has been utterly destroyed by the Great Depression and yet they still strive to do right and they never, ever give up hope in the future. Odets' words are incredibly reassuring in our own financial and political climate, when, tragically, bad things happen to good people every day. And yet, like the Gordon family, when bad things happen, we still must cling to hope.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Once upon a time, there was a man who was known to love himself above all other men with aplomb throughout the land, and that man was known as John O’Hurley.

That’s right: J Peterman on Seinfeld, the silver-haired champion of Dancing With The Stars, and general celebrity for all your Family Feud hosting needs, is starring in Los Angeles’ Ahmanson theater as Kind Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Firstly, I am so happy to be home in Los Angeles. Secondly, I love Monty Python films.

Now. I saw Spamalot in New York two years ago, so this was my second attempt at loving it. But- hear me out devoted fans of this show across the nation- I just don’t think it’s as funny as it should be. And devoted fans there are aplenty: the Ahmanson was filled with people wearing pins and shirts from the show, laughing hysterically for two hours and cheering throughout.

I certainly did giggle at certain moments and each actor on stage was not without singing and dancing chops. In fact I thought the principals were all quite good; the overall production (including the text itself) just doesn’t measure up to the hype in my opinion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

War Horse

Two sad things about this show:
1. It was my last in London.
2. I found myself way too emotionally involved with puppets.

But perhaps the fact that I was completely emotionally involved was not so much a sign of sadness, but of a job well done by the creative people at the National Theatre. War Horse is the story of a young farm boy whose father sells his beloved horse, Joey, to the British Army to fight in the front lines of World War I. A live stage story that revolves around a horse presents a particular kind of problem for a design team, but the puppetry that takes place in this production is at once artistic (clearly, the horse is made of bamboo and there are men inside controlling it), and also ridiculously realistic (the movements are exactly that of a live horse, and the dimensions are big enough that it allows the horse to be actually ridden many times in the show).

Taken from a children's novel, this story (as many children's stories do) takes unspeakable acts of human cruelty, war, and death, and makes them palpable for young people to experience these things cathartically through a beloved animal. The relationship between the young boy and Joey the horse has the potential to be as heart-breaking and tear-rendering as classics like Old Yeller and every Disney movie that ever made you cry, but tragically the young man playing the boy made a very unfortunate choice vocally: his attempt at a Devonshire accent left me with the impression that somewhere along the story line we would be informed of some sort of impediment, but I was told at the interval that this was not the way the original actor had played the part and was in no way informed by the script. I'm not sure how the director let this go unchecked, but it is certainly the production's loss.

Aside from the amazing puppets, other aspects in this show were more subtly but no less impressively creative. Designer Rae Smith's sketches projected on a panel above the stage allowed for beautiful, simplistic artwork that also informed the audience and made it possible to jump from location to location, from farm to battlefront. Also, the original music by Adrian Sutton and John Tams was haunting and beautiful, and the production sometimes seemed to slip into a musical, but the solo or group singing blended nicely into the narrative and added layers of the feeling of the period.

If the part of the boy was to be recast, I would recommend this show instantly to anyone in London. The music, art, and puppetry are so far and above the expectation for children's theater that even non-theater goers could appreciate enjoy it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Winter's Tale

Once again, Sam Mendes has created a world in which I so very badly want to live. The other half of the Bridge Project in repertory at the Old Vic (the first being The Cherry Orchard), Mendes brings Shakespeare's story of lusty jealousy to life with the British cast members forming Sicilia, and Bohemia consisting of the Americans.

Like The Cherry Orchard, this production used breath-taking live music and candles to create a sense of time and place that invited the audience to enter the world of the story through laughter and tears. Once again Rebecca Hall was incredible, from her anguish as her husband accuses her of infidelity and takes away her children to her amazing beauty in the transfigured statue, where she absolutely glowed in a white dress, forgiving Leontes (Simon Russell Beale, also with yet another amazing performance).

In the second act, in Bohemia, the bawdy and freely happy Americans also inhabit a world filled with music, but of a more lively variety and, instead of somber candlelight, red, white and blue balloons fill the stage. Ethan Hawke, as the troubadour Autolycus, was a hilarious Jack Sparrow-esque conman, singing his lines in a flamboyant yet slightly bored with his situation tone. The cast partakes in one of the most ridiculous dances I have ever seen on stage during their country party: The women wear giant round balloons over their chests, and the men strap phallic balloons over their pants, and what follows is absolute comic absurdity.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in a talk with Tony Award winning cast member Richard Easton (Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, 2001), who played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale. It was wonderful to be able to listen to an older, very accomplished but humble actor reflect on his philosophies about acting over the span of his transatlantic career. Throughout the conversation he was insistent that the actor is not the focus of a play but merely a vessel for the text: "The artist is the playwright. The medium is the actor."

It was clear he had no patience for young, self-absorbed actors, who, he felt, misunderstood what acting is about, and if they wanted to be self-serving egomaniacs they should stick to film directing and leave acting well enough alone. When I asked how he and his fellow cast mates are able to keep the story and characters so fresh and alive after performing them often twice a day, around the globe, for nearly a year, he almost chided me for thinking that they could do anything but. He again insisted that you just have to do the text, and that each time you start with the first line, you are starting the story for the first time. He also admitted a love for seeing young people in the cheap, student-priced seats in the balcony at the Old Vic peering over the railing to look down for a better view of the stage: "The young faces..." he said almost wistfully but still with a straightforward edge, "It enables you to believe you are doing magic."


Mincemeat is exactly what experimental, political theaters everywhere are trying to accomplish. And the company producing it, Cardboard Citizens, accomplishes it in no small manner.

Cardboard Citizens is a theater company that promotes awareness for homelessness in their work and in practice, choosing texts that illuminate the complications of homelessness and choosing actors that have a personal connection to homelessness, all while providing people who are currently homeless opportunities and workshops to learn about theater.

Mincemeat did not take place in a theater, but in a massive, multiple-story abandoned warehouse. The audience was nervously milling around the bottom floor when suddenly one of the garage doors was pulled opened and in screeched a van, spilling out a group of masked vigilantes, with an elderly man as their hostage. The audience was pinned against a wall, not sure what to do or where to go amidst all the screaming and shouting. A few minutes of trying to decipher what the hell was going on later, the actors paused, informed us that this was not in fact "one of those" stories, and to please join them in the next room for a restart of the show.

And so it went. Each scene took place in a different room or floor of the massive warehouse, and we were shuffled from place to place not unlike cattle. But, as the actual narrative began, my annoyance with the herding of the audience was replaced with awe for the writing of this story and the actors carrying it, which were both incredibly far and above anything one would expect in a warehouse.

The story is based on a true event from WWII: The British military planted false papers on a dead man's body and left it to be conveniently found off of the Spanish coast, giving the fascists misinformation about where their next military attack would be, giving the British a huge victory one week later. The play's story began with this man in a kind of purgatory, charged with finding his true identity before he can enter heaven. He has no idea who he is, and so sets about looking for clues, but as the story weaves on we become aware that he is not a top military agent with secret information and a loving family back home as his dress and the content of his pockets would imply, but through a trip to the morgue and through bombed-out London and to an underground shelter, we discover along with the hero that he was no such honorable person, but an alcoholic, mentally unstable vagrant that the military had picked for the mission because no one would miss him or his body.

The acting and physical experience of this show as an audience member, in addition to a script so full with historical and ethical questions, made this play a visceral theatrical event. The physical discomfort that the audience endures as they try to breathe through the smoke and haze of a blitzed London shelter, the heat and stuffiness of the morgue, all make the story incredibly real. At the end of the show, just as suddenly as it began, the main character pulls open a huge garage door, walking out into the streets of London 2009, complete with some very confused looking pedestrians peering into the warehouse trying to figure out where this costumed figure came from and why in the world a hundred people are sitting inside between bunk beds and clothing lines.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Peter Pan

Peter Pan was, by far, the most fun that I have had at a theater event on this trip. Set up in a white, circus-like tent in Kensington Gardens, a beautiful London park, the theater-in-the-round boasts an Imax kind of experience in that the setting (London rooftops, Neverland, the Pirates' ship) was projected onto the ceiling of the tent above the seats and the simple stage.

Before even entering the tent itself, we were able to eat dinner outside in a little cabana in the gorgeous park (tragically, they had missed their shipment of paninis that morning and we were forced to eat cake for our meal) and watched as the families piled into the theater. Once inside, we were treated to one of the most imaginative and creative uses of space and objects that I have seen in a long time. The use of puppetry for Nana and a Neverland bird, a sort of bicycle contraption for the crocodile, and a bathtub on wheels for the pirates' rowboat were so inventive and clever. The stage floor itself had sections that would rotate, revealing beds, tree trunks, or undersea rocks for hiding mermaids.

The best part about Peter Pan was watching the little British kids react to the action, sometimes yelling out in concern for the Lost Boys or to warn them about pirates. The five-year-old little blond boy next to me was eagerly kneeling up in his chair by the end of the show so that he could see better. After the show and on the way out of the park, some boys had taken off their socks to use them as hand puppets, pretending to be the Neverland bird.


For all the talk about film celebrities in theater this summer, Jude Law (pleasantly and surprisingly) rose to the occasion in Hamlet. Roles like this almost require a certain amount of arrogance to say yes, why of course I should play one of the biggest parts in the cannon of this language's theater, and, unlike Helen Mirren in the French equivalent of Phedre, Law had the presence to pull it off.

This production was very dark in costumes and in lighting, with eerie fog and snow constantly surrounding the characters in shadow. A very solid ensemble may have done themselves a disservice in the running time of the show- almost four hours is a long time to sit through anything, even if the acting and staging are great. Ophelia was strong and charismatic, and Polonius was conniving and still humorous. Hamlet was played (thankfully) not as meek and indecisive, but as a quick-witted individual determined and torn with a sense of intense urgency. His mocking of the other characters created several moments that were quite funny, sometimes because of the text and sometimes with what Law did with it physically.

This is the first really unpleasant experience I have had with a celebrity being in a show. Even though I thought he was great, there was a crowd of obnoxious people (and when I say people I mean young girls) there to see him that I am quite sure would never had attended (and therefore never decided it would be a good time to go to the bathroom during the To Be Or Not To Be speech, unwrap candy throughout the show, or shriek during the bows) to see an unknown talent in the role.

Minor annoyances aside, I will say this production also featured my two favorite aspects of theater in London:
1. Fabulous student discounts on great seats.
2. The theaters all sell ice cream at the intermission. It's like I've died and gone to heaven.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Billy Elliot

The talent in this show is amazing. Especially so when you realize that half the cast hasn't even hit puberty.

There is a lot of advertising and buzz going around London for this show right now, and I am so glad that I was able to work it into my schedule to see it here. Obviously, this is a musical about dancing, and even for people who are not fans of ballet, this show has incredible varieties of dance that are all so emotionally charged that some of the most intense moments were without dialog or singing all together. The little boy who plays Billy takes on not only feats of tap, ballet, and acrobatics, but a very tragic story of a family that lost its mother and is currently losing its means of living. I have never before heard an audience of that size (or any size, really) sniffle and cry after a scene of ballet dancing.

Undoubtedly my American friends and I missed some of the humor and political points about Margaret Thatcher and the coal miner strikes, but that was really a secondary story line to the boy and his talent and the boy and his family, and how the two worlds clash and support while one begins to flourish and one begins to falter. The music, by Sir Elton John, was fantastic. The ensemble of little ballerinas in tutus contrasted with strikers and police were incredible in sound and choreography.

I would recommend this show to anyone in London or New York. Billy Elliot is visually stunning and the pricey ticket is worth it if only to see the amazing choreography.

As You Like It

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London is a complete recreation of how the Globe would have been in Shakespeare's time, all the way down to the use of wooden pegs instead of nails. The costumes are sewn in authentic Elizabethan style, and the stage is bare save for the decorative paintings that cover the entire inner building.

For five pounds, one can watch the show as the "groundlings" did: standing on the floor in the center of the circular theater, with no seats but standing and leaning on the stage. The authenticity of the experience sounds pretty exciting.

Sounds. Now, it was really hot in London today. Really hot. And I happen to be standing at the two o'clock matinee surrounded by Europeans who did not believe in deodorant. Authentic, no?So my experience with As You Like It, which was in fact a very fun, romantic show, was more concerned with my claustrophobia and horrified sense of smell (I actually had to step out the last few minutes of the first act to prevent myself from being sick).

But the performance itself was a fun and clever presentation of the romantic comedy, and despite my discomfort I found myself laughing constantly. At the end of the show, once everyone was happily married off, the cast danced jubilantly in lieu of bows (which, in London, are apparently typically ten minute affairs with multiple encores), clearly just having a great time on stage and with each other.

I would easily return to the Globe, even as a groundling, at an evening performance or at a midnight matinee (apparently they occasionally have shows for the matinee price that start at midnight and end with breakfast, since the sun rises so early here). But on a hot day at two, people pressing in on each other to try to stand under very limited shade felt more like an unpleasant ride on the Tube than a Shakespearean theater experience.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sister Act

Singing nuns are just funny. There is no way around it. Throw in some dance moves, a saucy old lady, a love story, and a mob chase, and you've got yourself a musical- complete with many, many sequins.

This show is exactly what spectacle musicals are all about: comedy, extravagant scenery, shiny costumes, and some feel-good songs. I will say this: I never thought I would see hundreds of middle-aged Britons clapping and dancing on their feet at the end of a play. And dance they did.

For the first half hour or so of this show, I was a bit disappointed in the songs, which at that point were mainly solo ballads that I found a bit unnecessary. I couldn't help mentally drawing comparisons to another Whoopi Goldberg movie-turned musical, The Color Purple, which had a score that left me breathless within the first five minutes. But as the comedy began to set in, I realized that this was nothing like The Color Purple, but in the best way possible. The voices were incredible, and the songs were so funny on so many levels: So many Catholic jokes, so little time. Anyone who can turn Transubstantiation into a punch line is a champion in my book of one-liners.

There was no shortage of glitter and jazz hands on stage at all times, and the amounts of pizazz were matched by the amount of witticisms and smart moves on behalf of the writers and actors. If you want a feel-good musical, Sister Act is the show for you.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Adventures in Food: Prague Edition

Prague is a beautiful city, with guidebooks and tours galore to explain the incredible amounts of history and culture on every corner. I was very fortunate to have my cousin Adam, who spent some time living in Prague, to give me some extra tips about where to eat. Because, as common knowledge will testify, I love to eat. These spots were some of the highlights of my short trip, and I am recording some of them here for anyone who happens to be studying abroad in the fall and finds themselves in Prague, or, in all honesty, for myself to remember in case I ever find myself in Eastern Europe with a sweet tooth again.

Firstly, the Kavarna Slavia, across the street from the National Theater. When he first gave me those directions, I was a little bit afraid that I wouldn't be able to find it, but as soon as I realized that the unmistakable giant gold-roofed building on the river was in fact the Theater, lo and behold, there was the Kavarna Slavia. After a long flight and a day of general harassment in the city from some unsavory male characters, the Kavarna Slavia was a heavenly, air-conditioned retreat complete with friendly old man playing the piano in a lovely, 1920's Paris art deco environment. If you are lucky enough to grab a table by the window, you are rewarded with a stunning view of the river and the castle on the other side.

The next day, as our touring took us up to the castle itself, we continued up the hill on a recommendation to see the Strahov Monastery. After a hot trek up the hill we were able to eat our lunch looking over the city of Prague from above, peering down and trying to name as many monuments as we could distinguish. Above the summer crowds, this spot near the greenery of the hills was incredibly relaxing.

Unknowingly, we saved the best for last in the recommendation of Cafe Louvre (picture above by Kelly Robyn Mann). This pretty pink restaurant was built in 1902 and was apparently favored by Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. One sip of the hot chocolate and I could see why. Our breakfast was delicious. If I was going to stay in Prague for any amount of time I am quite sure I would eat there every day.

As an unrelated bonus, there is an excellent antique/odds and ends old things store off of Old Town Square called Bric-A-Brac where I found some very cool items completely and refreshingly unrelated to "Praha Drinking Team!" shot glasses.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cherry Orchard

I loved this show.

A new translation by Tom Stoppard and a part of the Bridge Project, a repertory mix of American and English actors rotating between the Old Vic theater in London and New York, The Cherry Orchard boasts a flawless ensemble and beautiful direction by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, Away We Go). Kevin Spacey is the artistic director for the Old Vic.

Before seeing the show, I wondered if the mix of British and American accents would bother me, but each character was so perfectly cast that their speech patterns could not have been any more appropriate. Sinead Cusack was wonderful in the lead role of a suddenly broke woman from old money and Simon Russell Beale was magnetic and hilarious as a peasant turned businessman. Ethan Hawke was perfect as a tutor turned revolutionary. But my favorite performance of the night was Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige). Much like her character in Vicky Christina Barcelona she was incredibly and often humorously tightly wound until the end of the play. When her home and her last shred of hope for love was gone, Hall utterly broke down into sobs that wrenched the heart of the audience.

The settings and costumes were breathtaking. I got chills when, at the beginning of second act, while the family throws a party they cannot afford, the stage lit by a chandelier and a multitude of candles,the cast, dressed in masquerade attire, began to ritually dance in a circle, slowly and rigidly in a stylized version of traditional Russian dance.

Funny and moving (what Chekhov should be and rarely is), this cast completely won me over. I cannot wait to see what they do with The Winter's Tale.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The National Theatre is another example of a government subsidized theater creating an atmosphere where everyone just wants to be. I am happy to say I will be returning a few times to this theater during my stay here, and when I do I will be sure to take some photos of the giant (and I do mean giant) grass-covered lawn furniture out front where people happily sip drinks and wait for their show to begin.

Phedre. I had really high expectations of this show. Academy Award-winning Helen Mirren in the title role. A new adaptation -from the 1677 French play (of course taken from the Greek myth) by Racine- by Ted Hughes (husband of Sylvia Plath). As the safety curtain rose, a gorgeous set appeared in shades of beige against a bright blue wall.

I'm not sure what happened. Maybe I just don't like Greek tragedies. Maybe I missed the more flowery words of the older translation compared to the sparse (although still beautiful) translation by Hughes. Maybe I just wanted Helen Mirren to be a little less reserved and a little more like the crazed, sexually depraved and eventually mad woman I imagined reading the text. Each actor had moments of brilliance, and my attention certainly never wavered, but it somehow did not match up with my hopes that I had had for this show.

My mediocre review aside, if you would like to see the show wherever you are, it is being broadcast tomorrow around the world on the BBC and in movie theaters as a special event (apparently the National Theatre is taking a page out of the Metropolitan Opera's book).

UNRELATED SIDE NOTE: The other day I wrote about Aunt Dan and Lemon. The author's name, Wallace Shawn, was unfamiliar to me. It was just today when I saw his picture that I realized that I am quite familiar with this author as an actor: aside from his obscure role in Melinda and Melinda (one of my favorite movies) he is Vizzini The Princess Bride. Inconceivable!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Waiting For Godot

A word on my mindset heading into this gorgeous theater: For the first time in London, I had gotten lost. After a lovely lunch by the river, I got off at the right tube stop, but it all went down hill from there. I was literally sprinting across Trafalgar Square, white skirt blowing in the wind behind me. 

But thank goodness I made it. This production of Waiting for Godot was beautiful on every level. The Theatre Royal Haymarket's red and golden interior is exactly what fills the imagination when thinking of upper-class Britons going to the theatre in tuxedos and gowns. No gowns tonight, but a stunning interior nonetheless.

The scenery, appropriately barren save for a lone tree, was austerely gorgeous. Shades of gray created a feeling of age and decay, complemented by lighting that seemed to be a character in itself, changing from beautiful patterns on the floor to delicate and deliberate streams of light coming from some heaven above the scene. 

The acting in this show was superb across the board, but tonight Sir Ian McKellen created one of my favorite performances that I have ever seen on stage. Every twitch and sound was smart and, for almost any given moment, hilarious. His appearance and voice were that of an elderly homeless man, but his choices were that of a large four year old child. It would be difficult not to love him. It would be even more difficult not to love the relationship between him and Patrick Stewart, who was also hilarious in his reactions to McKellen. Their friendship was tangible and touching. 

Waiting for Godot is a tribute to relationships, and these two men were perfect as old friends: dancing, talking, fighting, sharing meals, and passing the time simply being together. 

Aunt Dan And Lemon

My first show in London! I was a little misinformed the other night: Aunt Dan and Lemon was actually not in the West End, but at the Royal Court Theater near Kensington. The Royal Court is a national theater, meaning they are greatly subsidized by the government. 

Firstly, I must talk about this theater venue. A rounded three-tiered house with leather seats seems to hover over the stage creating a polished, intimate environment. But most fascinating to me was the bar downstairs. This is exactly what the Geffen and Kirk Douglas in Los Angeles are trying to accomplish right now: a great pub-like environment where all types of people come to drink and eat and just hang out (all talking about theater) before and after the show, making theater more of an expected social activity here than going to dinner and a movie in California. (The photo above is from the downstairs bar.) 

The play itself was incredibly interesting. Normally if I were to call something "interesting" it would be for lack of wanting to say something negative, but this show was truly intellectually intriguing. A sickly little woman who never leaves her house, Lemon, has never had much of a life, but spends her days reading literature about the Nazi extermination camps and recounting the stories that she heard as a girl from old family friend Aunt Dan. Lemon's thoughts and monologues are interspersed with scene's from Aunt Dan's life and the lives of her scandalous friends. Scenes play out about the politics of the Vietnam War, love affairs, and a call girl who is paid to kill a foreign man after sleeping with him. 

What makes all of these seemingly unrelated stories so gut-wrenchingly intense is that at the end of the play, after we have witnessed her memory of Aunt Dan's death, Lemon calmly explains that it is ridiculous for people to think that the Nazis did anything out of the ordinary. All people, as she learned from Aunt Dan, are willing to do any manner of damage to other human beings in order to maintain or achieve the life that they want: Henry Kissinger is willing to bomb villages in Asia to protect the lifestyle of American democracy. A young girl is willing to sell her body and kill a stranger to get the money she needs. Society is built on the fact that for some people to be comfortable, many others must suffer. 

This daunting thought coming from a tiny sick woman on stage is incredibly disturbing. It is not until you realize that she is completely devoid of any human compassion that you realize that human nature may not be as simple as she has bleakly laid out humanity to be. 

Exiting the theater, I heard many discussions of people refusing the idea that humans are nothing but animals meant to kill, defending morality and compassion.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Farragut North

Cheers from London! I am seeing my first West End show tomorrow night, but before that, I wanted to give a recap of the Geffen's latest political drama, Farragut North

Another example of Hollywood on stage, this production featured Chris Noth (yes, Mr. Big) as a seasoned campaign manager and boss to media whiz kid Chris Pine (calm down, Trekkies). Thrown into the mix is the competition, Isiah Whitlock Jr (from my current HBO DVD obsession, The Wire) and Juno's Olivia Thirlby as a teenaged intern. 

To be fair, I saw this show on its preview night. Still, considering the venue and the actors in it, I was not expecting as many missed lines and set difficulties (at one point a hanging piece was broken in transition). Even with his line flubs, Pine was still great, and at the end I truly hated his character. Noth and Thirlby were both solid- in smoothness (both have played these roles before) and believability. The dialog and plot seemed overly simple at first, so the explosive last five minutes of the show seemed a little out of place, but I am sure that after that first night of experiencing the audience's sometimes awkward reactions to certain things, they will be able to achieve a more steady buildup to the ending. 

The audience reaction pulled out several interesting themes in the show as often only men or only women would laugh at certain moments, clearly defining some gender issues that I might not have picked up on simply reading the text. The acting in this show was great in character relationships. 

On the way out, I thought I was bumping into paparazzi trying to catch shots of the celebrities in the cast leaving the building. On a second glance, I realized they were middle-aged Star Trek fans with memorabilia for Chris Pine. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cafe Bassam

Bassam's is quite possibly what I miss most about San Diego right now. This is one of my favorite coffee shops for studying, people watching, and sipping espresso that could revive the dead. Newly settled on Fifth Street in Banker's Hill (just across the street and up a block from one of my other all-time favorites, Extraordinary Desserts), Cafe Bassam is part antique shop, part European coffeehouse, and part wine bar. 

The atmosphere of far-away places and people (I love listening in on conversations in other languages) is enough to get me in the doors, but the food and drink delivered to your table is what makes me stay for hours. The espresso with steamed milk in a darling little porcelain cup is my standard pick me up from Bassam's, but the chai or hot chocolate are so delicious that many times I have ordered them post-espresso. If you would prefer a glass of wine, the cheese platters with toast are also delicious and could serve as a very filling meal. 

Play a game of checkers, write a book, or just watch Mr. Bassam himself mingle the locals from under his fedora and round glasses. I once saw him charm some policemen out of giving him a ticket for parking illegally in front of his shop by inviting them inside for an espresso flush (espresso over ice cream). The man asleep in the photo above? Bassam. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


One of my favorite perks of living in the Los Angeles area is that aside from the occasional celebrity sighting about town (Amy Adams eating barbeque, anyone?), there are always opportunities to see some very fine film actors returning to the stage.

Case in point: Oleanna by David Mamet at the Mark Taper Forum. The beautiful Julia Stiles and the very talented Bill Pullman create a tension filled story of a soon-to-be tenured professor and a frustrated young student. Pullman offers to help Stiles' character to pass the class, and over the course of three acts, she uses his words against him in ways he nor the audience would have ever anticipated. 

Audiences at the Mark Taper Forum are typically an older, wealthy crowd that are well-behaved, well-versed theater goers. Never before have I heard this audience audibly respond to what was happening on stage with such gasps and little shrieks or cheers or hisses under the breath as I have in this production. The text and performances are so gut-wrenching and powerful that everyone in the house was either cringing or leaning forward in their seats. 

The examinations of power dynamics of gender roles and the institutions of higher education are abrupt and personal. Pullman and Stiles' performances are two of the best that I have seen this year. This show is not for the weak of heart. 

Also, remember that anything at the Center Theater Group (Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theater) offers $20 "Hot Tix" if you buy at the door! Great theater for the price of a movie and popcorn. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Sunset Limited: A Novel In Dramatic Form

I consider myself I fairly well-read person, so I am a little bit embarrassed to say that before today's selection, I had never read anything by Cormac McCarthy. I now intend on scouring the library for his many books. 

The Sunset Limited is a novel in dramatic form, with only two characters: Black and White. White, a suicidal professor, is in the run-down apartment of Black, a former convict desperately trying to convince White of the presence of God and the value of life. Their discussion of faith, life, and God is written with such concise and beautiful language that I found myself re-reading passages every few pages. The ending left me speechless, so I'll give a few of my favorite lines instead of trying to comment on them: 

BLACK: I ain't a doubter. But I am a questioner. 

WHITE: What's the difference? 

BLACK: Well, I think the questioner wants the truth. The doubter wants to be told there ain't no such thing. 

Another passage, just because I couldn't pick just one:

BLACK: If this ain't the life you had in mind, what was? 

WHITE: I don't know. Not this. Is your life the one you'd planned? 

BLACK: No, it ain't. I got what I needed instead of what I wanted and that's just about the best kind of luck you can have. 

The Sunset Limited has found itself amongst my favorite plays on life, death, and God. Personally, I think The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis should be required reading for anyone who has ever questioned life or free will. Also, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (another trial play; I'm obsessed) is a fabulous example of people acting on their convictions. 


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Seafarer

After seeing the original Broadway cast of this wonderfully sharp play from Irish talent Conor McPherson, I was delighted to hear that it would be coming to one of my favorite Los Angeles venues, The Geffen. 

The Geffen is a beautiful stone building that looks like it might just be the summer home of the theater gods, complete with a courtyard filled with gnarled old trees adorned with colorful hanging lanterns, a particular weakness of mine. Inside, the main stage comfortable seats 525 patrons while still retaining an intimate feel. 

Considering my fondness for the original Irish cast, this group of actors quickly charmed their way into my good graces. The story revolves around a Christmas poker game, where the stakes are a man's everlasting soul. Sound like a bit much? Not when you factor in the great comedic timing of the group at large, especially Mr. John Mahoney of "Frasier" fame, whose blind and drunken antics kept me in perpetual giggles, or the sticky suave demeanor of the Lord of Darkness himself, played with a dark charm by Tom Irwin. The overall fraternity among the cast adds a level of endearment to some rather deep questions of life, loneliness, and the everlasting unknown. 

If you get a chance to head out to LA in the next few weeks, see this play. And, just for me, walk down the block to get an ice cream sandwich from Diddy Riese. A buck and a half for the world's best cookie/ice cream combo. If you only knew how many times I've driven for hours just to get my hands on one of those little gems....

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Day, Another Way

A new way to share new discoveries about Southern California finds in theater, food, and all things wonderful.