Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Love, Loss, and What I Wore: Going Beyond the Frivolity of Fashion

In Los Angeles Theatre on June 18, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Nora and Delia Ephron’s newest play Love, Loss, and What I Wore has been on my theatrical wish list since it opened in New York last November. The wit of the Ephron sisters plus the topic of clothing is a no-fail equation in my mind, not to mention the rotating, five-woman cast of renowned talent. But as it so often happens, time escaped me and I never got a chance to see it before heading home to LA for the summer.

Yet all hope was not lost.

By the work of some divine coincidence, my mom sent me an email asking me if I wanted to see a show that had piqued her interest.  Lo and behold, Love, Loss and What I Wore had followed me home, setting up shop at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I responded with a paragraph of exclamation points.

About a month later with tickets in hand, we entered the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, a quaint refuge within the larger playhouse. Our back row seats were only twenty-five feet from the stage, providing a sense of intimacy with the actors that was enhanced by the modest set—five chairs, five music stands, and a clothing rack of foam-board posters toting sketches of various outfits. With this reading-style staging, the actors were freed from constant character commitment, which allowed them to establish a playful relationship with the audience and create a more direct, personal connection.

Based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, the play reflects on the relationship between women’s life experiences and the wardrobe that saw them through. The show is comprised of a series of monologues and group sequences that personify the female clothing experience—from that favorite childhood dress to the love/hate relationship with heels (oh, what women will suffer for killer legs).  The stories capture that mystical ability for clothing to preserve memories and emotions, like time capsules of defining moments in our lives.  Though every woman endures different experiences, we all have our personal, symbolic pieces of clothing. Throughout the monologues, remarks of shared experience peppered the audience.  Reminiscent sighs, groans of re-lived horror, and guilty chuckles over fashion crimes committed evidenced a collective understanding. It felt like every woman in that theatre had some secret, intrinsic connection rooted in the female experience.

The vibrant cast included Rhea Pearlman and her daughter Lucy DeVito (both of whom performed in the Off-Broadway version), as well as Nancy Travis, Conchata Ferrell, and Justina Machado.  They sat in chairs with their scripts on music stands, dynamically diving in and out of characters as needed.  Though some deliveries seemed a bit over-the-top, as though trying to compensate for the simplistic staging, I appreciated their commitment to bringing the moment to life.  Unexpected laughs, goofs, and gaffes were all part of the fun, which suited the attitude of the play; it felt more like a girls’ get-together than a formal “thee-eh-tuh” performance. But despite the relaxed atmosphere, the actors maintained a level of professionalism that elevated it from an amateur reading to legitimate theatre.  The cast was always engaged with what was happening on stage, and they listened to each other’s monologues with a genuine presence. The show was a perfect combination of casual comfort and sophisticated elegance.

Leaving the theatre, my mom and I began reflecting on the pieces that roadmap our own lives. I will never give up the raincoat that my grandmother bought for me: unabashedly synthetic fabric collaged with black-and-white photos of Golden Age movie stars. To me, it was the epitome of glamour (and still is). Though squeezing into it now would obliterate my circulation, it holds a permanent place in my wardrobe. It embodies the memory of my grandmother—afternoons at Bullock’s, the cloying sweetness of See’s lollipops, the overflowing love of an extraordinary survivor and my guardian angel.  As I cue the Kleenex I’m laughing to myself a bit. Who knew a play about something as superficial as clothing could end up being so profound?

Love, Loss, and What I Wore is running at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse until August 1.  The current cast performs until July 3.  For tickets call 310-208-5454


A New View on Musicals: The Lincoln Center’s South Pacific

In Los Angeles Theatre on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I am always a bit wary of going to see musicals.  Don’t get me wrong, I have full respect for the genre and I love me some Sondheim, but scarring musical experience has lead me to uphold certain prejudices.  Hokey smiles and random-acts-of-song just don’t do it for me.

However, the Los Angeles tour of the Lincoln Center’s South Pacific disproved me in these notions.  It was a high-energy blitz of spectacle backed by triple-threat talent and excellent comedic timing. The musical itself is a masterpiece with gorgeous music and great characters, but a great performance with well-rounded talent can never be guaranteed. In past musicals I have seen, I have often found that at least one of the three components—singing, dancing, and acting—suffers at the expense of the others.  I have seen many a show with, say, spectacular singing and dancing but migraine inducing acting.  But the performers in South Pacific excelled in all three areas, humbling my stereotypical preconceptions.

What particularly surprised me was the strength of the comedic timing.  I hold comedy very near to my heart and have no tolerance for those who desecrate it with bad timing.  Comedy is a delicate and precise art form, and as little as one half-second can determine whether the joke works or not. However, director Bartlett Sher ensured that the whole cast was on point. Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush was a natural comedienne with her sense of timing, working her moments to their full draw before releasing a bull’s-eye punch line.  Rod Gilfry also impressed as Emile de Becque, his world-class baritone vibrato (an invigorating massage for my ear drums) backed by strong character intention. A particular favorite of mine was Keala Settle as the hilarious Bloody Mary. Her character work was brilliant, from her hefty waddle to her English-distorting accent, and her deep, rich voice was a pleasure to listen to.

The ensemble delivered a vivacious performance as the sailors flipped and flew across the stage, testosterone pumping. Matthew Saldivar’s Luther Billis, the impulsive entrepreneur of the fleet, was heartwarming in his ridiculous antics, and his sincerity permeated his tough Brooklyn accent.

Aside from some distracting lighting choices, I have very few complaints about the production.  Michael Yeargan’s set was marvelous, with set pieces flying in and out of scenes in a seamless, choreographed dance. Catherine Zuber’s costumes were vibrantly colored and enhanced the personalities of the characters.  Overall, the show greatly exceeded my expectations and set a high bar for musicals I see in the future.

South Pacific is running at the Ahamanson Theatre in Los Angeles until July 17.

Soulpepper’s Glengarry Glen Ross

In Toronto Theatre on June 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

You know you’re about to enter the world of David Mamet when a sign reading “Warning: Very Coarse Language” cautions your entrance.

On a trip to Toronto to visit a fellow theatre-loving friend, we satisfied our theatrical craving with Soulpepper’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross, about the challenges and corruption in the real estate business. Though set in the 1980’s, the play still resonates with today’s tough economic times, as the salesman try to close deals on useless real estate at ridiculous prices.  At stake are two mens’ jobs.  The company’s bosses have devised a contest to reward the man with the most sales a Cadillac, and the two men with the least a pink slip.

Our modesty undeterred by the warning sign, we entered the theatre to find a typical Chinese restaurant on stage, adorned with the obligatory red lanterns hanging above two symmetrical red-leather booths.  Two giant chalkboard flats served as the backdrop, soliciting the restaurant’s offerings with the accompanying prices. As the lights went down, various spotlights highlighted the menu items in random order, enticing the audience like a delicious sales pitch.

Act I started off at a clipping pace, with desperate, older salesman Shelley Levene (played by sprightly veteran actor Eric Peterson) begging his supervisor John Williamson (Jordan Pettle) for a one-up in the sales leads. Peterson’s cunning yet adamant portrayal of Levene made his character pitiable, as his desperation strangely justified his immoral tactics in attempting to get ahead.  Pettle imbued Williamson, a rule-abiding authority figure, with a dichotomy of strictness and sympathy.  I could sense his subtle undertones of compassion for Levene, which softened the rigidity of his words and gave depth to his character.

In Scene II, realtor Moss (Peter Donaldson) pitched his office robbery scheme to co-worker Aaronow (William Webster) at a logic trumping pace that only expert salesman are capable of.  He just about convinced me to jump on board with his nasty plans. Even Ricky Roma’s (Alber Shultz) tipsy monologue in Scene III kept up the mind-blowing momentum as he wooed potential buyer James Lingk (Kevin Bundy) with his rapid-fire, auctioneer-like speech and smarmy swagger.

By intermission, which came as a shock to everyone, (“Where did the time go?!”) it occurred to me that this was the first time I had seen Mamet’s choppy, conversational language fully realized.

In many of his plays, Mamet’s dialogue captures the nature of human conversation, with characters interrupting and speaking over each other.  In the two other Mamet productions I have seen, the Pullman-Styles rendition of Oleanna in LA and the star-studded Broadway show Race, the rugged dialogue seemed forced at times. Some of the actors seemed like they did not know how to handle the language, and they stunted their interruptions with pauses that made the next lines awkward and unmotivated. However, the entire cast of Glengarry Glen Ross mastered Mamet’s naturalistic style of conversation. Their words scaffolded on top of each other in a nonstop whirlwind of dialogue, fully engaging the audience by the challenging us to keep up.

After the show, my companion and I left the theatre beaming, our brains pleasantly rattled with a hefty dose of very coarse language.  She said it was the best Toronto play she had seen in years.  I said it was the best Mamet show I had seen anywhere.