Orange County Theatre Reviews

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Koji Dreams Of A Deeper Story : Tokyo Fish Story @ South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa – Review

Ryun Yu, Sab Shimono and Jully Lee in South Coast Repertory's 20

Ryun Yu, Sab Shimono and Jully Lee in South Coast Repertory’s Photo Courtesy : South Coast Rep

Written by Daniella Litvak 

Besides the usual, useful information about cast, crew, and upcoming shows, the program for Tokyo Fish Story includes “A Gajin’s Guide to Sushi,” a one page history/glossary giving you the low down on sushi. Besides making your mouth water, it’s a nice overview of the terminology used throughout the show. I don’t think you’ll get lost if you don’t know what “tamagoyaki” or “noren” means, but I do think knowing what’s being talked adds a little more spice to the experience. I recommend taking a look at it while your anxiously waiting for the curtain.

Now that the prep work is out of the way, lets move on to the main course. Tokyo Fish Story is about… It’ s kind of hard to describe the plot because the play wants to be about a lot of different things. It wants to be story about a great restaurant in decline because customers are choosing gimmicks over quality. It wants to be story about a protégée learning to stand up to his mentor. It wants to be about a man coming to terms with past mistakes served with a side of commentary regarding gender inequality in restaurant kitchens.   And so on.

All of these ideas have potential. Maybe it could have all come together if the play had a longer run time. (It’s 90 minutes and without an intermission). As it stands, this mishmash of ingredients can come across as undercooked. For instance, a businessman tries to tempt Nobu, an apprentice chef, into working for the competition. However, the way the scene is written, although very funny, the offer never tempts Nobu. It’s never brought up afterwards or has any consequences –really undermining the dramatic stakes.

The funny thing is, I didn’t realize any of this until after the show was over. I liked spending 90 minutes (and would be willing to spend more) with these characters. Playwright Kimber Lee has a knack for comedy and dialogue. The acting is fantastic. Each actor brings nuance and vulnerability to their role(s). It’s just a joy to watch them talk about sushi, Star Wars, or hip-hop as they go about their day. There’s quite a bit of pantomiming forced upon them, but they never look ridiculous.

The space is utilized effectively, and the staging is well done. The scene transitions are flawless, and the sound effects and music really add to the atmosphere. I recommend seeing Tokyo Fish Story. Now I’m off to look at a sushi menu.

8/10

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March 8-28, 2015

Similar drama : check out Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

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fullerton, Review, Stagestheatre, Theater, Uncategorized Comments Off on Dead Man’s Cell Phone @ STAGEStheatre in Fullerton – Review |

Dead Man’s Cell Phone @ STAGEStheatre in Fullerton – Review

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Photo Courtesy : STAGEStheatre

Written by Alina Mae Wilson 

I recently saw a high school production of “Les Miserables” as a viewer.  Brian Johnson did a beautiful job directing a large number of teenagers in a very well-known show, so I was eager to see his work with adult performers in Stages’ Theatre’s new play Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Unfortunately, the limited movement coupled with depthless writing makes for a somewhat disappointing play. 

On the surface Dead Man’s Cell Phone sounds like a great idea, maybe even brilliant.  While dining in a cafe on a rainy day, a woman named Jean notices a man named Gordon sitting at another table and ignoring his ringing cell phone.  Upon further investigation, Jean finds out Gordon is not ignoring his phone. He’s dead.  Being the sole person “with him when he died,” she attends his funeral and meets those closest to him. In an attempt to comfort the colorful characters he left behind, she makes some slight exaggerations in regards to his last moments on earth and continues to answer his cell phone in an effort to keep some part of his spirit alive.  These actions lead her on a spiritual journey, which causes her to question what she believes about communication, the afterlife, and the very nature of love.  While rich in concept, the story is lacking in its execution. 

I can think of several instances where the energy levels could stand to be increased.  Jean has to deal with multiple extreme moments that have the potential to be funny, are clearly written to be funny, but just aren’t funny enough because she is taking these crazed situations so darn well.   Her character is not the type to remain calm in all instances, so the humor is clearly not intended to stem from her casual state of being.  She just isn’t excited enough about the lunacy taking over her life. To the actress’s credit, her soft and sweet demeanor is believable, but it is so believable any conviction Jean shows seems out of place when it suddenly pops up.  

There is not much physically happening in this show.  It is mostly rooted in the dialogue.  This is not entirely a bad thing because many of the jokes are actually really funny.  It’s when the show tries to get too deep we start having problems.  Heaven help us when it starts trying to be deep and funny at the same time.  There is just so much rambling and theorizing. It’s clear the intention is to make the audience think, but in the long run it just seems annoying.  There is talk about cell phones, communications with the dead, and an effort to portray the afterlife.  There is an elaborate dance scene featuring umbrellas which symbolizes…something I’m sure.  The meandering plot and callous treatment of certain issues makes the story less enjoyable. 

Something working in show’s favor is the sets.  The background is so beautiful and works so well, I am surprised people don’t utilize these backdrops more often.  

 7/10

March 13th – April 19th

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Interview with the director of Dead Man’s Cell Phone 

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A Nose Above The Rest : Cyrano De Bergerac @ The Maverick Theatre in Fullerton – Review

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Photo Courtesy : The Maverick Theatre

Written by Alina Mae Wilson 

An old French story about a skilled fighter with a big nose does not really scream EXCITEMENT–and yet the Maverick Theater takes this recycled material and makes it work.  Cyrano de Bergerac may have a comedic covering, but inside the story has an unexpectedly tender heart. Continue Reading

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fullerton, Review, Theater, Uncategorized Comments Off on Smash @ CSUF in Fullerton – Review |

Smash @ CSUF in Fullerton – Review

Written by Alina Mae Wilson 

It isn’t really a secret that watching or reading a story written in the vernacular of another time or place makes the comprehension of said story more of a challenge.   It’s even possible it might be more difficult for the actors to memorize and improvise their lines when the characters they are portraying think and speak so differently than how we do in the modern day.  It is precisely this difficulty that makes the action of successfully telling such a story to a modern-day audience so praiseworthy.  Cal State Fullerton is to be commended for their well acted, well designed, and well envisioned production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s comedy Smash (adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s novel An Unsocial Socialist).

Photo courtesy: Jordan Kubat

Photo courtesy of Jordan Kubat

The year is 1910.  The setting is Edwardian England.  To quote the show’s program “it is a time of exuberant optimism about changing the world and romance of ideas is in the air.” A young man called Sidney Trefusis is gripped with some of his own ideas of politics and morality, and so he leaves his beloved –hell-bent on taking down the capitalistic evil known as the British government.   His desolate wife Henrietta is left to recover from her abandonment in her own way.  Meanwhile Sidney’s plot causes him to cross paths with a rebellious college student, Agatha Wylie.

From start to finish the show is interesting to watch.  It’s bright lighting and greenery successfully conveys the pleasant feel of a cheery garden exterior, and the visual sense of transportation isn’t hard to find.  This arena theater holds the stage at the center, with the audience sitting in a circle around the performance.  While unable to bear witness from every conceivable angle of the production, I can say that at no point from my seat did I feel separated from the action.  Even if one actor’s face is blocked, the person they are speaking to is definitively providing integral feedback regarding the emotional content of the scene, and the movement between the actors is steady enough to avoid getting overly restless.  

Since so much of the comedy is embedded in fast-paced dialogue between people from Edwardian England, I don’t think this show is suitable for kids or people who don’t have a lot of patience for lots of talk without a lot of physical action.  The speed of the punch lines are so rapid, it might be hard to digest one joke before getting slammed with another. However, the acting is strong here.  With only a few line fumbles, the expressions and energy from the actors is enough to cause some chuckles on their own.  I love the relationships between one person to the next, and the writing is exceptionally good.  While the plot is silly, unrealistic, and intentionally puffing itself up to prove a point, the cracks the characters take at each other carry all the spirit of every winning statement you have ever wanted to make in an argument but probably weren’t fortunate enough to think up at the time.   Even if things don’t always make sense (there is a moment with Miss Wilson  that doesn’t really have clear symbolism or cause so…chalk it up to comedic license?), the feeling of the show is a fun one.

8/10

 Feb. 20 – March 15, 2015 

Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Hallberg Theatre

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It’s Time for OC Theatre to Improve

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Guest Writer 

Written by Eric Eberwein

On the surface, the formula for success in Orange County storefront theatre seems clear.

  • You give your audience what they want, and
  •  You keep them coming back.

 Obvious enough, it’s the “what they want” part that is not always so obvious.

To paraphrase the great Jerry Patch, what theatergoers think they want to see may not be what they would really love seeing most – that is, what would really move them or make them laugh hardest.

Understanding the perceptual gap is the key to a better local theatre scene.

In roughly 25 years, OC storefront theatre has gone through three distinct “waves”. The first wave (early 1990s) was defined by the pioneers: Revolving Door Productions and Vanguard Theatre Ensemble in Fullerton, Alternative Repertory Theatre and Way Off Broadway Theatre in Santa Ana, and The Theatre District in Costa Mesa.

In the early 2000s, the great “second wave” of OC storefront theatre coalesced. Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, the Chance Theater, Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, the Hunger Artists, STAGEStheatre, Gallimaufry Performing Arts, Insurgo Theatre Movement, Rogue Artists Theatre, Theatre Out … none of these ensembles aimed to do bland community theatre. They wanted to do something finer, and by and large, that is what they did. They wanted to be at the leading edge –not the trailing edge.

Looking back, this looks like the high-water mark of OC storefront. The Los Angeles Times celebrated this “second wave:” Mike Boehm’s lengthy, all-editions Calendar Weekend cover story in 2004 alerted theatre artists in L.A., the Inland Empire, San Diego and across the country to the scene’s excitement and achievements.

Then things changed. Roughly coincidental with the recession, a “third wave” of OC storefront theatres emerged with programming that was decidedly trailing-edge. In recent years, this trailing-edge model of OC storefront theatre has threatened to become the “new normal.”

If one to two local storefront theaters decide to program mostly trailing-edge work, that isn’t cause for concern. If five to six (out of eight or nine) make that decision, you have a theatre scene quickly veering toward irrelevance.

If you look at theatre scenes in comparably sized, similarly sophisticated metropolitan areas (Seattle, Boston, Twin Cities, Chicago, Miami, etc.), you don’t see the storefront theatres putting up Steel Magnolias, The Foreigner, Don’t Dress for Dinner or Wait Until Dark. These are the kinds of plays you see at a community theatre in Lubbock. (Actually, I take that back: Lubbock Community Theatre just produced a new play by a Texas Tech MFA playwriting grad, so Lubbock may be gaining ground on us.)

Incredibly, all four of these plays have been produced at an OC storefront theatre within the past three years, and the list of trailing-edge choices creeping into the seasons hardly stops there (The Importance of Being Earnest, The Odd Couple, Teahouse of the August Moon, Heaven Can Wait).

Producing theatre involves constant risk, and the Great Recession pressured local theatre producers to become risk managers. As the trailing-edge theatre model emphasizes the familiar, it was a perfect fit in a bad economy. The recession is over now, but the model remains popular. Some local theatres are embracing it like it’s a relative at an airport.

The trailing-edge theatre model makes the following assumptions about the OC storefront theatre audience: 

  • They want to see musicals. (Hence the recent, near-maniacal local quest to stage every musical in the American canon).
  • It better be a musical or a classic. (If it’s not a musical or a classic, they won’t show up).  
  • They don’t want the new shit. (They don’t want to see this or this or this. Those kinds of plays belong in Los Angeles County, and they do not belong in Orange County).
  • They definitely don’t want to see plays written by or about people of color. (You say you have a play about a Southeast Asian immigrant family trying to adjust to life in Southern California or a play about Latinas trying to find their way in the punk scene of the late Seventies? Forget it. They don’t want to see that. If we put that up, five people will show up. Besides, it takes an “effort” to cast those plays).

These are assumptions, not truths. Shows have upended them in the past, and shows will in the future. But the more entrenched these assumptions become, the more local theatre limits its ambitions and inclusiveness, and the more we encourage productions of a) plays written for the audiences of 40 years ago and b) plays written as if the last 40 years never happened.

The great OC storefront theatres of the 1990s and 2000s didn’t believe in these assumptions. If they had, they never would have started. They had the courage to program the kind of theatre previously unseen in Orange County. As a result, they changed the game.
The recently popular, retrogressive OC storefront theatre model has risked changing it back. It mistrusts the singular and distinctive, and it exalts the ordinary and predictable. If a local theatre ends its season with the same three shows for five consecutive years, that isn’t boring; it’s smart.

(I fear that the era of Rude Guerrilla, the Hunger Artists, etc., is slowly being re-contextualized as artistically idiotic – a time when naïve and unrepentant youths programmed extreme, aberrational plays and tragically failed to realize the full potential of their small businesses).

When a trailing-edge theatre model risks becoming the “new normal,” there are side effects. Directors and actors who yearn for adventurous work drop out of the scene or move away –feeling there is nothing here for them anymore. Local playwrights fall into a kind of self-censorship –sensing they need to write down to the level of community theatre instead of up to the level of American theatre. 

In the trailing-edge storefront theatre model, financial success equals artistic success, and the economic value of a show is its main value. The producer is the owner-operator of a small business first, and the artistic director of a theatre company second or third.

Storefront theatre is a producer’s game, which means the money of one person (or one household) is on the line: not just pocket money, not just a checking account balance, but perhaps retirement money or mortgage money as well. This reality is undeniable. Whether it should be the primary influence on a theatre’s programming is open to debate.

In 2014, there were signs of the pendulum swinging back. The top-tier OC storefront theatres have consistently programmed contemporary and adventurous work, and they are doing so again this year – we see new and newer American plays conspicuously on their stages. The best thing you can do as a theatre artist is to see those plays and support those programming choices. That will shift the definition of success. Our storefront theatre scene should be one we have aspired to –not one we have settled for.

Eric Eberwein is the longtime director of the Orange County Playwrights Alliance (OCPA) and associate artistic director of OC-centric: Orange County’s New Play Festival at Chapman University.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/theater/reviews/03year.html

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