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 AnUnsocial Socialist).
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.
Feb. 20 – March 15, 2015
Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Hallberg Theatre
Promised Land is a good-natured children’s theater production retelling of Exodus. The child actors are having fun. The adult actors are having a blast hamming it up. It was truly sweet, seeing
Photo Courtesy : Michelle Teeter -Musical Theatre Village Irvine
how right after the curtain call, the actors leaped straight from the stage into the arms of their adoring family and friends.
Criticizing the show feels like I’m kicking a puppy. I could say it’s fine enough for a children’s theater production and leave it at that. However, taking such a dismissive attitude would be an insult to all children’s work that transcends age barrier and to the child actors in the show who deserve better material.
Sound wise the show gets off to a rocky start. The opening number’s vocals are a bit muddled. During the first act there are quite a few times where the music overpowers the singing. The musical numbers are cute and fun, but they’re not really memorable. Also the sound effect for baby Moses is really annoying.
As for the story itself… The Book of Exodus is always a great source of storytelling material. However, the show tries to do the Shrek thing and cram in a bunch of anachronistic jokes. The problem is that most of these jokes lack any sort of bite to really generate the laughs. Especially during the first act, the plot meanders all over the place. Some of the detours are a bit odd –like the scene where teenage Moses is dating two girls at once. These weird detours really make the more dramatic parts of the story feel brushed over.
I think the second act is better than the first. The story is tighter and adds meta jokes, which I have to admit I’m a sucker for. Aaron dressed in prison stripes while playing a pink, Hello Kitty electric guitar during “Leaving Sand City” (a parody medley of classic rock songs) cracked me up.
The actor playing the lamb and then the cow deserves a shout out for fully committing to the roles and providing some nice physical comedy.
Overall, it’s cute and has some nice moments, but I can’t really recommend it.
Lance Smith, Ashley Arlene Nelson. Photo by Gigi Greene
Written by Patrick Chavis
Some people aspire to be famous, but when fame is out of reach, some reach for the Infamy card. Few people exemplify this idea more than those Great Depression era bandits Bonnie and Clyde –well at least the recreation of them does in Bonnie & Clyde the Musical playing now at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Lance Smith. Photo by Gigi Greene
The Musical Bonnie & Clyde follows the two main characters, Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow, as they grow up idolizing different famous historical figures which conveniently shapes the fate of who they will one day become. As a younger girl Bonnie looks up to Clara Bow –a famous actress who grew in popularity during the silent movie era of the 1920s. Bonnie’s love for Clara is made quite apparent in the Song “Picture Show” featuring a young Bonnie played by Maddy Nickless, singing about wanting nothing more then to be just like the film star. In the same song, a young Clyde played by DJ Price speaks about his adoration for Billy the Kid. As Clyde gets older his hero changes to Al Capone, but his love for outlaws remains the same. As the story progresses, Bonnie and Clyde meet. It’s love at first sight, and their criminal hijinks commence.
As with many musicals, the deeper side of the characters are kind of shoved away to make room for the more flashy, widely disputable parts of the characters’ lives. But who cares about historical accuracy? It’s a musical! We get gunfights, high notes, romance and every now and then a few glimpses of reality in-between the music and dancing. The music is live in this production, and you can feel and hear it. Since this is a musical, I was glad to find the music and singing to be the best parts of the production –especially from the main actors Ashley Arlene Nelson and Lance Smith.
Flubs were practically none existent in this production, until the characters stopped singing and started acting. While not everyone was on par acting wise, there were some stand out actors. Elizabeth Suzanne playing Blanche Barrow is one of them. Elizabeth is phenomenal in this role –singing and acting her character flawlessly throughout the entire production.
Rebecca Butkivich, Holly Griffin, Gigi Greene. Photo by Mike Brown
The story tugs at the heart and moves so fast even the most impatient theatergoer will not be bored.
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 (TheImportance 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.
I can’t think of a better venue for Daniel Cainer’s Gefilte Fish & Chips than a theater underneath a library. The show’s story is about stories. Cainer spends his eighty minutes of stage time singing stories about his family, his career as a Jewish entertainer, and a “Bad Rabbi.”Continue Reading