This Updated "Cyrano" Gets a Good Jump but Loses the Race by More than a Nose

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It’s a play whose time has come: An updating of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in which the educated but less-than-gorgeous Cyrano is transformed into a young gay man in West Hollywood who is navigating the waters of dating in our rapid technological age. The less cultured Christian, penned by Rostand in 1897 as Cyrano’s underling both socially and militarily, is here converted into Cyrano’s better-looking roommate and BFF.

In the original play, Cyrano’s self-esteem about his looks prevents him from articulating his love for the gorgeous Roxane, who has fallen for the ravishing but witless Christian. Cyrano, ashamed of his ugliness, expresses his love for Roxane through Christian, who is also hot for Roxane but hardly her intellectual equal. Through letters and even pretending to be Christian from beneath a balcony, Cyrano deals with his belief that he is unlovable because of his enormous probiscus.

At the Hollywood Fringe Festival, playwright Sean Peter Drohan completes the cast of his three-hander with the character of Rock, a good-looking Boys Town elitist who is dating Christian, but with whom Cyrano has had a past fling. All the pieces are in place, and the first ten minutes of Cyrano: A Love Letter to a Friendship are as witty, smart, defined, and heartfelt as the great character of Cyrano himself. Unfortunately, all possibilities are squelched as this promising idea goes in every possible wrong direction.

With fantastic nuances, the relationship between Cyrano (played by the playwright) and Christian (Alex Stevenson) is astoundingly well-defined in a stunningly short amount of time. A T-Shirt which states “I’d Bottom for Hillary” is precisely the shirt that Cyrano would wear (of course, since the playwright is playing Cyrano, it calls to question how closely related actor and scribe are). Director Sean B Liang ensures that the way they snack, chat, and gossip with ease and love also elucidates character. Every nook and cranny of the tiny “Asylum @ 6470” stage is used to great effect, and the director’s lighting, when it’s not spilling into the first few rows, always sets a mood.

When Christian begins to communicate with Rock online, he needs Cyrano’s assistance with Rock’s references to Candide (Christian doesn’t even know how to spell the name “Pangloss” when he hears it). Cyrano tosses out information with aplomb, and when Christian states among the very smart dialogue, which is literate without showing off, “I wanna sound smart,” we are prepared for a play which will be about the pain of dating not just in the gay man’s world of gym rats and Grindr hookups, but an arena of electronic missives that can be both superficial and easily misinterpreted.

A major problem develops as scenes become more and more truncated to no effect. As if this was Seinfeld for the theater, one scene is actually three sentences long: Cyrano: “I have chlamydia.” Christian: “Do you want any Hamburger Helper?” Cyrano: “Yeah.” It’s a beautiful, endearing exchange that elucidates how well they know each other, but it’s dramatically unsound to continually interrupt the story’s impetus, which may be an indication that Mr. Drohan hasn’t decided what his play is truly about (certainly, this is an examination of friendship, as the title promises, but it needs to dig deeper).

Soon, animosity between characters begins to creep in, the humor dissipates, and the show becomes too self-important to be as involving as it was at the start. But when Rock (Philip Champagne) comes on the scene, all hope is lost for this play. Unlike Roxane, Rock is a cold, calculating character (played chillingly aloof by the good-looking Mr. Champagne). As such, it’s unbelievable that he would date Christian (played like a grownup lost boy with a sweet nature by Mr. Stevenson), and there is no chemistry between them. Even more unlikely is that he would have fucked Cyrano even once.

Based on the title, set-up, and lead character’s name, we are led to believe this play would be a version of Cyrano, but Rostand (whose name is nowhere in the program) is just used as a jumping-off place. I encourage Mr. Drohan to go further, rethink the way he uses his source material, and remove himself from playing the lead so he has a keener eye into his characters. The way he writes is special, and the topic of gay men who aren’t sophisticated or well-read or humpy enough to be loved is a most topical subject for scrutiny.

CYRANO: A LOVE LETTER TO A FRIENDSHIP
i-4 and Keep Sailing Productions
June 4 – 25, 2016 
General Admission: $12; http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3685
Running Time: 55 minutes
Asylum @ 6470 at The Complex, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038


"Hello Susanna," Your Dead Ancestors Want More

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Susanna Leonard in Hello Susanna

Susanna Leonard’s solo show, Hello Susanna, starts with a Facebook post to acknowledge an ending and ends with a blessing to declare a beginning. As the newly-divorced young woman struggles to make sense of her life, she looks to her ancestors for guidance, finding it in her Aunt Clara’s memoir and a visit from the ghost of her great, great grandmother, Anna Ruth.

From them, she hears stories of how they overcame challenges in the old country, where starting over was a fact of life. Pogroms, Nazi extermination camps, and the Jewish exodus to other countries meant leaving the familiar and accepting the unknown, over and over again. There is wisdom in their words.

Much of the play consists of a conversation between Susanna and Anna Ruth using body posturing and vocal changes to differentiate between the two characters. Unfortunately, the transitions are awkward and, before long, the vocal patterns start to mix, physicality becomes half-hearted, and the characters end up less clearly drawn with each subsequent passage.

Director Carla Cackowski further adds to the confusion with her static staging, which mainly consists of Leonard standing center stage while carrying out the dialogue. When she’s not rooted to that position, she is writing social media posts on her laptop, another directorial choice that grows tiresome. It’s distracting to watch Leonard mime the action while trying to time her typing to the accompanying recorded voiceover of her thoughts. It also trivializes her feelings to share them in such a general way. Raise the stakes, define who she is speaking to, and we’ll care about her story as much as she does. Otherwise you have a cathartic experience for the actor but not for the audience.

One other challenge is that the show is under-rehearsed. At this stage, Leonard is still working on memorization and, until that is in place, real connection with the audience isn’t possible. Each time she sighs and looks to the floor to compose herself is one more painful moment that I, as an audience member, worry about the actor instead of staying vested in the story she is telling. And it’s a worthy story. 

There is humor in the way she describes herself – as a Jewish soul in a Christian body – and we understand why she converts to Judaism when she admits she fell in love with a country and not with her husband. Leonard’s program bio lists a great deal of comedy improv training and you can hear the one-liners placed for laughs but it hasn’t all come together in the larger picture of the show yet.

This is a personal journey that exposes her anger, self-doubt and regret, but, more importantly, it also champions her desire to move past those restrictive feelings and find a new path, one that gives her the freedom to add her stories to those of the strong women who came before her.

HELLO SUSANNA
June 4 – 23, 2016
Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre (SFS Theatre mainstage)
5636 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: $12 at http://hff16.org/3537
Running time: 50 minutes


This "Virgin" Puts Out

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In the 2006 film, The Holiday, Cameron Diaz says to Jude Law at the end of a romantic afternoon, “Sex makes everything complicated. Even when you don’t have it, the not having it makes things complicated.” Those words certainly characterize the experiences of one 30-year old virgin who tells her own complicated story in How to Be a Virgin (in 12 morally ambiguous steps).

Playwright Carla Neuss lays it all out there in this autobiographical two-hander, starring Katelyn Schiller as The Virgin and Joshua Bross as a variety of past boyfriends. Schiller narrates the largely comedic piece, which combines the framework of a slide projector presentation with flashback scenes from her dating days, to explain her personal commitment to that all-important V card.

Neuss’s writing is fresh and unpretentious while displaying a knack for inventing quirky turns of phrase. Whether she is relating how to go about dropping the bomb (that she’s still a virgin and isn’t going to sleep with a potential boyfriend) or describing the slippery slope and what she calls “sexual tapas,” the tone is lighthearted and fun. Seek not the serious here.

She covers the virgin/whore dichotomy, her first love at 17, and the Ugandan she met on a mission trip who finds sex with an American (at least this one) isn’t like it is in the movies. While dating a Catholic scientist at 23, she finally admits to her girlfriends that she’s a virgin during a condom fiasco, and, later, in the midst of a fling with a bartender, she questions whether you can even call it that if there’s no sex involved.

In one of the best of her morally ambiguous situations, she makes a move on a young man preparing to be a missionary whose answer to temptation is getting down on his knees and asking her to join him in prayer. A Christian herself, she learns that it’s hard to date a man who has God on speed dial and the audience begins to see her stories as more than just the juvenile recollections of a once-naïve girl.

In these early scenes, director Payden Ackerman’s pacing is crisp and Schiller’s perky-with-an-edge energy easily propels the story forward. It isn’t until two-thirds of the way in that the play begins to lag, coincidentally at the same time the stories take a darker turn.

The rebound relationship with a younger man was supposed to be an escape but ends up simply leaving her sad. A 40-year old drug dealer won’t kiss her but will have sex if she lets him, and the Spaniard declares he wants to rape her in a creepy role-play misinterpretation.

What’s coming is a final twist delivered by the universe and the big realization that offers the real reason she’s keeping her maidenhood intact. It’s a good message but one that happens so close to the end of the play that it feels as if someone has called time yet there’s more to say. Fleshing out that revelation would make the piece’s impact even stronger. 

As it is, How to Be a Virgin is a thoroughly enjoyable one hour of Fringe time packaged with a lot of laughs, some spicy adult topics, and plenty of situational humor. You have to admire the playwright for being willing to even write this story and, if it does nothing else, it will give you pause to consider why you’ve made your choices. By default or on purpose, it’s always up to you.

HOW TO BE A VIRGIN (in 12 morally ambiguous steps)
June 2 – 25, 2016
Asylum @ Studio C
6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038
General admission tickets are $10 at http://hff16.org/3447


"The Big Snake" is Hard to Swallow

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As ambitious as its title, The Big Snake or How I Got Eaten Alive on National Television and Lived to Tell About It! is writer/director Tom Cavanaugh’s attempt to send-up Reality TV and those who not only participate in it but watch it as well. With 12 actors on a Fringe budget, this is an enormous undertaking.

Meta-theatrical devices are nothing new, but they do seem to be cropping up more and more. In the vein of Brecht’s characters directly addressing viewers and Odets placing his strike-seeking union cabbies in the audience in his Waiting for Lefty, Cavanaugh’s play begins with a man giving a preshow speech who is interrupted by a director (Bob Telford, who also produces), who is interrupted by plants as audience members while he is introducing the play we are about to see.

These stereotypes—a critic (Allan Steele), a romantic (De Ann Odom), a ticket buyer (Mary Cavaliere), a patron of the arts (Marina Palmier)—are brought up on stage to view and occasionally remark about each other and/or the play-within-the-play we are about to witness. It’s an exciting concept rife with possibilities, and we have a blast with Cavanaugh’s characters commenting about themselves knowingly. The ensemble is impeccably well-cast, too. But then the story starts.

Nothing is tougher than a forced farce. Or phonier than broad characters. Or sadder than a juvenile tone. You’d think short would be fun, but it takes 45 long minutes for The Big Snake to go from interesting to implausible to absurd to silly. In addition, much of the acting—which I thought at first to be intentionally weird—is so remarkably amateurish, that it makes the show tough to sit through. The result is more snake oil than snake bite.

The story concerns TV producer Justin (Mykee Selkin) and Corinne (Jen Faith Brown), his partner in both senses of the word. They convince producer Mr. Big (Steven Wollenberg) to greenlight a live Reality program which features Jake “The Snake” Le Petomane (Damien Luvara) being eaten alive by an Anaconda (the story is based on an actual Discovery Channel show). The couple and Jake travel to Brazil (I think) where Janet (Anita Leeman), one of three tribal gibberish-speaking women who happens to speak English fluently, guides them to the snake’s location. Swallowing, romantically and zoologically, ensues.

Subtitled “An American Farce,” this has a ludicrous and ridiculous nature like farce but lacks elements that make it true farce (verbal humor, mistaken identities, slamming doors, etc.). Rather, it’s soaking in satire, which is closely linked to parody, that which is often used to discredit an individual or institution of its public worth—in this case, Reality TV. One thing that makes “An American Farce” an accurate description is the complete lack of subtlety on display at the opening preview night of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, 2016.

It’s the type of sophomoric writing in which redundant dialogue (must characters scream “SHUT UP”?) and clever alliterations (“…pit of python to get a piece…”) collide to become redundant, clever alliterations (“spews prose and poetry”). And it’s just puerile that the snake handler’s name is French for someone who farts.

There’s a lot of great intention here, and it’s hardly a threadbare concept, but we have to believe the situation. And with precious little backstory, the situations don’t make sense. With numerous instances of this, I found myself wondering why, if we’re in the Amazon, Janet was imitating Khoisan, the African language with clicks as consonants.

Cavanaugh also misses the opportunity to use more of the Ruby Theatre; he started the show in the crowd and then drops that device. He also puts his four fake audience members in an upstage line on 4 metal folding chairs for the duration of the play, but they end up crowding an already small stage. It’s a shame the antics, hardly hilarious or well-timed enough to be considered farce, weren’t more creative.

Even if this one-act utterly fails as farce, it might have worked as a satire of our soul-shrinking obsession with television and the need for fame and fortune. But Cavanaugh would rather caricature than criticize, aping Pirandello while missing any meaning. The critic and the snake may not be the only ones to hiss.

THE BIG SNAKE OR HOW I GOT EATEN ALIVE ON NATIONAL TELEVISION & LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT!
Paris Avenue Productions
June 2 – 24, 2016 
General Admission: $12; http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3404
Running Time: 45 minutes
The Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038


Felderstein's stage adaptation of "The Owl and The Pussycat" gushes with carnal creativity

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What novelty can come from a play with a 52 year run, written in the 1960s by a television writer?   

Without a doubt, The Owl and the Pussycat is a play doesn’t see much love nowadays. However, this adaptation of the mature production may prompt at least a little crush.  

Whether Director Todd Felderstein’s undertaking of The Owl and The Pussycat is a labor of love or a fist in the air, he has managed to find some freshness in this rendition of the long-running comedy.  Felderstein’s interpretation proves entertaining, and his artistic choices are bold yet carry a whiff of simplicity, which is preferable with such a nationally overproduced piece. From the unconventional opening to the infusion of technology with creative sets and costuming, Felderstein has obviously taken many opportunities to strip the play of it’s mothball appellation. 

The veteran play involves two characters in San Francisco.  One is a newly evicted prostitute that aspires to be a model/actress and the other, the cause of the eviction, a wanna-be writer that lives in a bookstore.

Although the playwright Bill Manhoff wrote for hit television shows during his short stay on earth, (Sanford and SonThe Partridge FamilyAll in the FamilyThe Odd CouplePetticoat JunctionLeave It To Beaver, and The Real McCoysmany born after 1975 will not be privy to the recollection of these shows or their comedic style of wordiness and intentionally uneven pacing.  Even though very popular in the time, bulkiness and overly adorned dialog places a gap between modern audiences and matured material.  This may be why the beginning of this particular production feels rushed and disconnected.  (This may also be why almost the entire story arch is included in the show’s program.)  

During this performance, the top of the play had a frantic feeling.  The pacing, even for this type of comedy, seemed hurried and the actors did not appear to connect with the words escaping their mouths.  Though the audience was abducted by the players immediately, at these early moments, it is more likely that the capture was due to concern more than artistic control.  

Fortunately, about 15 minutes in shoulders dropped (both audience and actor), a wave of comfort blanketed the crowd, and the skill of the actors was more visible.

The play itself is a bit whiny.  It’s difficult to sustain action in 2016 based solely on the contentious “ Odd Couple” premise.  This night, the comedy’s whiny trait was only intensified by the initial dual layer style of acting presented by caricature-like performances at the top of the show.  Initially, it seemed as if the actors were too young to understand the piece. 

The direction in this particular production did drastically evolve artistically however and the actors eventually settled into their truths.  Both actors were able to show flashes of brilliance within the production.

Comedy, like music has a rhythm. The Owl and the Pussycat is wordy, which robs the play of much of its comedic pacing in stylistically un-tuned hands.  While this particular production lacks the comedic rhythm needed to sustain considerable laughs, the acting and directing eventually fills in the gaps. 

Marlies Bauer Bell delights as Doris.  Her alluring accent draws one in.  At key moments, when she is in her zone,  the dated dialog dribbles delightfully from her skilled lips as if from a newborn. Her reactions are genuine and she gives gifts galore to her scene partner.  She is an art piece all in herself.  

When Zach Fouche contains the nervous energy that he sometimes unnecessarily layers upon the character of Felix, he is mesmerizing and highly believable.  His natural instinct for comedic timing is muffled only in the text he is tasked to regurgitate and this is most likely to be easily conquered in future performances.

The set is simple and refreshing, and with only a few opening night snafus, very successful. Each prop piece seems to have a purpose (with the exception of the three oranges used to represent every meal.  Please no more oranges!)

One potential artistic impasse are the transitions.  The uninspired lethargic set changes bring the house’s energy down tremendously and immediately.  This drop in energy proves to be a huge strain on the two actors charged with maintaining intensity, and the top of the scenes suffer for it, reading stilted if not slow.  This can possibly be chalked up to first show technicalities and will hopefully be resolved during the run. Luckily the actors can handle the task and seem able to effortlessly ramp the energy back to where it needs to be.  

Although this played-out play is not everyone’s first love, the experience and talent in this production presented to patrons is generous, and makes for an entertaining evening. Felderstein’s adaptation of The Owl and the Pussycat is definitely worth its ticket price.