In LA, most of the shows that extended over the holidays at the bigger theaters have now closed, and the first arrivals of 2013 have yet to open.
But the situation is different in Orange County. Two radically different but remarkably rewarding productions are up and running within a few steps of each other — the West Coast premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker With the Hat at South Coast Repertory and the Southern California premiere of Teatro ZinZanni at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
ZinZanni’s show has been open for a couple months, so let’s concentrate first on this past weekend’s opening of The Motherfucker With the Hat.
Guirgis’ play is probably most famous for the inflammatory word in its title and the casting (or, according to a few critics, miscasting) of Chris Rock in the Broadway production. The title is straight from the text, and it also has a trace of thematic meaning that goes beyond its literal meaning, but its primary function might be to ward off theatergoers who are squeamish about public profanity.
The language is indeed very graphic, But for those of us who are used to this sort of talk in the theater, some of Guirgis’ geysers of “dirty words” are unusually original and byzantine in their imagery. Aficionados of stage profanity might finally break away from their obsession with David Mamet.
Of course the play is primarily about the characters, not their vocabularies, and Guirgis has created an involving assortment of people who are struggling in search of a better life. At the play’s heart is a quartet of addicts living in New York. Three of them are supposedly recovering — Ralph (Larry Bates) is the AA sponsor of Jackie (Tony Sancho). Ralph’s wife Victoria (Cristina Frias) has also kicked her habits — at least those of the chemical kind — but Jackie’s girlfriend Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra) is skeptical about AA.
Economically, Ralph and Victoria are probably in the lower 40%, while Jackie and Veronica are in the lower 20%. As the play begins, Jackie — a former drug dealer who recently got out of prison — is proud that he got a job as a doorman.
We seldom see characters of this socio-economic class on our stages, especially a commercial Broadway stage (which is where the play opened). All four of the above characters make some very foolish choices, but the fifth character, Jackie’s cousin Julio (Christian Barrilas) injects some common sense into the proceedings. And even with the four addicts, whose passions and hypocrisies lead to moments of rich humor as well as sadness, Guirgis’ tone remains sympathetic more often than not.
At one point Jackie, while discussing an even more far-gone character’s few glimmers of humanity, remarks, “Funny how people can be more than one thing — ain’t it?”
Guirgis convincingly demonstrates that this truism is moving as well as funny, and he receives the support of a strong cast guided by Cornerstone Theater artistic director Michael John Garcés, working on Nephelie Andonyadis’ revolving set. By the way, although the play has “New York” written all over it, it was developed at Ojai Playwrights Conference — let’s hear it for the home team — as well as at LAByrinth Theater Company in New York.
The Motherfucker With the Hat, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Sun 7:45 pm, Sat and Sun matinees, 2 pm. Closes with the matinee on Jan 27. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
***All The Motherfucker With the Hat production photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR
Walk east from South Coast for about three minutes, and you arrive at a very different theatrical destination — a Belgian tent that’s about a century old, housing Teatro ZinZanni’s Love Chaos & Dinner on the plaza of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Is it a cabaret? A small circus? A variety show of the sort that might have been heard on old-time radio? A gourmet restaurant?
Actually, it’s all of the above.
If you’re a cabaret fan who wants more variety than usual within one program, if you’re a circus fan who wants the intimacy of a 285-seat venue instead of the distances within a much larger tent or the Dolby Theatre, if you like old-time radio except for the inability to see the performers, if you like the concept of most dinner theaters but not the standard execution of either the dinner or the theater, then Teatro ZinZanni is for you.
On the other hand, if you’re a man who shies away from any chance at all that you might be recruited into the performance, Teatro ZinZanni might not be for you — although, at the performance I saw, only four men (and no women) from the audience were brought to center stage. However, that doesn’t include the many couples from the audience who took advantage of the “seventh-inning stretch” during the three-hours-plus show in order to slow-dance, nightclub-style, on center stage.
Eight featured acts, including a total of 11 performers, shine in many different ways, costumed in elaborate get-ups by Beaver Bauer. Kevin Kent is the veteran comedian, in the guise of three different characters, who entices three of those men up on stage and employs them with an improvisational facility that recalls Dame Edna. The fourth man is the target of Manuella Horn, a 6 feet-2 inch dominatrix who initially appears as a freakishly Amazonian child star.
Joel Salom is a lean and amazingly precise juggler and comic who woos the astonishing contortionist and hoops artist Vita Radionova, even though he suspects she’s the extra-terrestrial “Venus”. Les Petits Frères is a French trio of tumblers; on the night I saw them, they provided the evening’s only dead spot in a number based on “Fever” but then redeemed themselves with sensational acrobatics, presented with no net and an extremely close perspective, later in the evening. One of them, Domotil Aillot, also had his own charming solo.
But the highlight of the traditional circus acts is Die Maiers, a German duo of clowns. The duo’s Sabine Maier, dressed in a fussy maid’s outfit with an inextricable small purse, does one of the best deadpan acts since Buster Keaton, and she’s joined by her geeky-looking husband Joachim Mohr to perform the funniest and most surprising trapeze act within memory.
The singing acts include Duffy Bishop, who sounds equally proficient at show tunes and hard-edged blues, and Juliana Rambaldi, who unveils a remarkable coloratura soprano voice near the end of the show. They’re backed by a versatile four-piece band.
The restaurant servers join the cast for zippy introductions to the meal’s five courses. In the funniest food-related moment, some of the individual desserts tumble down a large chute into the hands of individual servers who then take them to the tables. The caterer is the Patina Group, and the chef is Ross Pangilinan of Leatherby’s restaurant inside the adjacent Segerstrom Concert Hall (where the rest rooms are also located). In a nod to the fact that the Segerstrom family raised lima beans on this site before donating the land to the creation of a performing arts center, the soup is lima bean (with a bacon chip).
Coordinating all this is the director Norman Langill, also the Seattle-based ZinZanni’s founder and artistic director. The group’s productions have run in San Francisco for years as well as Seattle. After the success of this run in OC, which lasts through Feb. 17, the impresarios of LA County are crazy if they haven’t already begun the process of bringing it to LA.
Especially with the imminent departure of Cirque du Soleil’s Iris from Hollywood next weekend, the more affluent LA theatergoers might be in exactly the right frame of mind to go for a much more up-close circus/cabaret experience — especially one that comes from a five-course dinner as part of the $122.85 starting ticket price. That tab might sound like a lot of moolah, but if it makes you feel any better about spending it for a special occasion, you might take some comfort in the fact that ZinZanni, unlike Cirque du Soleil, is a 501c-3 nonprofit — see, you’re actually supporting a charity, which has raised $2 million for other charities during the past decade.
But I wouldn’t advise trying to deduct the price of a ticket on your tax returns — ZinZanni’s many benefits to the ticket buyers are all too tangible.
Love Chaos & Dinner, Teatro ZinZanni on the Segerstrom Performing Arts Center plaza, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Wed-Sat 7 pm, Sun noon and 7 pm. Through Feb. 21. www.SCFTA.org. 714-556-2787.
***All Teatro ZinZanni photos by Mark & Tracy Photography