Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

It’s Raining Women on San Fernando Valley Stages

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The southeast San Fernando Valley women’s theater festival is booming. You haven’t heard of this festival?

Neither had I, until I realized that last week I was seeing five shows in the southeast Valley with casts that totaled 20 women and only one man.

OK, I made up the “festival” part. These plays that focus mostly on women, in a fairly circumscribed geographical area, might have been an actual festival only if someone had noticed their concurrence early enough to connect the dots and raise the money for a few festival trappings.

Still, that doesn’t prevent anyone from creating a personal festival, as I did, from these productions.

Kasi Jones, Ann Hu, Lani Shipman, Jillian Easton and Susan Boyd Joyce in “The Baby Project.” Photo by Deverill Weekes.

At the top of your list should be two original creations about modern motherhood. The Baby Project is the story of an unorthodox route to maternity, told in a musical format. And Mommune takes us to a slightly altered reality in order to examine the pressures that imperfect mothers now face.

Both of these are notable for their venues as well as for the actual productions. Mommune takes place in a real children’s play center, befitting the site-specificity embraced by Chalk Repertory Theatre, which is producing it. The Baby Project is Road Theatre’s first production in its new theater at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony on Magnolia Boulevard.

Certainly the most original play among these five is Dorothy Fortenberry’s Mommune. Set in “the soon future,” according to the script, it takes us to a society in which prospective parents are required to take pre-parenthood classes. Judging from this example, many of these classes are taught in former children’s play centers.

The instructors, at least in this case, are moms who made mistakes as parents. They were sentenced to these “mommunes,” while their children were sent to “kiddunes.” The moms are separated from their children until they learn the basics of parenting well enough to be able to teach these basics to others.

As the audience enters the “mommune” at Pint Size Kids, on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, we’re directed to little chairs or to benches in the facility’s central area. But as the play begins, we’re ushered into a separate classroom for a session in a “Babies 101″ class taught by one of the errant moms, Lynne (Amy Ellenberger). In this initial scene and in another scene near the end, we serve as the prospective parents. We’re handed dolls for demonstration purposes in that first scene.

Then, as the students are told to begin watching a video, we resume our regular roles as fly-on-the-wall audience members, and we’re allowed back into the main room, where most of the action takes place. We begin to learn what’s going on behind the mommune’s cheerful façade.

Cate Scott Campbell, Amy Ellenberger and Ursaline Bryant in “Mommune.” Photo by Dave Brewer.

Mrs. Jensen (Ursaline Bryant) runs this mommune, but she’s not the final arbiter of who stays there for how long. Today is the day when Mrs. Jensen’s unseen supervisor will decide which of two veterans within the program is ready to graduate and resume her role as a regular mom in the outside world. As they approach their final interviews, the contenders —  Lynne and her bitchier rival Trista (Cate Scott Campbell) — are hopeful.

We also meet two other residents of the mommune. Bree (Sofie Calderon) is not deaf but communicates only in her own form of sign language, for reasons that we learn later. And in the first sentence she speaks, a brand-new inmate — the rebellious Charlotte (Hilary Ward) — uses a word that you don’t expect to hear in a place called Pint Size Kids.

Fortenberry’s play is an intricate layering act. While many of the mommune’s parenting principles sound reasonable enough, the orthodoxy with which they’re enforced as dogma is unsettling and sometimes wickedly funny. The mommies in this program behaved in ways that most people would consider somewhat neglectful or worse, but at the same time the hypocrisy and overkill in parental disapproval of other parents is roasted over a satirical flame.

The question arises over why only moms, not dads, are sent to these places. Is it because moms are always considered the parents in charge? The play doesn’t directly answer that question, but I wondered if abusive or neglectful dads are simply sent to regular prison in “the soon future”.

Mommune probes into a number of sensitive questions about parents and children in today’s world. These are familiar subjects in the popular media, but Fortenberry explores them with rare creativity and flair. And Larissa Kokernot’s staging is a model of site-specific intimacy — the best example of it from the Chalk Rep team since its reprise of Family Planning in 2009.

 

Susan Boyd Joyce, Jillian Easton, Ann Hu and Lani Shipman in “The Baby Project.” Photo by Deverill Weekes.

The Baby Project, at the Road’s new space, examines some of these same subjects — but from the perspective of single, fortysomething Dana (Lani Shipman), who is not a mother but wants to be one. The musical’s book, by Lori Jaroslow, starts in New York, where actress Dana is fresh off a relationship with a woman. She’s now more interested in becoming a mother than she is in finding another lover of whatever gender.

Hearing that the best sperm banks are in LA, she moves to North Hollywood and almost immediately finds a new love, a job as an LAUSD substitute in South Central, an HMO that she’s able to join thanks to string-pulling by her new lover’s past as a former employee of the HMO, and yes — the renowned sperm bank.

Almost every turn of events mentioned in the previous sentence has a degree of implausibility, but then this is a musical, in which people start singing to express themselves, so some suspension of disbelief is par for the course. And, of course, none of these opportunities pan out in ways that Dana would have imagined, although eventually she achieves motherhood in an altogether different way. I won’t give it away here, but you’ll see it coming down the narrative long before Dana does.

All right, the plot isn’t airtight, and it’s slightly longer than necessary, but Jaroslow’s script and Fonda Feingold’s and Noriko Olling’s music and lyrics offer some good laughs and a tear or two along the way. A few of the references are very NoHo-specific, including a couple of wisecracks about the locally notorious intersection of Lankershim, Vineland and Camarillo. The score is an ear-friendly blend of jazz and pop and Sondheim-inspired introspection, with a couple of hard-to-forget highlights (“My Little Inkling” is perhaps the most memorable).

Shipman has the pipes and the edginess that keep us caring about Dana. And the other women on stage (Jillian Easton, Ann Hu, Kasi Jones and Susan Boyd Joyce) all play many roles, of both genders, with impressive versatility.

The exterior of Road Theatre’s new space at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

The new Road theater is somewhat larger than the Road’s longtime Lankershim home (which is currently occupied by Albie Selznick’s Smoke and Mirrors magic show). The Magnolia space is also one of the most sharply raked 99-seat facilities in LA, which seems a bit incongruous with its location in a senior residence. But there are plenty of supports to grab if you begin to slip and fall — not that I saw anyone in the average-aged audience beginning to slip and fall. I sat in two different seats and found that I could hear and see better from the rear than I could from the front.

Mommune, Pint Size Kids, 13323 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Sat-Sun 8 pm, through April 7. www.ChalkRep.com.

 

The Baby Project, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through March 17. www.RoadTheatre.org. 866-506-1248.

Here are brief reports on the other women-oriented three productions I saw in the southeast Valley over the past few days.

Divorce Party the Musical is producer Mark Schwartz’s sequel to Menopause the Musical. Remember Menopause the Musical? I probably remember it better than most men, as I wrote about seeing it as one of three men in an audience that also included more than 200 women. But if you missed that production a decade ago, you had another opportunity when another version came to El Portal less than two months ago.

Well, now Divorce Party is at El Portal, borrowing the Menopause (and, for that matter, Troubie) device of using familiar melodies with new lyrics that can legally pass as “parody.” In this case, a woman in the throes of a divorce is visited by her sister, a cousin, and another friend; they attempt to lift her spirits with, yes, a divorce party. The creators are two men — Schwartz and lyricist/director Jay Falzone — plus Amy Botwinick, a chiropractor who has written self-help books about divorce.

Janna Cardia and Scott Ahearn in “Divorce Party the Musical.” Photo by Jason Gillman.

It’s a combination of rather crude and unimaginative comedy shtick and the generally belted songs. One man plays the role of The Boy Toy, which means he plays a variety of male roles. The generally light-hearted tone gives way near the end to a few moments of dialogue aptly identified as being from the Dr. Phil school of thought, but it doesn’t stay serious for too long. No, we have to leave time for the Boy Toy’s Chippendales-style strip and a glossy “sequel” scene in which it’s reported that the women have solved their problems. Strangely enough, on opening night, the number of men at this clear-cut “girls’ night out” seemed almost equal to the number of women, but it’s hard to believe it will stay that way for long.

You couldn’t find a women-oriented play more different from Divorce Party than Ladyhouse Blues, Andak’s revival of a Kevin O’Morrison play from the mid-’70s. It features a household of women — a mother and four adult or almost-adult daughters — in St. Louis in the sultry summer of 1919, before the single mother’s one son returns from World War I.

The play is old-fashioned Chekhov-influenced realism, but it has moments of lyrical delicacy, and it serves as a look back at currents in American life that can still be detected today — the rise of women in the workplace, the persistence of rural roots in urban settings, xenophobia, the impact of technology. It also serves as a showcase for five women in rather meaty roles, and it’s lovingly revived by director Anne McNaughton and her cast of five.

Finally, closing over last weekend was the Falcon’s revival of Shirley Valentine, Willy Russell’s solo show about a bored British empty-nester who runs off with a friend to Greece. I’ve always felt this script would be better if it weren’t a solo show, but DeeDee Rescher brought it back to life quite winningly, under Andrew Barnicle’s direction.

 

Divorce Party the Musical, El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm., through April 14.  www.elportaltheatre.com. 866-811-4111.

 

Ladyhouse Blues, NewPlace Studio, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood. Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm., through March 24. www.Andak.org. 866-811-4111.

 

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