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.

Pretending that Macbeth Isn’t Among Us…And That Catherine Isn’t Sexual

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Since this column began nearly four years ago, I’ve called attention to the tunnel vision of LA Times theater coverage, in which the tunnel too often leads to New York or the UK instead of Los Angeles. But I’ve never seen a more flagrant example of this phenomenon than in a post on the Times Culture Monster website last Thursday.

In it, reporter David Ng reveals this news flash — “William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is back in vogue.” He cites two New York productions (one opening in November and one that has already closed) and two English productions, one of which is scheduled to be “broadcast to cinemas in the U.S. this fall.” Also, Ng notes that a movie version is in the works starring Michael Fassbender, and he names four actors who previously played Macbeth on Broadway and earlier film versions — although he doesn’t explain how they’re connected to any current “vogue” for the Scottish Play.

Ng apparently hasn’t noticed that two productions of Macbeth are currently playing in Greater LA — using Equity contracts, not the 99-Seat Plan.

Andre Martin, Luis Galindo, Erik Mathew, Sean Pritchett in International Shakespeare Company's "Macbeth"
Andre Martin, Luis Galindo, Erik Mathew, Sean Pritchett in Independent Shakespeare Company’s “Macbeth”

Independent Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth in Griffith Park often attracts more than 1,000 theatergoers on weekends. ISC attendance in the last two days was1,866 at Saturday’s As You Like It and 1,160 at Sunday’s Macbeth, reports ISC — which, at least from the perspective of audience development, is LA’s most populist professional theater company.

ISC’s Macbeth is played by Luis Galindo. That he’s the first Latino actor to portray the bedeviled thane within my memory of LA Macbeths would seem to add yet another reason for Ng to have mentioned the ISC in his round-up of Macbeths.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove is also presenting Macbeth, in the directorial swan song of that company’s retiring founder Thomas Bradac. The well-credentialed John Walcutt has the title role.

You want more LA Macbeths? A Noise Within will oblige next year, with its second version of the play, March 8-May 11, in Pasadena. An outfit called CityShakes is planning a West LA Macbeth in the fall. And it was only last summer when two very different productions of Macbeth played simultaneously in NoHo, a few hundred feet away from each other, at Antaeus and Zombie Joe’s.

Yet you could read Ng’s article and conclude that Angelenos who want to be “in vogue” by seeing a live Macbeth have to resort to cross-country trips — you know, to go where the theatrical “in-crowd” hangs out.

Of course Ng might have been more aware of the current Macbeths if the Times editors had sent reviewers to them. So far this summer, the Times has completely ignored Shakespeare Orange County. Ditto the last two productions from the ISC — even though Times reviewer Margaret Gray gave the first ISC production, She Stoops to Conquer, a Critics’ Choices designation.

Bo Foxworth and Ann Noble in "Macbeth" at Antaeus. Photo by Daniel Blinkoff
Bo Foxworth and Ann Noble in “Macbeth” at Antaeus in 2012. Photo by Daniel Blinkoff.

The Times isn’t the only offender. The LA Weekly hasn’t reviewed any of ISC’s three shows this summer. Even LA’s Shakespeare-centric blog,, has so far neglected ISC’s 2013 season. There isn’t much time left — ISC’s Macbeth closes Saturday (as does Shakespeare Orange County’s), and ISC’s third show As You Like It closes Sunday.

Meanwhile, Times critic Charles McNulty devoted a long front-page review on August 17 to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Actors’ Gang’s relatively tiny space. This production had been billed as a workshop in June 6 and June 17 press releases — the latter release specifically requested no reviews. It’s at least the sixth version of Midsummer in LA this summer. McNulty didn’t review any of the others, but he saw fit to review the Gang’s rendition two weeks before it closes. It also got a belated review in the Weekly.

How to explain the fact that a professional company in the heart of LA, with huge audiences and a brilliant actor making his debut as Macbeth, attracts no notice from these publications, while this little Midsummer — billed as a workshop — receives reviews in the Times and the Weekly?

Here’s how — the Actors’ Gang’s major domo and this particular Midsummer’s director is Tim Robbins. And he’s a movie star.

Independent Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth, Old Zoo lawn on the east side of Griffith Park, Fri-Sat 7 pm (As You Like It is on Wed-Thu and Sun, 7 pm). 818-710-6306.

Shakespeare Orange County’s Macbeth, 12740 Main St., Garden Grove. Thu-Sat 8:15 pm. 714- 744-7016.

After I saw Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play at South Coast Repertory in 2010, I expected to see it again soon, probably at one of the Center Theatre Group stages or the Geffen Playhouse. Of the six Ruhl plays I’ve seen, this is her masterpiece. Although it’s set in the late 19th century, it’s one of the best American plays of the 21st century. Surely CTG and the Geffen (Pasadena Playhouse was temporarily incapacitated back then) were already vying for the LA premiere, back in 2010.

Michael Oosterom and Joanna Strapp in In "The Next Room or The Vibrator Play." Photo by
Michael Oosterom and Joanna Strapp in In “The Next Room or The Vibrator Play.” Photo by T L Kolman.

Now, three years later, that LA premiere is belatedly taking place — in the Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo, thanks to August Viverito’s and TL Kolman’s Production Company.

It’s tempting to think that it would have played CTG or the Geffen first if those institutions had been run by women — except for the inconvenient truth that women don’t run South Coast Repertory or the Production Company, either.

If CTG and the Geffen were blind to the play’s merits, for whatever reason, where were the midsize companies I so often champion? The Colony, International City Theatre and Broad Stage are run by women — as is the area’s newest midsize company, the Wallis, in Beverly Hills. Imagine the splash that the Wallis might have made if it had chosen In the Next Room, or the vibrator play as its opening attraction.

How’s this for a theory of the whereabouts of the play’s eventual LA premiere? In the Next Room depicts women learning how to take control of their own sexual pleasure with the assistance of vibrators, so maybe Ruhl couldn’t resist the idea of seeing it produced at a venue called the Secret Rose. Is it too much to ask a playwright to sacrifice the extra income from larger productions for the sake of a double entendre?

Anyway, regardless of how the play arrived at the Secret Rose, it should be seen there. It’s about a lot more than a few women discovering the joy of orgasm. While that subject is being explored on one side of the stage, on the other side of the stage we experience the venting of another, more complicated subject. A new mother, Catherine Givings (Joanna Strapp), who lacks enough breast milk, hires a wet nurse (Candace Nicholas-Lippman) with a lot of unused milk — because the wet nurse’s baby died. How’s that for a situation that packs a lot of dramatic tension?

Joanna Strapp and Yael Berkovich
Joanna Strapp and Yael Berkovich

And Ruhl’s play isn’t just about women. Catherine’s husband (Michael Oosterom) is the dedicated doctor who brings the vibrator to the attention of his patients — because he thinks it will cure their “hysteria,” not because he’s thinking about enhancing their sexual pleasure. But he’s hesitant to let his wife try it out, after she becomes curious. He doesn’t acknowledge his own role in causing or healing the “hysteria” of his wife, until she more or less forces him into confronting their capacity for mutual passion — his as well as hers.

Ruhl’s play works on many levels. Near the beginning, as one of the doctor’s patients (Yael Berkovich) quickly transforms from a nervous wreck into a much happier person, thanks to the doctor’s treatments, the comedy is broad, almost farcical. But the writing is dotted with more subtle moments as well — the fact that the play is set in times when people were generally more inhibited helps build its conflicts.

Among these conflicts is a largely unspoken attraction between Berkovich’s patient and the doctor’s nurse (Elizabeth Southard), an unfortunately spoken attraction from the patient’s husband (Michael Zemenick) to Catherine, and an attraction between a bohemian male patient (Ben Gillman) to just about all the women in this room — or the next.

August Viverito’s direction respects all the play’s moods. This is his and Kolman’s company’s first production in a new room — with a wider stage but hardly any more seats (49) than its most recent home in Hollywood.  Every one of those seats should sell out as Angelenos who missed South Coast’s unfortunately brief production in 2010 are finally introduced to Ruhl’s brilliant play — no thanks to LA’s larger theatrical institutions.

**Production photos by T L Kolman.

In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sept. 28. 800-838-3006.

So, as the Production Company presents Ruhl’s take on a shimmering, microcosmic moment in the life of a woman named Catherine, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York around the dawn of the first wave of feminism, what is the Geffen producing?

The Geffen is doing Rapture Blister Burn, Gina Gionfriddo’s play about a contemporary Catherine, directed by Peter DuBois. It depicts a somewhat less shimmering, microcosmic moment in a New England college town — not far from Saratoga Springs — in the wake of the “third wave” of feminism.

Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen in "Rapture, Blister, Burn." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Gionfriddo’s Catherine is a feminist author and pundit (Amy Brenneman) in her 40s. She returns to her home town, ostensibly to care for her ailing mother (Beth Dixon), who doesn’t appear to be sick at all. Perhaps Catherine has an ulterior, at least partially sexual motive — a desire to re-connect with her boyfriend Don (Lee Tergesen) from grad school days, even though he is now married to her former roommate Gwen (Kellie Overbey).

Don and Gwen have two children and a 21-year-old babysitter, Avery (Virginia Kull). College administrator Don helps Catherine support herself, yet remain close to her mother, by arranging for her to teach a rather contrived summer course in her own home, with only two students — Gwen and Avery. How convenient for the characters that this particular less-than-prestigious university doesn’t require a minimum number of students to be enrolled in its classes. And it’s also great for the producers of this play, who otherwise would be required to hire some extra actors to play additional students.

The class provides a forum in which the four women characters can discuss not only the history of feminism and some of its current issues but also their own conflicts and their own generational perspectives. While this makes for some lively chitchat, this conversation is a little too prolonged for the sake of dramatic momentum.

The more personal moments of that discussion eventually lead to a plan in which the bored Gwen arranges to take Catherine’s place in New York with her older child, while Catherine and Don will jointly take care of the younger child, with assistance from Catherine’s mother — who will facilitate the ability of her daughter and Don to have sexual romps in the living room when the kid isn’t there.

All of the adults, Gwen included, are aware of the sexual component of this arrangement, and no one seems to care very much, at least momentarily.

In fact, even after the plan doesn’t work out so well, these characters seem oddly passionless, especially if you compare them to the characters in Ruhl’s play. The title Rapture Blister Burn promises searing revelations and explosions, but you’ll find a lot more of these in Ruhl’s play than you will in Gionfriddo’s play.

Amy Brenneman and Virginia Kull
Amy Brenneman and Virginia Kull

Perhaps, as mentioned above, this can be attributed at least partly to the stronger inhibitions of the Victorian era compared to the lack of inhibitions today. Just as those Victorian constrictions increase the drama in Ruhl’s play, the absence of them lowers the temperature of Gionfriddo’s.

But that doesn’t mean that Gionfriddo should have given up on finding more interesting ways to keep the narrative percolating. She certainly found a few in her more exciting play Becky Shaw — which, like Rapture, was originally directed by DuBois and which Pam MacKinnon staged for South Coast Repertory in 2010.

The rapture-less Rapture isn’t especially fresh, despite its contemporary trappings. Near the beginning of the script, Gwen more or less sums up the drama between her and Catherine with these words: “I guess the grass is always greener…It’s that forty-something thing where you start thinking about the life not lived.”

Hearing that line, I started thinking about a song, “The Grass Is Always Greener,” from the 1980 Kander/Ebb musical Woman of the Year. It’s a duet shared by a woman who’s a famous careerist and a housewife, each of whom envies the other.

In one of the verses, the careerist compliments the housewife by saying “You can hold a husband. That’s wonderful!”

“What’s so wonderful?” replies the housewife. “There’s more to life than husbands.”

“I could use a husband,” complains the careerist.

“You can have my husband,” retorts the housewife.

“I’ve already had your husband,” reports the careerist.

Except in the character of Avery, Gionfriddo’s play doesn’t advance the conversation very far beyond that 33-year-old duet.

Rapture Blister Burn, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sep 22. 310-208-5454.

**Production photos by Michael Lamont.