Center Theatre Group opened three solo shows in the last four days in which three men tell us about their fathers.
Two of these sons’ shows are part of a three-show repertory series at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The third son’s solo is at the Mark Taper Forum.
I see no evidence that this thematic confluence was intentional. Certainly no promotional material touted these shows as a father festival. They’re not occurring close to Father’s Day. Besides the two sons’ shows, the Douglas series also includes yet another solo by yet another man who has nothing to say (at least in this particular show) about his own father. So apparently this father cluster is all a coincidence.
In a recent column, I already noted the happy news that two of the Douglas shows come closer to reflecting LA itself than anything else in the latest seasons announced for all three CTG theaters. Again, hurrah for that.
However, I also alluded to the fact that the complete domination of one gender and the relatively low-budget solo format in Center Theatre Group’s programming right now might leave some people wondering why they can’t see anything at CTG this week with women — or with more than one individual on stage at a time.
At least the ethnic diversity in these shows is well-balanced. And after all, Mother’s Day is even farther away in the calendar than Father’s Day.
Besides, for those whose appetite leans toward shows with women or with more than one performer — well, just wait until you see the next show at CTG’s third theater, the Ahmanson. The Sunshine Boys has a cast of 10, three of whom are female (in supporting roles, of course, given the title). Talk about breaking the glass ceiling.
But back to the sons.
By far the most polished and entertaining of the three father-son shows is Humor Abuse, the production at the Taper. It has been produced in four other cities over the last four years, so its level of accomplishment may not be too surprising. Still, within the solo format, it’s a gem.
Lorenzo Pisoni is the performer. He is the son of two founders of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus — Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, and he began performing in the circus when he was two years old. By the age of six, he was on a contract, and he performed an act with his father around the country for four years. Even after his parents divorced and his father stopped performing, Lorenzo Pisoni kept at it for a while, eventually working as a ringmaster for Cirque du Soleil.
In fact, as he amply demonstrates, he has maintained his circus skills, even though his website says he retired in 1999 from being a circus performer, after 20 years, in order to become an actor. Circus fans will find plenty of amusement in this show — apart from what Pisoni is telling us about his father.
But of course the main attraction is the father-son material, and it’s an endearing tale of a father who demanded professionalism of his son at a very early age — and a son who lived to tell this very professionally told tale.
The script is shorn of almost anything that is extraneous to the father-and-son-in-the-circus focus. We don’t learn much about Snider or the rest of the performer’s life. This is a virtue that is best appreciated after seeing the Douglas father-son shows, both of which still need some editing. Director Erica Schmidt shares the co-creation title.
Humor Abuse is that rare Taper show that is seemingly appropriate and likely to be enjoyed by just about anyone older than five.
Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand, downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Dark this Tuesday, no Saturday matinee next Saturday, no public performances Oct 2-4 (student matinees only), no Sunday matinee on Oct 6. Closes Nov 3. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
On to the Douglas father-son shows. Luis Alfaro’s St. Jude is structured around the final illness of the writer/performer’s father, in a Fullerton hospital and also at home. But that narrative is interrupted by flashbacks to Alfaro’s earlier years, which take place on a swath of California that extends from the Central Valley into Orange County.
Locations mean a lot to Alfaro, and he traces the southward journey of the flashbacks, from the Central Valley down Highway 99 and on into the Greater LA area, using a handmade map and an old-fashioned overhead projector.
He has written about some of his more vivid memories with his usual flair, but it’s possible that he’s still figuring out what should be included — and where and when. At the opening on Thursday, Alfaro was on book, using a script but not in a particularly conspicuous way. Still, it gave the impression that the piece is still a work in progress.
If that’s true, I would like to hear more about his father before he became a patient. Alfaro probably covered this material in some of his solos in the ‘80s and ‘90s. but he certainly can’t expect most of the contemporary audience members to have heard those.
We get a couple of glimpses of heartwarming moments from Alfaro’s youth that involve his father, but we learn very little about his father’s own background or the earlier disagreements between son and father. We need an anecdote from Alfaro’s youth that’s as memorable as a story from long after he became an adult — when he showed up for a holiday dinner only to be confronted by a father who wanted to convert him back into his brand of Christianity. As far as Alfaro’s homosexuality goes, we hear a self-indulgent account of the young Alfaro’s sex life, but I don’t recall hearing a word about his father’s reaction (if any) to the news that his son is gay.
I’m not saying the show needs to be longer. Perhaps a few of the brief hymn singalongs could be cut, as well as the sex scene, in order to make room for more material that’s directly about the younger father and the son.
Trieu Tran’s Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, also at the Douglas, also needs more editing. But in this case, it’s because the story is simply too big to be contained within the format of a solo stage show.
It sounds more like a would-be TV serial — a refugee’s story that takes place in Vietnam, Thailand, Canada and the United States, involving clashing political systems and cultures, rap and Shakespeare, sexual abuse, two murders, a father with two wives, an underworld element, an interracial romance — it goes on and on. And on.
When one performer tells a saga on this scale, and we never seen any characters depicted other than the creator/ narrator, it’s very difficult to make the stage feel big enough, to avoid the fatigue of watching only this one performer.
Of course I imagine that Tran would be delighted to have the opportunity to convert his story into a TV serial, and he probably hopes that staging it at the Douglas is a possible way to attract the attention of someone who might make that happen. Still, as a work for the stage itself, it really doesn’t work. And even if I’m mistaken and Tran wants to remain a stage soloist, why is he giving away so many stories in this one production — when he could easily divide the narrative up into several individually-produced chapters, in the style of Charlayne Woodard?
Robert Egan directed Alfaro’s and Tran’s solos.
The third production at the Douglas, Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King, is — as mentioned earlier — the odd man out, in not being a son-father tale from the son’s perspective. It’s an impressionistic report, in Smith’s should-be-patented jazzy style, of his reflections on the life and death of Rodney King. I wrote about it here, when it was at the Bootleg, and it doesn’t appear to have changed substantially.
DouglasPlus solo shows, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. St. Jude, Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, Rodney King in repertory. Closes Oct 6. www.CenterThesatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
Besides the CTG solo shows, this was my weekend to see the two new Shakespeares in Pasadena, and I like both of them.
If you’ve seen too many solos recently, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s staging of Pericles might be the respite you need — a whizbang adventure story with almost as many chapters as Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, told not just by a narrator (Deborah Strang) but by a cast totaling 18, and featuring different actors as the young Pericles (Jason Dechert) and the older Pericles (Thomas Tofel).
It’s mounted on a literally fantastic set (by Jeanine A. Ringer) featuring many doors, drawers, suitcases and umbrellas. The costumes (by Angela Balogh Calin) place most of the main characters in the 18th century and the very active chorus and narrator in timeless outfits that look as if they were inspired by clowns from both the commedia stage and the silent movies. Ken Booth’s lighting completes a beautiful conjuring of ancient glamour. And the actors add the human faces that bring it slightly out of fantasyland — but not too far.
Not far from A Noise Within is Jessica Kubzansky’s R II, which is her edited version of Shakespeare’s Richard II. It’s endowed with a new flashback structure for the sake of clarity and speed. And it has only three actors: John Sloan as the young king; Paige Lindsey White as Richard’s chief antagonist Bolingbroke, Queen Isabella and three other characters; and Jim Ortlieb in seven more roles, including such opposites as Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt and Richard’s courtier John Bushy.
Considering the profusion of roles two of the actors play, who’s playing who is remarkably clear. The actors are wonderful, and some of their most lyrical passages are emphasized by projections on the back of Kaitlyn Pietras’ set. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting creates an eerie vision of the imprisoned king.
Richard II is a far more interesting play than Richard III, yet it isn’t produced nearly as often. Perhaps Kubzansky’s creation will inspire someone to take on the original? A Noise Within, perhaps? But it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s better at playing the sly, petulant, mercurial king than Sloan.
Pericles, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. It will soon be playing in repertory with two other productions. Pericles performances resume Oct 11, through Nov 24; check schedule at www.anoisewithin.org. 626-356-3100. x1.
R II, Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, Wed Oct 2 and 9, 8 pm. Closes Oct 13. www.bostoncourt.org. 626-683-6883.
THE SHOW-MUST-GO-ON AWARD: Finally, a word of praise for actor William Martinez. At a recent performance of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days at the Victory Theatre, he suddenly appeared to bolt from the stage during an intricate group number set at the Metropolitan Museum. The onstage pianist Alby Potts vamped for a few moments, one other character sang a couple of phrases, and then suddenly the house lights went up for an unscheduled intermission.
As people began to talk during the intermission, it was soon confirmed that Martinez had taken ill. No understudies are listed in the program. A spokewoman later said he had “a badly upset stomach.”
After 10 or 15 minutes, the show resumed — and guess who had the next number, a solo? It’s a beautifully reflective ditty, “Favorite Places.” Martinez not only showed up, but he sang it exquisitely. If I hadn’t witnessed what had previously happened, I would never have known that the Victory Theatre stage wasn’t one of Martinez’s favorite places at that precise moment. He then completed the performance without any noticeable weakness.
However, he didn’t appear during the curtain call. So here is the big bravo that I wanted to give him that night.
Ordinary Days, Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. www.victorytheatrecenter.org. 818- 841-5421.