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.

Anger in Pasadena. Community in Skid Row and Rancho Cucamonga.

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I’ve never particularly associated the Pasadena Playhouse with expressions of rage. But take a look at the 1937-designated “State Theatre of California” right now.

Not only are the jurors of Twelve Angry Men (or 12 Angry Men – it’s spelled both ways in the program) fulminating on the Pasadena mainstage, but Furious Theatre Company has returned to the playhouse’s smaller theater upstairs with an enterprising production of Gidion’s Knot, a play that fits well with the connotations created by the name “Furious.”

The opening of Twelve Angry Men last night was preceded by several brief speeches saluting the playhouse’s diversity efforts and the committee that spearheads them.  Also honored was Wren Brown, founder/producer of Ebony Repertory Theatre, the African-American-focused company that co-produced Crowns with the playhouse.

The cast of " Twelve Angry Men." Photo by Jim Cox Photography.
The cast of ” Twelve Angry Men.” Photo by Jim Cox Photography.

Then we witnessed a production of Reginald Rose‘s famous jury-deliberations drama, in which six of the jurors (one of whom is an immigrant) were played by African-American actors and the other six by white actors.  This cast was identified as “multiracial” in a program note by Darrell D. Miller, the chair of the diversity committee.

When I look up “multi” in the dictionary, the first definition I see says “more than two.” A truly diverse, multiracial or multi-ethnic cast would not be stuck in the old-fashioned East Coast-oriented idea of race as something that is, literally, black and white. Especially here on the West Coast, I would expect a genuinely diverse production of Twelve Angry Men to include Mexican-American jurors, Asian-American jurors, perhaps Native American jurors.

And, of course, if the jury is supposed to look more like today’s juries than like the 1950s New York jury that Rose was writing about, it also would include women — perhaps even a majority of women. Actually, from my rudimentary research, it appears that women might even have been on a typical jury in New York during the ‘50s, so the all-male composition of the jury was perhaps questionable even in the original.

On the other hand, it’s unclear whether director Sheldon Epps wanted this jury to look like a 21st-century jury or like a ‘50s jury. The inclusion of black men and somewhat post-‘50s men’s fashions indicates the former. The absence of any women or any men from any of the above-mentioned other groups indicates the latter.

The fuzziness about when this is supposed to be taking place becomes most problematic near the end, when the most racist of the white jurors (played by Bradford Tatum, in this production) explodes in a bigotry-drenched speech that’s framed in “us vs. them” terms. Although the defendant’s race or ethnicity is never actually identified, this guy clearly thinks the defendant is one of “them” while the rest of the jurors are part of “us.”

Gregory North, Adam J. Smith, Bradford Tatum, Robert Picardo and Jason George.
Gregory North, Adam J. Smith, Bradford Tatum, Robert Picardo and Jason George.

When the cast is all-white, as in the Broadway touring production that played the Ahmanson in 2007, this bigot’s explosion is much more plausible than it is here, where half of the jurors in the room are black. Are we supposed to assume that the defendant isn’t “black” or “white” — perhaps a puertorriqueño? — and that this particular bigot is unusually selective in the targets of his bigotry? Perhaps we’re expected to believe that he would be confident that the black men in the room would consider themselves part of “us”, as opposed to the “them” that includes the defendant?

It appears that Epps and company decided to make this a black-and-white-only cast without thinking through all of the implications. Of course perhaps the most prominent critic of cross-racial casting that violates the original intent of the writer was the great African-American playwright August Wilson. I’ve never been entirely persuaded by Wilson’s arguments — certainly South Coast Repertory’s recent casting of Death of a Salesman as mostly black was plausible enough. But I’ve got to admit that Wilson’s point makes more sense when the play in question is Twelve Angry Men.

In this case, either the play should be done as originally intended — which Wilson probably would have preferred — or it should be much more radically overhauled and, perhaps, rewritten. From what I can glean, this production did change the text slightly to reflect the casting, notably in an earlier comment aimed indirectly at one of the black jurors. But a more convincing overhaul for the 21st century also would have required a more thorough rewrite of that bigot’s final speech, as well as expanding the casting to include women and groups other than “white” and “black.”

Meanwhile, the upstairs Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the playhouse has been given a thorough overhaul for Furious Theatre’s production of Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot. We enter the space through a different door than the one we’ve usually entered, and once we go through that door, we’re in a simulated classroom, designed by Aaron Francis. Most of us sit in the rather uncomfortable classroom desks (although a few other chairs are also available).

We’re there to witness one of the most emotionally charged parent-teacher conferences ever. It occurs in the aftermath of a young boy’s death, and his mother (Vonessa Martin) is there to keep an appointment that was made before he died. The teacher (Paula Cale) had assumed that the boy’s death would prevent the mother from showing up — but here she is, and she’s apparently ready to blame the teacher for what happened.

Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale Lisby in "Gidion's Knot." Photo by Nick Cernoch.
Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale in “Gidion’s Knot.” Photo by Nick Cernoch.

I won’t go into any more of the specific details, but some of them are very raw in unexpected ways. There are no casting problems in this production, staged by Darin Anthony. Martin and Cale are convincing even when a few of the play’s more extreme moments might raise credibility issues after the play is over. On the night I attended, some of the noises from the bar downstairs unfortunately intruded into Sloe Slowinski’s sound design, but all other design details were in fine shape.

At any rate, it’s great to see Furious back in the space that’s most identified with the company — again behaving, well, furiously. Although this production is on Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, here’s hoping that Furious can eventually return to the days when it could afford to operate on a limited Actors’ Equity contract, even in this small space.

Twelve Angry Men, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Dec 1. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.

Gidion’s Knot, Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Closes Nov 24. www.FuriousTheatre.org. 323-270-8596.

The day after I saw Gidion’s Knot, I saw another play with a very similar premise — they’re both set during the aftermath of a son’s death (as is the recent Dream of the Burning Boy, produced by Malibu Playhouse), and in these two current productions the son is kept entirely offstage. Yet Rabbit Hole, at La Mirada Theatre, is very different in tone from Gidion’s Knot. David Lindsay-Abaire’s play is much more subtle — and, ultimately, more emotionally affecting, because its characters feel somewhat more universal than those in Gidion’s Knot. Also, there are five of them with whom we can identify as opposed to the twosome in the Gidion’s Knot arena.

Deborah Puette and Michael Polak in "Rabbit Hole." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Deborah Puette and Michael Polak in “Rabbit Hole.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

The first time I saw Rabbit Hole, at the Geffen Playhouse, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t as wild as some of Lindsay-Abaire’s other plays, such as Kimberly Akimbo. However, it clearly seemed more easily adaptable into a big-screen movie than some of his wilder plays, and of course it then became a big-screen movie (which I still haven’t seen).

However, it’s easier now for me to appreciate the play on its own merits, without comparing it to the playwright’s other work. And certainly Michael Matthews’ staging, with Deborah Puette as the mother and Michael Polak as the father, makes it very easy to appreciate.

The Saturday matinee I attended had a much smaller audience than I’m used to seeing at La Mirada. But that’s surely a reflection on the subject matter, not on the production’s artistry. This one deserves more filled seats.

Rabbit Hole, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801.

Different forms of site-specificity have popped up a lot lately (see here and here). This weekend I saw two more productions that are scrupulously local in their subject matter — but they seem to exist in worlds that are nearly polar opposites.

Cornerstone Theater’s latest, Love on San Pedro, is probably the first play I’ve ever seen in which theatergoers are taken by van from the secured parking lot to the building in which the play takes place. That’s because the building — and the play — are set on Skid Row in downtown LA. And although the play introduces us to life on Skid Row, apparently the producers would prefer to make sure that the audience doesn’t run the risk of more direct contact with the denizens of the Row, just outside the theater doors.

Cynthiaanne Cofell in "Love on San Pedro." Photo by
Cynthiaanne Cofell in “Love on San Pedro.” Photo by Kevin Michael Campbell.

There is something troubling about that assumption — one of the points of James McManus’ play is that Skid Row isn’t as scary as some might think. On the other hand, it’s probably true that the production wouldn’t attract nearly as many customers if they had to walk the half-block between the parking lot and the Los Angeles Mission, where Love on San Pedro occurs in a gymnasium on the fourth floor.

As in most Cornerstone productions, this one has a cast featuring real people from the depicted community, as well as a few of the professional actors affiliated with Cornerstone. And its narrative strands are informed by real-life stories told by residents of the community.

This is the fourth play in Cornerstone’s Hunger Cycle, and while it’s a step up from the last two, Seed and Lunch Lady Courage, it’s nowhere near the level of the first, Café Vida. Its narrative isn’t nearly as smoothly tied together as that of Café Vida. Instead, it exists more as a series of sketches that try to cover a few too many characters, sometimes achieving breadth at the expense of depth. For example, we follow three women who are counseled by a priest as they progress toward graduating from some sort of school at the mission, but I never understood what they were studying or what new paths (if any) their “degrees” might open up for them.

Especially considering the difficulties inherent in working with non-professional actors in such a volatile environment, Shishir Kurup’s staging is remarkable. And of course Cornerstone’s top priority is serving the community with which it’s working, not with satisfying theater critics. As usual, Cornerstone appears to have succeeded at its first priority.

Love on San Pedro, Los Angeles Mission, 303 E. 5th St., LA. Parking is at the Downtown Women’s Center, 442 S. San Pedro St., LA. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. www.CornerstoneTheater.org.

Victoria Gardens, a master-planned shopping village in Rancho Cucamonga, east of Pasadena but west of San Bernardino, is far removed from Skid Row in downtown LA. And the children’s-oriented MainStreet Theatre Company seems a far cry from Cornerstone Theater.

But in its own way, MainStreet is serving its community just as Cornerstone serves its own many communities. The kids and their parents who saw the premiere of Luis Alfaro’s Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga not only were transported into some of the familiar tropes of children’s stories, but these were accompanied by place names and events from their immediate neighborhood that surely made the play somewhat more meaningful to them.

Amielynn Abellera
Amielynn Abellera in “Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

The leading character is a young bear cub who descends with her fellow bears into the Rancho Cucamonga area while fleeing a fire in the foothills. The narrative hook is that she becomes separated from the other bears, but never fear — they’re reunited.

Leaving the theater, parents could easily point out to the kids where the bears live — their mountains dominate the northern horizon. The kids also may have learned a thing or two about the human history of Rancho Cucamonga, because the bear herself learns a few tidbits as part of her conversations with cacti and ants and the moon in the play. Director Robert Castro made sure that the actors kept on the move, sometimes among the kids, and that all design elements were first-rate.

That MainStreet commissioned this rigorously local play as its first-ever world premiere is a bit of a risk. Chances are that not many other children’s theater companies are going to be interested in a play set in Rancho Cucamonga that has references to the local Corner Bakery. The play closed yesterday. But if you believe that theater is the art of the ephemeral, you’ve gotta believe that Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga was worth the moments it created inside the Lewis Family Playhouse.

What is ‘Devised Theatre’? 

“Devised theatre can be exceptional at highlighting underrepresented narratives in the world. Since everyone’s voice from the group is an integral component in the process, more perspectives get sifted through while collaborating.”

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