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.

Mayor Garcetti, Schlomo, the Afterlife, the Scots, the Greeks

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Mayor Eric Garcetti “was proud to host the Los Angeles arts community at City Hall to hear ideas about showcasing LA as the Creative Capital of the World,” according to his Facebook page. His social media writers were referring to his appearance before a roomful of arts and foundation leaders last week.

The Facebook post didn’t take note of the other half of Garcetti’s message — that he won’t provide any additional city money for the arts. But he intends to help raise private money for them, as part of his “showcasing” efforts.

I didn’t hear him mention LA theater except in this brief snippet: “Don’t come to me with ‘My theater company needs [fill in the] blank. We need you to think broadly’.”

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti sharing some of his thinking about municipal arts policy for an audience of local arts leaders Tuesday at City Hall. Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti sharing some of his thinking about municipal arts policy for an audience of local arts leaders Tuesday at City Hall. Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.

After Garcetti spoke and then answered a few questions from the audience, he left. But his staff then divided the audience into two groups, who stayed for another hour in order to consider two questions — what can the city government do to help transform LA into a “cultural destination” and what should Garcetti look for in a new general manager for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs? The participants then wrote suggestions on post-it notes which were collected, mounted around the perimeter of the room, and publicly summarized by staff members.

Garcetti’s decision not to keep the popular Olga Garay-English in the Cultural Affairs job had encountered some criticism from arts leaders, so I kept expecting that someone would answer the second question by suggesting that he simply re-hire her. From my reading of the post-it notes, I didn’t notice anyone being so bold. But one of those who had been quoted as critical of his decision later told me that she hadn’t even been aware of the mayor’s event.

Anyway, I’m glad that Garcetti has the arts on his mind, as well as his many other issues. From my vantage point, it would be even better to hear with more specificity that he occasionally has the vast but oddly obscure terrain of LA theater on his mind. In comparison to the visual arts and classical music in LA, non-profit LA theater and dance need all the publicity and financial support they can get.

TALES FROM EAST HOLLYWOOD: If  LA is the city “where creativity lives,” as Garcetti maintains, it would be great to see LA theater deal more often with LA itself. So let’s talk about Timothy McNeil’s new play The Twilight of Schlomo, produced by Elephant Theatre Company at Elephant Space — which, I would guess, is located about one mile west of where it’s set, in the district that Garcetti represented when he was on the city council.

This production of Schlomo marks not only one play about LA but also the culmination of McNeil’s Hollywood Trilogy, which also included Elephant productions of Los Muertos (2005) and Anything (2007)  — all of them directed by David Fofi, and all of them set in the same apartment building, near Santa Monica Boulevard in east Hollywood.

Jonathan Goldstein and Danny Parker-Lopes in "The Twilight of Shlomo." Photo by Joel Daavid.
Jonathan Goldstein and Danny Parker-Lopes in “The Twilight of Shlomo.” Photo by Joel Daavid.

Yes, east Hollywood. One of the things I like about McNeil’s work is that he isn’t writing about the generic “Hollywood,” which gets excessive worldwide attention all the time, or even the clearly demarcated and higher-income West Hollywood. He’s writing about his own small corner of east Hollywood and “its remarkable diversity,” he told me in an email.

And so diversity is part of the fabric of Schlomo. The title character — more commonly known as Richard (Jonathan Goldstein) — is a son of Holocaust survivors, and his offstage neighbors include a Russian heroin dealer, a couple from Texas (Nikki McCauley and Danny Parker) and a transvestite hooker. The Russian heroin dealer was the leading character in Los Muertos (and was played by McNeil himself), and the transvestite was one of the leading characters in Anything.

McNeil’s devotion to his enclave isn’t necessarily because it’s a place where cultures mix gracefully around the communal campfire to the strains of “Kumbaya.” No, it’s a depressing neighborhood, where the thin walls of Richard’s apartment allow him to hear the husband who’s beating his wife next door.

Richard is a sad sack — a former standup comic who wrecked his career with the help of acid. He now sells wine, not very successfully, although he personally seems to prefer the illegal addictive substances.  He’s on the cusp of 50 with a paltry $450 as his financial cushion. His only steady female companion is a prostitute (Kelly Hill, alternating with Vera Cherny) — much more educated than he is — who visits twice a week. About the only accomplishment in which he can take any pride is that she still gets orgasms during their sex.

Nikki McCauley and Jonathan Goldstein
Nikki McCauley and Jonathan Goldstein

Then, without warning, his 25-year-old stepdaughter (Lilan Bowden) — from one of his two former marriages — knocks on the door, looking for a place to stay. We gradually learn why she has returned to her childhood turf of LA. One of the reasons — not the most important, as it turns out, but certainly the most unexpected — is that she wants to become a Jew. Richard long ago abandoned his Jewish roots and doesn’t think much of the idea, but he allows her to sleep on his couch. (By the way, according to the script, the stepdaughter is Chinese-American — yet another ingredient of the cultural diversity in this play, but one that wasn’t clear to me as I watched it).

Schlomo goes down dark paths. Surprisingly enough, however, it builds to a tense climax followed by a plausible ray of emotional hope breaking through the pervading gloom. This is a masterful and moving achievement.

It’s difficult for a trilogy to feel like a trilogy when the second and third installments are separated by a production gap of seven years. Periodically I also think of Tom Burmester’s War Cycle that was so successful on the small-theater level, produced by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble; it has yet to be picked up by a producer at a larger theater. Are these remarkable small-theater trilogies destined to fade into oblivion without ever receiving wider audiences?

Now it’s time for LA’s midsize or larger theatrical institutions to investigate the possibilities of presenting the entire McNeil and Burmester trilogies on larger stages — not big stages, because the intimacy is important, especially with McNeil’s — but stages that would provide the actors with Equity contracts.

The Twilight of Schlomo, Elephant Place, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Closes Feb 9. www.plays411/schlomo. 323-960-4442.

ADVENTURES AFTER DEATH: I’ve seen three plays recently that offer glimpses into an afterlife. Let me begin with the two by LA playwrights before I end with the one that’s the most satisfying of the three — an import from Scotland at Broad Stage.

Armin Shimerman, Larry Cedar and David Melville in "Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson"
Armin Shimerman, Larry Cedar and David Melville in “Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is an awfully long and cumbersome title for a very light-hearted and rather brief play by Real Time With Bill Maher executive producer Scott Carter, in which he imagines the three titular luminaries arriving in quick succession in a room in purgatory. It’s at NoHo Arts Center, which co-produces with Independent Shakespeare Company and Efficiency Studios.

Because of the different eras in which they became famous, Jefferson knows nothing of Dickens and Tolstoy, and Dickens apparently hadn’t heard much about Tolstoy. But soon, as they try to figure out why they’re in this room together, they learn more about each other, including the fact that all of them attempted to write their own gospels. They also learn that they have contrasting, even clashing personalities. (Carter’s written script is preceded by quotes from the famous, including Dickens and Jefferson but not Tolstoy, that include the word “discord”).

The play proceeds trippingly enough, thanks to the characters’ quick exchanges and their eventual realization that they have to acknowledge their own flaws as well as their bragging rights. But it only barely transcends the depth of an elongated comedy sketch or the old Steve Allen TV series Meeting of Minds.

The title characters are played by luminaries of LA theater: Larry Cedar as Jefferson, David Melville as Dickens and Armin Shimerman as Tolstoy. They generate a lot of fun with their lively performances, accompanied by equally zippy design by Jeffrey Elias Teeter, Cricket S. Myers, Ann Closs-Farley, Luke Moyer and Takeshi Kata.

Gina Yates, Julia Silverman and Cyrus Alexander in "Mom's Gift." Photo by Sherry Netherland.
Trisha Hershberger, Gina Yates and Julia Silverman in “Mom’s Gift.” Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Also entering the afterlife sweepstakes in NoHo is Phil Olson’s Mom’s Gift, in an extended Group Rep production after opening before the holidays. The ghost of a dead woman assumes a Blithe Spirit-like position in her own previous home. Her presence is known only to her older and somewhat alienated daughter. Meanwhile, her widower is beginning to court the home-care aide who assisted the deceased before she died, and the younger daughter is beginning to talk about marrying a loser. The older and brainier daughter — who is the only one who can see and communicate with Mom — has seemingly closed her mind to marriage and creating a family of her own.

Olson attempts to combine snappy wisecracks with some complicated plot machinations that result in heartstring-plucking as the play goes along. Eventually the plotting and plucking go over the top, but the play generates a fair share of hearty laughs along the way.

Speaking of plays that attempt to blend thoughts about the afterlife with a story of a smart single woman who is holding back from engaging entirely with her current life, Broad Stage is currently presenting The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an immersive touring production from the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s considerably more audacious, haunting and enjoyable than Mom’s Gift.

The Broad’s smaller black-box Edye space has been converted into a cabaret configuration. A cast of five moves nimbly around the entire room, designed to resemble a small-town pub in Scotland.

To be more precise, David Greig’s script is set in Kelso, in the Scottish Borders area, southeast of Edinburgh, during the snowy winter solstice of 2010.  Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) is a young scholar who has recently written about the “topography of hell” as revealed through old ballads from the area. She arrives at an academic conclave in order to present her paper, but she becomes distracted as she speaks.  She’s soon swept up in a wild tale that takes her first to a raucous pub and then to a somewhat quieter but strangely menacing bed-and-breakfast.

Prudencia
Prudencia in “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.”

The production is anchored and enormously enlivened by its music. One of the actors, Alasdair Macrae, is also the composer and musical director, and the cast doubles as the band. All five actors sing and take turns at playing instruments that range from banjo to harmonium to the Border bagpipes (which have no mouthpiece), with Annie Grace handling most of the loveliest vocal solos and the bagpipes. The music is mostly rooted in the folk tradition that’s discussed (and satirized) by the academics in the play, but the play also endows the Kylie Minogue hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (by Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis) with a power and poignance that you never would have imagined.

The audience participates with such gestures as tearing up napkins and then throwing the pieces up to create “snow,” with a few individuals selected for somewhat more active participation. The staging by co-creator Wils Wilson creates an intoxicating sense of the importance of seizing the brief day, even if it takes place on the shortest day of the year in darkest Scotland.

In the interests of full disclosure:  I initially arrived late and missed the opening. So I returned to another performance to make sure I saw everything — and I’m glad I did.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Feb 23. www.thenohoartscenter.com. 818-508-7101 ext 6.

Mom’s Gift, Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 2. www.thegrouprep.com. 818- 763-5990.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat- Sun 2 pm, Sat 7:30 pm Feb 1 and 8 (but not next Sat). thebroadstage.com/prudencia. 310-434-3200.

THE REDUCED GREEK DRAMA COMPANIES: Broad Stage is also currently presenting An Iliad on its mainstage. Actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson boiled the Homer epic down to a one-act performance for solo actor and one instrumentalist. O’Hare himself is the actor at the Broad, and he displays extraordinary virtuosity in his role as the poet who both tells and enacts the story.

Denis O'Hare in "An Iliad." Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.
Denis O’Hare in “An Iliad.” Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

But whenever something as big as the Iliad is condensed into something as small as a one-man show with one musician providing accompaniment, I get the feeling that it’s a showcase as much as an epic. Although it uses the Broad’s big stage for a lot of movement on O’Hare’s part, it sounds like something that you might have heard in a small, cool, beat-era club during the early ‘60s — with some passages employing  up-to-date lingo that might be heard in a small club in 2014.

Compare An Iliad to I’ll Go On, Barry McGovern’s Beckett solo at Center Theatre Group‘s Kirk Douglas Theatre, staged by Colm Ó Briain for Gate Theatre. McGovern’s source material is a trilogy of early Beckett novels. The subject is the innermost thoughts of one man — not the outermost actions of the cast of thousands who participate in the Iliad.  Beckett’s novels lack the dramatic sensibility of, say, Waiting for Godot, but the solo format seems very appropriate for the subject matter. Although massive trimming has occurred here, apparently no updating has taken place. As I wrote last week, my own experience of watching I’ll Go On was somewhat handicapped by the immediate proximity of a cougher to my left, but I had no doubts about McGovern’s almost literally breathtaking performance.

Tim Settle and Simon Donaldson in "Jason and the Argonauts." Photo by Neil Thomas Douglas.
Tim Settle and Simon Donaldson in “Jason and the Argonauts.” Photo by Neil Thomas Douglas.

An Iliad isn’t the only reduced adaptation of a Greek classic in town, nor is Prudencia Hart the only Scottish show in town. At the Wallis in Beverly Hills, the Scottish company Visible Fictions is presenting a 65-minute touring version of Jason and the Argonauts, by Robert Forrest, directed by Douglas Irvine, performed by Tim Settle and Neil Thomas, designed for audiences “eight years old and above” (although quite a few of the kids in the audience appeared to be younger than eight).

In fact, the show is designed to replicate children’s play-acting, complete with the use of action-figure dolls to represent some of the many characters. Settle and Thomas take turns playing Jason and other characters and also move Robin Peoples’ large set piece, somewhat reminiscent of Mother Courage’s wagon, around the stage — most of the time it represents Jason’s ship.

The kids around me seemed to eat it up. Adults who don’t have kids in tow might be a little less impressed than the parents in the crowd, but just about anyone should be eager to get the first theatrical glimpse of the Wallis’ second and smaller stage, which appears to be a black box capable of many interesting transformations to come.

An Iliad, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Wed and Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes Feb 2. thebroadstage.com/iliad. 310-434-3200.

I’ll Go On, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. No matinee on Jan 26, no evening performance on Feb 2. Closes Feb 9. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

Jason and the Argonauts, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Thu-Fri 7 pm, Sat 3 pm and 7 pm, Sun 2 pm and 5 pm. www.thewallis.org. 310-246-3800.