Children of a Lesser God at Deaf Theatre West

When it first premiered in 1979, Mark Medoff’s, Children of a Lesser God impacted the deaf community in a way that brought their plight for equality to the collective conscious of the rest of the nation. It dealt honestly with the issues of marginality between the hearing and the non-hearing world. A lot has changed since that production premiered, but a lot hasn’t. Now, thirty years after its original Tony Award Winning production, Medoff’s play returns with a new interpretation that’s even more accessible to everyone than it was when it first premiered.

Deaf West Theatre’s 30th Anniversary production of Children of a Lesser God proves that a little nostalgia, a little innovation, and a lot of relevance, can still have a big impact today. Set in 1979 and follows the relationship of deaf student, Sarah Norman (Shoshannah Stern) and her speech teacher, James Leeds (Matthew Jaeger). At first, it is a teacher/student relationship in which reluctant Sarah refuses to learn to speak for fear of looking funny or weird, as she feels her friend Orin (Brian M. Cole) does. Eventually, the relationship becomes more intimate as the two begin to fall in love, despite Leeds’ boss, Mr. Franklin (Time Winters). Warned against the hurdles the couple will face by leaving the safe environment that the school for the deaf provides, Sarah and James struggle to be as normal as possible.

One of the most emotional scenes in the play takes place in Act Two, when Sarah, frustrated with everyone’s inability to communicate with her, bursts out in a primal rage of pain that pierces through the small theatre. It is the ultimate form of expression for a woman who’s been told all her life that she must assimilate into a “normal” society by learning to speak. Stern and Jaeger is a perfect match that slowly builds the tension of the play. Stern, with restraint and subtlety projects the storm that brews within her as she grapples between both worlds.

Jaeger’s charm and charisma serves as both comfort and frustration for Stern’s character, building the perfect counter-balance that pushes her towards her ultimate decision that closes the play. Lydia’s (Tami Lee Santimyer) naïve sexuality is both touching and heart breaking, while Mrs. Norman (Marilyn McIntyre), Sarah’s mother, accurately depict the frustrations of a mother who does not understand but wishes to reach out to her deaf daughter. Orin and Edna Klein (Rebecca Ann Johnson) propel the play’s more political statement, at times butting heads, while working together to bring awareness.

The apparent simplicity of the play is deceiving, when you consider the different themes that it attempts to address: love, religion, relationships, politics, culture, and family, gracefully rendered on stage by a fine and talented cast, a simple scenic design by John Iacovelli that comes to life by Leigh Allen’s lighting.

The deaf community has made great advancements towards functional equivalency. Plays such as this one reminds us that there is still a lot of work ahead of us. Thankfully, director Jonathan Barlow Lee hasn’t forgotten the message of the original production (he was stage manager for that show.) And it shows in this very powerful new production.

Gross Indecency at The Eclectic Theatre Company

More than one hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde was brought to court for indecent acts that violated the Victorian law of turn of the century England. More than one hundred years ago, these charges still resonate within the gay community today. Wilde was such an aesthete that challenged the conventions of his time and changed the perception of sexuality. Unfortunately for Wilde, he was pitted against an established regime and his own art was used against him to bring him down.

Moises Kaufman’s play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde takes official documents, letters, press accounts, and court transcripts to construct a gripping portrayal of Wilde’s three trials, the first of which he brought up against his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’ father John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. The following trials found Wilde the defendent for “committing acts of gross indeceny with other male persons”. Really, what was on trial was the political state of art itself. Wilde was considered a revolutionary and also dangerous for his thought on art, and for that reason, this was a perfect excuse to bring him down.

Kaufman’s play is a brilliant concoction of research that seamlessly reconstructs those trial days while maintianing an emotional distance. His signature style use of a cast that play multiple characters is as effective in this play as his later play, The Laramie Project, in which he also he uses the horrific death of Matthew Shepard to examine the extent of homophobia in the Wyoming town where he was murdered. In docudrama style, Gross Indeceny moves forward, driven by it’s own compelling evidence. And although it is really stripped by emotion, one cannot help but feel an emotional surge for Wilde’s plight of outright injustice in a time when puritanical views reigned supreme (something that even to this day seems to hold true.)

Susan Lee, the director of this production at Eclectic Theatre Company, has successfully managed a moving and involving production of this play with a talented cast capable of cutting to the truth of each character. Her approach seeks to answer the question of who or what dictates morality.

Although Kerr Seth Lorygan doesn’t resemble Wilde, his portrayal in this play is compelling so much so that his persona has you believing all that Wilde encompassed, from his passion for his art to his complicated love for Douglas (Joshua Grant). Still, resemblance to the actual character is inconsequential in a play that aims to answer more universal questions of morality. As for the rival barristers, Dean Farell Bruggeman (Carson) and Darrell Philip (Clarke), command the stage as they switch from the multiple roles that are required in this play. Grant, too, as the effeminate Douglas hell bent on persuading Wilde to press charges against his father for libel, brings a touch of tenderness and pathos – even as Wilde, in his later years, begins to blame him for his downfall.

Supporting actors fill out the rest of the cast of characters, intermittenly falling in and out of multiple roles with swift seamless effort. Beth Ricketson’s George Bernard Shaw and Casey Kramer’s Frank Harris are worthy of mention.

Although not a perfect production, the cast at times fumbled with dialouge throughout, this production is worthy of a wonderful presentation that effectively serves Kaufman’s play wonderfully.

Liza at the Hollywood Bowl

Whatever is said of the glorious heyday of Liza Minnelli’s career (around the 1960s and 1970’s) when she had already established herself as a successful nightclub singer, her triumphant concert event at the Hollywood Bowl is a testament to her staying power over a career of ups and downs.

Her voice, definitely, is not the highlight of this concert, but it shouldn’t be taken as a drawback. Remember, she just recently received a Tony Award in July for her performance of Liza’s at the Palace… last winter. If that is any indication, it is this: Liza knows how to take her weaknesses and tweak it into a tour de force performance.

Dressed in all white, Liza stepped on to the stage with the confidence of a true diva with a mission-to win her audience over. And win them over she did. “We’re all in this together,” she told everyone sitting in the outdoor venue, sweating up a storm in the hot late August night. As if on cue, the crowd responds with calls of adoration (“We Love You, Liza” seemed to be the catch-all phrase on Saturday night.)

With that, she leads into her song set, comprised of her standard hits, sung with bravado and life-worn experience. For the most part, Liza was out of breath during the up-tempo numbers. At one point, she apologizes to the audience and asks if it would be ok to bring out a chair.

Of course, the audience goes wild and she continues on. Ever the classy and funny lady of the stage, at another point in her set, she breaks from her song to inform the audience that, had this been a few years earlier, at this point in the song, she would have found herself down on her knees…But at 63 years old, this legend wows the crowd by merely pointing out that she’s not doing it anymore.

As mentioned earlier, it’s not about her voice anymore, but the mere legendary status that is known as Liza. Her voice, by now throaty indiscernible by the end of Act I, perhaps due to her rough treatment due to drug abuse problems, is candidly, if not slyly incorporated into her classic number, “Cabaret.” In that song, she knowingly addresses the irony of the lyrics regarding “too much pills and liquor” with bit of dry humor that sends the crowd roaring with laughter.

Act II highlights include her signature “New York, New York,” which is hands down the show stopper of the evening. With all the glitz and glamour of lights and sounds, Liza knows how to make an exit-she knows how to bring her adoring audience to its feet. In the course of one evening, she’s taken the house on a musical journey through a career-spanning trajectory of standards that are personal to her own life while paying tribute to all those that helped her stand where she is today-from Kander and Ebb (“Maybe This time” and “My Own Best Friend”) Kahal and Fain (“I’ll Be Seeing You”), and touching “What Makes A Man A Man” by Charles Aznavour.

Liza has definitely had her ups and down, at the expense of hungry tabloids documenting her drug abuse and string of failed marriages. Fortunately for her, and for the rest of the world, she’s riding on the heels of a fresh Tony Award as she preps up for a limited engagement at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. If this sold out performance at the Bowl is any indication, she’ll sell out the Strip, indeed.

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