Steel Magnolias at La Mirada Playhouse

Those out there who are only familiar with Robert Harling’s film version of his 1987 Off-Broadway hit, Steel Magnolias are missing out on a gem of a play. For one thing, its strength lies in larger-than-life women and they fill the stage to a marvelous degree.

The six southern women who gather at Truvy’s (Christa Jackson) Beauty Shop – a room addition to her house – are free to complain about their husbands and dish out the current town gossip. Truvy’s new assistant, Annelle (Emma Fassler), who’s only 19 years old, provides much of that gossip, with her mysterious past and elusive husband who may or may not be a wanted criminal.

But in fact, not very much happens in this quiet Louisiana town of Chinquapin. Focus shifts from Annelle to Shelby (Amy Sloan) when she enters the shop to get her hair done for her wedding later that day. She is a diabetic who learns she can’t get pregnant and is opting for adoption. Also in the group of women are Ouiser (Michael Learned), the curmudgeon with a heart of gold and Clairee (Rosina Reynolds) a rich widow.

If there were a star of the show in this ensemble piece, it would be Cathy Rigby as Shelby’s tough mother, M’Lynn. But not to take away from her performance, the success of the play and of this production lies in the excellent cast assembled at La Mirada Playhouse. Harling’s ear for language is even more of a plus for the stage and there are great one liners and witty repartee. At the same time, it is this very asset that sometimes holds the play back. Some of the banter that is peppered throughout the play (and most noticeably in the Second Act) stalls the pacing – but not for too long. It is a drama that is infused with funny moments, after all, and this production wisely avoids the melodrama that can derail such a play.

Costumes and sets evoke the 80’s (the time in which the play is set) without being too kitschy or over the top, but the music seems out of place in this world that the playwright has created.  These particular songs that play through the blackouts are probably not the kinds of songs these women would have been listening to. Still, these six steel magnolias are a force to be reckoned with, and the minor flaws in the production don’t stop them from coming to full life.

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Moonlight and Magnolias at Laguna Playhouse

Moonlight and Magnolias is a fictionalized account of three major Hollywood players who, at the behest of the producer, are looked in his office for five days to until they can produce a script for a movie that has been already been filming for three weeks. All production has halted against denials of such things to the press, and all principal actors are on hold until such screenplay is produced. The movie in question: Gone With the Wind.

Though it is a creative supposition on behalf of playwright Ron Hutchinson, the play is very plausible and it creates an utterly entertaining play with laugh out loud moments. Facts have been changed for dramatic purposes. Producer David O. Selznick, playwright Ben Hecht, and director Victor Fleming only produced half of the script – enough to resume work on the halted production, and it really took them seven days to do that. But in this play, the changes raise the stakes and the laughs keep coming.

Selznick (Jeff Marlow), son-in-law of behemoth movie mogul Louis B. Mayer needs to have a blockbuster to crawl out of his giant shadow and he has invested all he has on this Margaret Mitchell novel. The script wasn’t working despite the fact that several prominent writers had taken a stab at it (F.Scott Fitzgerald and Charles MacArthur had made attempts) but nothing was working. He brings in script writer, Ben Hecht (Leonard Kelly-Young) to pump life into the script – although he has never read the novel. To direct this film, Selznick pulls Victor Fleming (Brendan Ford) from the final weeks of principal photography on The Wizard of Oz. With a diet of peanuts and bananas, the three set out to tackle this epic.

The Laguna Playhouse has assembled a wonderfully talented and comedic cast that brings these larger-than-life characters to colorful life. Marlow embodies Selznick with a sort of youthful gusto. Ford and Marlow are at their best in the scenes where Selznick and Fleming must enact the scenes from the novel while Hecht pecks away at the typewriter. Physical comedy doesn’t get any better than this.

Straight-man Kelly-Young helps bring out some of the more serious issues that this production of Gone With the Wind did not address: slavery and racism and Jews in Hollywood at that time. Hutchinson wisely steers away from heavy-handed speeches and monologues and instead, opts to bring that to the fore with plenty of comedy.

One final element of this play is the role of Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Emily Eiden). Though the character has minimal lines and only enters and exits briefly and sporadically throughout the play – it is Ms. Eiden’s performance that steals the show. The four actors work well together to bring this funny play to life. Even if it is partially fiction, behind-the-scenes Hollywood has never been this funny.

Medea at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse

You would think that a marital spat would play out like any other marital spat in any suburban household across the U.S.A.: doors slam and voices are raised with no regards as to what the children might hear from behind a bedroom door. But the marital discourse playing out at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse isn’t your typical feud between a husband and wife and as for the children, their fate is sealed by a woman scorned over her husband’s betrayal. The woman in question, of course, is Medea. The heinous act against her children is an act that has been debated for centuries.

Lenka Udovicki’s stunning production takes on a contemporary flair in this stylized interpretation (taken from a 1994 text by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish) that emphasizes the complex psychology of Medea, which is usually thought to be a simple scorned-woman tale. For Udovicki, it was the perfect vehicle to bring out the humanity and the moments of unexpected humor in the play. This production has successfully managed to render her vision to astounding life. The modern staging features music (by Pirayeh Pourafar and Houman Pourmehdi in collaboration with Nigel Osborne) for a masked, chanting female chorus who often move with cat-like precision. They assist in putting the traditional interpretation of the play on its end, rethinking the role of women in the society in which Medea finds herself.

The real star of the show is Annette Bening who plays Medea in a cool, calculated performance that is both moving and chilling at the same time. At times she moves around the sand-filled stage encumbered by the heavily draped gown that seems to weigh her down. Angus MacFadyen’s Jason easily reflects the modern man’s need to climb the corporate ladder, so to speak, to secure his family’s station in society at any cost.

The supporting cast includes a superb Mary Lou Rosato as the Corinthian Woman at the opening of the play who fills in the audience on the goings-on between Medea and Jason. The imposing set that includes lots of metal, tall walls and a power line in the background, seemingly remain inert, until the climactic scene that suddenly finds the set come to life as Medea rages.

Very few productions in town have such impact as this production of Medea. Though originally written for an Athenian audience, this play has relevance today, which goes to show that the human heart has gone relatively unchanged for thousands of years.

The Seagull at The Chance Theatre

Art, sex, and fragile dreams. Anton Chekov’s brilliant blend of comedy and tragedy comes to life in a new adaptation of his first major work, The Seagull. Richard Nelson’s new adaptation highlights the themes of the play in a way that resonates with today’s obsession with fame, relationships, and the harsh realities that they sometimes bring. Originally staged in 1896, this play was met with hostility and was deemed a critical failure. However, it is now considered one of the greatest plays and this new production at the Chance Theatre proves that classics need not be treated as museum pieces, but can still have a profound impression on its audience.

Love is the central theme of the play. Love for the creation of a new type of art and love for those who we wish to return affection. At the play’s opening, Konstantin (Dan Flapper) prepares to present his new experimental while waiting for his ingénue, Nina (Jennifer Ruckman) – with whom he is also madly in love. Enter Arkadina (Karen Webster), a famous actress of the stage and mother to Konstantin, along with her devoted admirers, which include Trigoran (Jonathon Lamer), a popular writer, her ailing brother Sorin (Glenn Koppel), the groundskeeper’s daughter Masha (Melanie Gable), who pines for Konstantin from afar. Rounding out the audience is Medvedenko (Jara Jones), whom Masha despises but considers a suitable mate in light of her station in life. And so the perpetual yearning for what is unattainable cycles through Chekov’s tragic play, echoed in Konstantin’s desire to create an art that is, as of yet, not accepted by his peers.

Tony Vezner’s direction makes for a swift interpretation that uses Nelson’s naturalistic language to full effect, while still keeping the original time period intact. The comedic elements throughout the play balances the tragic and keeps it from teetering into melodrama – a wonderfully effective result that is neither sentimental nor over the top. Ms. Gable’s deadpan characterization is an ironic portrait of humor amidst heartbreak. Jones’ awkwardness is a perfect match to her put-upon situation, even as she yearns to be closer to Konstantin.

As much as we would love to see Konstantin and Nina find some sort of happiness together, it is not to be. Flapper’s Konstantin is much too childish and temperamental, while Ruckman’s Nina, despite her naiveté, appears years beyond his reach. It is this combination that ultimately follows its inevitable trajectory.

As the closing scene ends, we’re left with a montage of these fragmented people, echoed in Shaun L. Motley’s set design of curved walls and fragmented scenery and warmly lit by Jeff Brewer’s Light design. For the Arkadinas and Konstantins of our present world, the cycle continues.

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