Macha Theatre’s Greta’s Cuban Lover

Odalys Nanin knows her Golden Age of Hollywood inside and out. Or, more precisely, she knows her lesbian history as it played out in the private homes of Hollywood royalty.

In this case, it is Mercedes de Acosta’s penchant for long pants and exotic leading ladies that is the subject of Nanin’s 2001 play, “Garbo’s Cuban Lover.” There is a reason why she was known as “a lover to the stars.” She bedded (whether rumored or confirmed – mostly confirmed) among others: Alla Nazimova, Ona Munson, Tallulah Bankhead, Isadora Duncan and Marlene Dietrich, but it is her greatest love, her soul mate Greta Garbo, upon which this play hinges.

The play opens late in de Acosta’s (Odalys Nanin) life as her muse, Isadora Duncan, played by the enchanting Erin Holt, tends to her recent brain surgery. We’re immediately swept back to the early 1920s, at the moment that she meets the Swedish film actress Greta Garbo. Over the course of nearly thirty years, we see their unpredictable relationship flourish – mostly stoic retorts from Garbo (delivered with delightfully dry wit by Elyse Mirto) to de Acosta that “I vant to be alone.”

During that period, de Acosta secures a contract at MGM where she butts heads with Irving Thalberg (John Nagle.) Tension in this Sapphic melodrama turns up a notch when the sexually free Marlene Dietrich (Julia Kostenevich) makes advances on de Acosta. Stuck between true love and lust, de Acosta, naturally, indulges both. Always the free spirit and progressive thinker, she presaged the free love of the 60s counterculture and advocated for same-sex marriage, even at a time when it was inconceivable to do so.

The many layers that make de Acosta such a compelling character are vividly brought to life by an imaginative script, full of humor and pathos that blends fact and fiction into one seamless, plausible narrative.

Shon LeBlanc’s costumes and a simple Art Deco set piece transport us to Hollywood’s Golden Age; and Nanin’s direction (along with co-director Laura Butler) is fluid enough to keep the action flowing like champagne at a Golden Age Hollywood party.

The ensemble cast is superb. Lisa Merkin as Salka Viertel delivers her lines with sublime humor; Mirto is dead-on as Garbo, offering up an amazing performance; as Thalberg, John Nagle, the only male in this cast, holds his own.

Unfortunately, in taking the lead role herself and in contrast to the other nearly flawless performances, the author plays de Acosta with a Ricky Ricardo-slapstick style at odds with the overall tone. In so doing she often diminishes the poignancy of the play.

Happily the rest of this production is solid enough to overcome this miscue. This is a standout revival of a very good play.

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Bash’d A Gay Rap Opera at Celebration Theatre

An all-rap opera would seem a bit of an odd choice for musical theatre – even a gay one. But when you consider that any number of rap incarnations date back a few centuries and that it draws closer to its political roots, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that theatre and rapping would eventually cross paths to tell this story.

Although BASH’d isn’t a new concept, it is an ideal choice for this call to arms to our gay community to stand up and take action. The action, of course, is that of gay marriage – no less a hot button issue right now, both in the U.S. and in Canada, where this piece originated.

Written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckrow, the piece is loosely based on the escalation of hate crimes in Alberta, Canada during the gay marriage debate of 2005. You could say that it borrows from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a Romeo-on-Romeo twist.

This is a wonderful and joyous production from Celebration theatre, although it is not for those who still think theatre is a passive sporting event, and it is definitely not for those who proclaim theater’s demise whenever a younger generation finds a new voice and a new way to tell familiar stories.

Even before the show begins, DJ Jedi spins his beats to an enthusiastic audience. By the time the show starts, the crowd is in a festive mood. Feminem (Sean Bradford) and T-Bag (Chris Ferro) take the stage, Greek chorus-style, to introduce us to Jack and Dillon (played by the same actors respectively.) These characters are, indeed star cross’d lovers as they meet at a club, fall in love, eventually get married, and then face the realities of hate crimes.

Along the way, the play offers up plenty of laughs, in particular, the extremely funny bit that takes place at the clubs where T-Bag and Femimen nail (no pun intended) every gay stereotype they run into. Twink to hairy bear, no stereotype is left unscathed. Minimal props Michael O’Hara) and costumes (Naila Aladdin Sanders) is all that is needed to adorn this world.

BASH’d is well executed from start to finish. The rap is in your face and loud (as it should be) as it takes us on a humorous journey, but with some serious turns in just the right direction. Neither pandering or playing for melodrama, Bradford and Ferro take us on an honest emotional journey. The music (by Aaron Macri) is evocative of one such white rapper with those tight raps and Ferro is eerily reminiscent of Eminem.

Politically, this rap opera is just as aggressive in message as are those prominent rappers from whom they borrow. As African-America rappers have reclaimed the N-word for themselves, so too have we been commanded to take “faggot” and make it our own. It’s an extreme objective to be sure, but not one so far-fetched considering the extent to which our own civil rights have been violated.

Director/choreographer Ameenah Kaplan knows his way around the Celebration stage and employs Evan Bartoletti’s set, consisting of boxes that double as an urban landscape, to firmly plant us into this world of gay love and hetero hate. Bradford and Ferro switch seamlessly into multiple characters with little effort and inventive choreography. It goes to show that having a young and energetic cast need not be peppered with gratuitous nudity to draw in a West Hollywood crowd… At least, not anymore.

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On a bittersweet note this is Matthew A. Shepperd’s last show before stepping down as Artistic Director of Celebration. His challenge — distancing his company from the success of Naked Boys Singing!, which made Celebration West Hollywood’s go to theatre for nudie-boy plays — ends on a high note.

He set out to take this theatre in a new direction. This gutsy production is a fine example of his taking the risk of failure by challenging a proven formula, and triumphing.

Performances through July 23 at Celebration Theater, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, go to http://www.celebrationtheatre.com/onstage.html.

The 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival Coverage

I am really excited to be covering the 2nd Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival. After what has been perceived as a disastrous theatre community by skeptics here in Los Angeles as well as throughout the rest of the U.S., it is a sigh of relief that LA is finally fighting back. I firmly believe that there is a viable theatre community right in the heart of the movie world. As Neil LaBute stated in the past, theatre in Los Angeles has taken a back seat to its glitzier, wealthy cousins Film and Television.

I can only hope that the tide has turned at last. With close to 200 artistic groups and over 800 performances, workshops, exhibitions, and events throughout central Hollywood, there is certainly a lot of theatre going on.

I will be covering as much as I can cover this year. Please follow my reviews and comment if you have attended any performances. I would love to hear from those theatre goers who enjoyed a great performance.

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