Monday, July 7, 2014

Covering the Hollywood Fringe Fest

I'm embarrassed to say it's been an entire month since I've been heard from here at the Village, but I've been quite busy.

As a member of the press for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which ran from June 12 to June 29, I took in no fewer than 15 productions, writing reviews and providing exclusive interviews with some of the gifted companies who presented terrific work at the Fringe.

One of the most fun aspects of the event for me was that I could take my bike on the Metro from Universal City and ride around Hollywood, making the experience as "green" as possible.

But now onto some of my Fringe favorites. Click on the links to be taken to my reviews and more.

Paul Hoan Ziedler's Woof-Woof was a dynamic, foul-mouthed kick in the teeth, telling the story of a severely traumatized Iraq war vet who, just released from the army psychiatric hospital, decides to go visit his childhood friend in New York, even though he's in no way prepared to re-enter society. The actors — Jay Seals, Devin Skrade and especially Brett Donaldson — really delivered.

Benjamin Durham (face covered) and Jonny Rodgers in No Homo.
Also good was two-time Fringe Fest award-winner No Homo: A Bromantic Tragedy, which skirted potential clichés and offfered up a scenario with fully-developed characters everyone in Los Angeles can relate to. And it was funny, too!

Another happy surprise was The Best of 25 Plays Per Hour, which consisted of sketches running around two minutes apiece. This sort of format runs the risk of becoming tedious, but the enormously talented company, Theater Unleashed, knew just how to present the pieces for maximum impact. Naturally, most of them were comedy skits, but there were a few poignant ones thrown in to break it up.

Brendan Weinhold and Dawn Alden in Four Tree Plays
There was even an entertaining avant-garde theater piece, Four Tree Plays, consisting of a quartet of environmentally-themed pieces performed by actors who played trees, animals and even the occasional human. It had humor, it had movement, and it felt...oh, so avant-garde.

The Lost Moon Radio troupe, a Fringe favorite, came loaded for bear with Million Dollar Hair, a riotous musical tribute to a fictitious record producer, hosted by his malapropism-afflicted daughter, who introduces the acts that helped to make her father rich throughout the years. The genre spoofing is mostly dead-on, with some hilarious lyrics — and appreciably fine musicianship.

David Haverty, Kyle Nudo, Leigh Wulff and Michael Shaw Fisher.
Adding to the musical fun was Orgasmico Theatre Company's The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd., and this one was really ambitious. With some more spit and polish (and budget), I can easily see it playing successfully off-Broadway.

It's about an entertainment agent who, when fired by the new owner of his firm, is urged by actual "werewolves" throughout history to get in touch with his animal side. And unlike those musicals whose songs merely set to music the dialogue the characters have just spoken (cough—Wicked), the tunes here actually advance the plot and develop the characters.

Among the other shows I enjoyed, Meet & Greet was a comedy about the "business" that features four actresses who meet in a San Fernando Valley casting office to compete for a lousy role in a trashy series about a "cougar" and her young lover.

Writers Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin, who've both been in the scene for a while, create a knowing and hilarious send-up of the dreadful Hollywood casting process. Carolyn Hennesy (True Blood) and '80s goofy blond (and game show favorite) Teresa Ganzel brought the star power, ably supported by Vicki Lewis, Daniele Gaither and Paul Iacano. Easy to stage and funny as hell, I can see this becoming a regional theater favorite.

One-person shows were big at the Fringe, and I saw some good ones. I Want to Bury My Testimony was the intimate coming-out story of a former Mormon (Scott Hislop) who describes the challenges of growing up a "girly-boy" in Salt Lake City and Reno. Hislop's charm and energy really put it over. 

The Wake, written and performed by a riveting Ben Moroski, was a dark and strange piece about a guy getting over being dumped by falling in love with a dead girl. Now who hasn't done that?  

Linden Arden Stole the Highlights was written and performed by Colin Mitchell (whose Bitter Lemons site I also write for), and it's a truly galvanizing work. Taking the lyrics of a rather obscure Van Morrison song as a starting point, Mitchell creates a legendary character — an expatriate gangster hiding out in Scotland — and it results in a forceful evening of theater.

If you've never experienced the Fringe, one thing to keep in mind is that there's a scant 30 minutes downtime between shows, with several of them playing each day at each venue. So when one finishes, its company must rush out to let the next one come in, set up, do a lighting and sound check, and be ready to perform. Tick tick tick. Given these time constraints, it makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

I miss the Fringe already. Since shows were happening every day, I could hop the Metro on a Monday or Tuesday night if I felt like it — and go see a play. Now we're back to a less-sparkling beginning of the week. It feels like the lights have gone out.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Three Legends of the Actors Studio

The Actors Studio, founded in New York in 1947, gave professional actors, directors and playwrights a place to work on Method acting, a technique developed by Constantin Stanislavski from 1911-15 and adapted by Lee Strasberg beginning in the 1950s. The list of Method actors is legendary, but today in the Village we're giving the shout-out to three memorable stars who emerged from the Studio to make their mark in tragically short careers.

The inimitable Geraldine Page was a confirmed Method actor whose unbridled intensity enhanced the larger-than-life characters she frequently played. Onstage, she appeared in a legendary production of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke at Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village. She also worked with James Dean in The Immoralist in 1954 (ah, New York in the '50s...what a great time that must've been).

In 1959, she famously co-starred with Paul Newman in Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, also appearing with him in the 1962 film version. In 1964, she played Olga in Chekhov's Three Sisters, with Sandy Dennis playing the youngest sister Irina at one point in the run — but more about her later. Page played Mary Todd Lincoln in 1973 opposite Maya Angelou in the two-character Look Away. And she certainly must have made a great Mother Superior in the original Broadway run of Agnes of God in 1982, a production I would love to have seen.

Page's style was unmistakable. Her voice was rather sing-songy; she could be twitchy; and, like Susan Tyrrell, she could project a stately beauty or coarsen her features as needed for a role. I first became aware of her via the '70s Rod Serling series Night Gallery, and her two episodes — "Something in the Woodwork" and "Sins of the Fathers" — were unforgettable. Even as a kid, I thought, "Who is this bizarre woman with such a mannered acting style?"

An unusual role for her was playing a widowed mother opposite John Wayne in the 1953 3D Western Hondo. Casting a New York Method actor alongside "the Duke" is such a bizarre notion. But it wouldn't be her only appearance with an action star. Far more fitting was her appearance in The Beguiled as the headmistresss of a girl's school in the Antebellum South during the grueling last days of the Civil War. Clint Eastwood played a wounded Yankee soldier who's taken in by Page and nursed to health while all the repressed women in the house become obsessed with him. Not a success upon its release, it's actually one of my favorite Eastwood films because it's so weird.

I first discovered Page's performance as Sookie in Truman Capote's 1966 A Christmas Memory when my local PBS station broadcast it in the 1980s. It's become mandatory holiday viewing ever since. Made by future Mommie Dearest director Frank Perry for ABC, it featured Capote himself as narrator — and won Page an Emmy.

She did her time as a "horror hag" in Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice?, appearing with the equally bizarre Ruth Gordon, who actually played her role more-or-less straight. But as a down-on-her-luck widow who hires housekeepers for the sole purpose of killing them for their money, Page has a field day.

And, of course, her swan song as Carrie Watts in the film version of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful brought her the Academy Award she so richly deserved. And speaking of Method acting — this film and A Christmas Memory are the two Page works I've watched most frequently, and as Sookie, she writes left-handed, but as Mother Watts, she writes with her right hand! Now, that's commitment to character. She was married to actor Rip Torn from 1963 until her death at 62 years of age.

In the 1960s, certain actresses were branded as "kooks" (Goldie Hawn being one of them) for their freewheeling acting style. Certainly one of the kookiest was Sandy Dennis, who most famously played Honey in the daring 1966 film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Taylor and Burton. Long-faced, sharp-nosed, and possessing a mouthful of gigantic teeth, she was a twitcher, yet she had that elusive something that captivated audiences.

She was a young, idealistic teacher trying to aid troubled teens in an overcrowded New York high school in 1967's Up the Down Staircase. Of course, later that year, another movie about a teacher — To Sir, With Love — blew this one out of the water, but I still remember it because of her. She played a (gasp!) lesbian in The Fox that same year, co-starring with 2001's Keir Dullea. Released just after the dissolution of the Production Code (brought on by Virginia Woolf!), it was originally rated R and featured frank scenes of nudity and sexuality.

Dennis was hilarious as Jack Lemmon's wife in 1970's The Out-of-Towners. As an Ohio couple visiting the Big Apple for the first time, they encounter every horror the big city can dish out, and her reactions to the ever-increasing indignities are a hoot.

And, of course, her Mona in Robert Altman's 1982 film version of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is priceless. And what co-stars — Cher, Karen Black and Kathy Bates? Weird movie nirvana! Cher even gets to make fun of Dennis's quirkiness at one point: "I just don't uh-uh-uh-understand h-h-how p-p-people can b-be so uh-uh-uh cruel!"

She played Stephen Geoffrey's religious nut mother in 976-EVIL (1988), directed by Freddy Kreuger himself, Robert Englund. It's very much a product of its time. A much stranger piece was Bob Balaban's 1989 black comedy Parents, starring Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as a '50s-style couple who also happen to be cannibals. Dennis plays the guidance counselor hoping to break through to the aforementioned parents' son (Bryan Madorsky) who is understandably upset by what he thinks his folks may be up to. Playing like the bastard child of David Lynch and Samuel Fuller, this is a dark one.

Dennis's final film performance was in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's directorial debut, in 1991. She died of cancer the following year at only 54 years of age. She lived with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan for over 10 years and with Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) from 1980-85.

Lee Remick's girl-next-door good looks made people forget about how truly subversive her career was. She played icy blondes, naive schoolgirls, victims and crusaders. She also possessed a fine singing voice and was pals with Stephen Sondheim.

She made her debut as Andy Griffith's child bride in Elia Kazan's excoriating A Face in the Crowd (also with the great Patricia Neal). In 1959, she played a rape victim in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, which featured rather racy language and subject matter for its time.

1962's The Days of Wine and Roses, directed by Blake Edwards, co-starred Remick and Jack Lemmon as a young couple whose marriage is torn apart by alcohol. She starts out as a teetotalling secretary introduced to social drinking by Lemmon, finally ending up leaving him after he sobers up, saying she can't live without alcohol because she can't stand "how ugly everything looks." Both actors give tremendous performances in this agonizing film.

She played the love interest of Rod Steiger's serial killer in the 1968 dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, That same year, she played the wife of Frank Sinatra in The Detective, another "adult" film that tackled such themes as homosexuality in a graphic manner. In 1970, she participated in a film version of Joe Orton's Loot, which remains rightfully obscure. In 1973, she played Julia in the American Film Theater adaptation of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, starring Katharine Hepburn as the family matriarch.

On television, she played a crusading reporter who investigates the prostitution racket in New York in 1975's Hustling. She was nominated for an Emmy playing doomed actress Margaret Sullivan in Haywire. And in keeping with her habit of doing stage work in other media, she appeared with Hal Linden in a 1982 television version of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's I Do! I Do!, which takes place entirely in bed.

Today, most people remember her as the wife of Gregory Peck's Ambassador Thorn and unwitting mother of the Antichrist in 1976's The Omen, which saw her toppling off of balconies and getting thrown out of a hospital window by that evil Billie Whitelaw.

Surprisingly, her only notable stage appearance was her Tony-nominated role as blind Suzy Hendrix in the Broadway run of Wait Until Dark, a role that would be taken by Audrey Hepburn in the film version. She appeared in Sondheim's short-lived Anyone Can Whistle in 1964, and played Phyllis in a PBS concert adaptation of his Follies. She was set to play Desiree Armfelt in a Los Angeles theatrical production of A Little Night Music but sadly had to withdraw due to a relapse of the kidney cancer that took her life that same year. She was 55.

Friday, May 23, 2014

TV Review: 'The Normal Heart'

Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons. Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO.
Originally produced off-Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart arrived onstage as a howl of anger: against the mysterious disease that struck the gay community without warning; against the blasé government that sat idly by for years as the disease took its toll; and against the medical professionals who refused to treat the sick and dying for fear of becoming ill themselves.

In the intervening years, important films have been made on the subject, with 1991’s Longtime Companion and HBO’s own 2003 adaptation of Angels in America standing out. Nevertheless, a record of this landmark deserves to be made, and Ryan Murphy has done a fine job on the film version (with a screenplay by Kramer) making its broadcast debut this coming Sunday. And the casting of some of today’s hottest stars assures it will actually be seen, hopefully reaching a young adult audience whose knowledge of the history of AIDS and governmental denial might be rather slim — if they’re aware at all.

Star Mark Ruffalo delivers an abrasive portrayal of Ned Weeks, the gay activist (and Kramer avatar) who organized his brethren and railed against the system as the scourge began to take its toll. Taylor Kitsch plays against type as Bruce, a more conservative activist who bristles at Ned’s righteous anger. Jim Parsons brings an appealing warmth to the fatalistic Tommy in the role he also played on Broadway. And the always welcome Alfred Molina provides excellent support as Ned’s aloof attorney brother, whose change of heart about his younger sibling’s “lifestyle” almost comes too late.

Matt Bomer
Julia Roberts is a revelation as Emma Bruckner, the polio-crippled doctor who is just as furious as Ned, aligning with him to force the establishment to recognize the crisis. And Matt Bomer is heartbreaking as Felix, the love of Ned’s life, who succumbs to the disease. Bomer lost 40 pounds during production to depict his character’s final days, and his appearance is shocking.

Murphy’s direction propels the story forward with the same relentless urgency that Ned is feeling. Even at 132 minutes, it never wavers in its determination. And Murphy depicts the ravages of the disease and complacency of the system in blunt, shocking scenes entirely appropriate for conveying Kramer’s rage.

Since the timeline in the film extends only to 1984, it makes for a rather bleak story — no revelations or happy endings here. But Murphy and Kramer have accomplished something more important — memorializing this dark era in American history to make sure that no one will ever forget it.

The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics.


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