Headlines About California Highways from October 2017

We survived October, some better than others. We’ve seen significant damage to our roadways and communities from fires. We’ve seen roads closed during the spring storms start to reopen. We’ve already seen roads being closed due to snow. And winter is coming folks: bringing more storms and wet weather. On the funding front, we’re starting to see the allocations show up from SB1, the increase in the gas tax to cover transportation and transportation infrastructure maintenance. We’re also seeing folks gearing up to fight the gas tax, without a proposal for how our roads will be funded. Interesting times indeed, and it doesn’t even explore how the Federal tax proposals will impact highway funding.

And you thought Halloween was scary.

But… let’s ignore it… and look at the headlines… and for those of you reading this on my blog, I got out the tools and spiffed up the place a little. I’d love to hear what you think of the remodel.

  • I-680 express lanes opening Monday. After over two years of construction, the opening date for San Ramon Valley’s Interstate 680 express lanes are officially scheduled to open this Monday (Oct. 9). The $56 million project has involved converting the single high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane in each direction into a toll express lane as a tool to help reduce congestion. It includes one northbound express lane from Alcosta Boulevard in San Ramon to Livorna Road in Alamo, and one southbound express lane from Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek to Alcosta Boulevard.
  • What can be done to ease southwest Riverside County traffic on the 15 Freeway?. There was a time when traffic flowed freely on the 15 Freeway. There also was a time when we used the Pony Express to send long-distance messages. And while it wasn’t 160 years ago that the 15 Freeway was without congestion, it may seem so when you’re crawling along slower than a tired pony. Temecula Councilman Mike Naggar is leading a rescue posse to do something before the traffic gets worse.
  • Marin carpool lane expansion project still stalled out. Plans to expand carpool lane hours in Marin are still stuck in neutral. Last week local politicians, transportation officials and Caltrans representatives met to talk about a Metropolitan Transportation Commission plan to expand the hours from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 to 9 a.m. southbound on Highway 101 as a three-month pilot. But there remains opposition from most Marin officials, who fear the move would make traffic worse on the freeway. Caltrans — the agency with the final say — has remained non-committal. The initial MTC plan had the pilot going from October to December, but that has failed to materialize.
  • Marin has four highway hot spots on traffic nightmare list. If the Novato-to-San Rafael morning commute feels like it has grown worse in recent years, it’s because it has, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report. The agency released a list of the 50 most-congested corridors in the region and four locales are in Marin. The latest findings — based on 2016 traffic counts — show the morning southbound Highway 101 commute from Rowland Boulevard in Novato to North San Pedro Road in San Rafael is 15th worst in the Bay Area. The ranking was based on traffic measured from 6:40 to 10:05 a.m. Last year it was 14th. While the segment dropped in rank, the traffic got worse.

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A Los Angeles Story | “This Land” @ Company of Angels

This Land (Company of Angels)There are many ways that I discover the shows I go see — especially the non-musical plays. Most often, they come through a season subscription — rare is the small company that only does musicals, and so the artistic director’s vision introduces me to new plays. Occasionally, I know the playwright, such as with last week’s Mice. Even less frequently I’ll discover a play from one of my various theatrical feeds (Playbill, Broadway World, Bitter/Better Lemons). Even rarer is the publicist’s missive that catches my eye — typically because there’s something in the subject matter of the play.

That’s what happened with Company of Angels (FB)’s This Land, which we saw last night. The publicist, Susan Gordan (FB), sent a proposal for an article describing an upcoming world premiere. The pitch was: “a rich story spanning over 150 years about four families with ancestry from different parts of the world (Tongva Indians, African, Mexican, Irish) who make their home on one particular plot of Southern California land now known as Watts. A host of old curses and blessings, traditions and recipes, loves and betrayals travel down family lines from the 19th to the 21st century, forcing each successive generation to ask in times of hardship, “Should I stay or should I go?”” Little did Susan know that although I might appear to them as a theatre reviewer because of this blog, I’m really a cybersecurity guy who not only loves theatre but who also has an intense interest in history — especially California history (which anyone who reads my highway pages knows). I’m a native Angeleno (Los Angeles native, for those not familiar with the term) who has been studying Los Angeles history for years — not only just freeways, but transit, city growth, water, and city politics. This was a show on a topic that was truly of interest to me. So even though I couldn’t find discount tickets, I got tickets and went.

I am really glad that I did. This Land is — to date — I think the best play I’ve seen all year, and it is close up there for best show (and that’s putting it against Hamilton). Especially if you love history or love Los Angeles, this is a play that you must see. It tells the story well, it educates its audience, it makes the audience think and see the city in a different way. It does what a play is supposed to do: tell you a story, draw you in, and not only entertain but elucidate.

Additionally, it also does something to address a common complaint about theatre in Los Angeles: It tells a story about Los Angeles, to audiences that reflect Los Angeles. Let me explain: There are very few plays — and even fewer musicals — that tell Los Angeles stories.  Just ask yourself: What shows do you know that tout the New York experience, are centered in New York, or that focus on New York? Now ask yourself the same question about Los Angeles. See my point? Los Angeles has an extremely rich cultural history, significant historical events, culture clashes and milieus. Yet Los Angeles is viewed by playwrights often as a collection of suburb in search of a city, a shallow car culture (witness Freeway Dreams from earlier this year). There are a few plays that touch on nostalgia (such as Bruce Kimmel’s LA: Then and Now,  or the even earlier Billy Barnes’ LA). The large LA theatres rarely commission or present shows about Los Angeles (a major complaint of the LA Times critic). There are the occasional shows, yes — A Mulholland Christmas Carol occasionally resurfaces,  and of course there is Zoot Suit, which packs them in at the Mark Taper Forum (which we saw in February). Further, the Los Angeles theatre audience is often unfortunately predominately a single shade, and aging (I’ve complained about this before: how the complexion of an audience changes only when the subject of the play is about that group’s experience — and that’s wrong). Yet This Land was not only a story about the diversity that is Los Angeles, it reflected the diversity of Los Angeles in the casting, and even more significantly, reflected the diversity of Los Angeles in the diversity of the audience — a melting pot of ethnicities and ages and genders. This is a play that touches and speaks to the diversity that is Los Angeles, that speaks to young and old, to the recent immigrant and the long time resident. Further, it turns out that this is a commission from the Center Theatre Group (FB), one of the largest non-profit theatre groups in the city, being produced by Company of Angels (FB), the oldest non-professional theatre company in Los Angeles, founded in 1959 by a group of television and film actors that included Richard Chamberlain, Leonard Nimoy and Vic Morrow, with a revised mission to provide a space for the voices and audiences neglected by the major regional theaters. This is not only theatre in Los Angeles, it is Los Angeles theatre — about Los Angeles, reflective of Los Angeles, speaking to Los Angeles.

Do you think I liked the show? 😊

This Land is a story that spans 150 years in a community in South Los Angeles called Watts. It is a small area, roughly bordered by 92nd Street on the North, Imperial Avenue on the South, Central Avenue on the West, and Alameda on the East. You might have heard of Watts: it was the location of the Watts Riots in 1965, and the Rodney King riots in 1992.  It was one of the original suburbs of Los Angeles. It started out as the site of the Tongva village, Tejaawta, and became part of Rancho La Tajauta in 1843. It was incorporated into the city in 1926. Like Boyle Heights, this was a community that welcomed the worker. After the Tongva and the Mexicans, there came the American farmers and waves of farmers moving west around the depression. In the 1940s, it was one of the few communities in Los Angeles that permitted African-American residents (Los Angeles has a nasty history of restrictive covenants and red-lining, which affect the city to this very day). The influx of the black community had an impact on the existing white residents (again, another common nasty history in Los Angeles). With the growth of the hispanic communities in Los Angeles in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Watts changed again. Now, with the rebirth and resurgence of rail in Los Angeles (Watts was along one of the original transit backbones of the city, and is again), combined with affordable prices and gentrification, well, you know what is happening and who is being pushed out, with no affordable solutions.

This Land (Cast Strip)That history is the background and setting of This Land. It tells the intertwined stories of five families representative of the various eras of Watts: the original Tongva settlers interacting with the first Missions and Ranchers in 1843 (Tomas, Toya, and Enrique), the first influx of the Americans in 1848 (Patrick), the first black families moving into the area in 1949 and later in 1965 (Maeve and James, Leola and Leslie), the transition as the hispanic families change the communities yet again in 1992 (Fidel and Ricardo, Sharon and Mel), and the wave of gentrification as developers purchase homes from families to transform the area yet again in the near future of 2020 (Ricardo, Della, and Dalton). The storytelling is intertwined, moving back and forth between the historical periods. It shows how — in true LA fashion — there was hatred when new cultures came in, yet eventual cultural transfer of ideas and food. It showed the importance of water to the city — not only was the LA river near Watts, but Watts was one of the few areas in the city that was able to draw water from artesian wells. It highlighted the discrimination and restrictions that existed in the city not only for the people one might think of as minorities — the blacks, the hispanics — but other groups as well, such as the Jews or the Dust Bowl Refugees. It really speaks to the multicultural story of the city — not of a predominately single ethnicity experience as was seen for the 1940s Pachucos of Zoot Suit, or the rose-tinted nostalgia of the Los Angeles reviews such as Los Angeles: Then and Now (which tend to look back on kitsch and ephemera, and not the painful ugly aspects). For many LA plays, the ugly aspect is the gay history of the city — but there is much more ugliness under the surface. It also captures well the little LA things, from Dy-Dee Diaper service to the importance of the Aerospace industry and the automotive industry (and how the decline of both drastically impacted minority communities in the city).

Playwright Evangeline Ordaz (FB) has crafted a story that drew me in and kept me enthralled up to and including the closing scene. From my knowledge of the history, it captured things quite well. Interconnections that could have come off as forced coincidences don’t — they seem to flow well and a naturally, and work to highlight the impact of the story and show the ultimate connectedness of people to each other and to the land. Director Armando Molina (FB) handles the small cast in this large story well. Almost every actor portrays multiple characters for the different eras, and the performances are so distinctly different that in some cases I actually left thinking there were additional actors and one had been left off of the program. That is how well this director worked with the actors to individualize each performance to the character, and to make the characters believable. Very very well crafted both in the story and the stage realization.

As for the acting ensemble, what can I say but: I was impressed by their ability to become their characters. Unlike most shows, I can’t discuss them in tiers because this was a true ensemble — performances of approximately equal size and weight across the story. So let’s work across the eras.

Beginning in 1843, we have Toya (Cheryl Umaña (FB)), the Tongva village leader whose father, Tomas (Richard Azurdia (★FB, FB)) has gone to the Mission. There is also Enrique (Jeff Torres (FB)), the son of the rancher whose lands are encroaching on the Tongva village lands. There is also Pepe (Niketa Calame (FB)), the Mexican soldier who is helping Enrique. All are strong here, but the central relationships are Toya and Tomas, and Toya and Enrique. Umaña is great as Toya, trying to understand a culture and communicate in a language and with a changing world she does not understand. Torres is also spotlighted here as the rancher trying to do right by both the mission and Toya’s father, Tomas. As Tomas, Azurdia has a great portrayal of a man who tried to do right for his village, but who was broken by the Mission system (which was the beginning of poor racial relations in the City of the Angels).

Moving to 1848, we meet Patrick (Ian Alda (FB)) , an Irish-American soldier coming to the land with the Americans, as the days of the Mexican land grants are waning. This is a smaller era in the story, but Alda captures the Irish aspects well.

Jumping to 1947 and 1965, we meet Maeve (Johanna McKay (FB)), a white woman living in Watts who moved there during the depression-era dustbowl migration, and her new black neighbor, Leola (LeShay Tomlinson (FB)), who has just moved from Louisiana.  Both were remarkable performances. McKay captures well the woman whose neighborhood is changing but sees her neighbors as people, not their skin (an attitude that, unfortunately, wasn’t too common). Tomlinson gives a wonderful portrayal of a woman who has escapes the overt discrimination of the South only to run into the covert discrimination of the West — or to paraphrase as she put it, in the South they are at least racist to your face, not behind your back. She also captured the proud woman just trying to do the best for her family while dealing with the changing circumstances of life (and I knew many people like that — both friends and parents of friends from those areas).

By 1965, the children are added to the mix: Maeve’s son James (Ian Alda (FB) in his 2nd role), and Leola’s daughter Leslie (Niketa Calame (FB) in her 2nd role). These two capture well the angst of their era: Alda capturing well the young white adult in Watts who wants his parents to move somewhere “safer” (which, yes, is code we still see today), and Calame capturing the young adult trying to make changes in society.

Turning to 1992, we are dealing with the children of the prior era, and yet another transition. We have Leslie’s children Mel ((Niketa Calame (FB), in her 3rd role) and Sharon (LeShay Tomlinson (FB), in her 2nd role). Maeve has moved out, and moving in is a HIspanic family with a taco business, Ricardo (Jeff Torres (FB)) and Fidel (Richard Azurdia (★FB, FB), in his 2nd role). All of the performances shine here. Calame was spectacular as Mel, the young woman trying to make friends and accept her new neighbors, seeing them as people and not their skin. This was in contrast to her sister, Sharon, as portrayed by Tomlinson (who I didn’t even recognize as the character, the difference was that distinct). Tomlinson’s Sharon was more antagonistic, not trusting the new people in the neighborhood and moving to violence as the solution. Next door we had Azurdia’s Fidel and his Taco Truck, which was just a realistic and very human portrayal that could easily have gone stereotypical. Lastly, we had Torres’s Ricardo — a young man who was just trying to fit in the neighborhood. All great performances.

Lastly, there was 2020, where we had Dalton (Ian Alda (FB) in his 3rd role), James’s son, attempting to buy back the land and the houses from Torres’ Ricardo and Della (Cheryl Umaña (FB), in her 2nd role), Mel’s daughter. Smaller scenes, but still strong performances capturing the residents of today seeing the developers come in to try to move them out, with no place they could afford to go.

Simply put — all great performances.

Turning to the production side: This was Company of Angels (FB)’s first production in their new space at Legacy LA (FB) at the Hazard Park Armory (interesting history of its own) next to County-USC Medical Center.  This is an expansive warehouse space creating one of the largest stages I’ve seen for a small company. Justin Huen (FB)’s scenic design worked well in the space, creating a backdrop for Benjamin Durham (FB)’s projection to establish the place, with the scenic design creating the house spaces, the truck spaces, and the land and river spaces well. This was augmented by Huen’s lighting design that created time and mood. Manee Leija‘s costumes (which presumably included hair and wigs, as there wasn’t a distinct credit) distinguished the characters well, although I can’t vouch on authenticity. Rebecca Kessin (FB)’s sound design amplified (get it, amplified 🙂 ) the environment, and provided the cues for the transitions. Rounding out the production credits were: Daniel Muñoz (FB) – Stage Manager; Heather McLane (FB) – Asst. Stage Manager and Prop Design; Susan Gordon – Publicist; Tamadhur Al-Aqeel (FB) – ProducerCompany of Angels (FB) is under the Artistic Direction of Armando Molina (FB).

The World Premiere of This Land continues at Company of Angels (FB) through November 13. The remaining performances are Fridays at 8pm on Nov. 3 and 10; Saturdays at 8pm on Nov. 4 and 11; Sundays at 7pm on Oct. 29, Nov. 5 and 12; and Mondays at 8pm on Oct. 30, Nov. 6 and 13. Tickets are $25; senior $15; students $12; Monday performances are Pay-What-You-Can. TIckets are available through the Company of Angels website or possibly calling 323-475-8814.  Discount tickets do not appear to be available on Goldstar.  I have seen a reference that code “COMUNIDAD” may give a discount, but I don’t know if it was efffective (I paid full price). This is one of the best shows I’ve seen all year, followed closely by Hamilton and Zoot Suit. Go see it while you and, and learn about our great city.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The theatre drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. October concludes with  This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights. Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Design Origins

One of the podcasts that I really like is 99% Invisible. This podcast explores unseen design. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the categories of news chum that catches my eye has to do with design. Here’s some that I’ve seen recently:

  • Orange Handled Scissors. We all have them, if not multiple pairs. I’ve got two staring at me from my desk: one real, one a knockoff. Yet have you ever wondered who invented them. Two recent articles, one from Mental Floss, and one from Co.Design, provide the answer. You probably remember the scissors that were common before the orange wonders: either silver or black handles, all metal, and heavy. This changed in the 1960s, as plastic was just starting to become a popular material. Fiskars began using the light, strong compound to make tabletops and dishes, but one of the company’s industrial designers, Olof Bäckström, sensed an opportunity to completely reinvent one of the company’s signature goods. Using plastic, he created a lighter scissor handle that was curved to fit the hand, thus making them easier to hold. Ultimately, this tweak also helped make the scissors easier to manufacture, helping them become affordable to the masses. Why Orange? At the time, Fiskars was making orange juicers from orange plastic. The first prototype for plastic-handled scissors was created with plastic from a juicer that was left in a machine. Fiskars employees ended up liking this original look so much that they ultimately voted to stick with it.
  • Common Typographic Symbols.  We use symbols like “@”, “#”, and “&” every day, but do you know where they come from? Mental Floss did an article recently on the origins of 6 common typographic symbols: “@”, “0”, “#”, “&”, “…”, and “+”.  Now you know will know why & == “and per se and”.
  • The Barcode. You likely think grocers invented the barcode. But you would be wrong. The original bar codes were invented by railroad companies to keep track of railroad cars.  The US rail industry, due to its large size and the sheer amount of stuff being delivered on its tracks at all times, had a fundamental challenge: Tracking where an individual car was going was really hard, and cars would often get lost.  The industry needed a solution that workedwhile the train was moving, perhaps as fast as 60 miles per hour. No delays allowed. No stopping, either. And because trains travel through all sorts of elements—rain, snow, wind, light, dark—that tracking has to work in basically any setting. And because it had to go on so many train cars, it had to be cheap—no more than, say, a dollar per device. The solution: KarTrak. Using a series of reflective color bars as a layer of abstraction from the complicated codes, the codes were then optically scanned using helium-neon lasers that were intended to pick up the details of the codes, no matter the weather. It worked, and was a success for a while, but soon petered out because of the cost of the scanners and lawsuits.
  • Craigslist. The site is ugly and text-based. Trades are risky and often prone to fraud. Yet it is highly successful, with numerous less-successful imitators. Why is Craigslist so successful. Wired explored the history and the reasons. First there were garage sales and the Recycler. Then came the internet, and with it, so many new ways to buy and sell used furniture. It was a serendipity engine that made it infinitely easier for people all over the world to exchange old lamps. One of the most useful tools was a list maintained by a guy named Craig. Craig’s list wasn’t a list so much as a collection of listings—a free online classifieds service that made its inky predecessors seem obsolete. Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995 as an email list of interesting events in and around San Francisco. The list soon mutated into a stand-alone website. Why is it successful?The site is whatever its users need it to be at any given moment in time: a housing agency, an employment office, a matchmaking service, a lost-and-found board, a town square. Or an ideology.
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A Hostile World

Hostility. It seems to be growing in our society, from the hostility we see from our leaders towards the lower and middle classes, from the hostility we see from “the other party” to our party, from the hostility and name calling that seems to commonplace on social media. The amount of hatred and hostility in society is growing, and we seem to be doing little to stop it. It’s hidden and unacknowledged, almost like climate change.

What got me thinking about this was an interesting article in LAist about Hostile Architecture. I’d heard the term before — 99% Invisible did a piece on the subject back in July 2016. What is Hostile Architecture? The LAist article summed it up well: “You know those pigeon spikes to stop pigeons from congregating? Imagine that, but for humans.” To put it another way, Amber Hawkes, Co-Director of Here LA, defines hostile architecture as “any streetscaping element or design move in the public realm that is unfriendly to the human being.”

[ETA: This article from CityLab highlights more hostile architecture: The MTA in NYC rehabbed some stations in Brooklyn, removing benches and replacing them hostile architecture: “the leaning bar. A slanted wooden slab set against the wall at about the height of a person’s rear end, the bar was meant to give passengers a way to take some weight off their feet as they waited for the next train. What it was not, however, was a bench.” As that article notes: “Despite the MTA’s protestations, some New Yorkers saw the bar as the latest salvo in what could be called the War on Sitting. As cities around the world tear out benches in an effort to deter homeless people from sleeping and drug dealers from hovering, or to force loiterers to move along, pedestrians and transit users may find fewer and fewer places to sit down and take a load off, or hang out and watch the world go by—and that’s bad news not only for tired feet, but for city life itself.”]

Essentially, hostile architecture are those bumps and arms in the middle of benches that make it hard for the homeless to sleep, the bumps on the walls that stop skateboarders. There are spikes, pig ears, bollards, grates and other elements (like bolted vents making it impossible to sleep near a heating vent in winter in colder climates, for example) to dissuade homeless individuals from resting or sleeping in alleys, near store fronts, or in parks.  Some are less obvious. The 99% Invisible piece notes the following examples: Some businesses play classical music as a deterrent, on the theory that kids don’t want to hang out or talk over it. Other sound-based strategies include the use of high-frequency sonic buzz generators meant to be audible only to young people. Housing estates in the UK have also put up pink lighting, aimed to highlight teenage blemishes.

99PI notes: “Unpleasant designs take many shapes, but they share a common goal of exerting some kind of social control in public or in publicly-accessible private spaces. They are intended to target, frustrate and deter people, particularly those who fall within unwanted demographics.” The LAist pieces commented: “The idea seems to be that if an exterior space becomes anything more than a place to walk or commute through, it’s a problem.”

That last line really brought the concern home to today. We have leaders that are creating a hostile society — a society where those not of the social or economic strata they want get pushed away, our of their spaces. The proposal yesterday about raising the fees for popular public parks is an example of that. The changes being made to our refugee policy. The changes to the tax code are hostile architecture. Our media has conditioned us to believe that hostility is the answer to problems, and as we’re all passive-aggressive, we’re letting our benches and laws do it for us.

That’s wrong (and if you disagree, I think you’re stupid 🙂 ). We have to make the choice to turn away from hostility, and move towards acceptance.

P.S.: I’m surprised no one commented on my previous post, asking what was in common between the recent incidents at Telsa and Solar City, when compared to past SpaceX. Another example of passive-aggressive hostility?

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Deja Vu, All Over Again

Reading the news today, a headline caught my eye:

This seemed so familiar. Then I remembered:

Hmmm, I wonder if these events have anything in common.

Or anyone.

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A Mouse’s Tale | “Mice” @ Ensemble Studio Theatre

Mice (Ensemble Studio Theatre - LA)There are many reasons I attend a show. Sometimes it’s on a subscription. Others I hear the description, and they sound interesting (like next week’s This Land). I may have heard the music, and that makes me want to see the show. For a small number, I have a personal connection to someone in the production. In the case of Mice, which I saw Sunday evening at the Ensemble Studio Theatre LA (FB) in Atwater Village, I know the playwright. Schaeffer Nelson (FB), who wrote Mice, has a day job at a ticketing service, and he has been the person with whom I’ve been working the last two years to do our Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) subscriptions. He has always been patient with me on the phone, working to get us the most shows for what we could afford, in the best seats, at prices we like. So when EST’s publicist sent me the announcement for Mice and I saw Schaeffer was the author — and it was indeed the Schaeffer I knew — I knew I would try to fit it in. This was despite the fact that it was about a subject that I normally wouldn’t go see — horror and murder. Mice is a seventy-minute one-act play about a sadistic cannibal in a mouse costume who kidnaps the wives of pastors, binds them in a dungeon, tortures them, and eats them. If you’ve read my reviews, you know that’s a play I wouldn’t see. Well, to be precise, I wouldn’t go to see it unless there was song and dance (cough “Silence, The Musical”, cough, “Evil Dead, the Musical“).

When you are let into the theatre, you are confronted with the scene of two women, sitting on top of trash, chained by their hands and feet to two poles. As the show starts, the two start talking, with the one who had been held the longest, Ayushi (Sharmila Devar (FB)) attempting to calm the most recent capture, Grace (Heather Robinson (FB)). In doing so, she’s providing the necessary exposition for the show: why and how people are captured, what is done with them. She also encourages Grace to attempt to escape the next time their captor comes down to the basement for them. Shortly thereafter, we meet their abductor and capture, who is wearing a large mouse costume (Kevin Comartin (FB)). We soon learn why he has been capturing women, and why he has changed his mind about eating Grace. It is not, as you might think, that the suit told him to “Say Grace Before Eating”, which he heard as “Save”. Rather, the suit has told him that he needs to find a replacement, and both women smell right — so now he must decide. I’ll leave the plot hanging there.

I’ll first note that, although I went in expecting not to like this show — as I’m not a big fan of such dramas — this one caught my attention. I found the  story, umm, captivating, and I really had no idea where it would go. That’s good. From reading some reviews, there was a worry that it would be scary or sadistic, but I didn’t find that to be the case.

Second, it was really interesting to see this on the heels of Bright Star. There is an interesting connection with and parallel to the two stories, and a similar suspension of disbelief is required for both shows. I won’t give more away in that area, but see both if you can, near each other. I will note that I wasn’t the only audience member to walk out noting the connection.

There were a few sequences where the dialogue got into heavy Christianity discussions, which left me — as a Jewish audience member — wondering if I was missing something. So given that this was in an intimate space (and thus the script might be revised for future productions), I’d ask: What is there about this play that specifically requires both women to be familiar with Christianity? What might change if one of the women was a Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife), or a wife of an Imam, or the wife of the leader of an Eastern religion? How much Christian theory and practice must the audience know?

There were also a few plot slips that left me puzzled. Why, for example, after Mouseman was knocked out the first time, didn’t the women just take his ether soaked cloth and knock him out completely? It probably could be answered easily, but wasn’t. You don’t want to leave the audience distracted by such questions.

Other questions, however, remain. Why, for example, a mouse? Was it a reference to this being some sort of cat-and-mouse game? Was it a play on our thinking of rodents as dirty and nasty? Or was it just a costuming convenience. There should be a reason, and it somehow should be clear. And how to they do to the bathroom. People in plays never seem to have normal bodily functions. But I digress.

Some reviews I have read saw this story as a battle of faith, playing off the fact that Ayushi had essentially given up on her faith, but Grace was still strongly faithful. That battle didn’t come across to me — but it could be my lack of familiarity (or care) about Christian tenets, nor could I tell the difference between Ayushi abandoning Christianity and going back to Hinduism. There were a few pointed comments about the hypocrisy of Christianity, but the focus was more on self-loathing. Although it seemed to be a given that the wives of pastors are filled with self-loathing, I fail to see how that would be. Is there a particular reason that would be the case? I certainly haven’t seen it from the spouses of Rabbis that I know.

But overall, I found this an interesting play — as any discussion between two captors might be.

I noted the actors before. All of the performances were strong.

The production was directed by Roderick Menzies (FB), who kept the pace moving along, and helped bring out proper captive behavior in the actors.

On the production side, the Amanda Knehans‘s scenic design was simple: four poles for the captors (two each), some trash, tables, chairs, and a basement. Simple works.  Michael Mullen (FB)’s costume design supports this well — the women look like, well, women who were at church, and Mouseman’s costume is suitably mouselike and bloody. The sound design of David Boman (FB) is interesting. One wouldn’t expect a lot of sound design would be needed in a show like that, and one would be wrong. There were numerous sound effects, all of which worked well. Ellen Monocroussos (FB)’s lighting design worked well to establish the mood and suspense.  Other production credits: Mike Mahaffey (FB) – Fight Coordinator; Priscilla Miranda (FB) – Stage Manager; Liz Ross (FB) – Producer; Christopher Reiling (FB) – Associate Producer.

Mice continues at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA (FB) through October 29. Tickets are available through the EST LA Website. I was unable to find discount tickets on either Goldstar or LA Stage Tix, but small theatres like this can use the full price purchases. This show isn’t for everyone’s taste, but if you find the subject matter interesting — or attend  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) — it is worth seeing. EST-LA has another well reviewed production playing during October, Wet: A DACAmented Journey. I won’t be able to fit it in my schedule, but you might. This production’s Mouseman serves as the director.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The theatre drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. October concludes with  This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights. Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics. We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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A Southern Story | “Bright Star” @ The Ahmanson Theatre

Bright Star (Ahmanson Theatre)I have a wide ranging taste in music (as anyone who has listened to the 41,583 songs on my iPod on shuffle knows), but one of my longest lasting musical loves has been folk music, which branches very quickly into its kissing-cousins: Bluegrass and Celtic. So when I learned that Steve Martin (FB) — of King Tut fame — was not only an accomplished Bluegrass musician but was working on a musical with Edie Brickell (FB) — another accomplished musician — I was intrigued. I got the cast album of the musical (Bright Star), and fell in love with the music. So I was very pleased when a tour was announced, and the show became part of the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) season. We saw it last night, and even through a headache, we fell in love with the show.

The story of Bright Star is a hard one to describe, especially because going into too much detail might derail the second act. Suffice it to say that the story explores the interconnection between two families in North Carolina: the Murphy family and the Cane Family. It focuses on two relationships. The first is the relationship between Alice Murphy, the daughter of a local preacher, and Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the son of the Mayor. The second is the relationship between Billy Cane, who has just returned from WWII, and Margo Crawford, who has been waiting for him. The time frame varies from the time of Billy’s return and shortly thereafter, to times in the past when Alice was Billy’s age.

I had had an inkling of the story from the cast album before going in, but I still found it wonderfully touching. The pacing of it unfolded well, giving us time to get to know the characters and their motivations, which made what happened in the second act much more effective.

The music of the show is squarely in the bluegrass and folk realm, with twinges of country and gospel. It is a genre that is underrepresented on Broadway — the only other musicals with scores of this style are The Robber Bridegroom and Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. I loved it, and I strongly recommend listening to it. We were lucky enough to have the key voice on the album, Carmen Cusack (FB), playing the same role in Los Angeles.

The staging of the show, as conceived by director Walter Bobbie (FB) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (FB), was beautiful. The band was primarily in a wooden house on the stage that the characters kept moving around and turning around. The ensemble remained in fluid motion around and behind the characters, transforming scenes as needed. I found it magical and charming (but then, I liked Amalie as well for similar reasons). This was one of those shows with what I would call a representative set — small stage pieces that represent a place — as opposed to some of the hyper-realistic sets you might see in another show. It worked, and it worked well.

The casting was spectacular. As noted before, the lead character of Alice Murphy was played by the originator of the role, Carmen Cusack (FB). It was no surprise, therefore, that the role fit her like a glove, and she was able to be playful and quirky and to truly inhabit the character. She also had a wonderful voice for the part. As I’m typing this up, I’m listening to the album she recorded at 54 Below, and it is just a marvelous voice.

Playing opposite her as her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs was Patrick Cummings (FB). Cummings had great chemistry with Cusack, especially in the scene where we see the relationship between the two while he is working on the icebox. Not a great surprise – he had also been with the cast for a while and was the understudy for Jimmy Ray on Broadway. He also had a wonderful voice for bluegrass.

Leading the other key relationship as Billy Cane was A. J. Shively (FB), who was also in the Broadway cast in that role. Lovely singing voice, great playfulness and earnestness. I particularly liked him in the “Another Round” number and in his interactions in both the bookstore and at the literary publisher.

Billy’s love interest, Margo Crawford, was played by Maddie Shea Baldwin (FB). Her role was smaller, but she shone in it, providing a lovely light and lightness in her scenes. She had a lovely singing voice.

In terms of recognizable supporting characters, there were two primary sets. The first set were what were essentially comic relief characters in Ashford at the publishing company: Daryl Ames [Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB)] and Lucy Grant [Kaitlyn Davidson (FB)]. Both played their roles perfectly. Blumenkrantz is a master of comedy; this was demonstrated the last time we saw him in Murder for Two.  He captured the sardonic nature of his character quite well. Davidson was a good foil: good looks, good delivery, wonderful movement, and great expressions. Both were just fun to watch.

The other set of supporting characters were the parents of the leads: Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy; Allison Briner-Dardenne (FB) as Mama Murphy; David Atkinson (FB) as Daddy Cane; and Jeff Austin (FB) as Mayor Josiah Dobbs. All brought the requisite characterization and authority to their roles; many had played them on Broadway. Anderson, Briner-Dardenne, and Austin had particular nice voices for this music. I’ll note we’ve seen Atkinson many times before, being subscribers to  Actors Co-op (FB).

Rounding out the cast in smaller and ensemble roles were: Devin Archer (FB) [also: u/s for Jimmy]; Audrey Cardwell  [also: Edna, u/s Alice]; Max Chernin (FB) [also: Max, u/s Daryl]; Robin de Lano (FB) [also: County Clerk, u/s Mama Murphy]; David Kirk Grant (FB) [also: Dr. Norquist, u/s Mayor Dobbs]; Kevin McMahon (FB) [also: Stanford Adams, u/s Daddy Cane]; Alessa Neeck (FB) [also: Florence, u/s Margo and Lucy]; and Michael Starr (FB) [also: u/s BIlly]. Swings were Kelly Baker (FB); Richard Gatta (FB) [also: Fight and Dance Captain]; Donna Louden (FB) [also: u/s Alice]; and Robert Pieranunzi (FB) [also: Asst. Dance Captain.] This group should be noted for their beautiful and fluid movement, in addition to the characters they portrayed. They seemed to be having quite a bit of joy and fun with their roles.

Music was provided by a wonderful on-stage bluegrass band: I would have gone just to hear a two hour concert of these wonderful musicians. The band was under the musical direction of Anthony De Angelis (FB) – conductor, piano. The other members — onstage and in the pit — were: Jason Yarcho (FB) – Assoc conductor, accordion, autoharp; George Guthrie (FB) – banjo, acoustic guitar; Eric Davis (FB) – acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Wayne Fugate (FB) – Mandolin, acoustic guitar; Martha McDonnell (FB) – violin / fiddle; Skip Ward (FB) – bass; Joe Mowatt (FB) – drums / percussion; David Gold (FB) – viola / violin; and David Mergen (FB) – cello. Peter Asher (FB) was the music supervisor; Rob Berman (FB) was the supervising Music Director and did the vocal arrangements; and  Seymour Red Press as the Music Coordinator. Orchestrations were by August Eriskmoen (FB).

Rounding out the production and creative credits: As I noted earlier, the scenic design of Eugene Lee, with scenic design supervision by Edward Pierce (FB), worked very well to create the scene and the mood. This was supported quite well by the costume design of Jane Greenwood, the lighting design of Japhy Weideman, the sound design of Nevin Steinberg, and the hair and wig design of Tom Watson. Everything seemed suitably North Carolina and of the period; the moving set pieces worked well, and the lighting and sound worked to establish mood well.  Additional production credits: Lee Wilkins (FB) – Associate Choreographer; Howard Cherpakov, CSA– Original New York Casting; Calleri Casting (FB) – Additional New York Casting; Michael Donovan, CSA– Los Angeles Casting; Anjee Nero (FB) – Production Stage Manager; David Van Zyll De Jong – Company Manager; Larry Morley – Touring Technical Supervisor; Kirsten Parker  and Susie Walsh – Stage Managers.

Bright Star continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through November 19, 2017. Tickets should be available through the Ahmanson Website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. A little later today, I’m going to see a thriller penned by the fellow through whom we get our Saroya (VPAC) subscriptions, Schaeffer Nelson (FB) — Mice at the Ensemble Studio Theatre LA (FB) in Atwater Village. The weekend before Halloween brings This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights

Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics. We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Changes and Opportunities

By now, many of you have figured out the some of the story behind my post the other day: the Board at our congregation dismissed our Senior Rabbi for some reason; the other Rabbi resigned shortly thereafter. Whatever reason the board had, I’m sure, may come out over time — at this point, it doesn’t matter. There are “town halls” today and next Sunday to discuss the situation. I’m not attending today; nor do I plan to attend next week. I wanted to explain why, and where I stand on this issue.

First and foremost, although I can speculate on a reason, at this point it is none of my concern. The Congregation elects a Board and expects that Board to work in the interest of the Congregation. The current Board has had a thankless task: there were some significant budget shortfalls going in, and a large group of members didn’t renew. It was clear that what we were doing was not attracting new members from the community. In this environment, it was time for review of the Rabbi’s performance and consideration of a new contract. The Board obviously did that, received some information, debated things vigorously, and came to the conclusion that resulted in the situation we are now in. For legal reasons — in particular, to protect the employee — they cannot disclose any more publicly. Think about it: If you were let go, would you want your employer disclosing the reasons for doing so to the world?

Any Rabbi has supporters and detractors. At the Town Hall, those who support the Rabbi will try to convince the Board to change their decision. At this point, that will not happen and should not happen. Here’s why: Even if the Board made a mistake (and I do not know whether it did or didn’t), any damage and divisiveness has been done. The split has already occurred. If the Rabbi came back, those who saw or experienced what problems occurred will now be on the short end, and that wouldn’t be good for a congregation’s future. It is an unrealistic expectation.

The followers of the Rabbi — if the Rabbi wants — may try to form a new congregation. That is their prerogative, and I wish them luck. In this era where many congregations are having trouble, it will be difficult. But this is often how new congregations form. In fact, it is how the current congregation started: one of its forerunners was a split from another congregation.

I won’t be going with them. Most of the folks who I have noted commenting in favor of the Rabbi are folks that haven’t been active on the Boards over the years. The Board members and Past Presidents have mostly been silent; presumably, they are supporting the current Board. During my stint as President of the Mens Club, I’ve gotten to know these people very well: I know they will work hard for the congregation’s survival.

I view this as an opportunity that has been given to us.  The situation is what it is and not of my making; whether I agree or disagree (and I’m not saying publicly), I can only move forward. Forward means remaking the congregation into something that works, for what we have been doing is no longer working. The face of Judaism — and especially Reform Judaism — is changing. I heard somewhere that the reason our parents (and my generation) joined congregations was continuity: giving Judaism for their children.

But the youth of today aren’t looking for that. They are looking for a community that cares and listens to one another. They are looking for authenticity — real Judaism, not the cruft that has accumulated over the years. I believe they are looking for what Reform Judaism should be: understanding all of Judaism, and then picking community and individual practices that add meaning based in Jewish values. For some, that’s worship. For some, that’s study. For some, that’s social action. But it all needs to be in an accessible language and with accessible means.

The unfortunate situation of the last week provides the opportunity for our congregation to be a phoenix of myth: born out of the fire of conflict into something newer and better. We have a Board and a collection of congregants that are likely to be willing to work. Now it is time to rebuild and move forward.

 

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