Often, when I have two theatre shows in a weekend, there’s some common theme between them — some sort of connecting through line that I can ruminate on. In this case, that through line is Los Angeles, and some of the unique things that we find in the city. One is the West Adams district, which was the subject of our play on Saturday night. West Adams was also the home of an intimate theatre that, alas, is no more, Chromolume, that used to do remarkable productions held together with love, talent, and I think lots of duct tape. Chromolume made miracles out of a little, and the people kept doing what they were doing for some unknown reason, until their landlord figured they could make more money with a tenant that could pay more.
The play we saw Sunday afternoon, The $5 Shakespeare Company, explores intimate theatre in Los Angeles, This World Premiere from The 6th Act at Theatre 68 in NoHo, written by Matthew Leavitt, tells the story of one of the shoestring companies, The $5 Shakespeare Company, whose mission is to present Shakespeare plays on no budget for $5 in a storefront theatre (implied to be on Theatre Row on Santa Monica Blvd). You’ve all been in these theatres during Fringe: a black box stage and perhaps 50 seats. The action, which reminded me a bit of Noises Off without the full-on farcical elements, alternated between the back-stage story of the company and the on-stage presentation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream (in February). This allowed you to meet all the characters, learn their stories, see both how they were invested in the company and why they were there, as well as seeing the quality of the performance. The Noises Off comparison is apt, as just as in Noises Off, there is deterioration of the relationships backstage as well as the performances to the audience.
I’ll do my best to describe the characters in the story, although alas I was dealing with a slight headache that gave me microbursts of drowsiness beyond my control. The head of the company was Jacob (Adam J. Smith (FB)), an actor who was fired from a sitcom for pushing a camera into a wall in an outburst, now serving as the Artistic Director of the company trying to hold it together and move it forward. Lillian (Liza Seneca (FB)) is another long-time company member, who had aspirations to run the company until Jacob was selected by the membership. She remains because it allows her to play roles that she would never get to normally play. Working closely with Lillian is Elena (Carolina Espiro (⭐FB)), who has been in the business a long time, and is introduced to the audience requiring liquid fortification to go on with the show. She’s also having an affair with Randall (Kenajuan Bentley (FB)), an actor who enjoys his Shakespeare … but also enjoys torturing the understudy in the show, Louis (Luke McClure (FB)). Louis, a recent graduate of RADA … in Riverside CA … thinks he knows everything about theatre professionalism.
Also in the $5 Shakespeare Company is Everett (Emerson Collins (⭐FB)), the stereotypical gay character who longs to play Tatiana. He’s tortured Noel (Jamie Zwick (⭐FB, FB)), the type of actor so proud of his body he takes off his shirt and oils up at the slightest opportunity. The elder actor in the community is Chester (Andy Robinson (FB)), who has basically done it all and seen it all, and is cynical about it all, and wants to play King Lear before he is too old to remember the lines. The two youngest members of the company are Camille (Cindy Nguyen (FB)), whose doesn’t have the greatest amount of talent but whose father is bankrolling the company, and Spencer (Sami Kolko Zwick (FB) at our performance, normally Natalie Lander (⭐FB)) a young actress who is expecting her big break any moment (and who thus must have her cell phone with her at all times … all times).
As you can see, this company captures most of the archetypes of actors in Los Angeles, from the experienced to the not, from the stage professionals to the TV actors. The script is loaded with references that LA natives, and LA folk that love theatre will get. I think there were also quite a few inside references that I didn’t get (being a cybersecurity guy) that others in the audience (who were clearly in the industry) got. But that’s good — that makes this a play that works at all levels.
The play, under the direction of Joel Zwick (FB), moves briskly (90 minutes, no intermission), and the actor capture and are clearly having fun with their character types. I can’t necessarily say they are realistic portrayals, because I think the characters were written to exaggerate the behaviors. Stylistically, they capture well what I expect the backstage of an bare-bones theatre would be like — one shared dressing room for all, with threadbare decor and no privacy for changing except standing behind something. But I think Zwick also does a great job of turning what could be a bunch of stereotypes into a believable family that cares about each other — foibles and all.
Overall, I found the play entertaining and quite funny — and one that even made me laugh out loud (which is rare). The performances were strong, and the story was in essence a love letter to the people that do intimate theatre for rewards that are certainly not monetary, but are more spiritual. I think it is well worth seeing, especially if you (like me) are an audience member that loves the creativity that only small theatres can bring. My wife (who brought the show to my attention) found it rolling-on-the-floor funny. It really was a great show.
I’ve cited the performers before. I’d like to highlight a few that particularly caught my eye. The first was our understudy put-in, Sami Kolko Zwick (FB), who was a delight to watch as Spencer. Also fun to watch was the other young actress, Cindy Nguyen (FB). I really liked Adam J. Smith (FB)’s Jacob — you could just sense the exasperation. I thought Andy Robinson (FB)’s name was familiar, but I never even recognized Gareck in Chester, his portrayal of Chester was that strong. I also enjoyed the easy familiarity of Kenajuan Bentley (FB)’s Randall. But all of the actors were great.
Chris Winfield (FB)’s scenice design was suitably dilapidated for a company doing thing on the cheap, as were Ashphord Jacoway‘s costumes. Nick Neidorf (FB)’s sound design provided the appropriate sound effects. Chu-hsuan Chang‘s lighting design blended into the background, quietly establishing the mood. Other production credits: Nick Neidorf (FB) Composer; David Elzer, DEMAND PR Publicity; Michelle Hanzelova (FB) Graphic Design; MacKenzie Smith Stage Manager; Sami Kolko Zwick (FB) Assistant Director; Megan Donahue (FB) Assistant Stage Manager.
The $5 Shakespeare Company continues at Theatre 68 in NoHo through March 8. Tickets are available through Eventbrite. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar (which even gets a mention of the show, about the importance of getting a good review on 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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (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. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
Next weekend brings A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). To top all of that, the fourth weekend brings The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. The last weekend is open, but I’ll probably find some theatre in Madison WI when I’m out there; alas, I’ll be missing both Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood and Tom Paxton and the Don Juans at McCabes.
March starts with Passion at Boston Court (FB) the first weekend. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and possibly The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson). The 3rd brings Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last weekend brings Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (and possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (FB)), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. 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. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!