The last two weekends have been busy with theatre in Beautiful Downtown Burbank: starting with “Inside Out” at the GTC last weekend, the beautiful “Closer Than Ever” at Hollywood Piano yesterday afternoon, and concluding with “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) last night. The contrast between these three productions is interesting, and shows the value of subscribing to a venue in addition to buying tickets. Closer Than Ever was a revival; something I’d see before in 1992 — I knew the company producing it, and wanted to see it again. Inside Out came from producers I know and from writers I know — both known quantities, reducing my risk of a bad show. The Road to Appomattox, however, wasn’t my choice. I chose to subscribe to the Colony, and trust their artistic director to bring me shows I might not have seen. Colony does this well — almost every show is a premier in some way — LA, West Coast, or National. That means there is the risk I might not like it. Usually, I do.
Alas, last night I ended up a bit more on the lukewarm side. Let me describe the show first, and then I’ll tell you why I had that feeling.
The Road to Appomattox (written by Catherine Bush) is a time jumping show. There are two story threads. The first concerns General Robert E. Lee in the week before his surrender to U.S. Grant in April 1865. He is on the trail with his aide-de-camp, Col. Walter Taylor moving from Richmond to Appomattox. During this trip he is increasingly faced with defeat of the troops around him, until he must come to an ultimate decision: surrender, or move to unethical guerrilla fighting. He repeatedly gets and sends dispatches to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, and to other officers, through Captain Russell. The parallel story takes place in the present day. Steve “Beau” Weeks and his wife, Dr. Jenny Weeks, are on a historical tour of the Appomattox trail. “Beau” has recently discovered his great great grandfather’s civil war cap and haversack, and a note in code. He is trying to find more about his heroic relative (in his eyes), and has numerous interactions with Chip, an expert in Civil War history who can decode the note. When the note is decoded it pushes Beau over the edge, and it (combined with events in his life) push him to a similar decision as Lee had to face, at the very same place.
As you can see, time is a central concern of this show. Time is also a central problem of the show. Walking out of the show, my wife and I felt that the show was both too slow and too fast. It was too slow in that at points the story seemed to take forever to get out and move forward. It was too fast in the scene changes, where the people from one time were bumping into the other characters in their rush to get on and off. On the drive home, we discussed the show some more and realized that the problems wasn’t too fast or two slow, the problem was whether it was white with gold stripes, or blue with black stripes. Wait, that’s not right. Oh, the problem was whether there was too little story and if they timed it right there would be nothing there, or whether there was too much story.
What we concluded was that the answer was — just like the dress — that both were correct. The story and drama of Lee’s retreat from Richmond to Appomattox would make a great play — there’s loads of character growth, drama, and bathos. Similar, the story of the Weeks and the dilemma they face in their marriage, and how they sort through it and move beyond it, would make a great play — again, there’s loads of character growth, drama, and bathos. The problem is that — in the urge to take the parallel nature of these stories and beat us over the head with it by combining them — they made an final version of the story that looks tasty but is ultimately a little less nutritious and filling than desired. That doesn’t mean the story is bad or badly performed — you just end up wishing there was more substance and that the chef hadn’t attempted just quite that fusion.
I’ll note that some of this might be the problem of the director, Brian Shnipper (FB). The director is in charge of the timing of the play, and so had the responsibility to catch and work on these problems. I noted before the problems created during the scene changes where the people from the present day would almost bump into the people from 1865 and vice verse. This should have been fixed during rehearsal; similarly, he should have caught where the story advancement was dragging and worked to correct it.
Luckily for the Colony, the weak story is offset, as usual, by strong performances. In the 1865 tier we had Bjørn Johnson (FB) as General Robert E. Lee, Shaun Anthony (FB) as Colonel Water Taylor, and Tyler Pierce (FB) as Captain Russell. Johnson gave a very strong performance as Lee — you could see him wrestling with the problems that command brings, and being weighted down by it. You could also see his divided loyalties — Lee was a US Army officer before he joined the CSA — and he joined not because he believed in secession, but because he would not take up arms against Virginia. Anthony provided a good counterbalance to Johnson’s Lee, illustrating how the war affected those around the upper officer echelon. More on Pierce in a minute…
In the 2015 tier we had Brian Ibsen (FB) as Steve “Beau” Weeks, Bridget Flanery (FB) as Dr. Jenny Weeks, and Tyler Pierce (FB) as Dr. Chip Eberhardt, a motorcycle riding civil war historical expert. Ibsen did an excellent job of protraying a
foamer buffy — which was Eberhardt’s term for a Civil War Buff. [I can hear Lincoln saying to US Grant, “You’re quite a civil war buff, aren’t you?”] He clearly portrayed a man obsessed with a subject clearly to distract him from issues he didn’t want to face. Pierce made a good foil: initially as a professor seemingly hitting on his wife and later as a hostage. I’ll note its odd looking back and seeing that Pierce was the male lead — the Reform Jew — in the Colony’s last show, Handle With Care. It shows the quality of that actor. Flanery was caught in the middle, stuck in a role whose primary characteristic was to be exasperated and to silently scream.
Even with a weak story, Colony normally excels with the technical. Alas, here too there were slight problems. The sound design by Dave Mickey (FB) was good and provided wonderful battle effects. Similarly, the lighting by Dave Mickey (FB) conveyed the mood well and made the battle effects pop. However… the scenic design of David Potts was not up to his usual standards. Colony sets are usually sturdy and realistic. This set flexed and creaked, and made you wonder about its safety. My guess is that they were a bit ambituous on the set, and in an attempt to create a single set that was civil war focused, they lost something. The costumes by Dianne K. Graebner (FB) mostly worked — the dual casting of Pierce as a character that wore blue jeans led to the odd juxtaposition of his playing a confederate officer in a dark blue outfit. Ummm, that’s the other side, last I looked. John McElveney (FB) did the props, including an excellent drop desk. Scenic art was by Orlando de la Paz, who has been a busy busy person, having also done the scenic arts for Threepenny Opera . Leesa Freed (FB) was the production stage manager. The Colony is under the artistic direction of Barbara Beckley.
“The Road to Appomattox” continues at The Colony Theatre (FB) through March 15. Tickets are available through the Colony website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. This show is worth seeing if you’re into Civil War history. For me, although I don’t think this was a waste of time, I enjoyed Closer Than Ever down the street much much more.
In her artistic director’s note, Barbara Beckley talks about the history of the Colony Theatre and where it is today. She noted how Colony started in 1975 an under 99 seat theatre near Silver Lake, and remained that way for 20 years, growing the subscriber base to over 3,000. She noted that there are so many 99-seat theatres in Los Angeles because “professional theatre actors are members of Actors’ Equity Association, and are not permitted to work in theatre without an Equity contract that establishes wages and benefits. Except where the theatre seats fewer than 100 people, in which case Equity waives the requirement for a contract. There is no pay for rehearsals, a small stipend for performances, and no benefits. Producing theatre is never easy, but those economics make it a lot less hard.”. She went on to note that her dream was for The Colony to be in a theatre large enough to pay its actors actual wages and meaningful benefits. The size of their loyal audience, and the generosity of the City of Burbank in providing them with a 270-seat home, made it possible.
This shows what the current 99 seat theatre approach can bring to Los Angeles County. It can provide the opportunity for small theatres to grow into big theatres. The Colony isn’t the only example; there are other ensembles that have similarly grown in size. The Colony is also an example of the downside: they cannot take real chances on their shows — with the budgets of Colony shows, they cannot afford to have a failure and must go with the safe and comfortable. They must also severely limit the size of the show — only rarely do they produce a show with more than 4-5 players. It is just out of their budget.
99 seat theatre is vital to provide the environment to experiment, the freedom to attempt to grow a subscriber base (something a commercial venue rarely has). It provides the avenue for actors to train and stretch their theatrical muscles. The current AEA proposal, if approved as is, may destroy that by severely restricting the ability of our best non-profit 99 seat houses to use Equity actors. What can you do to stop it? If you are an Equity member, I urge you to study the issue at the iLove 99 website (FB) and hopefully vote “no”. If you are a non-Equity actor, producer, or other creative, I urge you to let your Equity friends know about this, and to educate your professional groups about the issue — and to take a stand. For us audience members, you need to be aware that the 99-seat theatre you love (and can afford) is threatened. Spread the words, and let the actors know you support their working in 99 seat theatre. Let them know you will follow good acting and good performance at whatever venue it is made. As this show points out: sitting on the edge is going nowhere. Read and make a decision, and let your decision be known. #Pro99 #LAThtr #ILove99
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre 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 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: Next weekend has no theatre, due to other commitments (the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, and a Purim Carnival at TAS the next day). Theatre in March starts the next weekend with “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School). The weekend of May 16 brings “Beer for Breakfast” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB). The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB) and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB). June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival amongst other things. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.