Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hesse Fit: The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Suppose you’re an edgy but also starving New York performer, concocting scripts allowing you to impersonate various movie divas but in genre B-movie stories with vibrant titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party (which then actually becomes a B-movie.)

But after writing the book for a failed musical, you are told by the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club—the place where scruffy downtown (the Village, etc.) meets Broadway—that she’ll produce your next play, sight unseen.

 So with your downtown dues paid, you write about uptown characters—an Upper West Side Jewish family—for an actress with Broadway cred, and show it to an audience that gets every comic New York nuance that skilled pros Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts can produce. 

It’s a hit, it’s Broadway bound—but here’s the twist. The play is so well constructed, the characters so weirdly interesting and the lines so funny that for more than a decade audiences without a New York clue love it at the Bucks County (PA) Playhouse, the Bowie Community Theatre (MD) and community playhouses from Oklahoma City to Rutland, Vermont and Boca Raton, Florida.

 The technical theatrical name for this kind of play is gold mine. The play is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch, currently onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 In a spacious apartment (nicely designed by Calder Johnson, with properties by Laura Rhinehart), the middle-aged Marjorie (Cynthia Kosiak) is discussing a Nadine Gordimer novel with Mohammed, the doorman (Pryncz Lotoj.)

 Marjorie, we soon learn, is in existential crisis, afraid her love of literature (Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse) is meaningless intellectual pretension. Her husband Ira (Arnold Waddell) is a recently retired allergist, cluelessly wallowing in his own saintliness. But he brings her good news: the Disney Store won’t press charges.  Marjorie’s crisis was also expressed in a ceramic figure-breaking rampage.

 The family circle is completed by her mother Frieda (Denise Ryles) who lives down the hall, and spends a lot of time comically complaining at their kitchen table—a Jewish Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. But their world is invaded by Lee (Gloria Montgomery), Marjorie’s long-lost childhood friend who is now a glamorous and dangerous woman, a worldly name-dropper (she gave Warhol the idea of painting soup cans etc.) who may have more than one agenda. That is, if she’s real.

 Busch’s starting point was to write a Pinter or Albee play about Jewish characters. The result is midway between the plays of Wallace Shawn and Woody Allen movies, with some Neil Simon snappiness and structure. Family memories provided reality (some lines are so outrageous that they could only have come from life) but Busch also plays with concepts like the golem, a figure derived from Jewish stories and used here as a projection of hidden desires. The resemblance of the play’s title to Boccaccio’s tales is probably not coincidental. It has the quality of a naturalistic fable.

 Director Scott Malcolm’s aim seems to be clarity, with a bright stage and actors moving downstage center for key speeches. That often works for comedy, and it does for this one. The actors create convincing characters with individual styles, and they work well together. The early scenes are masterful in showing us the characters and situation, and though there’s a grab-bag sitcom quality to much of what follows, the provocative and mysterious Lee animates the stage.

 Possible caveats: there’s some scatological and other potentially offensive humor, and topical references are more than a decade old (the play premiered in 2000.) Still, it’s an intriguing, funny play and a lively evening. Jenneveve Hood’s eye-catching costumes serve the play well. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays weekends at North Coast Rep through August 17.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday (July 25, otherwise known as tonight) at North Coast Rep, a play written by an actual female impersonator (and contemporary American playwright): The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a comedy by Charles Busch. Directed by Scott Malcolm and featuring Gloria Montgomery, Arnold Waddell, Cynthia Kosiak, Denise Ryles and Pryncz Lotoj. More information at

Continuing is the musical about the fake female impersonator, Victor/Victoria at Ferndale Rep.  My review is in this week's NC Journal.  In it I write: "Since the part of Victor/Victoria was written for the looks, accent and voice of Julie Andrews, a kind of imitation is inescapable. Jo Kuzelka has the vocal range but also the skills to strongly suggest Andrews, and yet make these tunes her own. Her singing was thrilling at times, and as actor and dancer as well, her performance was impressive and promising."

Which leads me to a few memories of Julie Andrews.  She was the first Broadway star I saw and heard--I was 16 when I saw my first Broadway musical, the original cast Camelot with Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. Her voice was thrilling, her stage presence perfect for the part.  This musical probably spoiled me forever, since she and Burton had a way with songs very different from the typical Broadway style.

With her roles in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins she got the reputation not only as a goody goody (in the original Peter Cook and Dudley Moore film of Bedazzled,  the devil's magic words to undo the wish spell were "Julie Andrews!") but as sexless. But at least in the 60s, she really wasn't.  After all, as Guenevere she had to be the woman that both Arthur and Lancelot fall for.  Even as the androgynous Victor/Victoria, she had to have enough sex appeal to make the Chicago gangster played by James Garner pine for her, sending him into a sexual identity crisis.

But in my humble opinion she was never sexier than opposite Garner in a 60s film: The Americanization of Emily (1964.) It was a dramatic part without singing (though the movie was also comic and basically satirical.) There was some heat in their scenes, even if augmented by her uniform.

It's the final weekend for The Heir Apparent at Redwood Curtain.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


The stage has long been a place for disguise, and the truths that disguise may reveal. Within the permeable categories of art and entertainment, performers pretend to be who they are not. Gender has often been an element of that disguise, sometimes forced by sanctions of a given time. Since women weren’t permitted on the Elizabethan stage, a young man in a Shakespearian performance might play a young woman disguised as a man, playfully pretending to be a woman.

 Add another layer: that in many places and in recent times, law as well as societal norms forced homosexuals into a life of disguise. A truer self might be expressed only in the allowed pretense of the stage.

 Add another layer still: in bad economic times, or simply because of an individual’s dire straits, trickery becomes even more of a survival tool. The general rule for making a living becomes more important and perhaps more extreme: show them what they want to see.

 All of this was behind the original power of the 1982 movie, Victor/Victoria—the story of a woman who pretends to be a man performing as a female impersonator. Based on a 1930s German movie, this film suggests the fashion for drag of that earlier era. But it also has the traditional comic delights of trickery gone wrong, and multiple deceits requiring improvised additional deceptions.

 In 1982 America was in an acute phase of admitting “sexual preference” into public discussion, soon to be fully outed by AIDS, which got its official name that same year. But more general questioning of masculine and feminine roles was also ongoing. The intimacy of the camera revealed the real human emotion in the midst of confusion related to gender and sexuality, even as comedy relieved some of the uncomfortable pressure.

 As a movie about live entertainment, Victor/Victoria seemed a natural to be reborn as a musical stage play. Musicals adapted from movies have become a genre, which we’ve seen before on the North Coast and will see again soon.

 For its Broadway debut in 1995, this musical even had the movie’s composer (Henry Mancini), writer and director (Blake Edwards) and principal star (Julie Andrews.) But some of the complexities of the film as well as complications of the plot were lost.

 In the version now on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Victoria (played by Jo Kuzelka) is a starving English choral singer befriended by Toddy (Craig Benson), an aging gay performer who was just fired from his cabaret job in 1930s Paris. He introduces her to an influential booking agent (Steve Nobles) as a Polish count and female impersonator. She becomes a star, soon enthralling a visiting Chicago nightclub owner and mobster, King Marchan (Rigel Schmitt) who is sexually attracted to her/him. And so the wheels begin to spin.

 Since the part of Victor/Victoria was written for the looks, accent and voice of Julie Andrews, a kind of imitation is inescapable. Jo Kuzelka has the vocal range but also the skills to strongly suggest Andrews, and yet make these tunes her own. Her singing was thrilling at times, and as actor and dancer as well, her performance was impressive and promising.

 For me, the highlights of the production approached the kind of magic musicals are capable of: the tap-dancing duet of Kuzelka and Benson, the song-and-dance number featuring Lela Annotto (outstanding as King’s comically brassy girlfriend) with dancers Dani Gutierrez, Shannon Adams and Islay Dillon-Ogden; and the comic finale with Benson and ensemble.

 Given the limitation of North Coast stages, we don’t see as much dancing as many musicals allow and need, so what’s presented is especially welcome. Linda Maxwell and Debbie Weist as well as cast members Gutierrez, Annotto and Benson contributed choreography.

 The dance also particularly helps this time because the songs are undistinguished. The singing was pleasing and the acting in the major parts was well defined (including Luke Sikora as the mobster’s bodyguard who is involved in a kind of parallel plot.) Still, much of the action seemed awkwardly staged on a crowded yet minimalist set.

 The live orchestra is a plus, though it was backstage and too muted to add much excitement. The story may be revelatory and heartening to a new generation, but thanks to time and the bluntness of this play, Victor/Victoria has lost much of its edge. And yet, the ambiguities of disguise can still intrigue and entertain.

Victor/Victoria is directed by Brad Hills, with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger, production design by Les Izmore and Liz Uhazy, costumes by Erica Frohman, hair and makeup by Josh Tillet. There’s a lively supporting cast. It continues at Ferndale Rep through August 11.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

This North Coast Weekend (and Outside News)

The final theatrical presentation of Dell’Arte’s Mad River Festival is The Submarine Show, performed by Dell’Arte alums Jaron Aviv Hollander and Slater Brooks Penny. Its comic mixture of mime, acrobatics, storytelling and audience interaction was developed at San Francisco’s Kinetic Art Center, where Hollander is Artistic Director. It was named Best of the San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2011. This one hour, family-friendly show is presented Thursday through Saturday (July 11-13) at 8 p.m. plus a Sunday matinee on the 14th at 2 p.m., in Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre. There’s preview video at

The Submarine Show is presented by the Mad River Festival and the Nancy LaFrenz Memorial Scholarship, which supports original work created by alumni of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre to be performed during the annual Mad River Festival. Nancy’s classmates, the Dell’Arte graduating class of 2002, set up the scholarship fund to keep her memory alive forever. Nancy LaFrenz (1974-2005), died from cancer early in her life, and the memorial fund helps other emerging artists cultivate their professional careers.

The Heir Apparent continues at Redwood Curtain.  I reviewed it in this week's Journal.

Among the theatrical news from Out There this past week:  President Obama presented the 2012 National Medals of Arts and National Humanities Medals.  Among the honorees were several theatre artists: writer and performer Anna Deavere Smith (pictured),  playwright Tony Kushner,  and writer and performer Elaine May.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Heir Apparent

The Heir Apparent, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is based on a French farce written by Jean-Francois Regnard in 1708. This version is a free adaptation in English rhyme by contemporary American playwright David Ives, who previously adapted comedies by Corneille and Moliere. He adapted this play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it premiered to general praise in 2011. You may want to look up those reviews for responses and points of view different from mine.

 The story involves the stock French farce characters of a dying miser, and the family members, friends and servants who scheme to get his money. It’s seemingly set in the bewigged 18th century French period of the original, though the adapted script makes many rhyming references to modern America, as well as to Shakespeare and French movies. Bodily functions and old age are prime topics for verbal japes and puns, and greed turns out to be vaguely bad.

 The Redwood Curtain production features an elegantly painted set by Daniel C. Nyiri (with a nicely disguised dollar sign as part of the design) and creative costumes by Jenneveve Hood. The actors were energetic in the preview performance I saw, notably Anthony Mankins as the role-playing servant and Kenneth Robert Wigley as the grasping nephew, with Bob E. Wells demonstrating his comic skills as the apparently dying miser whose fortune is the object of the grasping.

 The women in the play have less to do but Chyna Leigh, Leslie Ostrom and Kate Haley contribute to the action and have their comic moments. Brian Walker has an attention-getting turn as a very short lawyer (the script also makes fun of short people.)

 To bill the original play as a masterpiece numbs the word, though it may be the best farce that Regnard produced. He seems more of an imitation Moliere, without much of Moliere’s humanity or characters that are more than cutouts.

 At least the original play provides the framework of a common farce, with the pleasures this form affords. But for me, Ives’ version flattens the farce further by loading it with self-conscious irony and artificiality, and this production only piles on more extraneous weight. I usually enjoy verbal virtuosity. Some may find that Ives’ rhymed riffs add a layer of hilarity, while others—like me— experience the self-congratulatory cleverness quickly becoming smug and cloying, with frequent wince-inducing misfires. The pop culture and high art references that enlivened the rhymes turned into the sweet drone of a junk food binge, before becoming the regretful but relentless aftertaste of the vulgar, facile and pretentious artificial flavoring.

 The overall result is less than uproarious, though there are laughs. Some of the comic business is executed with enthusiasm and flair, however familiar these bits might be. The play might have been fun anyway had it been shorter, but at least in preview, it wandered on and on for a very long two hours plus. In the end, no matter how hard one might try to like it, the script is so in love with itself that no external affection could compete.

 Scatological humor is a dividing line for audiences, I find. There’s a lot of it, especially at the beginning of this script, so those who find it amusing may be gratified while others have ample opportunity to be nauseated.

 The lighting tricks—lights suddenly switching on and off over different parts of the stage, and a weak strobe sequence—seem to strive for cinematic effects and irony, but the idea was probably better than the ineffective reality. Directed by Kristin L. Mack, The Heir Apparent plays at Redwood Curtain Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 27, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday July 21.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

This weekend's opening is The Heir Apparent, David Ives' adaptation of an 18th century French farce at Redwood Curtain, with a preview Friday (July 5) and opening night Saturday.  Performances continue Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 through July 27, with a Sunday matinee on July 21 at 2.  Directed by Kristin Mack, it features Bad Bob Wells, Anthony Mankins, Kenneth Robert Wigley, Kate Haley, Chyna Leigh, Leslie Ostrom and Brian Walker.

Last weekend for Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at Dell'Arte (Friday-Sunday at 8 p.m.), and the return of the notorious Red Light in Blue Lake: Adult Cabaret..“It sells out immediately,” Michael Fields noted, “so we’re doing two shows this year.” Shows begin at 10:30 p.m. on July 5 and 6. Special guests are the Va-Va Voom Burlesque Vixens and the Beat Vixens (photo.)   “It gets the weirdest audience,” he added unnecessarily.

This is also the weekend for the Pirate Ball, the fundraiser for North Coast Rep.  It's Saturday (July 6) at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka, starting at 8.  Dance music by Donna Landry with the Swing Set, performances by the Ya Habibi Dance Company, plus various piratical practices and entertainments.  Donation is ten bucks, with a buck off refreshments if you come in costume. More information: 268-0175.