Review: “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE” Brings Sibling Hilarity to South Coast Repertory

Review: “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE” Brings Sibling Hilarity to South Coast Repertory

Shocking it is to admit, my personal familiarity with the classic works of playwright Anton Chekhov is basically slim to none.

Thank goodness my lack of knowledge of his library of theatrical plays and fictional stories didn't prevent me from enjoying Christopher Durang's wildly hilarious, Chekhov-inspired “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE,” a modern-set play that won the Tony Award for Best Play back in 2013. Apparently filled with casual allusions to past Chekhov works—from character names and one-off references to thematic motifs—the play does offer, at its core, a laugh-a-minute comedy about a dysfunctional trio of siblings trying to face the apparently troubling onset of middle age…and the possibility that they may not have done enough in their lives to deem it a satisfactory one.

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Review: South Coast Repertory Presents Charming Stage Adaptation of “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”

Review: South Coast Repertory Presents Charming Stage Adaptation of “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”

To kick off its 55th Season, Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory is presenting a charming new stage adaptation of the Jane Austen literary classic “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY,” which continues performances in Costa Mesa through September 29.

Winningly likable with plenty of sharp wits and appealing characters, this admirable stage iteration—adapted by UK playwright Jessica Swale and directed here by Casey Stangl—reacquaints audiences with the seemingly erratic and emotionally taxing task of landing a suitable mate in late 18th Century/early 19th Century England.

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Review: Haunting World Premiere Play “LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS” Sees the Light at South Coast Repertory

Review: Haunting World Premiere Play “LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS” Sees the Light at South Coast Repertory

A gorgeously stylized rendering of a poignant and deeply moving narrative that blends bits of welcome humor, inspiring theatricality, historical context, and vibrant, magically-tinged storytelling, “LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS” is an excellent first production of this fresh new play that I predict will only continually improve as it sees new future productions on the horizon.

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Review: Sandra Oh Stars in Intense World Premiere Play 'OFFICE HOUR' at OC's South Coast Repertory

Michael L. Quintos

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

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COSTA MESA, CA - Sadly, much more frequent than any of us would like, it seems we can't turn on the news or read a social media feed without reading about another senseless tragic mass shooting somewhere in America, where lives are lost and families are ripped emotionally apart. This is, of course, followed by endless anger-infused debate over why and how such things keep happening across our cities, and about who and what exactly is to blame for such things to occur with such volatile, seemingly unstoppable frequency. Suggested solutions to curb such acts also produce even more heated arguments, often leading to nowhere—as, yet again, one more violent occurrence flashes into the news cycle.

More than ever, Americans are living in a state of fear. 

It's a fear of danger at even the safest corner. A fear that an "other" will shoot haphazardly into a random crowd. A fear that we won't know what to do when faced with inescapable situations.

Although most people try to live their lives without giving in to this fear, it's nonetheless still there, in the back of our minds. It's not much of a stretch to say that we now live in an unprecedented "new" normal—one that seemed like it was only previously the every day of foreign countries on the other side of the planet. Today, though, the blinders to such random acts of horrific violence in our backyards can't shield any of it away, as we are forced to worry much more about going to work or school and having to face mentally and emotionally (and, sometimes, even first-hand) that all too-often repeated new nomenclature that has burrowed into our collective terror: "active shooter."

We have to ask ourselves... How will we be when we are trapped in such a circumstance? Do our primal instincts for survival kick-in automatically? How do we prevent such situations from even happening? Is the answer to be more vigilant? To be more hyper-aware and attuned to those around us and to report every little sign and suspect behavior we observe like an alarm bell sounding off—even if it means offending whole races, entire cross-sections of people, or even peculiar (though likely harmless) individuals most of whom fear the same thing? Do we continue the otherwise despicable practice of profiling people, looking for "abnormal" signs that we cling to as forewarning... when most of it is just, well, stereotyping in the guise of putting the safety of the public-at-large as a priority?

Such is the subject searingly explored in playwright Julia Cho's intensely jarring new play OFFICE HOUR which continues its exceptional world premiere performances at Orange County's Tony Award winning regional theater South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through April 30, 2016. For almost 80 gripping, heart-pounding minutes without an intermission, Cho and director Neel Keller tap into this "new" fear in the form of Gina, a divorced adjunct university professor brilliantly played with quiet yet powerful grace by Sandra Oh (of TV's Grey's Anatomy, making her SCR debut). 

When we first meet Gina, she is sitting in a coffee shop with two teaching colleagues, Genevieve (Sola Bamis of TV's Stitchers and Mad Men) and David (Corey Brill of TV's The Walking Dead and many SCR plays). In the midst of what appears to be a serious discussion, all three look palpably worried. 

Gina is getting an earful from her co-workers about a quiet, mysterious student in her creative writing class, Dennis (Raymond Lee), whom they feel is a deeply troubled, potentially dangerous student who has a supposed history of mental illness. While many students with active imaginations have come through their classes before, Dennis, they feel, poses enough of a warning sign to merit this impromptu coffee summit to discuss how to deal with him.

"This kid's different. This kid's not normal," Gina is warned.

Genevieve and David's list of grievances is quite long. Apparently, there have been several complaints against Dennis not only from fellow classmates but also from past and present teachers themselves, pointing to his disturbing, excessively ultra-violent writing submissions that go beyond what someone can confidently construe as works from an imaginative storyteller. 

Both Genevieve and David have reached their limits and are actually now scared for their safety and the safety of their students. They encourage Gina to check into him—perhaps since both she and Dennis are, um, Asian American (oh, the racist-lite implications of this bit of their exchange killed me)—but, at the same time, they also warn her to be absolutely careful. As in, to be careful for her life.

To them, with absolute certainty, Dennis fits the description of someone who you'll eventually hear about in the news after it's much too late and the bodies have piled up—and yet... it's all right there in his writings. 

With that, Gina—somewhat reluctantly, but armed with the idealistic, admirable aspirations of our best, well-meaning educators—decides to schedule a "mandatory" 20-minute appointment with Dennis to see her during her office hours, those brackets of time normally set aside for students to have some one-on-one face time with their professor outside of class.

The scene changes to a visibly annoyed Gina sitting in her office (the main set for most of the play, designed by Takeshi Kata and Se Oh), constantly looking back at the wall clock hanging above the door. Dennis is extremely late for the appointment, and Gina, at this point, feels that he's not even going to show up at all. She may be a bit annoyed, but her face betrays a sigh of relief, too.

As she gathers her belongings ready to bolt, in walks the mystery man everyone's been discussing. Dennis, looking quite menacing in dark sunglasses, a hat pulled down low over his brows, and a hoody draped over it, swaggers in without even a hint of expression or a sound. 

And thus begins one of the most riveting, anxiety-inducing student-teacher conferences you'll probably ever sit through while at the edge of a theater seat.

At first, Gina—with a calm, soothing voice you'd expect from a concerned therapist or social worker—tries to ask Dennis question after question, only to be met with utter silence and blank, almost eerily frightening defiance—a tactic Gina recognizes as a kind of "power" implied by one's silence (her dad, an intimidating man himself and whom she no longer speaks with, is apparently a practitioner of this). 

Gina is, of course, trying her damndest to break through to Dennis... understand him... connect with him... and, yes, get to the bottom of the young Junior-year student who has, surprisingly, chosen to be an English major, yet crafts such horrific, disturbing writings—which aren't even really that great either. 

Understandably, she feels empathy for Dennis... and yet is scared by Dennis. Heck, I think we all would be scared as well—because we, too, in our "new" normal have learned to be scared of such seemingly "disturbed" individuals. But, in an ideal world where fear doesn't rule us, Gina is doing what most of us wish we were brave enough to do... dive deeper and explore. Where the heck is Dennis pulling these twisted writings from? Is it a sign of bad things to come or just a way to vent his personal frustrations?

Once in a while, Gina—revealing some of her own personal details—gets through to him, and, in return, Dennis throws her a bone occasionally... a nugget of insight here, half-hearted compliance with a request there, or even a few very personal revelations from his past... only to be repeatedly pushed away again when it gets way too real. It's clear to Gina and the audience that Dennis is in deep pain and is channelling that pain by twisting it into his harsh writings and his outward, quietly intimidating behavior.

"Dennis, you want to be a writer," Gina tells him, trying to tap into his vanity, pointing out a "supposed" raw talent, but adds that he perhaps needed to "write something that connects instead of repels."

But, alas, we soon learn that connecting is the last thing on Dennis' agenda as a writer. Hearing Dennis talk of his own painful, self-hatred—and how that self-hatred has exponentially affected how he sees the world and how he feels the world sees him—truly speaks volumes about how one's sadness can explode beyond having a bad day. Dennis tearfully admits that he's felt "dead" for quite some time, and that he's just a walking shell of his former self walking around campus. 

And in the play's most memorably jolting device that repeats several times during the course of the pair's conversation, Gina—and the audience—are constantly confronted with the jarring reality of what could happen within the framework of such a confrontational, emotionally-heavy one-on-one. One sudden scene "ender" after another reminds us exactly why we are all so fearful of our world nowadays. And rather than reveal the playwright and director's effectively smacking dramatic device, all I'll say is that each one, when it arrives, is viciously loud and realistically instantaneous enough to shake you to the core.

Thought-provoking and fiercely acted, particularly from Oh and her young scene partner Lee, OFFICE HOUR—which unfolds in real-time and therefore elicits real-time reactions—is truly one of the sharpest contemporary plays I have seen this season, touching on a subject that is still so viscerally present in all our lives. To see this earnest drama play out from the clashing (but ultimately connected) perspectives of two Asian-American characters gives the play an added powerful racial context as well, even though the feeling of dread and fear transcends cultural or even background parameters. 

Visually, the play effectively presents a seemingly normal world invaded by violence. Kata and Oh's set is real-world enough, but Elizabeth Harper's lighting designs paired with Peter Bayne's music and sound designs offer appropriate shocks upon their surprise arrivals. Alex Jaeger's costume designs for the cast continue the realism, down to the inherent anxiety most people now unfortunately associate subconsciously with seeing dark sunglasses paired with a hoody and an angry facial expression.

While the extremity of Dennis' behavior feels intensified here, many (like myself) can connect deeply with the pain and hurt felt by the character. When he yells, "I was born to be hated!" it harkens back to something a teenage version of myself would have felt... that feeling that some people feel they are doomed to live out the existence of someone that's just not liked by others, or are just too difficult to like. That pain and angst, we learn, is expressed vividly in the only way Dennis knows how, however harsh and unpolished it is. In his sharing of this, it creates a believable bubble of empathy for Dennis—the very kind that the other rush-to-judge characters in the play are unwilling to provide him...well, that is, except Gina. Gina, I'd like to think, represents most of us who are willing to delve deeper into someone before making a snap judgment on who/what this person is.

A playwright fine-tuned to humanity, Cho certainly knows how to tap into this hovering fear that at any given moment, we may find ourselves trapped in this precarious situation. OFFICE HOUR, ultimately, doesn't provide easy answers, not that it doesn't try. But that, in a way, is the take-away from the play: that things just happen... tragic, horrible things, sometimes... that can't just be easily explained away. But learning more about each other—diving in bravely, making connections, and having the willingness to empathize—are certainly viable arguments to curbing or spotting tragedies before they happen. 

Fear may now be a more frequent fact of life, but it can't rule all of life either. 


* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Debora Robinson and Ben Horak for South Coast Repertory.

Julia Cho's OFFICE HOUR continues its world premiere performances at South Coast Repertory through April 30, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

Review: New ComicCon-set Play 'FUTURE THINKING' Blasts Off at South Coast Repertory

Michael L. Quintos 

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

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COSTA MESA, CA - These days, in an increasingly open-to-the-public world of social media and instant-push celebrity news, fanboys (and, yes, fangirls) have easier and plentiful direct access to the objects of their obsessions. Hollywood itself, not surprisingly, has gotten wise to stoke the fiery fervor of such fandom by target- marketing directly to these guys, a majority of whom are likely to spend a significant chunk of their hard-earned salaries to feed their nerd-gasmic tendencies. It is perhaps the very reason why a once seemingly fringe festival like ComicCon has become, in the past decade, a juggernaut of promotion and excess, allowing majors studios a chance to corral their properties' most ardent, cosplay-loving fans under one roof and increase their excitement even more by trotting out their A-list talent for close proximity.

This media-saturated yearly event that puts celebrities and their costumed super-fans together in the same breathing space is the setting for playwright Eliza Clark's engaging new play 'FUTURE THINKING,' now having its world premiere performances at Orange County's South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa through April 24, 2016. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, this modern day play offers a fresh story that explores how many of us strive for an ideal future that's both a mix of fantasy and reality, and that, at times, these two forces are often at odds with each other as we barrel towards the future.

Funny, insightful, oddball (in a good way), and, surprisingly, even a little endearing, this new SCR-commissioned work—a now fully-realized production that was first developed and workshopped at the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival—feels like a unique examination of a sector you don't normally see as the subject matter of a new American play. In the same breath, however, the play truly goes out of its way to upend whatever expectations we may have about such characters at seemingly every turn, creating a surprisingly complex, and very interesting dark comedy in the process. 

Even before the play begins, audience members file into the theater to take their seats to a blaring soundtrack of contemporary pop, including Justin Beiber. I'm fairly sure that this is the first time an SCR audience sat before a production listening to this polarizing dude's music. On stage, sans a traditional curtain, you see a barely lit hotel room, which at the moment, is disheveled and in disarray. It looks more like an unused room temporarily being used for extra storage for chairs, brand new (still shrink-wrapped) unused mattresses, and other room accessories.

We soon meet a pair of male individuals seated at a small table in the middle of the room, each dressed in costume—though one is dressed more out-there than the other. 

On one side sits Jim Barnard (the hilarious Enver Gjokaj), a snarky, porn-stache adorned security guy with Reno 911-style shorts and an air of superiority so thick that it fills the room. With bellowing speech and mannerisms, Jim gets the laughs early and often. Heck, even his friggin' outfit certainly feels more like parody cosplay than actual work attire. 

Beside him, slumped over looking rather defeated in his chair, is awkward 51-year-old Peter Ford (Arye Gross), a pet-photographer by trade who has flown in to San Diego to attend ComicCon dressed in an elaborate, full head-to-toe costume mimicking his favorite character from the hit Science Fiction TV series "Odyssey." At the moment, Peter is being held in custody inside this disorganized hotel room (dubbed "The Annex") as a security precaution for his foiled attempt to approach 23-year-old "Odyssey" star Chiara Farrow (Virginia Vale) down at the convention. In doing so, Peter has apparently violated the restraining order Chiara's people had already placed on him for a similar incident at last year's meet-and-greet, causing this hotel room incarceration.

As Jim tries to grill Peter about this recent attempt to get close to Chiara—previously, Peter was stopped trying to give a vial of his own blood to the star—Peter is slowly breaking down, protesting his captivity inside what he deems is a "hotel room Guantanamo." But his intentions, he swears, are not dangerous or malicious. So what exactly is Peter's reasons for trying to talk closely with Chiara? He believes—like in the TV show—that out there is another dimension where he and Chiara (well, maybe her "Odyssey" alter ego) can live happily ever after. 

Despite such far-out reasoning, it is abundantly evident, though, that there's much more going on here than just a mere botched stalker/fan encounter. 

But ComicCon rent-a-cop Jim—a laugh-a-minute funny guy for the audience, but a threatening doofus for poor Peter—is not having it today. 

"Your ticket is a contract," Jim repeats, over-enunciated, to a distraught Peter.

A 10-year veteran of the Con, Jim sees himself to be a model for what men should strive to be: responsible, mature, and smart about choices... and sees Peter as the total antithesis of his personal attributes. Clearly talking down to him, Jim admonishes Peter for being a middle-aged man still playing dress-up and having a strange inability to separate real life from the fantasy stories he loves in "Odyssey."

"It's important to have future goals," Jim scolds Peter. 

See, for Jim, his future aspirations is to parlay his security work here and become an actual crime-solving, gun-toting, community-defending cop (oh, lord, help us all)! Of course, the not-so-subtle parallels of what wanna-be superheroes also aspire to be is lost on Jim, who, it turns out has a few demons of his own. Alas, it's not hard to see that Jim may think this high-profile arrest is yet another positive stepping stone in his ultimate career objective.

Meanwhile, in what we can assume is a nicer part of the hotel, spoiled young superstar Chiara is throwing a temper tantrum in her room. At first, Chiara seems like your typical bratty, entitled young actress—someone privileged who whines and protests to get her every whim catered. 

"I'm a prisoner in my own life!" Chiara yells melodramatically to both her yoga-loving, ultra-controlling stage mom Crystal (Heidi Dippold) and her strangely-paternal bodyguard Sandy (Jud Williford). Like Peter, Chiara, too, feels trapped in her room, but only because both her mom and watch-dog insist that she stay in, fearful for her safety after this repeat incident from the costumed wackadoo. 

"They're not lunatics," Chiara counters, "they're my fans!" 

That may be true, but Crystal is not about to let that earlier ruckus (and any other future dangerous run-ins) ruin her daughter's publicity-heavy appearance at ComicCon, which, ironically, she helps orchestrate to keep the fandom even more pumped, and her daughter even more highly sought-after for future big-ticket roles. Crystal is even gung-ho about her daughter's "publicity boyfriend" just to put her constantly top-of-mind with the press. 

And though Mom tries to play to her daughter's vanity during her protests, the tactic seems to only go so far. Looking at Crystal's overall appearance, however (you'd swear she's straight out of Real OC Housewives central casting from her expensive highlights down to her hip, chic wardrobe)... it's not hard to conclude why Chiara believes herself to be nothing more than just a "cash cow" for both her mom and the minions under their employ.

Wishing to be left alone, she screams at her bodyguard and mother to both leave, insinuating that the two adults in the room should go ahead and just hook up themselves (naturally, in the play's worst kept secret, we later learn exactly that... that Crystal and Sandy are indeed romantically involved, adding a somewhat after-thought layer to the bodyguard character). Sandy—perhaps as a show of machismo to his gal Crystal or to prove to himself of his future step-parent abilities—later goes to the "annex" to put a bit of fear into Peter, hoping to curb any further breaches into Chiara's personal space.

Let's just say things don't go so well.

Pretty soon, trouble in the hotel escalates exponentially to the point where Chiara comes awkwardly face-to-face with her "stalker" super-fan Peter in the very same room. For his part, Peter subsequently offers the young sci-fi starlet (who's still haunted by daddy-abandonment issues) not only some left-field clarity and insight about life but a brief (if turbulent) respite from reality—via, funny enough, a live, in-the-flesh recreation of a pivotal moment in her very own TV series.

Cleverly set-up, the play's title FUTURE THINKING is less a straight-on reference to the out-of-this world, futuristic settings of the kinds of sci-fi entertainment referenced in star Chiara's TV series, but rather more about what each character must seriously contend with at this very moment in their lives when the audience meets them... here, at a sort of crossroads in their lives. Beyond the present, what will everyone's next moves be after their fantasy-fueled present states blast away and bite the dust?

Combining Clark's wit-laced dialogue with Neugebauer's intriguing back-and-forth staging between a pair of hotel room sets effectively designed by Dane Laffrey and creatively lit by Lap Chi Chu, the play provides easily-drawn "future thinking" parallels of all the characters' lives, whether they are a superstar, a worker bee, or a socially-awkward cosplayer. FUTURE THINKING posits that most us create our own fantasies to escape our present or to feel hopeful for what lies ahead in the future; others, however, have become so numb to their hopeless present-day reality that fantasy seems to be the only answer for now and for future days to come. 

For many, the fandom that forms for "Odyssey"-type shows is pure escapism. In many instances, this hero-worship is akin to religion... of admiring things much bigger than they are, even if it is rooted in fantasy or unproven fiction. Who in the world wouldn't want some kind of super power—especially if it means transcending their current, more ordinary lives? It's certainly an extension of everyone's inherent need for future perseverance... finding a way to be okay, to evolve, and to rise up and improve from their current positions—be it one's career, one's status, one's wealth, one's relationships, or even one's overall happiness. All but one character seems to attempt to make future plans.

Overall, the cast assembled for the production are expectedly top-notch. 

As Peter, the deeply-fractured individual whose pain is only slightly alleviated by donning his detailed character costume (designed by Melissa Trn), veteran TV actor (and frequent SCR presence) Gross gives the play's most moving performance. Although instinct wants us, the audience, to laugh and snicker at this cosplaying middle-aged man whimpering before us, Gross allows us to pierce through his character's artificial coverings (and somewhat expected melodramatic backstory) and burrow into the soul of a man in understandable, palpable anguish. By contrast, the over-the-top exuberance of Gjokaj as ComicCon rent-a-cop Jim makes it super, super hard not to side with this goofy guy either. (On a side note—speaking of fangirling—my jaw dropped with glee at the 180-degree turn the actor takes in this role versus his role on Marvel's Agent Carter)

Vale and Dippold—as star Chiara and mom-ager Crystal, respectively—are believable as a bickering daughter and mother. Vale in particular shines in the second act as her character arc morphs from whiny girl to confidant woman. Williford turns in a hearty performance as Sandy, Chiara's bodyguard and Crystal's lover, in an otherwise underdeveloped character. It's understandable, however, considering the play is truly focused on the personal journeys of Chiara and Peter.

While it is certainly more challenging to care about any of the characters in the first act, they certainly earn our understanding and even empathy (well, most of them, anyway) by FUTURE THINKING's second, where the drama is heightened and expands on the tensions, while giving much better insight on each characters' inner (and not-so-hidden) foibles. The ending seems a bit rushed, yet ultimately bittersweet—a fitting punctuation to the events that transpires on this stage.

Assumably, as this feels like a definite work-in-progress (a very good one, to be honest), my future thinking for FUTURE THINKING is filled with much hope for a promising further evolution.


* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Review: OC's South Coast Repertory Presents World Premiere of 'GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE'

Michael L. Quintos

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

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COSTA MESA, CA - One of the many important questions people have about human life itself involves what happens after life itself ends—when our body ceases to sustain itself on its own. Some schools of thought feel we re-enter the world as brand new beings (human or otherwise) when we die. Others feel we merely disappear. Then there are those, particularly with strong religious beliefs, who feel that we all eventually either ascend to join our maker up above in heavenly repose or get yanked harshly to burn down in the fiery depths below for all eternity. 

This centuries-old, thought-provoking debate that often tests one's faith (or lack thereof) is thrust front-and-center in playwright Bekah Brunstetter's pleasing world premiere play 'GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE,' which continues performances at Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory through March 27, 2016. This stirring SCR-commission helmed by SCR artistic director Marc Masterson marks this new play's first full-scale production after its well-received reading at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival… and after experiencing the play here first-hand, it's certainly understandable why. Touching and brilliantly performed, the play explores a wonderfully hopeful view of what it means for a person to "move on."

This entire idea of an afterlife has suddenly become the dominant thought for an adorably married couple of advanced age Roberta and Joe—winningly played by SCR favorites Linda Gehringer and Hal Landon Jr.—who we first meet exchanging hushed commentary to one another as they sit, half-attentive, in a pew at the rear of a church. Their snarky barbs, whispered back-and-forth with the delightful zeal of school children, signals not only of a loving, long-time relationship most of us would envy, but also, that they aren't frequent parishioners here at this particular house of worship. 

We soon learn that they're supposed to be in the midst of a rather solemn service—a funeral, to be exact—but the two are nonetheless infectiously giddy throughout (which, in turn, makes us, the audience, giggle with them, too). But the mature pair have found themselves in an unnerving recent pattern of having to go to church much more frequently lately for funerals. The two of them aren't very religious, either, so their attendance at such gatherings has an extra layer of trepidation.

Almost instantly, the pair's easy rapport endears them to the audience—they're just the kind of grandparents we all wish we had: acutely funny, surprisingly aware, and even a little bit bawdy. The same personality traits can certainly be found in their very analytic granddaughter Ellie (Rebecca Mozo), who lives in a different city—far enough to keep a comfortable distance between her and her grandparents. 

When we first see Ellie, she's just waking up from a one-night-stand with a likable, shaggy-haired fellow named Jonas (Christopher Thornton). It's abundantly (and awkwardly) clear that the two just met, but yet their continued morning-after conversation suggests otherwise. The two couldn't be more perfect for each other if they were written as so (oh, wait...). You can tell right away the two are smitten.

Brunstetter, as expected, doesn't waste time in drawing ideological and spiritual parallels between Ellie and Roberta. And in a wonderfully matter-of-fact reveal, we also learn that (slight spoiler alert) Jonas requires a wheelchair to move about—a minor little piece of info that only seems to make Ellie like him even more. It's not hard, though. The charming Jonas lobs witticisms with her with equal aplomb.

A bit later, following an awkward phone call, Ellie reluctantly visits her grandparents due to a surprise emergency. Roberta—whose head is already spinning with thoughts about her impending demise—is faced with a genuine scare that upends her thinking. While getting a much-needed MRI to examine her aching back, she unexpectedly dies for a moment, but returns to life minutes later with a new outlook. During her little sojourn in the afterlife, she finally meets face-to-face with a glowing figure in white (well, tones of white with hints of shimmering sandy sparkle, anyway) who kept hovering in her vicinity while she was still alive "on earth." The mysterious stranger (played with adorable sweetness by Stephen Ellis) turns out to be her assigned guardian angel of sorts, watching over her with a protective, virtual embrace of and some welcome explanations of what awaits her when her time on earth comes to an end.

For Roberta, her pleasant, beautifully utopian view of the afterlife that she briefly visited—her idea of heaven, that is—is one filled with all the lovely things she specifically loves about life as a mortal, only wonderfully heightened and in abundant excess (weight gain isn't a concern here, eat all the ice cream you can!). It's also one where a special someone from her past awaits her arrival with great anticipation—a reunion so heartwarming, I even shed a little tear.

Armed with this insight, the revived Roberta feels more than ready to face her eventual parting from this earth—in fact, she's almost looking forward to it... and all the more after a rather grim medical diagnosis. Her devoted husband Joe, for his part, is utterly heartbroken. 

Sweetly dramatized without being preachy either for or against the adherence to faith, GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE creates a safe space for love and goodness to thrive, even in the midst of unfair ailments or tragic circumstances. Roberta may not be devoutly religious, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's automatically excluded from a beautiful "heaven" of happiness and fulfillment that good people like her deserve. The play makes a convincing case in favor of such a lovely, much-deserved parting gift—that we all, too, in a way, wish similarly for ourselves. 

This hopeful supposition is all the more believable in the capable acting chops of Ms. Gehringer, who gives her laudable performance as Roberta a quiet vulnerability and palpable strength that her character so richly exudes with every appearance. She gives one of the most searing, most heart-tugging performances I've seen on this stage. She beams with such vivid, unbridled joy in the play's latter half, particularly in her inspired, kind exchanges with Landon Jr., Ellis, and Mozo, who all also each have their own shining moments. Landon Jr elicits tears among us as his Joe aches quietly (then, later, openly) at the thought of losing his true love. My gosh, what an emotional, 180-degree turn from his cantankerous portrait of Scrooge at SCR every Christmas! 

Mozo effectively causes some initial tension in her scenes with her character's grandfather and lover, respectively, then reveals an affectionate side. Thornton's every guy persona is convincingly lovable while Ellis—angelic in face and mannerisms—acts exactly like someone you'd expect to greet you at the Pearly Gates.

I must say... hurray!! for a play where every single character on stage is deserving of a big bear hug from the audience.

Technically speaking, the play makes great use of Tom Ontiveros' purposeful lighting designs to set the moods while Michael B. Raiford's modern-minimalist set pieces convey the idea of open environments—the kind that are easily navigated by an omniscient figure watching over our every move. The final wow-moment set, the show's largest, which only gets revealed in the play's final minutes, realizes Roberta's final wish with an effective, punctuated payoff. 

Ms. Brunstetter—a TV screenwriter by day—should be very proud of her accomplishments with this first full production of her latest new stage work. Running at a well-paced, appropriately timed 1 hour and 20 minutes (without an intermission), the play takes all of us to heaven and back... and back to heaven again in record time.


* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory. 

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Bekah Brunstetter's 'GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE' continues performances at South Coast Repertory through March 27, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

Review: South Coast Repertory Stages Hilarious West Coast Premiere of ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS

Michael L. Quintos

When it comes to gut-busting, hilarious slapstick farce, it's almost a given that the Brits—who count Rowan Atkinson and the entire Monty Python troupe among its tribe—are very well-attuned to this unique art form. 

That is certainly in full, glorious display in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, Richard Bean's exceedingly hilarious comedy of errors, misdirections, and misunderstandings that's now receiving a superb West Coast premiere production at Orange County's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory theater through October 11. An undeniably entertaining regional co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Northern California, the play—masterfully helmed by director David Ivers—is a wonderful kick-off to the Costa Mesa institution's 52nd season. 

To put it succinctly, be ready to laugh your ass off.

A brilliant, witty melange of slapstick, sight gags, silly absurdity, hyperbolic acting, and even (be forewarned!) bits of good ol' reliable audience participation, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS offers a seemingly non-stop barrage of laughs that rarely lets up. With this play, Bean has taken Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Italian Renaissance-era comedy The Servant of Two Masters, and has refashioned it into a modernized, hyperactive, fourth-wall-breaking stage marvel that joyfully combines wildly absurd dialogue, exaggerated theatrics, and physical comedy—all to dazzling, exhilarating results.

At times, the goofy situations—and the characters entrenched in them—are so intentionally far-fetched and ridiculous that it's extremely difficult to stifle even a mild chuckle at any point (for trivia buffs, the play is the very same West End/Broadway hit that made future Into The Woods/late night talk show sensation James Corden a Tony-winning stateside star). The play is so deliberately over-the-top in its pursuit of audience laughter—so much so that you feel compelled to laugh even when the occasional joke is just overly cheesy or if it goes over your head (admittedly, there were probably more than a few colloquial references I didn't quite catch—but partly perhaps because I was so busy laughing at the last gag, that I may have missed a few things).

Even from the get-go, the overarching, twisty plot that drives the madcap situations in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is itself already hilariously absurd. Simply put, the play—set in swingin' early 1960's-era Brighton in the UK—follows the amusing domino effect triggered by bumbling, easily perplexed Francis Henshall (played by the winning Dan Donohue), an id-controlled, perpetually hungry man who somehow ends up working for not one but two different employers: Roscoe Crabbe, a notorious gangster who has miraculously emerged from the shadows despite rumors of his murder; and Stanley Stubbers (William Connell) a wealthy, hoity-toity dandy—who happens to be on the run for, yep, being the dude responsible for Roscoe's supposed murder.

As past observations have humorously taught us, such situations have a way of unraveling, layer by uproarious layer, especially with additional complications thrown into the already brimming mix. Roscoe, it turns out, is indeed most sincerely dead—it's actually his twin sister Rachel (Helen Sadler) who's going around town disguised as her brother (and is, apparently, quite convincing at it). 

And who happens to be Rachel's secret lover? Why, Stanley Stubbers, her brother's killer, of course!

Meanwhile local mobster Charlie "the Duck" Clench (Robert Sicular) is disappointed to learn that Roscoe is still alive—only because Charlie, as a portion of his payment towards his large debt, had previously promised to have his daughter—dimwitted, whiny-voiced Pauline (the super funny Sarah Moser)—be betrothed to Roscoe. Unfortunately, Pauline has fallen madly in love with uber-melodramatic wannabe actor Alan Dangle (awesomely hammy Brad Culver), to whom she plans to elope with as soon as possible.

For his part, Francis is doing his best to keep everyone's details straight—to disastrous results, natch. To keep up his dual-income ruse (and to satiate his uncontrollable appetite), he continues to concoct lie after lie to not only his two employers, but to... well... pretty much everyone he comes into contact, including his crush Dolly (Claire Warden), Charlie Clench's independent-minded bookkeeper. 

Somehow, though the audience can certainly decipher the fibs a mile away, Francis' fellow citizens are buying everything he's selling... And despite being saddled with the kind of debilitating forgetfulness that also plagued short-term memory afflicted Dory in Finding Nemo, plucky Francis endures several close-calls as he struggles to keep one employer from discovering the existence of the other.

At certain points in the story, Francis even solicits assistance from members of the audience—whose varying degrees of enthusiasm (or reluctance) for being unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight is also a significant comical source of laughter. 

In perhaps the show's ultimate showcase of high jinks, Francis—in a dizzyingly manic mash-up of pratfalls, improv, and lots of comical theatrical derring-do—attempts to cater to the separate dining needs of his two employers with the help of a couple of willing waiters: acerbic Gareth (Danny Scheie) and 87-year-old Alfie (scene-stealer Louis Lotorto), whose slow, shaky balance is furthered hindered by a rather temperamental pace-maker that threatens every subtle move he makes. Talk about comedy choreography!

Francis also "manages" to recruit a painfully nervous audience member (who looks like she's about to have a complete mental breakdown at any second) to help with the doomed dinner service—that, of course, does not end very well for all involved. But for the audience at least, the whole sequence had everyone bursting in collective laughter. The ending of that first act will have you howling, I guarantee it. 

And, by the way, before the hilarity begins—as well as during, and even after the end of the production, as patrons file out of the theater—the play incorporates quirky musical interludes performed by a talented musical quartet referred to as "The Craze," the play's in-house, on-call band playing a style of music called "skiffle," a genre often played on homemade instruments and is influenced by jazz, folk music, blues, and country. Under Gregg Coffin's musical direction, the improvisational, down-home storytelling vibe of Grant Olding's original songs performed by the play's own fab four (Lead vocalist/guitarist Casey Hurt, Lead guitarist Mike McGraw, Bassist Marcus Högsta, and Washboard/Drummer Andrew Niven) are certainly a great compliment to the play's own spontaneous feel.

The production's rich visuals are top-notch as well: Meg Neville's bright and cool retro costumes look great against Hugh Landwehr's vintage Brighton set environments, all lit magnificently by Alexander V. Nichols.

But, admittedly, this British farce is truly engaging primarily because of its buoyant, crackerjack ensemble cast, whose silly antics and unwavering commitment to the material help sell even the most outlandish lines and situations. And, Donohue, naturally, is rightly the play's obvious star—a limber, infectious whirling tornado of kinetic energy, whose priceless, committed facial expressions and contorted, full-bodied performance pushes everything to the edge then back again. His unscripted, off-the-cuff interactions with the audience also add to the festive bubble of that theater.

Periodically, as I savored Donohue's exceptional performance, I was reminded a little of a younger Martin Short, particularly the comedy legend's comic fluidity in his earlier years. 

But what really stands out with ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is its intelligent design as a screwball comedy. You can tell the show has been brilliantly constructed and directed because even though much of it feels so improvisational and of-the-moment, you then realize every second of every scene has been, in reality, pre-planned with such pinpoint timing and execution, leaving just a little wiggle room for what may transpire with the inclusion of audience participation. Lemme tell ya... I seriously needed anxiety meds just to calm down from the hilarity of the first act closer, which all felt, at the moment, to be unbridled chaos (it all turns out better than you thought, thank goodness)! Man, I just love hearing the sound of that kind of continuous laughter.

And with this South Coast Repertory/Berkeley Repertory Theatre production, audiences are vividly reminded why ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS was a resounding, well-received hit in the first place. The play not only works really well in today's environment of hyper-aware, pop-culture-obsessed, self-referential entertainment, it's also a wonderful throwback to old British comedies. That kind of harmonious blending surely encourages exciting live theater! Catch this comedy gem in the OC while you still can!


Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos courtesy of mellopix.com and South Coast Repertory.

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Richard Bean's ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS—based on Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters and features songs by Grant Olding—continues its West Coast Premiere performances at South Coast Repertory through October 11, 2015. The play is a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. 

Clever, Imaginative PETER AND THE STARCATCHER Flies Into South Coast Rep

Chris Peterson

Let's first get this very necessary accolade out of the way: South Coast Repertory's brand new production of Rick Elice's PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is, hands down, one of the most enjoyable, most thrilling, and most engagingly imaginative plays I have seen all season—a fitting capper to the Tony Award-winning Orange County theater's 51st year. 

Yes, it's a somewhat bold statement for me to make about SCR's regional production—considering I have previously seen the original Tony-winning play's lavish, eye-popping national tour production when it stopped at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre more than a year ago. While I was definitely awed by the tour's wonderful wit and visual splendor, that production's staging of the jam-packed story itself—highly amusing in some parts, highly confounding in others—left me a bit scrambled and much less invested in the events and the characters, as I spent most of the time trying to decipher if I somehow missed an important story detail or two (or twelve). 

But with SCR's delightful production—which continues performances in Costa Mesa through June 7—the play's hyperactive mixture of mirth and mayhem is re-calibrated by further emphasizing its seemingly "bare-bones" storytelling devices, resulting in one entertaining night of theater that both kids and adults will find quite a hoot. 

The main objective here is to convey the play's outlandish, magic-laced narrative in a cleverly economical, yet still appealing way that not only charms and entertains the audience, but also, creates a communal space where its exposed trickery and transparent theatricality isn't just some cheap-trick ploy to seem like a hip, of-the-moment stage show. Rather, I truly believe in this staging's genuine intention to stoke imaginations—much like an enthusiastic parent reading a riveting bedtime story to an excited, engrossed child. No need for fully-embellished costumes or lavishly constructed sets here (although they're still pretty great). Why bother when the amusing story itself (and the giddy, extra-caffeinated ensemble) does most of the work? 

I can confidently speak for the audience when I say that, in this production, I felt much more welcomed in, as if this troupe of cheeky, playful actors are actually just my talented close friends that have decided to "spontaneously" gather together to tell me a fantastic story in a fantastic fashion—all with pure theatrical ingenuity. 

And, let me tell you... in the hands of this stellar, harmonious ensemble, it truly is! Not once did I feel perplexed or exhaustively put-off, nor did I ever feel detached from the on-going action or the humorous hijinks that this merry band of expressive loons wanted to share with its rapt audience. 

It is that infectious enthusiasm for inventive staging and storytelling—plus a palpable openness in igniting the audience's shared glee—that makes this outstanding regional production of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, again, easily my favorite play of the season. Not only that, I seriously cannot recall the last time I laughed this boisterously and had this much unabashed joy from sitting through a play in quite some time. Here, we—the actors, the two musicians, and even us the audience—are all in on the jokes... and what a wonderful feeling that is to have and share in live theater!

This winning tweak presented in SCR's production can be attributed to director and choreographer Art Manke, with exemplary artistic assists from scenic designer Michael B. Raiford, costume designer Angela Balogh Calin, lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith, and musical director David O (who is joined on stage by Joel Davel to provide plenty of sounds effects and musical accompaniment). The resulting production is nothing short of a superbly vivid iteration of Elice's new take on how Peter Pan became Peter Pan. 

Origin stories, of course, are often a tricky premise to get right, but, luckily, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER plots one that feels wholly original, whip smart, and totally in sync with the universe author J.M. Barrie made infamous in his stories. Just as a special spider bite gave rise to a comic book web-slinging hero, Elice's play posits the magical way in which a young, nameless orphaned boy (the endearing Wyatt Fenner)—perpetually disappointed with the folly of adults—eventually becomes the ageless dude who flies around with a pixie and refuses to grow up.

"All grown ups lie!" bellows the boy, giving a not-so-subtle hint about his future.

But long before Peter flew into Wendy's nursery to rescue his shadow, the young man began life as an orphan. At the start of this particular day, he along with a couple of fellow orphans Prentiss (Paco Tolson) and Ted (Miles Fletcher) have just been sold away by Grempkin (Christian Barillas), the caretaker of the orphanage, to Bill Slank (David Nevell), the captain of The Neverland, a dilapidated old ship that has seen its share of rough seas. Against their will, the three scared lads are to be delivered to a far off island called Rundoon, where they have been promised to the island's King to serve as lowly servants.

Elsewhere on the other side of the busy dock, another ship is awaiting precious cargo. The Wasp—the fastest ship in the fleet steered by Captain Scott (J. Paul Boehmer)—has been commissioned by the Queen of England herself to transport an important trunk, supervised by the regal Lord Aster (Allen Gilmore). Not only has Lord Aster been put in charge of protecting the trunk's special contents, he also has to make sure that it is safely delivered to its proper destination, which happens to also be the kingdom of Rundoon.

So as an insurance policy, Lord Aster decides on having not one but two trunks destined for Rundoon: one trunk that holds the Queen's cargo, and another trunk to serve as a fake decoy, filled with nothing but worthless sand. The decoy trunk will then be placed aboard The Neverland, which just happens to be heading towards the same destination, albeit at a much slower and, apparently, much safer pace. 

But unbeknownst to Lord Aster, the devious Captain Slank has pulled a switcheroo: he marks the Queen's trunk with an "X" so that it is mistakenly placed on his ship rather than on The Wasp. Uh oh.

Meanwhile, thinking that Slank's ship is a safer, slower alternative, Lord Aster decides to have his headstrong young daughter Molly (the lovely Gabrielle McClinton) and her aging nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Tony Abatemarco) travel to Rundoon aboard The Neverland rather than with him on The Wasp. Molly, naturally, hates this idea. But after a conversation spoken in Dodo (both are fluent in the special language of Dodo birds), Lord Aster convinces Molly to stay aboard The Neverland, and even gives her a shiny trinket to wear around her neck—a similar one to the one he wears—which is to be "used" only if she finds herself in trouble.

Unfortunately, trouble seems to have arrived sooner than she would have liked. Once her father departs with The Wasp, Slank's accommodating demeanor dissolves and both she and Mrs. Bumbrake are forcibly confined to a modest cabin below deck for the remainder of the journey. But it is way, way down below deck, however, where Molly discovers the dungeon where the three orphans are kept. As expected, Molly helps free them—and is especially fascinated by the sensitive one that has no name (cue the "aaawwwws"). During their escape, the young quartet discovers a "flying cat"—which, for Molly, indicates that the rare substance called "starstuff" must be aboard!

Back over on The Wasp things aren't any better, either. To Lord Aster's shock, the ship has been overtaken by pirates, led by the ultra-villainous Black Stache (the hilariously over-the-top Matt McGrath) and his henchman-in-waiting Smee (Kasey Mahaffy). Stache manages to grab the key to the trunk, only to be disappointed by its fake-out contents. Smee deduces that the real trunk must be aboard The Neverland instead, prompting Stache to order a pursuit of the other ship! 

For his part, Lord Aster communicates with Molly via their matching necklaces, warning her that The Wasp, now under Black Stache's command, is chasing after them so that the pirate can get his hands on the Queen's real trunk. By now Molly is heavily involved in the mission, prompting her to finally divulge her secret to the orphan boys: that she is an "Apprentice Starcatcher." Full-fledged Starcatchers are a few select special people whose ultimate task is to collect "starstuff" that descend from the skies all over the world. These Starcatchers must then protect the substance from getting in the wrong hands. However, the only way to truly ensure the proper disposal of "starstuff" is to dump it into the fiery mouth of Mt. Jalapeño, an active volcano located in—yep—the remote island Rundoon!

Will Molly succeed in her new mission? Will the nameless boy—who is clearly crushing back hard on Molly—help her out? Will Black Stache and his evil pirate cohorts catch up to The Neverland and steal the Queen's treasure? Stay tuned!

Using clever set-ups, a mash-up of old school literature and modern pop-culture references, a multi-layered cacophony of scaffolding, pulleys, and platforms, and a grab-bag of seemingly "improvised" props and fabrics that take on inventive shapes, forms, and costumes, this blissfully buoyant, whimsical play, above all else, truly aims to stimulate theatergoers' active imaginations. Here, ropes become doorways, a tiny lightbulb becomes a fluttering fairy, mermaids sing vaudevillian showstoppers, and cats (which look remarkably like floor mops) can fly across the room with the greatest of ease (or, well, something close to it). 

It also helps to know beforehand that hovering over the play is its overarching raison d'être: that ultimately this play will eventually establish the "birth" of Peter Pan. Armed with that knowledge, the audience is giddy with delight whenever details of "things to come" are slowly revealed piece-by-piece. Admittedly, I had a much more enjoyable time catching these hints in this production than I did with the touring production.

Though this all may seem like nothing more than a children's story on steroids and lots of happy pills, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is, in a way, a riotous reminder for that little kid stifled in all of us of the joy of magic and make-believe. 

Even before the play begins, the audience observes an exposed, somewhat bare stage filled only with scattered items you would probably expect to see thrown about randomly backstage behind the curtain, which, under normal theater circumstances, are often shielded from the audience. Suddenly, a symphony of overlapping voices is heard as a troupe of smiling actors of various ages dressed in normal, current-day garb enter upstage. 

Pretty soon, the so-called fourth wall is forever shattered as the actors make an audacious request directly to the audience: for us to really use our imaginations as they do their best to transport us into this wonderful world—where prone-to-monologue pirates are cartoonish buffoons with delusions of grandeur; where smart young ladies strive to be the rescuer, rather than be the rescued; where island natives have a strange attachment to pasta, and where a boy who longed for unbridled freedom, perpetual youth, and a name can later become a legend—all because he chose to help a friend. Therein lies the play's grandest hat trick of all: what starts out as stage full of random objects and random people, eventually morphs into a wonderland of musical and theatrical possibilities.

Of course, further selling this idea is the play's wickedly funny, extremely resourceful cast (many of whom even play multiple characters and, at times, act as available stage hands) whose over-the-top acting and wildly accentuated mannerisms are actually an asset rather than an annoying hinderance to the entire enterprise. Wait until you see how Black Stache deals with a rather, um, painful injury! Get a load of what happens when the "starstuff" is accidentally spilled into a grotto filled with fish (beautiful dance number, ladies)! And, gosh, wait until everyone meets the local natives of Rundoon! 

This hardworking ensemble all deserve kudos for their performances—although, I must say, everyone looks like they're having way too much fun up there that I wonder if they consider this "work" (well, it is, though). Standouts include pirates Mahaffy and Barillas who hold their own against the super-hilarious scene-stealing McGrath; orphan sidekicks Tolson and Fletcher who provide lots of extra comic relief as a foil to their more surprisingly super-serious nameless pal; Abatermarco for his still-spry Mrs. Bumbrake; Gilmore for his turn as Aster, the seemingly lone sane voice in this sea of fun chaos; and McClinton as Molly, the lone female who proves she can totally take on all the boys if needed. Her portrait of Molly also solidifies her place as everyone's ideal BFF.

And, finally, as the nameless boy, who eventually chooses to name himself "Peter," Fenner—a frequent welcome presence in many SCR productions over the years—once again proves his acting mettle for playing vulnerable, adorkably awkward young men. Here now as the ultimate lost boy, Fenner lets loose his signature hurt-boy persona, but easily mixes in a newfound bravery befitting the role. Instantly endearing, you'll gladly cheer for his character's heroic momentum. (Oh, and an extra shout-out to the orphanage that housed the young man for apparently having a 24-Hour Fitness on the premises... holy abs-of-steel, Mr. Fenner!)

Running on wit, heart, imagination, and pure comic mayhem, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER captivates from start to finish. Cheeky jokes and sight gags aside, the play—particularly this SCR commission—presents a thrilling theater piece that's all about the execution of an already fun story. With so many plot tangents and characters vying for attention, director Manke manages to find some organization in the perceived chaos, without sacrificing the play's imbedded whimsical tendencies and outlandish humor (actually, I think he even enhanced them). The audience's proximity to these gifted, highly collaborative actors—who are all already spurning us to use our imagination—also helps in creating this pleasant communal bubble of shared laughter, making for an overall wonderful experience.

Because every actor (and, by extension, every character they embody) are fully committed to telling the story in the most enjoyable, most engaging way, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is the perfect example of how the lack of artifice or distracting, expensive visuals can actually make for a richer theatrical experience. If you missed the national touring production, your best bet is to see this Tony-winning show transformed into an even more rousing, lively production you have to experience. Go see this beguiling SCR play while you can!

Review also published on BroadwayWorld.com. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.

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PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is a play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and features music by Wayne Barker. Performances of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER continue at South Coast Repertory through June 7, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. 

Review - South Coast Repertory Stages World Premiere of Rajiv Joseph's MR. WOLF

Michael L. Quintos

Whether the result is good or bad, there's a certain amount of bravery involved in constantly championing and commissioning new works. It almost seems like, lately, you can't go a month without a brand new, fully-mounted world premiere play emerging from the stages of South Coast Repertory, Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater. 

SCR's latest offering, MR. WOLF—now on stage in Costa Mesa through May 3—continues this admirable practice, resulting in a high-quality presentation of an intriguingly audacious if not quite fully-gestated new world premiere play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph, the playwright behind the celebrated BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO. 

In Mr. Joseph's enticing new drama, MR. WOLF employs a mostly riveting, ripped-from-the-headlines plot to tell the story of Theresa (played by captivating newcomer Emily James), an impressionable, incessantly-inquisitive 15-year-old who displays great academic intelligence beyond her years that is manifested by her penchant for illustrating giant, awe-inspiring, scientifically-backed murals of the cosmos. The revelation of her thoughtful, colorfully-painted work elicits oohs-and-aahs from both the audience and from her mysterious, much-older mentor, astrophysics professor Mr. Wolf (played by the undeniably ominous John de Lancie) who teaches at the local college. Like a proud papa, Mr. Wolf is beyond ecstatic at the breakthrough(s) that Theresa—an "uncorrupted" mind whom he believes is a Prophet "chosen by God"—has achieved at such a young age. 

Theresa's Aspergers-esque mannerisms—which include walking around a circular oriental floor rug repeatedly while she pontificates on the vast mysteries of the universe—suggest that, like many super-smart brainiacs, she will most likely be socially-awkward among her peers and perhaps even a bit naive about certain facets of life not explained in mathematic or scientific principles. Nonetheless, it's clear Mr. Wolf is glad that she's a willing, absorbent sponge of facts and figures, much of which she has procured directly from Mr. Wolf's attentive (maybe too attentive) tutelage and, perhaps, from the giant library of books that line the walls of his grand home.

A learned man of academia encouraging the intellectual talents of a young, clearly brilliant mind? Pretty inspiring, right?

Well... as the play continues through this first of many vignettes, something in the atmosphere seems disturbingly off. Does Mr. Wolf, a purported man of science really think Theresa is a Prophet? Does Theresa really believe that she and Mr. Wolf will somehow see each other again in a parallel universe should they be separated?

Switching moods abruptly, Mr. Wolf is overtaken by nervousness, warning Theresa that the world is coming and that their student-teacher relationship is soon coming to an end. Suddenly, a deafening, consistent banging at the front door is heard, making Mr. Wolf even more spooked.

"Never stop asking questions!" commands Mr. Wolf to his young, intensely devout student. It's apparent he knows what's afoot. The panicked Mr. Wolf runs off in a huff, leaving Theresa in a state of flux as the banging grows louder. 

And thus begins Theresa's life-changing new path—one that involves an uneasy reunion with unfamiliar relations, the discovery of the joys of chocolate, and, most importantly, the revelation of the disturbing truth about her childhood.

To be honest, when the play began, part of me groaned a bit. I rolled my eyes fearful that these "deep" monologues and exchanges (most if not all, I anticipated, will just go over my head) are just part of an introductory sampling of what I and this audience will have to sit through for the next two-plus-hours. 

But what seems to start out at first as a play that features characters spewing pseudo-intellectual psychobabble that pretentiously waxes poetic on "important" theories about our very place in the cosmos is—surprise—merely a tricky ruse. Once the heavy haze of the opening scene—complete with starry-sky backdrops and an unearthly soundtrack—fades to black, the lights go up to drop us all into, well, a wholly new play, which turns out to be a tension-filled though standard-issue melodrama that attempts to peel the layers of a mystery involving one charismatic man's evil deeds and the trickle-down effect his deeds have on the people connected to his proclivities.

Piece-by-painstaking-piece, the puzzle of Mr. Wolf starts to come together. 

Twelve years prior, 3-year-old Theresa inexplicably goes missing, leaving behind devastated parents Michael (Jon Tenney) and Hana (Tessa Auberjonois). The understandable stress of their child going missing eventually splinters their marriage. While Hana wanted closure and to move on in her grief, Michael remains angry and bitter that Hana (now his ex-wife) just gave up too easily, refusing to hold on to the hope that somehow their daughter is still alive (though her family wealth did afford her the luxury of putting up a $1 million reward for info on Theresa's disappearance). After their divorce, Hana retreats to Vancouver.

For his part, Michael finds some support and solace from a local support group for parents of missing children. There he meets shy-and-scared Julie (Kwana Martinez), another parent whose own child also went missing. The two heartbroken souls (apparently) form a quick bond over their mutual predicaments, eventually resulting in Michael and Julie getting married. The pair now live together in the aging, time-trapped house where Michael once made a home with Hana and Theresa. On the wall of their living room, side-by-side, are a pair of framed portraits of Michael's and Julie's respective missing kids. 

But lo and behold, to Michael's surprise, he receives news that Theresa, now 15, has been found and is still alive! As it turns out Theresa had been kidnapped by the evil, psychotic Mr. Wolf and has kept her confined to his house for the past twelve years. Unfortunately, as the police were about to arrest Mr. Wolf for his crimes, the deranged man commits suicide—leaving Theresa behind to fend for herself.

So, with Theresa newly free and experiencing the outside world for the first time, she must now adjust to her confusing new surroundings—without the guidance of her svengali and mentor (Spoiler Alert: Mr. Wolf kidnapped Theresa—and other children!—because he believed that really young minds are still uncorrupted by adult nonsense, and are therefore more readily susceptible to absorb the knowledge he was obsessively trying to spread). She is shipped off to her father Michael's house just as Hana returns from Vancouver. Um... Awkward.

Multiple questions arise. How will Theresa's return affect Michael's relationship with his first and second wives respectively? Will Theresa take kindly to her long-lost parents? Was Julie's missing child Casey another one of Mr. Wolf's kidnap victims? And is Theresa genuinely super smart or is she—understandably—mentally unstable thanks to the manipulations instituted by her now diseased captor? Well... it doesn't help her case much considering that Theresa can see Mr. Wolf's visage in the form of a doctor that examines her and the FBI agent who later questions her (both parts are played by de Lancie, giving the actor more stage time after Mr. Wolf's demise).

Directed by David Emmes, one of SCR's founding artistic directors, MR. WOLF is certainly an engrossing drama, but, frankly, feels more like a stand-alone episode of any given TV procedural drama, which by their very nature leaves very little room for real character development, yet provides enough juicy (and at times soapy) melodrama to pique an interested audience. Even the play's structure feels like a succession of vignettes, as if commercial breaks can fit snuggly in between.

MR. WOLF is meant to be provocative, and to a certain extent, the play does achieve that goal. Compelling assists from scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis, costume designer Leah Piehl, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, and surround-sound designs by Cricket S. Myers definitely all help sell the mood.

But beyond its plot and the big gasp-worthy final reveal (admittedly, I saw it from a mile away, but, man, its impact was nonetheless still quite jarring), MR. WOLF is by far an excellent initial draft. Honestly, I was hooked despite being frustrated at times. More than anything, it still needs work fleshing out its peripheral characters to the point where their interactions feel organic and not forcibly manipulated  (the character of Theresa, in my opinion, is nearly there, but she'll likely evolve once everyone around her does). And that final "resolution" feels a bit too easy and a little too, well, brushed under the rug, so to speak.

Be that as it may, bravo to the cast for what they brought to their character portrayals. Newcomer James, though surrounded by stellar TV and stage vets, easily mesmerizes as Theresa, the young girl unfortunately caught in the crosshairs of tragic circumstance. At times cray-cray, at times movingly introspective, young Miss James did a great job with essentially the play's main role. 

As Theresa's dad Michael, Tenney elicits genuine empathy with his portrait of an anguished father whose heart has been ripped from his insides. While his character could use some more tinkering, there is some terrific acting work on display here, particularly while observing his character's long-lost daughter revel in the simple joy of walking barefoot on an oriental rug.

Providing distinctively contrasting portraits of mothers who've experienced loss (or the possibility of a loss) and deal with it in quite opposite ways, both Auberjonois and Martinez provide exemplary performances to their otherwise underdeveloped characters. And the compelling Mr. de Lancie, despite being saddled with the title character's early death only to return as various characters, still manages to hold our attention. Especially superb: when his Mr. Wolf monologues his motivations. Talk about a shudder moment!

So is this a successful world premiere for SCR? For the most part...sure. Even a first-time, fully-staged production can still be a valid testing ground for work that can only improve in subsequent mountings. Though a few more draft revisits could do wonders, as it stands, there are still plenty of twisty, riveting plot points in MR. WOLF to keep audiences intrigued. Just don't complain when a somewhat similar plot shows up on a future episode of Law and Order: SVU.

Review originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Performances of the World Premiere production of MR. WOLF continue at South Coast Repertory through May 3, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

South Coast Rep Debuts Witty World Premiere Play OF GOOD STOCK

Michael L. Quintos

"Family… is so fucking weird!"

Well, that is pretty much how playwright Melissa Ross—via one of her unabashedly expletive-spewing characters—summarizes the concept of family dynamics in the world premiere production of her enjoyably satisfying new play OF GOOD STOCK, currently on stage at Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory through April 26. After a well-received reading at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival, the dramedy has now been mounted into a full-fledged production featuring a strikingly impressive Cape Cod set designed by Tony Fanning and brisk direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.

Filled with relatable humor and wit, and plenty of fiercely sarcastic dialogue and gasp-lite melodrama, the play explores the layered, often contentious relationship between a trio of sisters who have decided to gather together at their family's gorgeous ocean-side summer home for a little weekend reunion, with their respective beaus in tow. Naturally—at least from what we've observed in the world of fiction and, possibly, even in real life—such family gatherings aren't all just smiles, meals, and reminiscing. You certainly can't have a reunion without a bit of volatile fireworks—which, in this case, involve a colorful explosion of shocking revelations, long-dormant frustrations, and deep-seeded resentments.

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Like countless other comedies and dramas that have explored the complicated relationships between siblings (particularly between three aggressively opinionated, type-a sisters), OF GOOD STOCK dives into familiar territory with a lot of recognizable traits that many of us have seen before: here we have three sisters with three very distinct personalities that often clash with each other; they have parents (or at least one parent) they all fight each other for attention; and, lastly, they are skeptical and highly judgmental of each others' choices—partly out of genuine love, partly out of years and years of long-held anger or even jealousy.

In a sense, we've all met these sisters before and we can kind of predict every quirk and nuance of their behavioral outbursts and impassioned arguments, all of which come with years of baggage. But don't let that familiarity dissuade you from seeing this engrossing play. Because at its core, OF GOOD STOCK is an absorbing, thoughtful, engaging story that doesn't bore or reduce you to eye-rolls (well, maybe a few, but for a good cause). And who doesn't enjoy a little voyeuristic look at a family with lots of skeletons to unearth and shouting matches to battle out?

Ah, yes. The Stockton sisters. There's that saying that you can't choose the family you're born into... You're basically "stuck" with them, warts and all. That is essentially how the sisters are with each other—yes, they seemingly love each other, but, boy, they certainly have mounds of resentment and bitterness just waiting to burst to the surface. Well, nothing that a few glasses of vintage scotch couldn't ease for a bit, of course.

The title, it so happens, refers to how the family patriarch, the now dearly departed Mick Stockton—a celebrated author with a penchant for naughty vices—used to characterize his girls: that they're of good stock... of good breeding, of good quality. Already that label—not to mention this amazing summer house in Cape Cod overlooking the ocean—speaks volumes of the Stockton girls' upper-class, high-brow upbringing and the kind of expectations the sisters had to live up to in their family. It also foreshadows the kind of whiny, first-world problems that trouble them so now as adults.

The eldest of the three sisters, Jess (Melanie Lora), is, as one would expect, the level-headed, responsible one of the bunch. She's on the brink of celebrating her 41st birthday on this particular weekend—a milestone date considering her own mother didn't live past that age due to cancer, an ailment that, sadly, she too has inherited. Nonetheless, she's taken on the responsibility of not only overseeing the legacy of their famous dad—whose stories are being coveted by Hollywood studios—but also taking care of their family's oceanside home that she solely inherited, all while suffering through the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. 

Lucky for her, Jess is married to the sweet, stalwart Fred (Rob Naigle), a kind, funny guy that happens to be significantly older than her (yet has a rather juvenile attachment to patchwork pants). The two have known each other since Jess was rather young, because at one time, Fred was once Jess' father's protégé, who then later fell in love with the boss' kid. Now, Fred is a droll food writer that dotes attentively on his wife, much to her slight protestations. It's clear that Fred is about as loyal to Jess as you can possibly hope one would be while suffering through such a horrible ailment.

The youngest Stockton sis, Celia (Andrea Syglowski) is a bohemian chic wild-child that seems to march to the beat of her own drum. Predictably, she is flighty, quite outspoken and debate-prone, and drawn to activities for a limited amount of time before finding interest in something else. Thus, when Fred and Jess discuss Celia's news that she is bringing over a new boyfriend for the weekend, there is lots of skepticism in the air—particularly when they learn that the guy, bearded lumbersexual Hunter (Todd Lowe), is way older than Celia, but is still languishing as an advanced-aged college undergraduate.

Smack-dab in the middle child position is hoity-toity Amy (Kat Foster), a WASP-y, high-powered uptight queen bee with an impeccable designer wardrobe and a designer fiancé, Josh (Corey Brill) to match. Together, the engaged couple—an upper-crust Ken and Barbie—is the very epitome of posh, upper-class white privilege, the 1-percenters you love to hate and would like to see knocked off their high horses and experience a downward spiral (Spoiler Alert: they sort of do).  Her sisters, naturally, find her a bit more obnoxious than usual, most especially since her impending nuptials have turned her into your typical "bride-zilla." 

When Fred later goes off on an errand with Josh in tow, Fred wonders out loud what is it about the disagreeable Amy that Josh finds suitable to marry. 

"She's hot!" Josh declares, matter-of-factly. A handful, yes, but, yep, she's hot.

Celia, meanwhile, sums up Amy thusly: "I love her… I just wish I liked her." Ouch.

And therein lies the biggest surprise hiccup I took away from OF GOOD STOCK: the presence of a character—one of three at the heart of the play—that remains unlikable throughout the story. It's actually quite a jolt of surprise that I didn't see coming.

In essence, the play has painted Amy as nothing more than a spoiled bitch from hell that, perhaps, deserves whatever comeuppance is in store. She certainly makes it hard to root for her. As presented, Amy is truly just an adult that is still a middle child at heart that never really got her way and continues to behave as such—even though she is clearly living a comfortably wealthy life now. 

Sure, she probably always had to fight her way to gain favor with her parents who may have seemingly favored her other sisters. It's standard-issue middle-child protestations that eventually prompted her to go find her own bliss—and when she eventually achieves it, she is still always making sure her sisters acknowledge her success and accomplishments. It's no wonder she is still livid with the fact that the house was bequeathed only to Jess, even though Jess insists the house is all theirs equally. DRAMA!

So when Amy later finally shows a tiny hint of vulnerability and makes a not-so-shocking confession to her sisters (including a tearful declaration of her fear of losing her sister to cancer), it is, frankly, at least for me, too little too late to reverse her into a likable character—at least in this draft of this world premiere play. I suppose, ultimately, the shock is discovering that the writer doesn't allow this woman any ounce of goodness or redemption. She remains a joke, drinking quietly in the corner while her other family members go about their lives.

Perhaps that's the fresh approach OF GOOD STOCK is aiming for in its presentation of a familiar scenario of three sisters in a play!

But, overall, though, OF GOOD STOCK is an excellent addition to the extensive library of other sibling-centric comedy-dramas that dissect the intricacies of these kinds of relationships. Interestingly, though? The play also chooses to shine a very bright spotlight on the specific "outsiders" that have somehow been able to worm their way into this enclave. 

Sure, scandalous family drama and bickering shouting matches between catty sisters aren't anything new in theater, but the play does present a fresh, thoroughly engaging narrative that allows an additional motif to be examined: exactly what kind of men end up with the kind of women presented here in the first place.

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

The screaming, overlapping dialogue Ross uses is actually quite naturalistic and highly indicative of the kind of relationship these sisters have with each other—quite possibly an after-effect of growing up in a home where they found themselves always fighting for dominance, attention, and to simply be heard above the noise by the main male figure in their life. At one time it was their father, a gifted man who often succumbed to his demons; now they are "loved" by a certain kind of man that embrace and/or tolerate their specific Stockton traits, traits shaped very much by the father that raised them.

But as freely expressive the sisters are in OF GOOD STOCK, they also come off quite grating at times—while the men in their lives, by contrast, come off rather less flawed. I'm not sure if this was intentional, but it made for a more layered dynamic. 

Jess, obviously, hit the jackpot landing a guy like Fred—and the audience is completely on board thanks to some great acting work by Naigle, who does a great job selling his character as the likable EveryMan. At times sweet, at times protective, and at other times a court jester, Naigle's Fred is almost the fantasy version of what someone like Jess needs to survive the day-to-day ailments of life with cancer and, above all, to feel truly loved and supported in every which way. Though Jess—performed with grace and empathetic nuance by Lora—sometimes cracks under the pressure and takes it out on Fred, she can't help but feel that at least this part of her life—the part that involves Fred—is going right.

Celia, too has earned her own "Fred" as well in Hunter, a surprise for everyone including Celia. As such, actors Syglowski and Lowe have an easy, palpable chemistry—and are quite convincing as a couple of intelligent, thoughtful, partially radical misfits that have found one another. I suppose Amy and Josh are suitably matched as well in their own right—and Foster and Brill seem impressively committed to their characters' filthy rich, better-than-y'all outward aura (On a side note, I was fangirling a bit while watching the play considering I just watched Brill's character on the hit series The Walking Dead get killed off rather violently a few weeks ago—and now here he is dressed like a posh, clean-cut Kennedy without a hint of crazy or blood stains).

Simply put, all six featured actors definitely elevate OF GOOD STOCK to a higher plain—which, with its two engaging acts and that oh-so-gorgeous set, has a pretty great view already. Pass the scotch!

Review originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.

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Performances of the World Premiere production of OF GOOD STOCK continue at South Coast Repertory through April 26, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.