By Tom Titus

    It’s hard to imagine a more depressing setting for a play than a “retirement” home in Idaho that is about to be closed down and where its inhabitants are just marking time in their waning lives while waiting for the blizzard to diminish.
    Yet the playwright, Samuel D. Hunter, and his director, Martin Benson — who teamed on the riveting, offbeat drama “The Whale” last season — have combined to spin this apparent dramatic straw into theatrical gold with “Rest,” now taking the stage in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
    Born and raised in Idaho, Hunter returns to his roots for most of his dramatic inspiration, focusing on quirky yet otherwise very ordinary characters in even more unexciting situations and makes them come indelibly alive, much like Horton Foote did with his Southern creations and William Inge accomplished with America’s heartland.
    In “Rest,” the focus is on a convalescent home, its employees and its three patients, one of whom who turns up missing midway through the first act. After intermission, the mystery is solved and an even more crucial development arises. To elaborate would require a spoiler alert.
    The centerpiece of this captivating but off-center situation is Etta, an elderly resident and the wife of the missing oldster. Lynn Milgrim dominates this scenario, as she did at SCR in years past in “The Heiress,” “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Death of a Salesman” and others. Her richly layered performance is the top banana in a most impressive bunch.
    The two junior caretakers of the establishment are nicely delineated by Libby West and Sue Cremin. West is strong as the slightly superior member of the pair, while Cremin excels as her junior partner, who is carrying West’s child as a surrogate in a plot element that seems merely tacked on to the primary story. More should be developed with this subplot or it should be simply discarded, and the same goes for an offhand piece of gossip about West’s husband.
    As the painfully inept manager of the rest home, Rob Nagle skillfully underscores his character’s inefficiency as he attempts to assert his flagging authority and unveils his more feminine side. Wyatt Fenner as the new, temporary cook — and a scarily religious fanatic — has some over-the-top moments threatening to upset the play’s delicate balance.
    It’s always good to see SCR founding actors Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. back on stage and at the top of their game even after a half-century of performances. Doyle has a brief but compelling sequence as the old fellow who goes missing, while Landon solidly enacts the taciturn patient, a retired night watchman, upon whose character the plot takes a significant turn.
    The seediness of the overly used retirement home is well illustrated in its well-worn set design by John Iacovelli. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are fitting for such a back-country atmosphere.
    With “Rest,” playwright Hunter further establishes himself as a theatrical voice of paramount importance. His offbeat collection of characters has found a welcome home at South Coast Repertory.

(this review originally was published in the Daily Pilot)


Dividing the Estate

Family Divided in Newport’s “Estate”

By Tom Titus

    Horton Foote wrote over 100 plays during his nearly 93 years of creativity, many of which have been produced by local theaters. One that’s been absent from our stages, however, is “Dividing the Estate,” a family-themed dramatic comedy from the late 1980s which only now has surfaced at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

    This play, like much of Foote’s Southern-fried creations, is an acquired taste, but playgoers probably will acquire it before the lights dim on its first act. After that point, it’s just fun to watch the several members of a Texas family battle greedily for the upper hand in a quest for proceeds and property.

    Initially, the Gordons are a fairly convivial clan, sharing a large Texas estate presided over by the aging matriarch Stella (Nancy Larner) and also housing her grown children, Lucille (Sharyn Case), Lewis (Sean Singer) and her grandson, known only as “Son” (Sean Sellers), as well as assorted servants.

    In time another heiress arrives, daughter Mary Jo (Della Lisi), along with her ineffectual husband Bob (Larry Greagan) and their attractive teen daughters (Whitney Ellis and Natalie Swinford), who frequently are mistaken for one another. Add to this mix Son’s schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Chiara Issa) and an ancient family retainer Doug (J.L.T. Williams), a cook (Gwen Woolddridge) and her helper Cathleen (Aili Jiaravanant) and you’ve got quite a contentious household.

    Director Brian Page stirs this concoction effectively, pressing the comedic buttons when required to elaborate on the quirkiness of one character of another. As two of them pass away unexpectedly, the others converge to sniff out their advantage should the estate be divided.

    It’s a splendid ensemble, but one performer emerges memorably – Lisi’s avaricious desperation as the sister, transplanted to Houston, who looks down on the others as her own financial position is diminishing. Her “What about me?” attitude and her impatient finger drumming as other issues are discussed amplify this excellent performance.

    In contrast, Case presents a solid, if more undramatic, character who’s adapted to her life on the estate, joining Sellers – who has three years of college behind him – in managing the family finances. Sellers, a calm young widower, seems the most “normal” character of the bunch and a sense of calm amid the familial storm.

    He’s contrasted by his uncle Lewis, a role beautifully executed by Singer as a heavy drinking schemer seeking money from the estate to, as he puts it, save his life (by placating the angry father of his young ladyfriend). Issa brightens the picture as Son’s fiancee, a sparkling presence in the midst of continual turmoil.

    Larner also impresses as the iron-willed grandmother sternly opposing the property sale. Greagan is less effective as Lisi’s real estate agent husband who argues for it, while Williams (a white actor playing a servant’s role originally written for an African-American) displays moments of depth and clarity amid his character’s normal befuddlement.

    Ellis and Swinford shine as Lisi’s self-centered daughters, also dividing the spoils in their minds. Jaspre Dixon, who arrives late in the play as Singer’s squeeze, offers a dimly lit defining moment, while Wooldridge and Jiaravanant function believably as the kitchen staff.

    Andrew Otero’s old-house setting, with curtains blending into the wallpaper, is admirable, as are the costume creations of Claudia Berglund and Joni Stockinger. Likewise, Mitch Atkins’ lighting and Page’s sound design blend well in the proceedings.

    Horton Foote was a past master of mining artistic gold from the conflicts of families, particularly Southern ones. The mixture spotlighted in “Dividing the Estate” combines drama and comedy to high effect at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.


WHAT: “Dividing the Estate”
WHERE: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. until April 27
COST: $12
CALL: (949) 631-0288

(this review originally appeared in the Daily Pilot)

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Emmes, Benson Left Their Mark onSCR

Emmes, Benson left their mark on SCR

By Tom Titus

Theater companies traditionally honor individuals who have been highly instrumental in their success by naming a performing facility for them, as UC Irvine did a few years ago when it rechristened its Studio Theater the Robert Cohen Theater to honor Cohen’s half century of teaching and directing at UCI.

South Coast Repertory has two theaters – the Segerstrom Stage and the Julianne Argyros Stage, celebrating two benefactors who provided enormous monetary support. SCR also honored a third financial backer by naming the entire two-theater edifice the Folino Theater Center.

Paul Folino, the retired chairman and CEO of Emulex, was the SCR board president who led the theater’s “Next Stage” campaign to greatly expand the theater complex and support educational and artistic programs. His donation of $10 million was, at the time, the largest individual gift to a regional theater.

But Folino recently had a change of heart. He suggested that SCR remove his name from the complex and rename it for the two visionaries who created South Coast Repertory back in 1964 – artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson.

So it was that, on a recent evening, Folino, Emmes and Benson got together and unveiled the lettering on the face of the theater near the administration office which now reads “David Emmes/Martin Benson Theater Center.”

“I wanted to thank David and Martin by renaming this theater center so that people will remember not only their amazing accomplishments over the last 50 years at SCR, but the legacy they have created that will serve this community for decades to come,” Folino declared. “These two men truly are legends in repertory theater history.”

Emmes and Benson, now in their 70s, turned over the company’s reins a few years ago to Marc Masterson, but remain aligned with SCR, sharing the title of “founding artistic directors” and each staging a show every season.

Needless to say, the effect of the name change on the two pioneers was deep and heartfelt.

“Seeing our names on the theater was an infinitely more profound personal experience than I had imagined,” Emmes remarked. “It also reminded me of how fortunate we were to have launched our amazing creative odyssey in Orange County.”

Benson echoed his partner’s sentiments. “It has means far more to me than I thought,” he said. “There is in it a sense of permanence, which is the opposite of the transitory nature of theater itself.”

Their legacy is enormous. Under their leadership South Coast Repertory has received honors for artistic excellence, including a Tony award for regional theater in 1988 and 87 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. Two SCR-developed works – “Wit” by Margaret Edison and “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire” – have earned Pulitzer Prizes in 1999 and 2007, respectively, while another eight were named Pulitzer finalists.

David Emmes and Martin Benson have given Orange County audiences over a half century of premium-quality theater. That their names now grace the SCR theater complex insures that future generations of local theatergoers will be aware of their enormous contributions to the birth and development of South Coast Repertory.

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The Children’s Hour

“Children’s Hour” Still Powerful at NTAC

By Tom Titus

Lillian Hellman’s first successful play – written in 1934 – was “The Children’s Hour,” which knocked Broadway back on its heels and ran for over two years. Eighty years later, it’s still a powerful piece of theater when cast with superior talent as it is at the Newport Theater Arts Center.

This current revival is replete with standout performances, especially those of the two schoolteachers falsely accused of being lesbian lovers. But playgoers will leave the theater talking about a petite, 12-year-old actress who turns in a brilliant performance as their accuser .

That would be Emma Bradley, about whom more certainly will be heard in the future. Her captivating performance as Mary Tilford, a little girl you love to hate, borders on brilliance, both in its power and its nuance, under the meticulous direction of Kevin Slay. It’s about time someone revived “The Bad Seed” to showcase this young lady’s talents.

As the teachers whose lives are ruined by this hateful little brat, Amanda Zarr and Rachel Lockhart are a standout pair whose interpretive powers are put to the test in two demanding assignments. Zarr portrays Karen Wright, who’s engaged to the town doctor (Christopher Geer) and finds both her personal and professional worlds shattered by her accuser’s lies.

Lockhart is equally strong as Martha Dobie, who suffers even deeper damage to her psyche, a plot element that doesn’t surface until nearly the end of the play. Together, they convey agonizing heartache, perhaps a bit melodramatic for today’s audiences, but the time portrayed is 1934, the year “Children’s Hour” was written.

Veteran local actress Teri Ciranna, long absent from the NTAC stage, returns with a flourish as Martha’s overly dramatic aunt Lily, an actress who’s constantly “on stage,” even when assisting young girls in a play rehearsal. Given her profession, as well as the time period, her performance is definitely on target.

As the grandmother of Bradley’s character, a dowager who wields a powerful influence over the school, Judy Jones is a bit hesitant in her performance, but generally quite effective. Geer’s young doctor exhibits considerable stage power as he endeavors to ferret out the truth and save his relationship with Zarr’s character.

Another student caught in Mary’s web is Rosalie (Kelsey Arnold), who unwillingly aids in the teachers’ destruction. Arnold successfully projects her fear of the smaller Bradley in an emotionally demanding segment.

Director Slay has created a chilling atmosphere, reinforced by his ensemble players cast as fellow students. They include Mia El-Bayar, Hanna Jarvis, Kaylin Omo, Diana Tran and Savannah Young. Naomi Murden scores quite well as the no-nonsense maid to Jones’ character, while David Soukenik is fine in a one-shot appearance as a grocery boy.

Andrew Otero’s dual setting fills the bill nicely, reflecting the penury of the Depression-era period. Costumes, by Claudia Berglund and Mary DePaoli, are impressive as well.

Melodramatic? Overlong? Guilty on both counts, but quite acceptable when one considers that eight decades have passed since “The Children’s Hour” was written. It’s a peek into theatrical history written large at the Newport Theater Arts Center, where it will play through Feb. 23. Reservations are taken at (949) 631-0288.

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Lagunatics – Better Late Than Never

By Tom Titus

Neither rain nor storm nor heat nor…mold can stop the No Square Theater’s Lagunatics from the eventual completion of their annual round of parodies.

The 2013 edition of the “roast of the coast” was all set to open last Oct. 5 in the Forum Theater on the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts grounds – and then someone found mold developing in the theater.

The show wasn’t canceled, but it was postponed indefinitely until a solution could be found. Now, three months later, the Lagunatics are back in action, playing at the Forum through Jan. 26.

Lagunatics, for the uninitiated, is the No Square Theater’s annual program of musical potshots at Laguna Beach and its many peculiarities. There’s so much material here that the current (2013) edition is the company’s 21st – all under the baton of founder-director Bree Burgess Rosen.

Inspired, most probably, by the “Forbidden Broadway” routines in which parodies are presented to the tune of popular musical numbers, Lagunatics also owes a creative debt to the legendary TV knee-slapper “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”  There’s nothing this show won’t do for a chuckle or a guffaw.

One might think all the satire might not sit well with Laguna’s municipal leaders. One would be mistaken, since two members of the Laguna Beach City Council – Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman – also are in the Lagunatics troupe.

As is the case with many such endeavors, there are highs and lows. Among the highest is a backhanded tribute to the nearby, troubled San Onofre nuclear facility which Gregg Barnette (in his 12th year with Lagunatics) turns into a singalong called “San Oh-no-free.”

Probably the funniest bit is called “Eat Like a Goat” in which Joe Lauderdale and a chorus of prancing nannies celebrate flatulent goats to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz.” The payoff line is “If I only didn’t fart.”

Other highlights include Bridget English’s “Besmirched,” set to the tune of “Bewitched” from “Pal Joey” and “Send Them Home,” based on “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” offered by Randy Hatfield — “Them,” in this case, being members of the audience.

One number is even more topical thanks to the postponement. Dicterow’s “Ring of Hire” laments an actor’s failure to be cast in the Laguna Playhouse’s tribute to Johnny Cash. Originally planned for last October, it’s now presented as the playhouse stages the actual show next door.

The proposed parking garage across Laguna Canyon Road from the festival – a live issue last October but a dead one today – gets the treatment from Jamie Elise Dana and Mark Dana, husband and wife, to the tune of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-lovely.”

Entitled “Gagtime,” a takeoff    on the musical “Ragtime,” Lagunatics continues through
Jan. 26 with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. for the Jan. 26 gala. Tickets may be ordered at http://www.nosquare.tix.com.

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Man of La Mancha at Huntington Beach Playhouse

A Robust “La Mancha” on HB Stage

By Tom Titus

Few musicals stir the heartfelt passions quite so much as “Man of La Mancha,” particularly in its closing number as the heretofore cruel and sardonic prisoners join in the chorus of “The Impossible Dream” as the show’s hero climbs the steps to the Inquisition.

This musical version of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel “Don Quixote” sparked a 1965 Broadway musical that ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, then enjoyed four Broadway revivals. It’s powerful and moving entertainment whether on a professional or community theater stage.

In the robust revival now being offered by the Huntington Beach Playhouse, there is both musical excellence and heart-tugging drama, spearheaded by three of the finest talents ever to locally interpret the characters created by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics). It all comes together in an excellent production under the direction of Larry Watts, who also choreographed and costumed the show.

As the “mad knight” who sallies forth to right all wrongs and rescue damsels in distress (in a period 300 years removed from knighthood’s flower), Russell Montooth is outstanding. Slight of build but strong of voice, Montooth breathes both life and credibility into the fabled Don Quixote character as he battles enemies real and imagined, ultimately surrendering to grim reality.

Adriana Sanchez is the gold standard of musical theater actresses in Orange County, and her presence as the fiery kitchen wench/harlot Aldonza should be motivation enough for playgoers to line up at the Huntington Beach box office. Sanchez commands the stage in a role she most likely was born to play, melding a surprising physical talent with her unsurprisingly  superb vocal tones.

As Quixote’s wiser companion and servant Sancho Panza, Randy Calcetas skillfully plays against the corpulent type of his character, contributing a winning zaniness to the role. Calcetas is ever alert to the comic potential of his mission.

Taking command of the action both in prison and in the makeshift tavern is Jason Robert Hoskins, who excels more as an actor than a singer as the Governor/Innkeeper. Rick Dale offers a somber note as the padre, ministering to Quixote’s niece (Katie Roberts) and housekeeper (Audrey Weidermann).

Brady Porter solidly interprets the niece’s fiancé, Dr. Sanson Carrasco, who holds the key to returning the old man to sanity. Steve Shane impresses in his brief cameo as a barber, while Stephanie LeHane wriggles convincingly as a larcenous belly dancer.

Under Watts’ choreography and the musical direction of Mike Walker, the production throbs with both dramatic and comedic intensity. It’s an “Impossible Dream” realized at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.


WHAT: “Man of La Mancha”
WHO: Huntington Beach Playhouse
WHERE: Library Theater, 7171 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach
WHEN: Fridays & Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Jan. 31
COST: $20 – $18
CALL: (714) 375-0696

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Amen, Ramm put glitter in Golden West

Amen, Ramm add glitter to Golden West

By Tom Titus

Nearly 40 years ago, this newspaper first began honoring two people each year for exemplary contributions to local theater. On rare occasions the honorees were a married couple (David and Betsy Paul, Greg and Kysa Cohen), and even rarer were two practitioners from the same venue (Ryan Holihan and Laura Lindahl).

The latter instance holds true today as we focus the spotlight on a pair of directors who have elevated the quality of theatrical production at Golden West College, alternating as a tag team to bring consistently high quality entertainment to their audiences.

They are the immensely talented creative artists who employ their skills – one in drama and comedy, the other in music and dance – to offer a complete theater package at the Huntington Beach college. They are Tom Amen and Martie Ramm, the Daily Pilot’s man and woman of the year in theater for 2013.

Since the turn of the current century, Tom Amen has been a professor of theater at Golden West and director of at least two productions each year. He came up through UC Irvine (BA in acting) and the University of Utah (MFA in directing).

At Golden West, Amen has re-introduced playgoers to classic theater such as “Medea,” “Oedipus Rex” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He also has selected some wild and crazy comedies, several by Ken Ludwig – “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Leading Ladies.”

This year marked the culmination of Amen’s artistic sabbatical – a sea voyage following the route of novelist Herman Melville in his quest for “Moby Dick.” Amen collected his experiences and combined them with Melville’s prose to create a new version of the whale tale which premiered to appreciative audiences several months ago.

The director’s many past accomplishments include riveting productions of “Doubt,” “Shadowlands” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” This season, Amen is tapping into the writings of George Orwell and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His production of Orwell’s “1974″ opened the season and his staging of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is due in March.

Currently, Amen is at work on a play about the life of legendary Western gunslinger Doc Holliday, famed for his role in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. He’s hoping to get this one on the GWC boards by 2015.

Martie Ramm Engle (her full name) also has many years of service at Golden West, specializing in musical theater as a director and choreographer. Recently, she scored a holiday hit with the stage version of the Bing Crosby movie “White Christmas.”

Over the past few years, Ramm has delighted her audiences with knockout productions of “Cabaret,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Legally Blonde.” Other memorable shows from Ramm at Golden West have included “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Nine.”

Prior to her arrival at Golden West, Ramm was a professional performer, appearing on Broadway (“Evita”), in London (“A Chorus Line”), in several national tours (“A Chorus Line,” “Annie,” “Show Boat”) and in many regional theater productions including twice as Charity in “Sweet Charity.”

She performed for Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions for many years, starting as a dancing Mary Poppins (while still in high school) and graduating to directing and choreography. She supervised Disney’s Japanese and Australian productions and was production manager for the Los Angeles company of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Ramm’s future projects include directorial turns on “Love, Loss and What I Wore” in February and the modern classic farce “Noises Off,” scheduled for May.

Tom Amen and Martie Ramm represent a double-barreled shot of theatrical dynamite at Golden West College and their selection as man and woman of the year in local theater is long overdue.

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