Conspiracies Abound in “Yankee Tavern”

By Tom Titus

Conspiracy theorists will discover plenty of raw meat to chew on if they drop into “Yankee Tavern,” winding up its two-weekend engagement at Golden West College this weekend (March 13-15).

Playwright Steven Dietz has delved into several plausible revelations surrounding major historical events (the JFK assassination, the moon landing, etc.), but he’s more concerned here with the events of September 11, 2001 – and who knew what, and when. His forum is a New York bar where such theories are served up regularly along with the beer and booze.

Against this backdrop, director Tom Amen has chosen a stellar four-character cast to spin this fantastic-sounding yarn which ultimately asks more questions than it answers – including the play’s very last line. You’ll leave the theater not knowing what to believe.

Adam (Brock Joseph) is a young man who has inherited this long-established midtown joint from his murdered father. He and his fiancee Janet (Mia-Bella Josimovic) are planning a wedding which itself has an air of mystery, starting with all the phony names on the groom’s guest list.

A regular customer (Michael Bielitz) – so regular he has a key to the establishment and his drinks are on the house – enthralls the others with his conspiracy tales that border on the supernatural. And a lone patron (Paul Jasser) drops in and orders two beers – the second for his absent friend, a victim of 9/11.

Joseph garnishes his normal-appearing character with revelations from his past, as well as his father’s, which cast uncertainty over his coming nuptials. His scenes with his lady love are sincere, on the surface, but nothing in this play is quite as it seems.

Josimovic has the show’s only “straight” role, a young woman desperately striving to maintain her relationship with Adam even while elements are introduced (by the stranger) that threaten their happiness. She projects dedication and sincerity in the face of such threats.

The play’s wild card is Bielitz’s Ray, an aging, garrulous barfly who spins tales and theories that sound incredulous, but gain credence as the story progresses. Bielitz, a veteran actor on the GWC stage and elsewhere, delivers a superb portrayal of this most difficult character, who may inspire images of Walter Brennan in more seasoned audience members.

Jasser has fewer than a handful of lines in the play’s first act, but he returns in the second to dominate the stage, particularly in his scenes with Josimovic as he unveils information about Adam’s character calculated to shock the young man’s fiancee. He also is the most mysterious member of the foursome, an outsider armed with more knowledge than he should possess.

The tavern itself – beautifully designed and appointed by Sigrid Hammer Wolf – functions as a fifth character in the show, especially its juke box which gave up the ghost on that fateful September day and has remained silent ever since.

“Yankee Tavern,” which will be new to most playgoers, is an intriguing and captivating examination of recent historical events combined with an engaging present-day drama. It’s a show that’ll keep you guessing well past the final curtain at Golden West College. Call (714) 895-8150 for ticket information.

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50 years on the aisle for the Daily Pilot

By Tom Titus

Fifty years is a heck of a long time for any one person to be doing any one thing, regardless of how much he or she may enjoy the activity.

Fifty years ago, back in 1965, as a young reporter with just a little over a year on the staff of the Daily Pilot, I was handed a pair of tickets by a fellow scribe who knew of my interest in live theater and asked if I would care to review a play at the old theater in Laguna Beach.

The show was “A Thousand Clowns,” starring a pre-“M*A*S*H” Mike Farrell, and it ignited what would become a half-century and counting as the Pilot’s theater critic. When you enjoy something as much as I appreciated live theater, you tend to stick with it.

The road from there to here is overflowing with memories. That February of ‘65 marked the introduction of South Coast Repertory to local audiences and I got in on the ground floor. I’ve now seen every one of SCR’s major productions – and reviewed all but one of them. The lone exception came in 2006 when I was hospitalized and my son Tim pinch-hit for me to review “The Real Thing” for the Pilot.

I enjoyed the theater so much that I got into it myself and began acting, and later directing. I learned early on that performing or directing in theater was the most fun you could have with your clothes on. My stage debut came in June of ‘65 as the cemetery lot salesman in “Send Me No Flowers,” the inaugural production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse.

When the Irvine Community Theater was born in 1970, I performed in its first show (“Come Blow Your Horn”) and did another (“Arsenic and Old Lace”) – in roles filled on screen by Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, respectively – before being asked to guest-direct an ICT production (“You Can’t Take It With You”). Before I knew it, I found myself ensconced as the theater’s artistic director, a pro bono position I filled for 31 years.

I never intentionally set out to become the Vin Scully of local theater critics. In fact, my early years in typewriter pounding leaned more toward Scully’s line of work. I was sports editor of my home town newspaper for four years before the Army intervened.

When I graduated from the Army Information School, I was sent to Korea where I became a staff writer, and eventually managing editor, of the 7th Infantry Division’s weekly newspaper. Then came a return to my roots – 14 months as sports editor of the Monmouth Message, the post newspaper in Fort Monmouth, NJ.

That stint as a Jersey boy triggered my lifelong love of live theater. The Army base was just an hour south of New York City, and I would spend every possible weekend in the Big Apple, picking up comp tickets from the Manhattan USO and catching show after show on and off Broadway, easily well over 100 productions.

In those days (as now) I had two major non-romantic passions – writing and the theater. When I got the chance to merge the two in 1965, I just never let go. And it was only a matter of time before I began acting and directing as well. I even wrote a play (“Summer Lightning”) which launched the directing phase of my community theater career.

I never really kept track of all the reviews I’ve written, but they number in the thousands over a half-century span. Add that to a couple hundred productions as actor or director and you’ve got a fellow who’s really been up to his ears in live theater.

I left the Pilot’s full-time employment in 1991, but was asked to continue reviewing local theater on a free-lance basis, an offer I couldn’t refuse. There certainly is enough local theater activity to inspire a column every week.

Theater figured strongly in my personal life as well. When I played Mitch in the Westminster Community Theater’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1970, I fell in love with the actress playing Blanche. Beth and I were married for 13 years and still remain friends, and the union produced two exceptional children, now exceptional adults.

Son Tim teaches psychology and serves as the journalism advisor at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, while daughter Mindy, a credit union manager and occasional actress, has produced two beautiful (not that I’m prejudiced) daughters, Riley and Kaylyn, who are getting an early introduction to the theater. Riley, who turns 8 in February, already has been in her school’s show, “The Wiz,” and has a role in the upcoming “Alice in Wonderland.”

Both of my own kids were thoroughly immersed in theater during their youth. Two of my favorite acting roles were those of Scotty Templeton in “Tribute” with Tim playing my son and Herb Tucker in “I Ought to Be in Pictures” when Mindy portrayed my daughter.

When I met my current lady love, Jurine Landoe, a dozen years ago, I hung it up at ICT so I could spend more time with her. I returned to the Irvine theater in 2007 to direct one final play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a few months after my hospital stint (I’d spent the better part of 2006 battling lymphoma and pneumonia), then happily closed the book on my active participation in theater, my passion finally sated.

I’m still in reasonably good health (despite that scare in ‘06) and hope to be around, certainly not another 50 years, but quite a few more to continue a love affair with the stage that began back in 1962 when I’d spend my weekends discovering live theater along the Great White Way.

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Lioness Rules “Lion in Winter”

Lioness Rules “Lion in Winter”

By Tom Titus

“Well, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”

That piquant quip, at the outset of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” alerts audiences that, while they may be in for some powerful historical dramatic fare, there’s a strong sardonic vein running through it as well.

At the Whittier Community Theater, this half-century old historical melodrama – which spawned a memorable movie back in 1968 – is given a splendid revival, dotted with excellent individual performances, by director Lenore Stjerne and a cast rich in the art of depth and nuance.

That year, 1968, is particularly noteworthy locally since it also was the year the old Laguna Playhouse mounted a superb version of Goldman’s play, directed by John Ferzacca and featuring indelible performances by Ralph Richmond and Marthella Randall. No local version has matched that one since, but Whittier’s comes mighty close.

As the production opens, England’s King Henry II (William Crisp), who has kept his estranged wife, Eleanor (Candy Beck) imprisoned for the past decade, summons her back home to share the Christmas holidays with him and their three sons (Collin McDowell, Brandon Ferrucio and Jonathan Tupanjanin), each of whom covets the throne upon their father’s passing (two of them will achieve it).

Crisp renders a strong and substantial performance as the English monarch, but it’s Beck’s Eleanor of Aquitaine who rules this production. She’s at once proud, maternal, devious and heartbroken in a portrayal rich in both style and substance, drawing emotional blood with her acid-tinged observations.

Beck scores especially high in her scenes with Crisp as the royal couple engage in a battle of wits reminiscent of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (a play Sterne also has directed). Crisp also shifts from calmness to combustibility quite effectively, but his character contains somewhat less dimension than hers.

As their oldest surviving son, destined for greatness as Richard the Lionheart, McDowell radiates strength and fortitude. He wears his right of succession like a mantle, ready to strike at anyone who dares to challenge him..

The middle son, Geoffrey, a schemer par excellence, is played with ironic glee by Ferruccio, who delights in his Machiavellian plotting but nevertheless seethes with resentment that he’s not even considered in the line of succession.

Their younger brother — John, who eventually would succeed Richard as king and be forced to sign the Magna Carta — is characterized as cruel, disgusting and childish. Tupanjanin revels in this infantile character, prone to tantrums and unbridled in his outbursts.

Henry’s young mistress, elder sister of the visiting king of France, who worships Henry and tearfully rails against a marriage to one of his sons, is beautifully rendered by Jamie Sowers. Her impact grows as the play progresses, as does her love-hate relationship with Eleanor.

Luke Miller’s King Philip II fares less effectively, struggling with an unconvincing accent (dealing with “zis” and “zat”) and delivering a rather stilted performance. His air of authority in his scenes with Crisp is artificial at best.

Director Stjerne, who staged many productions in Irvine and Westminster over the last quarter of a century, has elicited some strong and memorable moments in this handsomely mounted revival. Set designer Mark Frederickson’s large rear wall functions as a ubiquitous backdrop for the action, while the 12th century costumes from Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are impressive.

“The Lion in Winter” may be a fictitious fable involving actual historical characters, but playwright Goldman has woven their passions together with consummate skill. It’s a powerful evening, laced with dark humor, at the Whittier Community Theater.

Performances continue through Nov. 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 16, at the Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave., Whittier. Call (562) 696-0600 for ticket information.

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A Powerful “La Mancha” in Orange

By Tom Titus

Sharp characterizations and strong singing voices combine to make the revival of “Man of La Mancha” by Party by Number Entertainment a memorable production at the Village Theater in Orange.

With director Sergio Candido taking the leading role of Cervantes/Don Quixote, bringing his two decades of musical theater experience to the fore, his “La Mancha” is worth a much longer engagement than its scheduled two weekends (closing Oct. 26).

The show is marked by passion and fervor except, curiously, in its scenes depicting physical action. Nevertheless, the vocal strength displayed by its principal actors make it a rich theatrical experience.

Candido is a more robust figure than those who generally step into Don Quixote’s boots, but he alternates splendidly in the scenes depicting bravado and inglorious defeat. He also receives some splendid support, particularly from Vanessa Cedeno’s fiery kitchen wench Aldonza.

Cedeno possesses the character’s required beauty and sensual appeal, and her singing voice bursts with a ringing operatic quality. Added to this is a smoldering resentment of her station in life which she thrusts into Quixote’s face in her terrific solo, “Aldonza,” late in the show.

Quixote’s addled but agreeable squire, Sancho Panza, is enacted with a giddy sense of fidelity and servitude by Randy Calcetas, who brings an appreciable lighter touch to the role. He properly conveys the impression of a fellow who’s half into fantasy and half mired in reality.

A particular bastion of supporting strength is John Espino, who plays the powerful yet compassionate Dr. Corrasco, engaged to his adversary’s niece. Espino underscores his inner concern, even while overcome the mad knight in battle, and contributes a particularly strong singing voice.

Two minor characters who ascend into memorable figures are the harried innkeeper and his obstreperous wife. Frank Valdez skillfully balances between accommodation and opposition, while Norma Jean, startlingly uglified, may overplay her screeching harridan at times, but she’s truly effective.

James Gomez has a comical turn as the barber who loses his “golden helmet” to Quixote, while Gordon Buckley is fearsome as the chief muleteer. Matt Koutroulis generates a calm resolve as the padre and Tayler Noel Hayes is engaging as the niece, Antonia.

As for the physical action scenes, they are disappointing primarily because the balance of the production is so well done. Both the combat and abduction sequences are given short shrift compared to the choreography of previous versions of the show.

Musically, this “La Mancha” is a winner, with musical director David Diiorio helming a splendid combo, punctuated by fierce trumpet and drums. Choreographer Lauren Ross exhibits some engaging numbers, though the pre-show dance sequence is somewhat superfluous.

“Man of La Mancha” is one of the musical theater’s modern classics and this production does its creators proud. Closing performances will be given Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7, and Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Village Theater, 1140 N. Tustin Ave. in Orange. Call (714) 316-8826 for ticket information.

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“Assassins” review

“Assassins” Hits the Bullseye at Gem

By Tom Titus

There is, on the stage of Garden Grove’s Gem Theater, a most exclusive private club consisting of five charter members, along with several honorary members who tried to join the club and took their best shot, but failed.

The members range, historically, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, while the wannabes include John Hinkley Jr., Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. By now, you’re probably aware that these are the characters from Stephen Sondheim’s dark but brilliant musical “Assassins.”

In director Beth Hansen’s spellbinding production, the setting resembles a high-end tavern in which a mysterious proprietor (Daniel Berlin) dispenses liquor and armaments, while serving as propmeister and setting up the vignettes from the more unfortunate pages of U.S. history.

One by one, both the assassinations and bungled attempts are played out, beginning with Booth, a radical, racist Southerner who blamed Abraham Lincoln for starting the Civil War. He’s given a superb, invective-laced performance by Alex Bodrero, who later goads Oswald into taking a shot at John F. Kennedy.

The most flamboyant character in the cast is Charles Guiteau, whose delusions included an ambassadorship to France and who shot President James Garfield. This show-stealing role is played with all stops out by Damien Lorton, the theater’s artistic director, who turns his walk to the noose into a vaudeville exercise.

Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to kill FDR but failed (but who accidentally killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak), is portrayed as an embittered rabble rouser whose execution in the electric chair is grippingly depicted on stage. He’s played with venomous distaste by Danny Diaz.

The two women who tried to take down Gerald Ford are depicted as co-conspirators. Adriana Sanchez beautifully plays a clumsy matron, Sara Jane Moore, who keeps losing her gun, while Gretchen Dawson enacts the fiery Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme of Manson Family fame (or infamy). It’s a sharp change of pace for Sanchez, who recently excelled as “Evita” on the same stage.

Dawson’s Fromme encounters another failed shooter, John Hinkley Jr., played with passionate conviction by Tad Fujioka. They join in a duet celebrating their dedications – Fromme’s to Charles Manson, Hinkley’s to Jodie Foster prior to his wounding of Ronald Reagan.

Evan Guido depicts overflowing radicalism as Leon Csolgosz, the rebellious immigrant who killed President William McKinley and reportedly had an affair with anarchist Emma Goldman (a staunch Fiona Wynder).

Clad in a tattered Santa Claus suit, Chris Harper portrays the extremely deranged Samuel Byck, who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon by flying a plane into the White House. His story doesn’t spring readily to mind, but Harper makes it come alive with a vengeance.

The balladeer, Brandon Taylor Jones, who celebrates their stories in song, later becomes Oswald, a perennial loser who makes his final murderous statement in Dallas, goaded by the silver-tongued Booth, along with the other shooters, past and future. It’s a piece marked by ensemble excellence as the others overcome Oswald’s hesitancy.

“Assassins” continues through Nov. 2 at the Gem, 12852 Main St. in Garden Grove, playing Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call One More Productions at (714) 741-9550 or go online at http://www.onemoreproductions.com for ticket information.

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A Ghostly “Screw” Turned at GWC

Turning a Ghostly “Screw” at GWC

By Tom Titus

Just in time for pre-Halloween entertainment comes “The Turn of the Screw,” Jeffrey Hatcher’s eerie adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, on stage through Oct 19 at Golden West College in Huntington Beach.

There are plenty of spirits in this tale, but you won’t see them from your seat in the audience. It’s a “memory play” both performed and narrated by its principal character, a middle-aged governess in charge of two troublesome children at a vintage manor in 1872 England.

She’s one of two characters in the abbreviated (70 minutes) one-act play, the other being an actor who interprets several roles – men, women and one of the children (the other doesn’t speak). Director Tom Amen successfully establishes an air of mystery and terror which manifests itself in the minds of the playgoers.

In a performance of frightening magnitude, Camille Lacey portrays the maiden governess who signs on to serve a mysterious and unseen master of the manor, which is haunted by the spirits of her predecessor and a creepy valet who, we are to believe, seduced her before both perished.

Lacey delivers a remarkable interpretation, blending a genuine sense of affection for the children with an abject horror when confronted with the ghosts of “Jessel,” the onetime governess, and “Quint,” the evil servant.

Paul Jasser enacts the other character, or more accurately “characters” – the manor’s fluttery housekeeper, the troubled young boy and other fringe personages, even bird sounds. He also shares narrating duty in a spectral manner well suited for the surroundings.

Jasser is at his most effective when portraying the young boy, Miles, who attempts to establish dominion over the new governess. His seductive nature in one so young is quite astonishing, to say the least.

The production is quite ambiguous because, as Amen explains, “Henry James intended it that way” in his original novella. The show raises more questions than answers, and both actors are skilled in shielding the truth of the piece from the audience. Whether they could sustain such a mood over the length of a traditional play is quite another matter.

The setting – which consists solely of a long staircase, is the work of Frederick P. DePontee, who also designed the unsettling lighting effects. Sylvia Boutelle’s costumes (heavy on the black) and makeup add depth to the show, as do the sound effects of Veronica Mullins.

“The Turn of the Screw” concludes the weekend of Oct. 17-19 in the Mainstage Theater on the Golden West campus, with Friday and Saturday curtain at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 and $14, and reservations are taken at (714) 895-8150 or online at http://www.gwctheater.com.

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God of Carnage

“God of Carnage” Reigns Supreme in CM

By Tom Titus

Community theater simply doesn’t get any better than the production of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” currently on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

With a riveting play by Reza (translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton), superb direction form Michael Serna and outstanding performances by all four cast members, “Carnage” could well have been presented at South Coast Repertory. It’s a professional show in all aspects save for monetary compensation.

The Tony Award-winning comedic drama, staged in 90 intermission-free minutes as it builds up emotional steam, pits two New York couples with contrasting backgrounds and outlooks, against each other in a situation that starts out overly civilized and quickly turns fervently barbaric.

It seems the son of one of the pair has clobbered the son of the other with a stick, loosening two of the kid’s teeth in the process. As the foursome ponder what action should be taken, while stressing courtesy and tact, their innermost feelings begin to emerge and, eventually, snap like the cork on a bottle of champagne. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, so to speak, all Hades ensues.

The host couple, played by Peter Hilton and Jordana Oberman, are the souls of propriety at the outset, while the visitors, Angel Correa and Michelle Pedersen, reside on a higher socio-economic level and radiate forced condescension. Some ill-timed remarks, fueled by enormous quantities of alcohol, knock that detente into the proverbial cocked hat.

While all four performers are excellent, Oberman is positively riveting. Her character – a “think globally” writer studying conditions in Darfur – comes unglued with a vengeance, both at the expense of her guests and her husband, as she mounts a rampaging fury over the offending boy and his snooty, upper-class parents. Her physical energy, in particular, is extremely impressive.

Hilton, as her husband – a wholesaler in kitchen products – maintains his calm demeanor as long as possible until he too erupts with a volcanic rage. He’s recently tossed out his son’s hamster (he can’t stand rodents) and the guilt over that issue mingles with the ill treatment he receives from the others, creating an unsettling environment.

The other kid’s father, played expertly by Correa, is a powerful corporate lawyer seemingly welded to his cell phone, which he insists on answering despite its upsetting effect on the problem at issue. His overarching attitude of superiority ruffles the feathers of the others, even those of his normally supportive wife.

That role, beautifully delivered by Pedersen, ranges from quiet sarcasm to outrageous protests, exacerbated by her reaction to the snack served by her hosts – a furious exhibition of stomach-upsetting agony. Watching her sophisticated veneer crack under pressure is a particular delight.

Director Serna – who also designed the play’s setting, an attractively furnished New York apartment – has wrenched some superior performances from his high-caliber cast. The finished product stands as the finest local community theater production of the year thus far and a lofty bar for other playhouses to strive for.

“God of Carnage” thrusts four contrasting individuals together in a melange whose depth hasn’t been approached since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It’s a stunning triumph for all concerned at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. Performances continue weekends through Sept. 28 at the theater, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa (949-650-5269).

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