REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Charley’s Sonata (On the Spot and La Costa)

Cliché-ridden family drama never finds the beat.

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On the Spot Theatre Company and La Costa Theatre present
 
Charley’s Sonata
 
Written and Directed by Mike Brayndick
Original music by Stephen Gawrit
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through May 23rd  |
  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

The writer-director is a dangerous animal. A writer’s primary task is to provide the foundation of the play, establishing style, creating plot and characters, and putting words in the actors’ mouths. Everything starts with the script. The director takes these elements and gives them life, coaching actors and working with a design team with the ultimate goal of enriching the source material. Manipulating these factors garners IMG_4600 an emotional reaction from the audience, and the director builds the connection that will determine the play’s success. It takes a massive amount of work and skill to do both well, but the main reason these roles are kept separate is because they create a system of checks and balances. The writer protects the integrity of the script, the director protects the integrity of the stage. When two become one, it can get ugly, and Charley’s Sonata ain’t pretty. The script lacks focus, struggling to balance multiple storylines about stereotypical characters, and the directorial choices are simply illogical, from unnecessarily long scene changes to the general overacting of the ensemble.

Charley (Stephen Gawrit) is the developmentally challenged son of Jonathan (David Schaplowsky) and Carol (Jennifer Young) who disappears on a family vacation in London. The events of the day Charley vanished are intertwined with various plots occurring four years later, when Jonathan and his daughter Miriam (Emma Brayndick) return to London for the reading of a relative’s will. Jonathan and Carol’s struggling marriage, Miriam’s romantic troubles, cousins Edwin (Daniel Ochoa) and Janice’s (Sandria-Jane Dajani) issues with Edwin’s mother Patricia (Janet Magnuson), and side stories involving who gets the inheritance and Patricia’s super-weird relationship with Charley are all covered, and the result is a jumbled mess that feels only half finished.

Charley’s Sonata has as much emotion as the title character’s tinny Casio. Relationships don’t feel organic, especially Miriam’s out-of-nowhere romance with a British boy and his subsequent infatuation with her; the stakes aren’t fully realized, one of the key factors that separates acting from line-reading. The cliché-ridden dialogue becomes a chore to get through – I’ve only been to London once, but I don’t think I ever heard anyone say “gov” – making the conflicts feel derivative and the production just plain boring. The show’s momentum is further diminished by the numerous lengthy scene changes, most of which are completely extraneous. At one point it takes almost an entire minute for one potted plant to be placed, which serves absolutely no purpose other than suggesting Edwin and Janice are redecorating, which is still pointless. It’s wasteful and inconsiderate to the audience, who pays to see characters interacting, not set pieces getting moved around.

 

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Granted, the character interactions also leave something to be desired. The actors struggle with the dialect, jump on each other’s lines, and occasionally even forget the name of the character they’re talking to. Schaplowsky and Dajani provide the most enjoyable performances, the former showing a genuine love for his family and fear for their future, and the latter giving some great comic relief with a spot-on dialect. Considering the amount of time spent focusing on it, Charley shows few signs of a developmental disorder other than the occasional breakdown of a contraction (“don’t” becomes “do not”, “won’t” becomes “will not”), and while Gawrit does a fine job performing Charley’s monologues, they are so eloquent that it becomes difficult to believe the character’s circumstances. Why doesn’t Charley just pick up a phone and call his parents? The whole plot hinges on Charley not being able to take care of himself, but he somehow finds a way to leave his parents a recording of his sonata while lost in a foreign country. It just doesn’t make any sense. Did he have a disc burner in his back pack? Why didn’t he send them an e-mail? These inconsistencies are what hurt the play the most, and while the cast is committed to their work, it’s hard to build a solid product on a faulty foundation.

 
 
Rating: ★½
 
 

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REVIEW: Pretty Penny (Right Brain Project)

Sexual appetite meets physical bodies – or vice-versa

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Right Brain Project presents:

Pretty Penny

by Randall Colburn

directed by Nathan Robbel

through March 20th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Having cabin fever? Then check out the brooding, close quarter’s production of Randall Colburn‘s Pretty Penny over at Right Brain Project instead – it’s an inappropriately intimate storefront variation on an increasingly common theme: the uncomfortable mixture of sexual appetite, physical bodies, and the tech-induced separation of the one from the other.

Pretty Penny_3Victoria (Katy Albert) is a mischief-prone, present-day Women’s Studies student. She decides to pick up twenty hours a week at a no-restrictions-whatsoever phone sex line operation. Jerry (Josh Sumner) owns and operates this wiry brothel.  He’s a would-be photographer but instead of making pictures he wound up taking them from other people, then mixing and matching them to someone else’s voice-for-hire. People on one end of the line pay for what’s repeatedly described as a fiction – a total fantasy. Meanwhile, Jerry’s employees, and Victoria in particular, fall dangerously into the allure of the fantastical, no-restrictions alter-egos.

Enter Crystal (Susan Myburgh), strutting. Crystal is a no nonsense model with the drive and perseverance it takes to succeed in the business of flesh and posing – so naturally there are some skeletons in her closet.  Namely, some lurid, pre-nose-job skeletons, erotic photos taken by Adam some ten years earlier. She’s also got a push-over boyfriend named Tommy (Nick Mikula) who lacks the courage or emotional flexibility to go down on one knee and make Crystal his fiancée.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a pretty keen, emotionless business operator.  And he wants to put those Crystal photos on the hot-line’s site. Crystal resists, then concedes and consents to become the face of Victoria’s fictional persona. Victoria has already seen the picture that is “her.”  She’s busy trying out voices and personalities like new clothes, settling eventually on a squealy, whimsical lilt she names “Penny.”

Early on, Colburn sets the forces in motion that will eventually bring Crystal and Victoria face to face.  He also sets this meeting up as one of those forbidden encounters, likely to cause a cataclysmic disturbance.

Pretty Penny_2 It’s a difficult, almost cruel journey for an audience set in the round and just feet from the actors.  Nathan Robbel‘s otherwise strong directing might’ve benefited from an arrangement that didn’t force audience members to deal with the script’s themes of flesh and disconnect in such hyper-focused, claustrophobic quarters.  Luckily, the actor’s are, on the whole, captivating, making it natural to watch them and their subtlest gestures.

Set and props are minimal to not at all – there’s a good bit of miming, which emphasized the play’s thematic focus on our awareness of bodies in digital and physical space.  Colburn’s script is strong, dipping equally into material that is comedic then, all of a sudden, disturbing.  But the real gem of this production is Katy Albert, whose playful ease makes her electric in the collapsing double role of Victoria/Penny.

There’s a lot of writhing around in dim light talking dirty on the phone to a sordid cast of characters in Pretty Penny, but the complexity and maturity of Colburn’s writing in the talented hands of Katy Albert make the show thoughtful and rewarding for those willing to stray into its otherwise dark territory.

Rating:  ★★½