A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music
a kate west review
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
directed by Scott Ellis
at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, L.A. 90012
July 7 – July 31, 2004; Contact (213) 972-8001 or www.losangelesopera.com

Stephen Sondheim, the preeminent voice of the sophisticated musical, is so prolific that it is impossible to list all of his beloved works of musical art. “A Little Night Music,” one of his best-loved and familiar musicals, first appeared in the late 1980’s and may be classified as an operetta (like “Sweeney Todd,” another Sondheim masterpiece). Known for his ability to take on complicated projects, Sondheim understood that it is not easy to deconstruct an Ingmar Bergman film (in this case “Smiles of a Summer Night”) and turn it into an audience-accessible musical. But if anyone can do it, Sondheim can. The current production at the Los Angeles Opera does fine justice to the stylish piece. Starring such Broadway luminaries as Zoe Caldwell, Victor Garber and Judith Ivey, Sondheim’s tale of lost love touches a cord, even while couched in the moral ambiguity of adultery.

Fredrik Egerman (the irresistibly suave and debonair Victor Garber), has married again, this time to the young virgin Anne (Laura Benanti) and his brooding son Henrik (Danny Gurwin) is quite obsessed with her. Meanwhile, Fredrik’s old love, the prominent stage actress Desirée Armfeldt (the dynamic Judith Ivey), has taken a lover, the married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (booming Marc Kudisch), but is unhappy with her dim-witted catch. She is secretly pining away for real love and feeling guilty about her fatherless daughter Fredrika (Ashley Rose Orr on certain evenings). Her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt (the immeasurable Zoe Caldwell), hovers in the background, commenting on the foolishness of youth, disapproving especially of Desirée’s nomadic lifestyle while raising Fredrika as her own.

Count Malcolm has problems as well, oblivious of his jealous long-suffering wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Michele Pawk), who plots with Anne to get revenge against the husband-stealing actress Desirée. He only wants Desirée as a trophy, having no real feelings for anyone other than himself. He is furious that Fredrik, after seeing Desirée in a play, has gone back to her, partly frustrated by not consummating his new marriage and partly because he cannot seem to stop thinking about her. Fredrik’s home life torments him. His young wife Anne does not appreciate her older husband and his intellectually tortured son does not appreciate his own youth.

“A Little Night Music” is essentially a story about losing your only love, not appreciating what you have right in front of you and denying growing older (as evidenced by Fredrik’s falling for an 18-year old while still in love with Desirée). The only healthy, normal, vibrant character of the piece with no neurosis or hang ups is the servant girl Petra (Jessica Boevers) illustrated best when she sings the beautiful “The Miller’s Son.” She meets a man she likes, having enjoyed many men along the way, pursues him and they end up together without any agonizing discussions, a shining example to the rest of the wealthier phobic group that it is possible to find uncomplicated happiness. Countess Malcolm makes a half-hearted attempt at subterfuge, but as all the characters soon learn, it is not that much fun and not what they really want. Rather than pursuing what they do not need and running away from the truth, they are better off shedding the pretense and just following their hearts. After a climactic duel, most of the characters recognize how to be happy and there are even some surprising love matches.

Director Scott Ellis has assembled a fine cast, wonderfully integrated into the musical brilliance of the Sondheim score. From the famous “Send in the Clowns” to the upbeat “The Glamorous Life” and the tongue-in-cheek “You Must Meet My Wife,” the production showcases the best in theatrical talent. The three leads are a special treat but the rest of the cast is delightful as well and everyone involved from the Choreographer Susan Stroman to the Costume Designer Lindsay W. Davis maintains an operatic and just perfection. This production offers not only great entertainment but also a strong message of love and life. It may force you to think but it is well worth exercising a few extra brain cells in order to fully appreciate the evening’s outcome. Kudos to the Los Angeles Opera.

A Little Night Music (1973 Original Broadway Cast) Read more!


a kate west reflection

I was never good at science. I dreaded math class. I ended up a Theater Major (with an English Minor), for God's Sake. So ask me about Shakespeare. And yet I loved scientists. I read as much science fiction as possible and avidly watched every "Star Trek" (you know that many Star Trek fans probably grew up to be astronauts, possibly even cooler than being firemen). So I was excited when I had a chance to visit NASA in Texas ("Houston, we have a problem").

My brother and I took the tour with the tram and drove by several nondescript gray buildings but never got to go inside. Our tour guide would say "and this is where all the moon rocks are processed and other fascinating artifacts from space, but we won't be going in there". This happened a couple of times and all we got to see was a couple of old rockets out front. But then, FINALLY we got a quick trip through Mission Control. The old one. The new one is in Florida, I learned. That part was cool, as was a very short glimpse into some of the astronaut's training facilities. And plenty of time for the gift shop, of course. Houston weather is pretty humid in the summer, so it definitely felt like a vacation and trip to another world.

I wish I had more aptitude for that kind of field, but I just don't. I can only admire them from afar. I feel the same way about the United Nations (another fascinating tour), but I have a better shot with them if I join the Peace Corps and exploit my language skills. I hope.


To learn more, check out www.nasa.gov.

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Master Class

Master Class
a kate west review
by Terrence McNally, directed by Simon Levy
Fountain Theatre production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda, L.A. 90025
Extended through July 25, 2004! Tix (323) 663-1525; www.fountaintheatre.com

Following in the footsteps of a career-defining role such as Maria Class in “Master Class” is no easy task. Zoe Caldwell is well-known for brilliantly defining that part on Broadway and Faye Dunaway attempted the same in a recent Los Angeles production. Now the Fountain Theatre’s new production of “Master Class” provides the answer to the question, ‘can an actress make the role her own and still capture the essence of Callas?’ The answer is a resounding YES. Karen Kondazian’s recent interpretation is magnificent. She artfully plays the maestra, exposing Callas’ raw complexities, simultaneously making her sympathetic and terrifying.

The play begins with the house lights up and Callas (Kondazian) striding in after her accompanist (Bill Newlin). She acknowledges the audience as her “students” in one of her famous 1970’s master classes at Julliard in New York. She lectures us on how to behave and playfully picks out members of the audience, completing the illusion that she is indeed Callas, “la divina” resurrected. Thus we dare not make a sound, lest we anger the great one. Her students (“victims,” she calls them) come in one by one, never good enough and woefully unprepared for her attack. This particular evening the first Soprano, Sophie, is shyly portrayed by the alternate, Stephanie Reese. Barely getting out the first note, Callas rips into the poor girl, ruthlessly bullying her into feeling some real emotion. After these brutal onslaughts, Sophie’s final tearful attempt is significantly better than her first and one begins to see why Callas was considered possibly the greatest vocal artist of her century (1923-1977).

Another fascinating aspect of the production is that Callas is occasionally lost in reverie and the student fades out while we hear the actual Callas recordings of the same roles. During these flashbacks, we glimpse the torture and agony of being Callas, from her insecurity and paranoia, thinking everyone was talking behind her back and ridiculing her looks, to her tumultuous relationship with millionaire Aristotle Onassis. She was a real, vibrant, passionate, jealous and endlessly fascinating human being. Kondazian effortlessly jumps between the younger and older Callas, creating a fully realized, dimensional and superb characterization and homage.

The next two students challenge her authority. Clifton Hall saunters in as the Tenor, determined to get by on his good looks alone (and indeed Hall is pretty dreamy). Callas gives him a few notes and then sends him on his way. The final student, Alternate Sierra Rein, the second Soprano, imperious and proud, is the ultimate challenger, declaring her dislike for Callas and throwing all Callas’ doubts in her face. Absurdly over-dressed in a ball gown (credit Costumer Designer Naila Aladdin-Sanders), she is hurt by Callas’ relentless digs and lashes out. At this point, we feel deeply for Callas as she slips into another reverie, exposing the ultimate pain of her life and her current loneliness. Fighting with everyone around her, from her surly stagehand (Scott Tuomey) to her three students, Callas comes across as feisty and full of pride herself, yet missing something vital at the end. It is not easy being great.

Multimedia Designer Mark Rosenthal and Sound Designer John Zalewski support the reminisces with slide projections of the real Callas, Director Simon Levy sensitively puts Kondazian through her paces and Set Designer Desma Murphy creates a precise atmosphere with a bare stage, a piano and a table and chair for Callas just as it must have been during the actual master classes. All three students are fine singers as well, giving the audience the added bonus of listening to good musical performances (selections were from Bellini, Puccini and Verdi). The overall production is an intriguing depiction of Cecilia Sofia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos, the New York born Greek diva who so tragically lost her voice early on. Playwright Terrence McNally should be honored to have his well-known play so lovingly depicted. An excellent production, one comes away with the burning desire to read a biography on Callas and of course to attend an opera as soon as possible.

The Very Best Of Maria Callas Read more!

Exits and Entrances

Exits and Entrances
a kate west review
by Athol Fugard
directed by Simon Levy
at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles (near Normandie)
May 13 – July 25, 2004; Call (323) 663-1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

Known for writing powerful plays that expose the damage to humanity and its far-reaching effects caused by apartheid, Athol Fugard presents the world premiere of his newest play, “Exits and Entrances,” at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. It explores the relationship between two South Africans: an idealistic playwright and a famous actor. Based on the story of André Huguenet, the critically acclaimed and award-winning South African actor of the 1960’s, “Exits and Entrances” is a flashback to Huguenet’s extraordinary theatrical career, seen (in this version) through the worshipful eyes of his dresser-turned-playwright.

In this intimate two-person production, William Dennis Hurley plays The Playwright with appealing innocence and optimistic fervor, while Morlan Higgins does a nice turn as the actor genius, André, portraying him as a larger-than-life personality who ultimately comes to terms with his own humility. Both are extremely personable, in spite of the constant bickering between the characters.

The play opens with The Playwright reading André’s obituary and then taking us back to his heyday when he brilliantly plays Oedipus in the highlight performance of his career. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch the great André prepare for his role, while carelessly dispensing wisdom to the eager young Playwright. He regales him with flamboyant and extravagant tales of his youth and life which The Playwright avidly drinks in, filled with awe.

The final scene takes place several years later, after they have long ago parted ways and The Playwright discovers André in a production of “The Prisoner.” His more recent performance is so different from the regal and proud Oedipus, so much more nuanced and basely human, that The Playwright is compelled to visit him in his dressing room, not merely for old time’s sake but to commend him on a very moving experience. Both actors play this pivotal scene very well, illustrating the vast maturity and growth of both characters. Each has learned about harsh realities but has chosen to deal with life in different ways. André chooses a tragic, untimely end while The Playwright believes he can save the world. Each is a little bit right, but a little bit wrong too. The backdrop of the political atmosphere of South Africa is but a small reflection of the greater universal injustice rampant in the world. And yet there are also exquisite moments of beauty in art and the hope of the intellectual.

The language alone in Athol Fugard’s piece commands attention from the riveted audience. Director Simon Levy honors the words by staging the setting simply and perfectly, encouraging the actors to give understated, yet powerful performances. Judging from his other currently running production, “Master Class,” Levy understands how to make our giants human, while leaving their dignity intact. A fine production, “Exits and Entrances” merits a good run. Read more!

The Bungler

The Bungler
a kate west review
by Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere
translated by Richard Wilbur and directed by Jules Aaron
the West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Avenue, Hollywood 90036
June 4 - July 25, 2004; Call (323) 525-0022 www.wcensemble.org

Now in its twenty-second year, an artistic gem of a theater, the West Coast Ensemble, consistently produces small but vibrantly genuine productions of the best quality. Their latest effort is no exception. Set in Messina, Italy of 1740, this version of "The Bungler" is an excellently appropriate translation from Moliere by Richard Wilbur.

The play revolves around Mascarille (wonderfully charismatic Steven Einspahr), the rascally clever servant to Lelie (portrayed with wide-eyed youthfulness by Joey Borgogna). Mascarille's main aim in life is to please his mater. This often proves to be a daunting task as Lelie is a bit slow-witted and often bungles the many well thought out schemes his beleaguered servant comes up with to help him. Still one has to try.

The current scheme is to win Lelie his true love, the Gypsy girl Celie (CB Spencer), currently serving Trufaldin (Larry Lederman). Through many mishaps and mistaken identities, Lelie and Celie are eventually united and all other misunderstandings and plot twists are resolved. Along the way we are entertained by the delightful cast, including the likeable and effervescent Dan Alemshah as the foppish Anselme, beautifully charming CB Spencer as Celie, the inspired comedic performance of Erika Amato as the desperately lonely Hippolyte and a solid performance by Alex Kaufman as the dashing young Leandre, in what would otherwise might have been a throwaway role. (In case you were worried, Hippolyte does end up with a true love of her own, Leandre.) Character actors Larry Lederman, Pablo Marz, Matt J. Popham and Gil Bernardi round out the ensemble quite nicely. From beginning to end, the acting is engaging, the direction impressively clever and the entertainment boundless. Everyone involved obviously enjoys doing the play.

A master of his craft, director Jules Aaron drills his actors into presenting seemingly effortless transitions, amusing asides and well choreographed sounds effects created by cast members seated upstage. The play actually begins in a dressing room where we watch the actors prepare for their roles. This fits in perfectly with the broad comedic style of Moliere and Aaron's interpretation creates an immediate accessibility. It also soundly illuminates the social satire of then and now (clever servant besting his superiors, etc.) It is very hard to pull off an impression of a play-within-a-play without coming across either woefully pretentious or clumsily inadequate, yet the West Coast Ensemble succeeds marvelously.

Scenic Designer Tom Buderwitz and Costume Designer Shon LeBlanc do their usual magnificently professional work, creating a simple, versatile revolving set and beautiful period costumes. The whole spirit of the show is profoundly sincere and light-hearted, while maintaining an acute standard of refreshing professionalism. A guaranteed crowd pleaser, this production is highly recommended. If you want become a Los Angeles theater subscriber, this is absolutely the theater to join.

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Things We Do For Love

Things We Do For Love
a kate west review
by Alan Ayckbourn
directed by Barry Phillips
at the Odyssey Theatre,
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, L.A. 90025
May 8 –
July 25, 2004; Extended! Contact (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com

If you are looking for an escape from the hot weather, the most recent production at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre provides air-conditioned, light, summer fare. “Things We Do For Love” is about the confusion between expectation and real love. What is love anyway and will we recognize it when we see it? Sometimes it comes from unexpected venues and we must set aside all preconceived notions and accept the unavoidable conclusion that love and reason seldom go together.

Barbara (Stephanie Nash) considers herself happy and self-reliant and in no need of the entanglements of love. Her friend Nikki (Caitlyn Shannon) is unlucky in love, always hopeful, yet forever picking the wrong abusive men again and again. But this time she has finally struck gold with gentle, good-natured Hamish (James Tupper). Barbara takes an instant dislike to him, foreshadowing the inevitable clash and reconciliation of two people hating each other and then of course falling in love. It happens a bit too quickly, in spite of Playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s initial set up of Barbara’s obvious deep-seated need for affection. In the process, they hurt sweet Nikki terribly and are so wracked with guilt that they almost call the whole thing off but ultimately decide to go for it. Life is short and good love is hard to find.

Stephanie Nash is good as the stiff and properly British Barbara, although she might have punched up her underlying passionate nature a notch. James Tupper is wonderfully sincere and ravenously attractive as the vegetarian Scottsman, Hamish, and Caitlyn Shannon is delightfully simple with a crowd-pleasing accent that nicely punctuates her amusing delivery. Greg Mullavey does a nice turn as the comic relief neighbor/postman Gilbert who lives in the basement and is secretly obsessed with Barbara. Each actor holds his/her own and keeps up quite well with the comic timing.

Director Barry Phillips has assembled an appealing production, although the scene transitions seem a little awkward and the ends of scenes rather abrupt. Set Designer Don Llewellyn has created a uniquely delightful set which contains a window into the downstairs basement and a peek into the guest room above. The audience can only see the upper bodies of anyone in the basement and the legs of the people upstairs and it works very well in adding that extra bit of zaniness.

All in all, this is the type of production you may not remember forever, but while you’re there, it is amusing, good, harmless fun. A nice summer respite.

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Thoroughly Modern Millie

“Thoroughly Modern Millie”
a kate west review
directed by Michael Mayer
book by Richard Morris & Dick Scanlan
music by Jeanine Tesori; lyrics by Dick Scanlan
at the Ahmanson Theatre/Center Theatre Group/
L.A. Music Center
135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
May 19 – July 25, 2004; Call 213-628-2772

Recollections of the 1920’s conjure up stylish flappers, fast music and rapid-fire dialogue. The Ahmanson Theatre’s production of
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” provides all of this in standard Broadway musical spectacle, with catchy tunes and spiffy dance numbers. Die-hard fans of the 1967 movie version starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore may miss the comedic asides directly to the camera and general immediacy of the characters. This particular production is even broader and audiences unfamiliar with the film will enjoy the retro sets and costumes as well as such visual gags as translating songs into Chinese via a lowered screen. This is how the creators wink at the audience, in keeping with the rather screwball humor.

Brand new to the Big Apple of Manhattan, New York, and all the way from Kansas, Millie (the passionate and sparkling Darcie Roberts) is a modern girl. She is determined to lead a modern life by marrying her boss as this makes the best business sense. Love (maybe) comes later. Her first day there she runs into Jimmy (the rakish Joey Sorge), a carefree ladies man who dismisses her without a second thought. Yes, of course they hook up later. She gets a job as a stenographer and rents a room at the Hotel Priscilla, presided over by the shifty Mrs. Meers (formidable Hollis Resnik) with a suspiciously phony Chinese accent. It turns out that Meers is an American stage actress/convict now leading the notorious gang that kidnaps vulnerable young orphan girls and sells them into white slavery. When Millie and her friends discover that innocent young Dorothy (Diana Kaarina) is one of the abductees, they spring into action and justice is served.

Along the way, Mille learns that love is what a marriage is all about, not business. Thus she becomes emotionally evolved and truly modern. The ultimate resolution is silly and a bit unbelievable but fitting for a rather frothy and formulaic musical. There are highlights, however, such as Scenic Designer David Gallo’s scrumptious set, Costume Designer Martin Pakledinaz’s luscious outfits and Director Michael Mayer’s quick transitions. Standouts include Darcie Roberts in the title role and Pamela Isaacs as the grandiose Muzzy Van Hossmere. (Side note: Although the latest trend of color-blind casting is noble in itself, it is a bit startling in a period piece.) Fun numbers prevail throughout, especially the tap-dancing stenographers in “The Speed Test” and the nightclub scene where the characters celebrate to “The Nuttycracker Suite.” If you are a fan of any and all musicals, you’ll tap your toes to this beat, but don’t look for a deeper meaning, obviously.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002 Original Broadway Cast)
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Roberto Zucco

Roberto Zucco
a kate west review
by Bernard-Marie Koltès
at Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La
Brea, Hollywood 90028
Runs June 4 –
July 17, 2004; Contact (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org

Murder itself is never justifiable but the potential for violence exists in all of us. What triggers that latent darkness is so
mething best left to the professionals to analyze and the rest of us to speculate about. French Playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès (1948-1989) explores this disturbing tendency for us in the Open Fist Theatre Company’s recent production of “Roberto Zucco.”

Inspired and loosely based on actual events, “Roberto Zucco” is a bleak, sardonic look at domestic and social violence, in a European surrealistic style reminiscent of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett or Bertolt Brecht. Robert Zucco (darkly portrayed by Patrick Tuttle) is on the run, wanted for murdering his father. During the course of the play, he murders more people, including his own mother (Melanie Chapman). Because many of the characters are not particularly sympathetic, Koltès appears to be painting an ugly world which reflects different degrees of human evil. The Brother (Aaron Lyons) sells his sister (Jennifer Pennington) into prostitution, a spoiled, rich, Waspish Elegant Lady (fiercely portrayed by Michelle Haner) inadvertently sacrifices her own son (Sabrina Bernasconi) and the police force is generally ineffective.

Although some of the actors seem to be a little out of their depth, they handle the difficult material fairly well for the most part. Patrick Tuttle as Roberto Zucco becomes stronger as the play progresses and character actors like Weston Blakesley (The Father/Man 2), Andrea Fears (The Sister) and Rebecca Metz (the stoic Madam in a wheelchair) stride in and out of the action, adding to the bizarre, angry alienation of Zucco’s tortured world. Jennifer Pennington plays The Girl who loses her virginity to Zucco and in losing her innocence, she is abandoned by her family and by society. It is jarring to see that Pennington herself is obviously older than a young girl, but Director Russell Milton (and it is probably in the script as well) may have purposefully cast the role this way in order to reflect how short-lived true innocence can be. The choice of a Madam in a wheelchair is interesting as well, for a character whose livelihood depends on her body.

Set Designer Eric Hugunin maintains this sense of stylized isolation with his esoteric set, composed of huge, dark rectangles, in different shades of blue-grey, with a severe rake at stage left. The odd angles of the set add to the twisted perspective of the piece, where morality is not so easily defined and normal decency is rare. Who are the real criminals – the actual murdered or the cruelly pathetic members of society who created the wanted killer?

Avant-garde theater is an acquired taste and this production may be difficult to watch but in the end, one appreciates the thought-provoking influence it has on the audience, even while not drawing any satisfactory conclusions. If you are comfortable with unanswered life questions, then by all means brave this theatrical experience.

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North of Lila

North of Providence & Lila on the Wall
a kate west review
two plays by Edward Allan Baker
directed by Sean Sellars
at the McCadden Place Theater, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood
Runs July 1 – 11, 2004; Call (818) 247-0087

It is difficult to achieve a build up of pathos, conflict and climax all within the constraints of a typical 45-minute one act. Playwright Edward Allan Baker attempts this in both of his one acts, “North of Providence” and “Lila on the Wall,” now playing at the McCadden Place Theater. He does not quite pull it off, as the characters in both plays seem unmotivated so it is not easy to earn the audience’s sympathy. The saving grace of the production is the talent. Laurie Naughton and Justin Okin are two likeable, sincere, skilled and versatile actors both with an easy natural stage presence. It is delightful to witness their commitment to both heavy drama and to having fun while both excelling at line delivery, especially in the second piece.

“North of Providence” is the story of an estranged brother and sister brought together by the looming death of their ill father. Carol (Laurie Naughton) begins the play by begging her brother Bobbie (Justin Okin) to come visit their aging father in the hospital. They engage in a verbal tug-of-war by her coercing him and him in turn telling her to leave him alone. This goes on a bit long and finally ends with Carol giving up and on the verge of walking out. Bobbie then opens up to her and tells her the real reason he gave up on living. His father may be dying but Bobbie is already dead, a ghost of himself, haunted by his past inactions. His immobility in the past has a stranglehold on him in the present. The play ends with no real resolution, however, although both actors handle the Rhode Island accents well and enact the intense dramatic scenes nicely.

“Lila on the Wall” is the story of an eager beaver reporter desperately trying to prove she is ready for the big time. At the scene of a Jesus sighting reporter Lila (Laurie Naughton) attempts to justify her life to her charismatic cameraman Carl (Justin Okin). Both actors are obviously having fun with the lighter roles while maintaining the integrity of their characters. Carl teachers Lila to let go of her fear and speak from the heart and both characters bond, inadvertently inspired by the holy sighting. This is a much more satisfactory conclusion than the first play.

Director Sean Sellars deftly maneuvers his actors into interesting stage pictures, adeptly guiding them through the various highs and lows of the two pieces. Among the three of them, both actors and director, the production takes a professional turn. In addition, Set Designer Michele Miatello creates a versatile set, a depressingly hopeless bedroom in the first act, converted into a graffiti-ridden depressing ghetto scene in the second.

Not the best choice of material, the artists make the most of it, commanding the audience’s attention and respect. It is a nice peek at our diverse local talent at any rate and for that reason alone might be worth looking into. Read more!