‘Sex’ in Berkeley is Supergood!; Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel – Triumphant!; ‘The Bible’ – Bohemian Club Humor; Katrina Docudrama: A Tell-All Saga; Micro Movies

by Buzzin' Lee Hartgrave on November 16, 2007

MAE WEST PLAY ‘SEX’ AT AURORA THEATER

In 1926 Mae West opened her first play on Broadway that she called “Sex.” The performances almost ran a year before she was busted, and Mae and the cast took an unexpected ride to jail. Actually this was probably the best publicity that she could have had. It put her name in every newspaper in the world. Hollywood used it to their advantage – and Mae West became a huge star. She also wrote most of the lines in the movies that she appeared in. It was her double entendre saucy rendering of these lines that made her glitter like diamonds during the Depression days of the 30’s and 40’s.

She was never seen in public without her full glamour treatment. Unlike the so-called stars today, Mae West was never seen cooking or driving her own car and she never got drunk in public. And, she was smart. West invested wisely in L.A. Real Estate and if she never made a movie again, she was set for life.

“Sex” is called a play, but I see it more of a musical drama, as there are several musical segments in the play with great songs from the era. The play itself is not strong. The first act doesn’t move very fast until Mae West makes her appearance about half through the first act. This was a Mae West gimmick that she used over and over. She did it in “Diamond Lil” and many of her movies.

She didn’t want to be on the stage first. She wanted a buildup to her appearance. Let the cast refer to her character to build up the interest of her appearance. The payoff? Great applause when she finally walks her Mae West Walk on the set. I suspect she got that walk by watching men from behind. Most men bounce just like Mae. Later on Marilyn Monroe picked up on it.

The story is about a prostitute called Margie (West) who has a heart of gold. Have you ever met one that didn’t? She’s been around the block a few times and knows some shady characters that get into trouble with the Law now and then. Margie meets a young man while on vacation in an exotic location. He falls in love with West, not knowing what her profession is. She tries to tell him, but just can’t get around to it.

He pressures her to get engaged and come home with him to meet his parents. Margie didn’t know that her new love’s mother was a wealthy socialite (Maureen McVerry) that she had encountered earlier in her life when an off and on boyfriend brought the hi-society dame to Margie’s house. Well, you can just imagine what the snooty snob thought when she saw Margy. Maureen McVerry as the shocked mother really entrances with an exquisite tapestry of emotions. She does it all with facial expressions. McVerry is just a delight.

Delia MacDougal is just perfect as Mae West. The great thing about her performance is that she doesn’t get cartoonish with the character that she is playing. Nope, none of the drag queen version of Mae West or even a hint of the Jan Wahl version of Mae West. I love this line when Margy the Prostie tells off the Hoity-Toity socialite: “The only difference between us dear, is that you could afford to give it away.”

Tom Ross, the Director has done a yeoman job with his tumultuous team. The original play was in three acts. Ross has added some historical perspective at the beginning and ending of the play and made it two acts. The cast of eight seems like a cast of thousands as the players take on multiple characters during the show. In the original West production, there were 32 actors and musicians. Smart, terrific directing by Ross.

HERE’S NEWS… SEX SELLS!

I’ve no doubt that ‘Sex’ on the Aurora stage will do very well. But, this isn’t what you might think. There are no scenes of couples having steamy sex on the stage. As Charles Pierce was wont to say, “it’s all an illusion.” This play is just great fun. Fun for actors and the audience. You can tell that they are having a marvelous time on the stage. And can they change costumes fast. That in itself is a miracle.

The music in the show is a great collection of “Swell” songs from the 20’s and 30’s. One of those songs “Who?”– Can still be heard from time to time on the Radio. Music Director, Billy Philadelphia traced down the sheet music for all the songs in the script. They were not originally written for the script, but were popular numbers written around the time of the production. Philadelphia also wrote three new songs for the production. “Under the Red Light,” “At the Café’ Port au Prince’ and ‘Goin’ Down Under’. And he tossed in two Mae West classics. The music in the show certainly keeps the mood and tempo going and Philadelphia’s arrangements are in the Groove. Thank you Billy.

This is the brilliant funny cast that keeps you laughing hard and often. FANFARE FOR>>>: Award winning Robert Brewer; Film and stage star Steve Irish; Actor, Cabaret Star Craig Jessup; Actor, Director Delia MacDougall, Award winning Maureen McVerry; Music Director, composer, Billy Philadelphia; Kristen Stokes (Sally in ‘Cabaret’) is always a marvel to watch; and award winning Danny Wolohan.

The Costume Design by Cassandra Carpenter is romantic and right on the mark. Jim Cave’s lighting design is gorgeous and Greg Dunham’s revolving set is endlessly surprising. “Sex” is a smart, sassy show. I don’t think you should miss it.

AT THE AURORA THEATER IN BERKELEY

RATING: FOUR GLASES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! –trademarked- (highest rating)


Jim Brochu

JIM BROCHU IS ZERO MOSTEL

It isn’t Jim Brochu that comes out on the stage – its famed actor Zero Mostel. The play starts with Mostel in his Studio, where he paints. This is also his retreat where he can get away from the world, except for the occasional phone call from his wife demanding that he stop and get something from the store for her. There is a knock at the door – and Mostel yells – “What do want? Who is it?). Finally he gets up and lets the visitor in. It is a Newspaper Reporter (N.Y. Times) who is here for a scheduled interview. An interview that Mostel forgot about or wanted to forget about. Right away, we get the feeling that Mostel is a miserable f—ck. He hates just about everything, and Newspaper reporters are at the top of the list.

Brochu is a master at bringing out all the diverse channels of Mostel’s schizo personality. One minute he is charming as hell, then – the next minute he is screaming at you. He is unpredictable and you have to walk on eggs around him. Brochu also looks amazingly like Mostel. His eyes are bulging and they seem to bulge out even more when he gets into talking about McCarthy and blacklisting of actors. Mostel was one of them, and he has never gotten over it. His telling of the tale of McCarthy cross-examining him is brilliant.

He was born Samuel Mostel. He was encouraged to change his name to Zero when a friend told him that he should change it. Mostel wanted to know what was wrong with Samuel? The friend said something like this: “When was the last time that you got a job?” It turns out that it had been some time. “Exactly”, said the friend. “It’s Zero. So that will be your new name.” The name has been good for the actor.

Mostel is probably best known for the play “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But, along the way he had made a huge splash in many plays, especially Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Mostel’s best friend – the one who changed his first name was actor Philip Loeb, who could not deal with the blacklisting stain. His career slipped, as did many in those times. He committed suicide. Mostel was devastated. Brochu’s telling of those days is very heart-rending.

Throughout this tour-de-force by Brochu he takes us on a bumpy hilarious ride with funny quips to deep emotional feelings that Mostel had on various subjects. Who else could be better suited to bring Mostel back to life than Brochu, who was also a friend of Mostel’s. He had plenty of time to absorb the mans inner feelings. This is big time acting that is headed for Broadway. Instead of spending the bucks to see it in New York – why not see it here before it goes there? ZERO IS A PLUS!

AT THE NEW CONSERVATORY THEATRE

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! –trademarked- (highest rating)
WINNER! The Lee Hartgrave Fame Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2007

SPEED READING THE BIBLE

IT’S THE ‘PENIS’ CHRONICLES WITHOUT THE PENIS

Where could you get more comic material than from the Bible? Oh, not as it as written – but what great material is there to spoof. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been doing this for a long time and they have garnered quite a big following. And, it does have its moments of brillance. But what I had hoped for was more irreverence. It’s kinda satire – but mostly, its kinda old stuff that sounds very familiar.

It reminds of the same kind of show that they do at the Bohemian Club. A bunch of old rich guys get together to put on a show. Some of the guys wear wigs, just like they do in this show. Just putting on a wig and playing Mary Magdalene is not quite enough to make it funny. Unless, of course you are surrounded by drunk old rich guys. They would think that anything is funny. Especially since they are all friends who know what they look like without the wig. It is more funny to them. Have another drink.

The slapstick of boys having fun on stage works sometimes – as was the case in “The Penis Chronicles”. But no one was really interested in what the boys were saying – they were fascinated with all the things you could make a penis do. So satire was not all that important. Now, I know that they can’t have Jesus tying his penis into a bow – so they have to rely on keeping the audience happy with satire. Taking a page from not the Bible, but maybe from David Letterman’s show – they have a ‘top 10 list of rejected commandments.” One on the list… “Thou shalt not spill 58,000 gallons of oil into the Bay” was pretty topical, and got quite a few laughs. On a list of one to ten – I give it a five.

The “Tower of Babel” routine – might have worked, but it took them longer to tell us about it, than it took to build it. One of the charms of the group is that they try to keep up to date on the political front – thus, we get some darts thrown at Bush and Cheney – who of course deserve it. The problem is – were they in the Bible? I must have missed that, but I do admit that I never read the Bible from page to page. I only know what I saw in the movies.

The actors Austin Tichenor, Dominic Conti and Reed Martin are really very good. It’s just that the material needs to be freshened. And if they are doing “The Complete Word of God (Abridged), then they should crack their jokes around that. Or, if they want to bring Bush and Cheney into it – then make them a character in the Bible. Like, make Cheney Harrod and Bush Jude.

They have another part of their show opening this weekend called “Completely Hollywood” (Abridged). This has much more promise – because Hollywood is already a Joke filled with Jokers.

AT THE MARINES MEMORIAL THEATRE

RATING: TWO GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!! –trademarked-

WITNESS TO THE KATRINA

STARDUST AND EMPTY WAGONS – STORIES OF THE KATRINA DIASPORA

This a docudrama told by ‘witnesses’ who survived the disaster in New Orleans. Some of what we hear is from actual survivors, or from letters from those who did not survive or from their family members. Ellen Gavin wrote ‘Stardust’ from the direct testimony of Katrina survivors living in the Bay Area. One is even 104 years old.

The play with music gives us a visual and vocal history of the people who were directly impacted by this tragedy starting with happy times, they tell us about who they were, and how happy they were living in the 9th Ward. We hear about the New Orleans cuisine, their family structure and racial identities. Amber Mczeal, a singer who was trained by Ellis Marsalis, is the witness/narrator. Stardust brings everything into focus using photos flashed on a huge screen behind the actors, along with the telling of memories and dreams. What we see and hear is a tapestry that changes with each story.

The show opened with live music composed and performed by The Hot 8 Brass Band. The night I saw the show it was recorded to keep the costs down – but there will be a live performance tonight (Friday). The members of the “Hot 8” were all born and raised in New Orleans. Founded by Bennie Pete, Jerome Jones, and Harry Cook in 1995. They have toured the world the great acclaim to the Mardi gras to Japan and Italy. They were also featured in Spike Lee’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke.”

Whether singing to the “Hot 8” music or just singing without the music, the songs are ‘Hot’. With a spiritual feeling – this music not only pleases the ear – but, takes you to New Orleans. What a great sound. You read the story about Katrina and how the residents were put in the stadium and couldn’t leave. There was sweltering heat and not enough facilities. The place stank to high heaven. And no one seemed to care. Disgraceful is too kind of a word. This ‘Witness’ brings it all into the real world. Not just a newspaper clipping. One person tells the story about seeing one house with just the roof showing with an Xmas tree on top. Another man says: “Give Blackwater another 130 Billion to rebuild our houses.” On the big screen they show Pat Boone and Elvis Presley singing their hit records. “White singers took Black music and made Gold records” – said one. “Um hmm” – said another.

The exuberant cast with the big voices are Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Velina Brown, Cheryl Bennett-Scales, Elizabeth Carter, L. Peter Callender, Olivia Charles, Jeff Jones, Linda rose McCoy, Amber McZeal, Elizabeth Summers and Carla Vaughn.

AT THE BRAVA THEATER ON 24TH STREET

RATING: THREE GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!! –trademarked-

MICRO MOVIE REVIEW


Dwayne Johnson – Southland Tales. Movie Still.

SOUTHLAND TALES

LOOKING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD AND HOW IT WILL HAPPEN? Then you won’t want to miss “Southland Tales” that is opening this weekend. You remember Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ – it has become a huge cult hit – and I predict that “Southland Tales” will also reach that status. On the way to the end of the world we encounter strange technological wonders that include comic book looking characters and frightening terrorists. There are, of course, references to the current white house party going on. More Oil anyone?

The story revolves around Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), who is an actor and a screenwriter who suddenly comes down with amnesia. His girlfriend is a porn star and talk show host. Aren’t they all? This role is played by Sarah Michelie Gellar. There are beach shenanigans and Wallace Shawn plays a weird inventor who has invented strange powers. Someone asks in the movie what will happen now? The answer she got was “The 4th dimension will collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!” I don’t think he was talking to Joan Crawford.

I think Richard Kelly has one-upped George Lucas in the science fiction department. For my film book – I think Kelly has a far more original mind than Lucas, who has borrowed heavily from previous films. Look, this is a visual fest. If nothing else that will excite you. Sure, it’s hard to follow – so my advice would be to see it a couple of times to really understand what the hell is going on. I’m not even quite sure yet – except that I know it took me to places that I have never been before. Most likely, it will stay in your head for a long time.

RATING: FOUR BOXES OF POPCORN!!!! -trademarked-

THRILLS GALORE

That would be the upcoming REAF benefit on Nov. 19 at the Marines Memorial Theatre.
These shows are always wonderful, fresh and original with the best talent in the world. This time around you will get to hear the cast of “The Color Purple” who will donate their time you entertain you with songs that they like. Other Celebs will also entertain and there is also the audience that glitters every time at these shows. Also on the playbill will be the stars of “Completely Hollywood.” I’m looking forward to another extraordinary evening. REAF benefits A.I.D.s organizations and other charities. These are one-time events that are never shown again. So, get on your silver plated skateboard. You’ll be glad that you did.

AND THAT’S A WRAP!

The Photo of Lee Hartgrave Boy Reporter is by Jim Ferreira – Film Noir & Hollywood Glamour. www.lafterhall.com.

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Buzzin’ Lee Hartgrave

Buzzin’ Lee Hartgrave is a longtime theater critic in the San Francisco Bay Area. His reviews appear each Friday in Beyond Chron.

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