Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2018 Interview - Larry Eisenberg

Larry Eisenberg is the winner of this year’s BroadwayWorld Award for Best Director of a Local Play, Lost in Yonkers, at Group Rep. He earned his MFA from CalArts, received a DramaLogue Award for the world premiere adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories for Children and has directed numerous productions at GRT. His favorites include Lost in Yonkers, Poor of New York, Trip to Bountiful, Over the River and Through the Woods and his original play, Nautilus, which was later turned into a feature film. He currently serves as one of the two Co-artistic Directors at The Group Rep. He is at present directing/rehearsing The Chinese Wall set to open January 26.

Tell us about the background for the play.

The play takes place in the year 220bc, in the court of the first Chinese Emperor, Tsin Zhe Huang Ti, called "The Son of Heaven, he who is always in the right."  He has just completed construction of the Chinese Wall, "The Great Wall" that has been designed and constructed to keep the barbarians of the steppes from polluting and threatening the culture of China.  In order to celebrate his great achievement he has invited a huge array of characters from literature and history to the Emperial Palace.  Included are Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Philip of Spain, Pontius Pilate, Christopher Columbus, Don Juan Tenorio, Marcus Brutus, and the Ingenue of the Seine.  Also invited, is an American Contemporary who tries to explain to the Emperor that in a modern, nuclear age, the building of walls is not only useless but very dangerous. 

The Chinese Wall was written in 1946, essentially as an anti-fascist play.  It explores the possibility that humanity was in danger of being completely eradicated by the (then recently invented) atomic bomb.  It challenges long-held nationalist aspirations that we have seen recently take hold here in America and elsewhere in the world.

It was revised in 1955 and translated into English in 1961.  I performed in a college production of The Chinese Wall in 1965 and have been aware of several productions at various LORT theatres throughout the years but for the most part it has never received the same critical stature and longevity of some of Frisch's other plays, which include his masterpiece, Biederman and the Firebugs.

Why did you choose it?

On the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, The Chinese Wall immediately jumped into my brain.  The parallels are obvious; an obsessive, megalomaniacal narcissist pandering to nativist xenophobia, who thinks that shutting out, shutting down and shutting up whole segments of the world's population is a reasonable method for securing a nation, fits exactly the description of Max Frisch's Chinese Emperor.  The play is a farce and it seems to be a direct reflection of the farce that is unfolding today in Washington, D.C.

Theatre is an expressive art form and The Chinese Wall is the perfect vehicle for expressing our revulsion of the current administration and a very precise lens for magnifying and ridiculing those bozo's who currently lead our country.  It is also a warning.  When you have morons brandishing nuclear buttons and using them to compare dicks, it provides endless entertainment and chuckling around the water cooler but it is also a warning that we may very well be on the brink of  total annihilation. 

What is the play's message?

You can't solve the problems of the 21st century using methods that became obsolete in the third century A.D.

What challenges does it require from you as director?

First there is the size of the production.  There are over 40 speaking roles and 23 scenes.  We had to come up with an approach to manage the breadth and scope of the script.  We've got it down to 20 actors playing multiple roles and we decided to treat this as if it were a small theatre company telling the story rather than trying to actually represent the Chinese Court.  Gender and ethnicity have been completely ignored and our entire approach removes the fourth wall so there is a great deal of interaction and direct communication with the audience.

When the play was originally mounted, nuclear proliferation was in its infancy and all the conversations were fresh.  Today the nuclear conversation seems a bit dated and we've made a real effort to trim away some of the polemics.  I've chosen to use multi-media as much as possible, both as a method for moving the story and also to highlight the current events that we want to inform our production.  This show is as much about Donald Trump as it is about the Chinese Emperor so we've decided to use current references whenever possible.  Fortunately, these are being supplied on an almost daily basis by the current administration. 

As I say, we've trimmed down quite a bit of the text and tell much of this story using video and slides.  Setting up and programming three digital projectors to operate simultaneously was very challenging but they have helped us keep things moving and pare down what might otherwise be a three hour extravaganza into what I hope will be an entertaining production that will come down in about an hour and forty-five minutes.

How does it fit into the mission for Group rep?

Lonny Chapman famously said, "First to entertain, and then to illuminate the human condition."  Our patrons will tell us if it's entertaining.  Given the chaos and constant consternation generated by the current occupant of the White house, there is little doubt that The Chinese Wall can "illuminate the human condition."

The Chinese Wall opens Friday, January 26 at 8:00 pm, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Talk-back Sundays:  February 11 and February 25 after the matinee.  January 26 – March 11.  Admission: $25. Seniors & Students $20.  Groups 10+: $15. Tickets & or (818) 763-5990.  Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Hypocrites' Pirates of Penzance

Pasadena Playhouse, the State Theatre of California, reinvents its theatre to present Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, as reimagined by the Chicago theatre hooligans The Hypocrites.  This wacky beach party – with flying beach balls, rubber duckies, ukuleles, banjos, plastic swimming pools, and a tiki bar – brings the audience on stage for a night they won’t forget. Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan is presented by Pasadena Playhouse in association with The Hypocrites.  It is adapted and directed by Sean Graney; co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell and with music direction by Andra Velis Simon.  

Cast member Dana Omar answers my questions below to put you in closer touch with the Hyprocrites company and their mission.

Tell us about the Hypocrites. How long they have been reinventing shows? 
The Hypocrites have been around for an awesome 21 years. They are a company that is known for their offbeat and innovative adaptations of anything from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan to Chekhov to you name it. This company really has done an excellent job of paying homage to the original pieces while bringing it into the 21stcentury. We have also had success taking shows like “Pirates of Penzance” and “Our Town” from Chicago all around this country.  It is also a company that takes theatre to new places it has never been before. A couple years back we did a twelve-hour adaptation that Sean Graney wrote called "All Our Tragic" (that sold out), which was an all-day event encompassing all 32 surviving Greek tragedies. It is a great example of what The Hypocrites are capable of: taking theatre and bringing it to a new and exciting level while making it accessible for all.

Are musicals a favorite?
You know, The Hypocrites actually don’t do a lot of musicals. Most of the time it’s predominately plays. I know with this particular musical, Sean (Graney) read the script and just fell in love with it and had a vision. And thus, this particular wacky “Pirates” was born and we are all so thankful for it and the joy it brings.

What will physically have to be altered at the Playhouse to accommodate the changes in Pirates? 
I’m not entirely sure since I have yet to see it, but I do know there are accommodations being made to fit our promenade audience on stage with us. And for those that have never been to a promenade show before, it’s when the audience is onstage with the actors. They are like our eleventh cast member every night which makes the show even more exciting. There are still seats that are an option too if promenade is too risky or not physically possible for an audience member. But I do highly recommend roaming on stage with us. There really is no other theatre experience like it. 

Why do they feel the need to turn a show upside down, into a wacky production? Is it to make the younger people in the audience happier?
This show really is for all ages. And we’ve taken it enough places to know that there is something in it for everyone. Sometimes, and this is just by design, theatre can feel distant and less accessible. The seats are so far from the actors and there is an inherent fourth wall. The way this show is set up is so immersive that it makes theatre tangible for everyone. Since we acknowledge the audience (really no choice but to since they are on stage with us), there is an element of human connection that is really fulfilling and gratifying for both parties no matter the age. It creates a mini community for a short amount of time that is really joyous to be a part of. 

Gilbert and Sullivan is unforgettable in its musical style. I assume that the music is staying intact?
Well, yes and no… haha. The words (for the most part) and music numbers are absolutely intact. We cut some songs and music to fit our truncated version. The instruments we use are kind of all over the map with guitars and string instruments being the base for most of the show. We incorporate typical woodwind instruments but also have surprise moments with atypical instruments like the musical saw. Like most of The Hypocrites productions, we pay homage to the original piece but give it a new and fresh voice with our modern sound. 

Talk about audience interaction.
The promenade nature of the show gives an outlet for audience participation. You have the choice to be physically a part of our show being onstage with us or in the fixed seats but we acknowledge you regardless.  We always say “we won’t pretend that you aren’t here, so you shouldn’t pretend you aren’t here either”. This whole show is one moving machine and honestly the audience is the engine. The participation really takes the show and makes it shine. There have been some incredible moments of our audience singing a-long with us (which we highly recommend) that have been the most rewarding moments of my career. There was one time in Boston where The Pirate King was singing “I am the Pirate King” and there was a break where we insert a joke that the audience was unaware of and so the music stopped for a moment. And the audience had already started singing the next verse out loud as if they were in their room singing alone. Unexpected things like that happen often and it only adds to the magic of the show.  

How would you like to conclude?
This show continues to be a labor of love for all of us and we are so excited to bring it to a new place.

The Hypocrites’ Pirates Of Penzance at Arizona Repertory Theatre. // Photo Courtesy of The Hypocrites

Pirates plays at the Pasadena Playhouse from January 23 to February 18.  Tickets are now on sale at or by calling 626-356-7529.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Playwright Bess Wohl Discusses Small Mouth Sounds

Playwright Bess Wohl whose Barcelona proved so controversial during its engagement at the Geffen Playhouse in 2016 has a new play Small Mouth Sounds opening at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica January 11. In our conversation Wohl discusses her play in depth.

Tell us about Small Mouth Sounds and what stimulated you to write the play. What is its message?

I was first inspired to write Small Mouth Sounds when I went on a silent retreat with a close friend. The retreat was her idea-- I had no idea what I was getting into, and didn't even realize we were going to be in silence. I remember that by the very first night, I was interested in writing about the experience. Something about the obstacle of being in silence coupled with the intense need from all of the retreat participants to find some kind of answer, felt like it could be fertile ground. I hate to reduce a play to any one "message," but as I've come to learn about the piece along with my collaborators and audiences, I am discovering that the play seems to be about (in no particular order) the difficulty and joy of human connection, the search for meaning or "enlightenment," and the ways in which we do or do not change. Is change impossible or inevitable? Or, somehow, weirdly both?

How do you feel audience will respond to the silence? Will they be able to figure out all that is happening without hearing words? 

When I first began sharing the piece with audience, I had no idea. Early workshops of the play were very instrumental in teaching me how people watching the play would interpret it. I would poll audience members afterward to find out what they had understood, what was unclear, and where they felt the story was over-explained. As the play has been performed more and more, it's been fascinating to watch audiences engage with the detective work of watching the play. This is definitely a play that demands some effort from audiences, and in many ways I think what they take away from it is very personal, and directly related to what they put in. I am interested in the way that, in silence, we all project our own opinions, predictions and biases onto each other. It happens all the time in life, and it happens when you watch plays. My hope is that the act of watching the play and actively solving its mysteries is part of the pleasure of experiencing it.

Barcelona was fascinating because from moment to moment I did not know what would transpire. I feel the same intrigue will be present in this play as well, maybe even more so.  

I have always felt that part of the fun of watching any play is the simple joy of not knowing what's going to happen next. That sense of possibility and anticipation, and even in some cases misdirecting the audience, is something I love to explore in my writing. I try to think of every story-- no matter the genre-- as a mystery. I like to try to create a sense of intrigue about human behavior, no matter how small. Why do we the things we do? Will we overcome or succumb to our worst impulses? There are mysteries everywhere in daily life, and I'm interested in leaning into that feeling onstage. I think so much of the drama and tension of exciting theatre can be reduced to a simple question: "What's going to happen?"

Do you have a mentor playwright? Someone whose work has stimulated you to create? 

I come to playwriting from an acting background, so most of my early teachers were acting teachers. From acting I learned an inside-out approach to character that has helped me a lot as a playwright. I tend to try to put myself in each role and imagine if I could find a path through it as an actor, and that helps me find where the holes in my writing are. In general, I am deeply inspired and stimulated by the work of my peers and friends. Anytime I go to the theatre, it pushes me to create and tell my own stories.

Tell us about the cast and director and what special work they are bringing to the play. 

I have been so lucky to work on this piece with incredible collaborators-- actors, designers, Rachel Chavkin, the director-- in every stage of development. Since the play has so much silence in it, each collaborator has brought important elements of story and texture throughout, and Rachel has been instrumental in shaping the rhythms and flow of the events with her own impeccable sense of music and pace. The current cast of the play is absolutely glorious in their ability to rigorously maintain the essence of each character, and yet find little moments of personal flair and interpretation. This play has no room to hide; there is no way for an actor to coast on dialogue but be mentally or spiritually elsewhere. They have to be fully invested or the play doesn't happen. Their deep commitment, great skill and ability to be completely present with their full hearts and souls is a beautiful thing.

For tickets and further info, visit:

(photo credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)