Monday, October 27, 2014

"Charlotte’s Web:" Six Actors Spin a Beloved Tale of Friendship

The cast of Charlotte's Web: (left to right) Zilah Mendoza, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Lovelle Liquigan, Brad Culver, Fran De Leon, Larry Bates.
E.B. White’s cherished classic, Charlotte’s Web adapted by Joseph Robinette, will be brought to life and kick off SCR’s 2014-15 Theatre for Young Audiences series. The cast is a mix of new and familiar faces including an actress who has performed for the United Nations Associations, three actors returning from The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and an actress who works with an organization that uses the arts to enrich youth in communities.

Larry Bates (Wilbur) returns to South Coast Repertory where he has appeared in numerous productions—including Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle, Jitney by August Wilson and Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks—and he has been in Theatre for Young Audiences productions such as Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and last season’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. He says he loves being part of productions that reach out to younger audiences. His television credits include “NYPD Blue,” “The Unit,” “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Huff,” “Dark Blue,” “Numb3rs” and “Boston Public.”

Brad Culver (Mr. Arable/Templeton/Lurvy/Judge) returns to South Coast Repertory after his debut in last season’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. He started acting when he was a child. At the age of five, he appeared in The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and fell in love with the stage. He is active in theatre, film and television, and has voiced characters on Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show.” He has performed in around the world, in venues in Croatia, Germany and Scotland. He writes music and is a bass player in a band. Culver grew up in Pasadena and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts.

Fran De Leon (Mrs. Arable/Sheep/Edith Zuckerman/Reporter/Spectator) is making her South Coast Repertory debut. She was inspired to act when her mother took her to see Jesus Christ Superstar. She enjoys traveling and recently was able to tour her one person show Faces of America across the United States and for the United Nations Associations. She runs Will & Company with her husband Colin which performs at schools in the L.A. and Orange County areas. Her television credits include “Charmed,” “Titus” and “That’s So Raven.”

Lovelle Liquigan (Fern/Goose/Spectator) returns to South Coast Repertory after last appearing in Life is a Dream. Past credits include Romeo and Juliet at the Independent Shakespeare Company, Steel Magnolias at East West Players and Cymbeline at Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival. She credits SCR for reinvigorating her as an actress after taking the advanced actors workshop lead by Karen Hensel.

Zilah Mendoza (Charlotte) is making her South Coast Repertory debut. She has performed across the country and has toured with MAPP (Mentor Artists Playwrights Project) whose focus is arts enrichment for youth and developing programs in their communities. MAPP has taken her to places such Idaho (Lapwai and Coeur d’Alene), Alaska and Canada. Her television credits include “The King of Queens,” “Modern Family” and “One on One.”

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (Avery/Homer/Gander/Uncle the Pig) is a Theatre for Young Audiences veteran at SCR. He appeared last season as a gaggle of characters in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Mongiardo-Cooper also appeared at SCR in The Night Fairy, adapted by John Glore, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, adapted by Charles Way; Lucky Duck by Bill Russell and Jeffrey Hatcher, music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Bill Russell; and Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Joan Cushing. A favorite production of his was Ferdinand the Bull—where he portrayed Ferdinand—at the Lewis Family Playhouse. Born in New York City, Mongiardo-Cooper appeared there in numerous plays and musicals before moving to California. He attended the High School of Performing Arts and New York University.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

A Great Play Provokes Discussion: Alan Smyth Talks About Theatre, Acting and "Zealot"

Demosthenes Chrysan, Charlayne Woodard and Alan Smyth in Zealot. Photo by Ben Horak.

Irish actor Alan Smyth has an acting resume that spans the ocean—from Ireland to the United States. South Coast Repertory first encountered him as Geoffrey, the architect, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. He brings stage, film and television experience to the role of Edgar in the world premiere of Zealot by Theresa Rebeck. We caught up with him after a show to dig deeper into his life and work and his approach to this world premiere work.

What originally brought you to the stage and acting?
Being a fan brought me to acting; being affected by performers. I have always adored movies and, as a kid, I would obsessively watch the same ones again and again. I remember saving my money and when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out; I went to see it 13 nights in a row! I always wanted to be in those worlds. Then, as a teenager, I would go watch local amateur and school productions and want to be up there doing it. My uncle was an English teacher at an all-girls school and he brought his class to see a production of The Plough and the Stars by Seán O'Casey in Dublin; I was allowed to tag along. That was it! I was in!

Alan Smyth
Who has been your mentor?
Without question a guy named Alan Stanford is responsible for me having a career. He is one of Ireland's leading actor/directors. He was my main tutor in drama school and he took me under his wing: he introduced me to his agent (who became mine) and gave me my first jobs in the business. He certainly nurtured me and truly helped me develop as an actor, directing me in many of my favorite roles to date. Our relationship progressed through the years and we became as much collaborators as colleagues, acting together, writing together and working on almost 20 productions together. Nobody has done more for me than Alan has. I am eternally grateful.

What three words describe you?
Confident. I used to think it was the thing to be self-deprecating and humble about what you do and how you do it, but now I know that’s inhibiting and prohibitive when it comes to creativity. But just trust in yourself, your abilities; to be confident in your own potential is something I feel blessed to have. Passionate: I give a shit! I really do. [About] my job, my family, my friends, my joys, my woes ... all if it! Nothing is worth doing without passion. Curious: I'm interested in so many things—in people, the world, possibilities ... all of it. I don't know a lot, but I love finding it out, whatever it is.

What drew you to Zealot?
Zealot was one of the most affecting scripts I had read in a long time. It covers so much in such a short space of time; it is funny and tragic; It is both optimistic and, not pessimistic as such but...realistic. I performed a staged reading of it back in April here at SCR and I liked it so much I gave up the last four days of my parents visit here to participate (which is precious time for me) because that’s how much I like this play. Some plays you have to do. With a play like this, you change your plans.

What’s the quick synopsis of the play from your perspective?
An innocent girl willingly involves herself in something that ends with people losing their life. She feels like she was doing the right thing and should only be answerable to God. Then, the political system takes over and it is a race against the clock to see whether or not she can survive the consequences of her actions. This play exposes the consequences of our choices, and the positive and negative influence that politics and religion can bring to bear. It also explores how the definition of civil rights can differ vastly depending upon your belief system/geographical location.

What have been some of the delights and challenges of creating the character of Edgar? 
Theresa [Rebeck] writes characters every actor wants to play; they are a gift. The challenge is to mine those characters for everything they are worth. You do not want to leave anything unexplored because these characters are rich, complicated and terribly flawed. And you are seeing them in a much-heightened state of operation, so you must fully understand them in order to know how they will behave in these circumstances. This is both a joy and a challenge. Oh, and the lines! There are a million lines to learn. But, because they are this well written, it makes that process much, much easier. The particular challenge for me in playing Edgar is not being afraid of him. I mean that at times he behaves seemingly awful toward his 'guests', he can be unlikeable, but I cannot shy away from that. I cannot want nor need the audience to like “me” at all times, I have to allow myself to be the mess that this guy is sometimes. What's delightful about Theresa's writing is that there is always a reason for people behaving in the way that they do. Also that people cannot simply be characterized as “good guys'/'bad guys.” People are people.

What do you hope audiences will take away from their experience at Zealot?
I really feel like everyone who sees this play will think about it for some time to come. It could not be more topical. It's a “debate” play as much for the audience as for the characters. I want people to be challenged by what they see, question their own opinions on things and ask "what would I do in that particular situation?" The strength of a great play is the power to provoke discussion and a revisiting of ideas or ideologies that we maybe too embedded in. The power to open ones mind and use ones imagination. That's the purpose of the artistic endeavor. And, honestly, Zealot provides it in spades.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

First Night of "Venus in Fur" Sizzles ... Onstage and Off

On Friday, October 10, all the First Nighters—and their guests—gave Venus in Fur a rousing (and, standing!) ovation before heading out to Ela’s Terrace for a party that captured the play’s mood—sexy, mysterious, and a just a little bit kinky.

First Nighters were invited to relax in the Argyos lobby, transformed into a sensuous lounge with black furniture and lusterous red pillows.  Tons of red roses—some with black feather “ticklers”—abounded, along with touches of black vinyl linen, black sheer table cloths over red satin linen and, here and there, a pair of handcuffs or a whip!

It was all in good fun, and served as backdrop for the director and actors, who bathed in praise, led by Honorary Producers Geoff and Valerie Fearns.  “Venus in Fur was simply terrific theater! Casey did an excellent job directing the play, and the superb performances by Jaimi and Graham made it exceptional.”

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Friday, October 10, 2014

"Zealot"—The Power of Diplomacy

by Kelly L. Miller
Theresa Rebeck—
On being a Citizen of the World

Theresa Rebeck
During rehearsals for Zealot, playwright Theresa Rebeck spoke to us about the play’s genesis and the  importance of diplomacy, true courage, and citizenry at its thematic core.

“I’m actually a news junkie and I don’t really watch much of anything except news programs. Sometimes I get really caught up in endlessly hopping back and forth from MSNBC to CNN to local news, sometimes I check in with FOX. It’s a habit that started for me and for a lot of people in New York right after 9/11 because we just were obsessively watching television, because we were truly trying to make sense of, seeing if there was a way to make any sense at all about what we had just come through and what we were going through, like living through this kind of catastrophic moment in history. We were living it and trying to comprehend it.

"I spend a lot of time listening to talking heads and there was a moment last year when everyone got all excited because the diplomats kept talking around how we had all agreed that Syria shouldn’t be gassing its own people. The talking heads just endlessly went around this and I thought ‘Why are they acting like is such a big deal that diplomats all over the world, like 60 years after the Holocaust, it was like all these diplomats had agreed that Syria shouldn’t be gassing its own people. I thought ‘What’s happened that we think this is a terrific triumph of diplomacy, when it’s like nothing.’ I was really thinking about how diplomacy and bureaucracy and corporatocracies all get bigger and more convoluted—and about moments of true courage and heroism and people who actually are trying to do something are halted.

"That is the larger question of the play. Can we change history? Can we move history forward—and what are the forces aligned against that and aligned in favor of that? I also feel very deeply, more and more, what a lot of people are feeling, obviously, that the globe is shrinking and we are all citizens of the world. That phrase comes up several times during the play. Characters say ‘I was taught to be a citizen of the world. I hope to be a citizen of the world.’

"I actually think that these characters are all struggling in their own way to be a citizen of the world but that we’re coming at that project with enormously different, specific circumstances. Everybody in this play, although they have very, very different ideas about what should happen—everyone is in their own way right.”
Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck is one of the most prolific playwrights working in the American theatre today. She’s also an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and an outspoken advocate for gender parity in New York theatre.

Thematic issues of power and gender often infuse Rebeck’s dramatic work—and her newest play Zealot is no exception.  This thrilling drama of diplomacy taps into the zeitgeist of political unrest and feminist activism in the Middle East following the Arab Spring.

Zealot unfolds in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest of Islamic cities, on the first day of the Hajj, the holiest of Islamic pilgrimages. Ann Haddad, the American undersecretary of state, has shown up with little notice, seeking the help of Edgar Featherstone, the temporary British consul in Mecca. There has been some disturbing chatter on the Internet—and she has come to represent America in the region.

When a peaceful, religious protest turns violent and threatens to become an international crisis, Ann and Edgar must wage a battle to reconcile their diplomatic duties with their own humanity—and decide whether to save a life that hangs in the balance.

In an interview in BOMB magazine, Rebeck talked about the innate power of theatre: “I’m not interested in small theater anymore….there’s a lot of struggle in [playwriting], so when I write, I want it to mean something, to have a larger effect… A lot of people say theater needs to be metaphoric or poetical—non-naturalistic—which I think is a mistake. You have to embrace the notion of theatricality, and there are many ways to do it, but for me theatrical means strong.”

Rebeck’s plays have been produced extensively in America and abroad. Her Broadway credits include Dead Accounts (2012); Seminar (2011); and Mauritius at the Biltmore Theatre (2007). Her other plays include The Scene, The Water’s Edge, Loose Knit, Spike Heels (Second Stage Theatre), The Understudy (Roundabout Theatre Company) and Poor Behavior (Center Theatre Group).

In 2012, Rebeck created NBC’s hit television show, “Smash”, which was nominated for multiple Primetime Emmy Awards. Her other television credits include “Third Watch”, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “NYPD Blue” (for which she won a Peabody Award). Rebeck’s films include Harriet the Spy, Gossip and Seducing Charlie Barker. She has won numerous awards and in 2011, she was named one of the 150 Fearless Women in the World by Newsweek. SCR has commissioned her to write a forthcoming new play.

SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson has been a champion of Rebeck’s work since his tenure at Actors Theatre of Louisville. In 2003, he produced the world premiere of Omnium Gatherum (co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros; Pulitzer Prize finalist, 2003) as a part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Masterson also premiered Rebeck’s The Scene (2006 Humana Festival) and produced Bad Dates during Actors Theatre’s 2005-06 season.

Masterson says: “Zealot will be the fifth play by Theresa that I have worked on. I admire her prolific dedication to craft, the wide range of styles that she has explored and the fierce intelligence that shines through everything that she does. Theresa is passionate, articulate, and committed to making great theatre.”

Theresa Rebeck—On Storytelling

Theresa Rebeck was one of the first American playwrights to move seamlessly between writing for theatre, film and television.

“Once in a while I say, ‘I’m an artist,’ and people get startled that I use the word to define myself. For some reason we’re not used to that word anymore, which seems a shame. Especially because I don’t know what else you’d call me, or people like me. Writer would be another accurate word. So would playwright. But the one I use a lot, that covers film and television as well as theater, is storyteller. I am somebody who sits around and tells stories at the dinner table, narrating my day. I tell stories all the time; my head is swimming with them. In that sense, I am a neoclassicist and would define myself as one. I am interested in beginnings, middles, and ends, and the elegance of that.

"I find it graceful and hopeful and life-affirming. Stories teach us so much. I really do see them as a sort of humble, human way to struggle toward enlightenment"
—BOMB Magazine

A prolific TV writer, Rebeck says there’s something unique about writing for the stage:

“I find it unimaginably beautiful to see language and humanity and lights and sound all come together in this moment of storytelling, which is so potently in relationship to the audience, the presence of the audience,” she says.

She believes the task of art is to create community. Theater does that “in such an immediate and electrifying way,” she says.

“In many ways, theater is a lesson in empathy. When theater works at its best, your heart is moved by the trials of or joy of somebody acting a story out for you on the other side of the stage lights.”
-excerpt from “’Smash’ Stars An ‘Interesting Tribe’: Theater People, NPR, Jan. 28, 2012

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Powerhouse Cast For "Zealot" Premiere

THE CAST OF ZEALOT (l. to r.): Charlayne Woodard,  Alan Smyth, Adam El-Sharkawi, Demosthenes Chrysan and Nikki Massoud.

Zealot is set in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The British consul and the American undersecretary of state are locked in a battle of wills and wits—and a life hangs in the balance. This dynamic world premiere by Theresa Rebeck features an equally dynamic cast—four-fifths of whom are making their SCR debut. They hail from Dublin and Seattle, with many stops in-between. Their performances have earned high praise, including Tony and Obie Awards. You’ve seen them in shows from Broadway to La Jolla, in stage, television and film. Meet the cast of Zealot.

Demosthenes Chrysan (as Usama) is making his SCR debut. His London credits include Blood and Gifts at the National Theatre. He appeared on Broadway in Golden Boy (Lincoln Center Theater). Other New York credits include Urge for Going (The Public Theater), Aftermath (New York Theatre Workshop) and Queens Boulevard (Signature Theatre Company). Regionally, he has appeared in Travesties (McCarter Theatre Center), Water by the Spoonful (Hartford Stage), Tennis in Nablus (Alliance Theatre), The Kite Runner (San Jose Repertory Theatre), Homebody/Kabul (Trinity Repertory Company) and Blood and Gifts (La Jolla Playhouse). He has appeared in the films A Case for You, Behind the Mirror, Santa Claus in Baghdad and on television in “Boardwalk Empire,” “Damages,” “Louie,” “30 Rock,” “Killing Kennedy,” “The Fear,” “Reckless,” “Blue Bloods” and will be recurring in the new series “Flesh and Bone.”

Adam El-Sharkawi (as Yousef) is making his SCR debut with Zealot. He is a recent graduate of the MFA acting program at California State University, Fullerton. At CSUF, his credits include Dollhouse, Twelve Angry Jurors, Lobby Hero, The Drunken City and Measure for Measure. His other theatre credits include All’s Well That Ends Well (Great River Shakespeare Festival), Sinbad: The Untold Tale (Adventure Stage Chicago), Romeo and Juliet (New Swan Shakespeare Festival), Harper Regan (Steep Theatre) and The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy). He is a very happy California transplant and a very proud Seattle native.

Nikki Massoud (as Marina) is making her SCR debut. She is a recent graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program. Her recent roles include The Dove in Conference of the Birds (B Street Theatre), Ruthie Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (Trinity Repertory Company) and Laura/Ensemble in The Glass Menagerie Project (Arena Stage). Her Brown/Trinity Rep roles include Celia in As You Like It, Marisol in Marisol and Mary Swanson in Middletown. She earned a BA in history, psychology and theatre from Georgetown University; attended the British-American Drama Academy (BADA) and earned an MFA in acting from Brown/Trinity Rep.

Alan Smyth (as Edgar) appeared at SCR previously in Absurd Person Singular. He is from Ireland, where he trained at the Dublin School of Acting. His theatre credits include The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol, The Sunshine Boys (Gate Theatre); The Freedom of the City, The Importance of Being Earnest (Abbey Theatre); The Plough & the Stars, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (Second Age Theatre Company); Cinderella, Mother Goose, Aladdin, Jack & the Beanstalk, Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty (Gaiety Theatre); The Merchant of Venice, How the Other Half Loves (Andrews Lane Theatre); and Normal and Trios (Meridian Theatre Company). He produced the Irish premieres of Burn This by Lanford Wilson, Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies and The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard. On television, he appeared in “Ballykissangel,” “Career Opportunities” (BBC), “CSI: NY,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” “The Bold & the Beautiful,” “Leverage,” “The Last Ship,” “Grimm,” “Person’s Unknown,” “Children’s Hospital,”  “The Middleman” and “Caper.” He was also a series regular on Ireland’s number one show, “Fair City,” for five years. His film credits include Bobbie’s Girl (Showtime), Becoming Jane (JA Films), The Fallen Faithful (Other Side of the River Prod.), Botched (Madigan Pictures) and The Crooked Mile (Tribeca ‘First View’ Award).

Charlayne Woodard (as Ann) is a two-time Obie Award winner and Tony Award nominee who has written and performed four acclaimed solo plays: Pretty Fire, Neat, In Real Life and The Night Watcher. Her play, Flight, is an adaptation of African and African American folktales. Her acting credits include off-Broadway productions of The Witch of Edmonton (Obie Award), Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood (Obie Award), Jon Robin Baitz’s Substance of Fire (Second Stage), Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation (Playwrights Horizons) and Athol Fugard’s Sorrows and Rejoicings (Second Stage); regionally in Taming of the Shrew (Kate, Shakespeare Theatre Company) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (La Jolla Playhouse); and on Broadway in Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Tony nomination). She completed a TCG/PEW Charitable Trust National Theatre Artist Residency Program Fellowship at Center Theatre Group and has taught at California Institute of the Arts.  Her film credits include Unbreakable, Sunshine State, The Crucible and Eye for an Eye. Her television credits include recurring roles on “Law & Order, SVU;” “Terminator: Sarah Connors Chronicles;” “ER;” and “Chicago Hope.”

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