Tuesday, June 26, 2012



An Interview with Rich Little, the Man of A Thousand Voices, as he brings his one-man show to the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla for one night only

By Donnie Matsuda

Master mimic Rich Little has had an impressive career spanning over 50 years and including impersonations of over 200 people.  This Canadian-born impressionist (who recently became a U.S. citizen in 2010) currently resides in Las Vegas but tours the country with his one-man comedy shows in which he lampoons everyone from U.S. Presidents (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both George Bushes) to famous actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood) to Baby-Boomer friendly characters (Edith Bunker, Kermit the Frog, Robin Leach and Dr. Ruth Westheimer). 

While in his 20’s, Little was discovered after submitting an audition tape of himself doing impersonations (what else!?!) to The Judy Garland Show.  Ms. Garland thought he was great and he was immediately signed to the show.  He continued to make appearances on TV variety shows, including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, and Dean Martin, and on such TV series as Laugh-In, The John Davidson Summer Show, and The Julie Andrews Show.  Named “Comedy Star of the Year” by the American Guild of Variety Artists, Little has been the perpetrator of nine comedy albums and three HBO comedy specials, and was the host of his own variety show in the 70’s.  

Rich Little and Judy Garland.  Photo courtesy of www.richlittle.com.
Now touring the country with his two one-man shows – his stage play “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” and his nightclub act “Laugh A Little” – Little seems to have found another way in which to show off his comedic chops and impress with his penchant for spot-on imitations.  Recently, as he was in between his recent Welk Theatre run of his Jimmy Stewart play and his upcoming night act at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, I had the chance to chat with Little and we talked about everything from his favorite impersonations to his extracurricular hobbies to what he enjoys most about his profession.

DONNIE: When did you first learn you had this gift of doing impressions of other people?

RICH: When I imitated my teachers at school and then saw the other kids laughing.  They thought it was great and I became very popular doing it because the poor teacher didn’t know I was doing them.  If they’d ask me a question, I’d usually answer it in their voice and it was usually the wrong answer  - so that even got a bigger reaction. 

DONNIE: How do you come up with ideas for new people to impersonate?

RICH: It must be somebody I’m interested in.  It helps if I like them.  You won’t see me doing Bill Maher at any time.  It has to be people that I watch a lot, that fascinate me.  I have to watch them quite a bit to get the mannerisms.  Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s tougher these days to impersonate people because we don’t have the voices that we used to in the past.

Rich performs at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Scott Harrison.
DONNIE: Over the years, approximately how many people have you done impressions of? 

RICH: I’d say roughly around 200.

DONNIE: Which one is your favorite? 

RICH: I have a couple of favorites.  I like Ronald Reagan because I knew him so well and spent a lot of time with him.  Same with Jimmy Stewart.  We were good friends.  I think they’re two of my best.

DONNIE: Which one is the most challenging?

RICH: Probably the one I can’t do.  <chuckle>  There are a lot of people I can’t impersonate.  I do a very bad Brad Pitt.  I don’t do George Clooney.  I don’t do Matt Damon.  And I don’t think anybody will.  

DONNIE: Which one do you think is the funniest?

RICH: The one I get the most reaction from is probably Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” because they’re all short little jokes.  If I do Andy Rooney for 3 minutes, I can get maybe 20 laughs.  Whereas some voices maybe just one joke and one laugh.  So Andy Rooney, Johnny Carson and Paul Lynde - those kinds of people I get a lot of laughter from.

Rich and his 2005 Star on Las Vegas Blvd.  He also has a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Photo courtesy of www.richlittle.com.
DONNIE: Any current celebrities you would like to impersonate? 

RICH: Well yeah.  I’d like to do a lot of current movie stars.  But I think there are a lot of current movie stars that are impossible to do because they don’t have distinctive voices like they did back in the 40s and the 50s and so very few current movie stars can be imitated today.

DONNIE: Any impersonations currently in the works?

RICH: Yes.  Mitt Romney’s in the works.  I’m working on him, taping him a lot, and trying to get some of his mannerisms.  I think it’ll come.   I don’t know whether it’ll be a great impression, but I think it’s one everybody expects me to do because he’s going to be our next president.

DONNIE: I understand that you have put your talent to use filling in for celebrities’ voices on soundtrack and film.  Tell me more.

RICH: I’ve dubbed for people that have lost their voice or have passed on, like Peter Sellers -Inspector Clouseau and David Niven for a couple of movies - Pink Panther movies.   I filled in for Gene Kelly when he lost his voice for a Christmas special.  And Tony Curtis for a movie he walked off on.  I did his voice.  And Stacey Keach one time for Mike Hammer.  I did him.   I’ve done a fair amount of that over the years.

DONNIE: What is it you enjoy most about your profession? 

RICH: The fact that I’m able to make people laugh and have a good time.  Help them forget their problems.  Just bring a little joy into somebody’s, perhaps, humdrum life. 

Rich Little performs at The Riviera Starlite Theater in 2011.  Photo courtesy of Stardust Fallout.
DONNIE: Do you have other talents and hobbies you indulge in? 

RICH: I’ve always sketched.  I’ve been an artist since I was 12.  I work in charcoal and do portraits.  I’ve got hundreds and hundreds.  I started out doing my family and gave them away.  Then I moved on to celebrities and gave a lot of those away…and neighbors and all kinds of people.  I sell authenticated replications of the celebrities I’ve done on my website and at some of my shows, but I have probably in my collection today about 60 originals.

DONNIE: You were most recently seen here in San Diego doing your show “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” at the Welk in Escondido.  Why did you choose Jimmy Stewart as your prime target?

RICH: Because I knew Jimmy quite well.  I knew him better than almost any person I impersonate.  I spent a lot of time with him, did a lot of charities with him, worked the Dean Martin roasts with him, did the Julie Andrews show with him, as well as some socializing.  So I got to know him and his career pretty good.  When I went to do a one man show, he seemed to be the ideal choice; not only knowing him, but because he worked with so many great movie stars of the past that I impersonate.

DONNIE: Now you are returning to San Diego in “Laugh A Little” at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.  How will this show be different than your Jimmy Stewart show?

RICH: My nightclub act is a lot different.  It has varied segments to it.  I’m doing a game show at the moment with various celebrities competing (<sneeze> “That was me sneezing as John Wayne…Achoo!”) And the show is just different because it’s a lot of impressions just thrown together with no real theme.  It isn’t a play like Jimmy Stewart and I do a lot of singing impressions which I don’t do in “Jimmy Stewart and Friends.”  I do Tom Jones and I do Neil Diamond.  I do Willie Nelson, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, so there are a lot of singers.  People like the music, like the songs and if the impression is good, they’ll react.  These are all the singers I grew up with.  You won’t find me doing any rock stars….now or ever!

Promotional graphic for Rich's show "Laugh A Little" at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.  Image courtesy of the JCC.
DONNIE: In the promo materials for “Laugh A Little” it says there will be a live band.  How will that work?
RICH: I will do a lot of singing and the band will also play catch themes and punctuate certain jokes.  I used to, back in the 60s and 70s, work with a 30-piece orchestra.  Today I’m working with four pieces: bass, drums, guitar and piano, of course.  It’s not as great as a big, full orchestra, but one has to cut down with the economy so bad.  Theaters don’t want to pay for a large orchestra anymore.  If the economy gets any worse, I may just be working with piano.  Who knows?  Or maybe a harmonica!  <chuckle>  I think the days of the big orchestras are pretty well over, with the exception of  somebody like a Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis or somebody that can afford a huge orchestra.  But I’d say most acts today have reduced the size of their band mainly because of cost.

DONNIE: Last but not least, is it “impressions” or “impersonations” that you do?  Or is it simply a question of semantics? 

RICH: I always say I don’t do impressions.  Van Gogh, Monet…they do impressions.  I do impersonations.  But yes, it’s pretty much just semantics.  The terms “impressions” and “impersonations” are often used interchangeably when describing what I do.

Things to know before you go:  San Diego Center for Jewish Culture’s Look & Listen Performing Arts Series presents “Laugh Out Loud with Comedian Rich Little” on Saturday, June 30 at 8pm in the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla, CA.  Tickets are $35-$42.  For more information and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 858-362-1348 (open 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday) or visit http://www.lfjcc.org/.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


On "Pho," Donuts, and Death:
A chat with playwright George Soete as his new play premieres as part of Scripps Ranch Theatre's "Out on a Limb" program

By Donnie Matsuda

In its inaugural year, "Out on a Limb - New Plays from America's Finest City (OOAL)" is a new play development program designed to create, develop, and stage new plays that are penned by local playwrights with stories that have ties to San Diego and its people.  From submissions received by program producer (and award-winning director) Robert May, three San Diego playwrights were commissioned to write and revise their own one-act plays and their finalized products are now ready for full-out stagings at Scripps Ranch Theatre.  The three plays are "On Air" by Lisa Kirazian, "Pho Donut" by George Soete, and "Green Flash at Sunset" by Tim West.  All three plays are being performed on all three days of the OOAL festival, which runs Friday, June 29, Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1 at the Scripps Ranch Theatre on the Alliant International University Campus.

OOAL Directors and Playwrights: (front row) Robert May, Lisa Kirazian, Antonio "T.J." Johnson.  (back row) George Soete, Tim West, Don Loper.  Photo courtesy Scripps Ranch Theatre.
Recently, I had the chance to interview one of these playwrights, George Soete, and he talked about his concept for "Pho Dount", his general approach to writing plays, and his identity as a playwright.

DONNIE: How long have you been writing plays?
GEORGE: Almost 20 years.
DONNIE: I understand you've also been involved in the San Diego theatre scene as an actor, director, and producer.  How do you see your role as playwright fitting in with these other identities?
GEORGE: I’ve actually been involved in theatre for more than 40 years, in Cincinnati, Trenton (NJ), Phoenix, and now San Diego.  For me, all of these identities are great cross-training opportunities.  Every time I act, I learn important lessons about writing and directing.  When I read a play, I can imagine visuals, tones, etc.  When I write plays, key concepts of acting keep pushing into my mind.

San Diego playwright George Soete.  Photo courtesy of George Soete.
DONNIE: Of the plays you've written, do you have a favorite?

GEORGE: Pho Donut is my favorite at the moment.  I have had a wonderful time editing and revising the play, which I wrote a first draft version of in 2004.  Otherwise, yes, I have some that I think work better than others.  I prefer to write comedies, though I have written a few serious plays.  I love to write about older people, and I’ve written two plays with Mafia overtones.  Wherever my spirit guides me….

DONNIE: Do you have a specific approach to writing plays? 

GEORGE: I usually start with characters.  With Pho, I started with monologs to flesh out the characters in my mind; some of the monolog content was retained in the text which will be performed at SRT.  I started one play with a tiny incident in a supermarket.  I started another with the image of a man sitting on a bed singing a song.  I write and rewrite incessantly when I’m working on a play.  The genesis of a play is always interesting, but the real work that makes a decent play is rewriting.

DONNIE: Any particular playwrights who have inspired you or whose work you attempt to emulate?

GEORGE: I am crazy about David Mamet, whose spare, rapid-fire dialog I shamelessly imitate.  Neil Simon is an underrated genius; I always hope to be a tiny bit as funny as he is.  I read a lot of plays, and I learn something from all of them.
Promotional poster for George Soete's play "Pho Donut."  Courtesy of George Soete.
DONNIE: How did the concept of "Pho Donut" come about?

GEORGE: There is a donut shop in my neighborhood.  I used to see a group of old folks gathered there every morning, having coffee, donuts, and cigarettes.  I modeled three of the characters on four of the actual people (well, they probably would not recognize themselves, but…)  The other three characters came out of my head.  I wanted to write a comedy in which old people were taken seriously, not as caricatures.  As an older person myself, I wanted characters who still sometimes behaved like teenagers, who were often lonely, who needed each other, and who were funny people.

DONNIE: Tell me a bit about the play's premise.

GEORGE: Five oldsters gather each morning in front of a shop for coffee and donuts.  The owner of the shop is Vietnamese, and he has added pho to his menu.  One of the old guys (not seen in the play) dies, setting off a crazy plan to hold a memorial service in front of the shop.  The plan is complicated by a love triangle among three of the oldsters.  The memorial service finally takes place, but not until the cops arrive and two of the men nearly come to blows. 

Donuts and pho are, in my mind, the yin and yang of food choices, and I also tried to mirror the yin/yang concept in the characters of the two men in conflict.  But that is not mentioned in the play; it was just a game I played in my mind.  I don’t like overt symbols or messages in plays.

DONNIE: What do you hope audience members will take away from "Pho Donut"?

GEORGE: Some good laughs and good feelings.  If they take away anything more, that would be terrific.

For more information about OOAL and Scripps Ranch Theatre, visit: www.scrippsranchttheatre.org.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

GUEST THEATRE REVIEW: "The Imaginary Invalid" at Talent to aMuse

“The Imaginary Invalid”: Moliere Done Decently By Talent to aMuse

By Kristen Fogle

Moliere was an actor and playwright who was very involved in his plays. Perhaps a bit too much. During a performance of “The Imaginary Invalid” (where he portrayed Argan, the main character), he suffered a hemorrhage mid performance, but simply resumed his role and carried on as normal. He died later that evening.

ARGAN (George Weinberg-Harter, L) and TOINETTE (Sandy Hotchkiss Gullans, R) in Talent to aMuse's "The Imaginary Invalid" by Moliere, showing June 9-30, 2012 at the Liberty Theatre in San Diego.  Photo: Michelle Waugh, Photo Baby Photography.
Perhaps a better way to remember Moliere, however, is as a social critic of the seventeenth century, satirizing the institutions of his day and poking fun at the Parisian bourgeoisie. Though criticized for being “too realistic,” this never stood in his way; he wrote thirty seven plays and many are widely known, including “Le Misanthrope” (“The Misanthrope”), “L’Ecole des femes” (“The School for Wives”), “Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur,” (“Tartuffe” or ”The Hypocrite”), “L’Avare” (“The Miser”), and “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (“The Bourgeois Gentleman”). And of course, “The Imaginary Invalid.”

Talent to aMuse is behind the most recent, San Diego production of the piece. Says director O.P. Hadlock, the piece was chosen because: “I happen to have had experience with his work early in life and fell in love with his plays. ‘Invalid’ just happens to be my favorite and what I consider to be his most humorous.”

ARGAN (George Weinberg-Harter, R) and BELINE (Gail West, L) in Talent to aMuse's "The Imaginary Invalid" by Moliere.  Photo: Michelle Waugh, Photo Baby Photography.
The piece, (which many others consider to be his finest comedy), satires the medical profession. The farce depicts bafoonish doctors, unscrupulous lawyers, scheming wives, young lovers, manipulative maids, and miserly hypochondriacs. More specifically, the action centers around Argan, (the hypochondriac referred to previously) who wishes to marry off his daughter to a local doctor’s nephew who is also training in the medical arts. Why? For more access to medicines and—eww!—enemas of course! This is a pity for the young Angelique who has her eye on the dashing Cleante. Meanwhile, Argan’s wife Beline (step-mother to Angelique) is attempting to rob him through the help of a “respectable” notary. Cutting it very short, everyone gets what they deserve in the end, which means Angelique will be wed to Cleante, Beline is found out, and Argan is made a doctor. (Apparently all is well in the world when an aging hypochondriac is allowed to write his own prescriptions.)

Playing Argan is George Weinberg-Harter, Associate Artist/Playwright in Residence for Talent to aMuse. Weinberg-Harter is just the right amount of fussy kook infused with just a dash of likeable old man—his playfulness plays out well with saucy maid Toinette, played capably by Co-founder/Co-director Sandy Hotchkiss Gullans. Gail West rounds out the Talent to aMuse staff (like Hotchkiss Gullans she serves as Co-founder and Co-director) and plays the vindictive wife, Beline. Other notable cast members include Carla Navarro who, with help from precise blocking timed to take into account every gag Moliere’s script will allow, makes the most of the love struck Angelique. Her beau Cleante (Josh Pinkowski) is not only easy on the eyes but talented (in the acting and vocal department) as well. 

CLEANTE (Josh Pinkowski, L) and ANGELIQUE (Carla Navarro, R) in Talent to aMuse's "The Imaginary Invalid" by Moliere.  Photo: Michelle Waugh, Photo Baby Photography.
If one is interested in this classic farce, Talent to aMuse does not disappoint and even makes attempts at updating the piece for a more modern audience. Says Hadlock: “Some of the things that I did to update the show are fairly obvious like Goucho glasses and having Toinette act like Groucho Marx and using an enema bag instead of a syringe. Some are less obvious like the blatant sexual innuendo between Bonnefoi and Argan's wife or the way that Angelique deals with Cleante's sword when she runs to him. I also incorporated modern slapstick comedic moments into it like when Argan is hit on the head and Toinette and Berald say, "Blockhead!" One thing that was unseen was the interludes. Moliere had singing and dance before the show, before each act and at the end of the show. The choral part in our last scene with all of the doctors chanting was our way of incorporating the ending one.”

These subtleties make “Invalid” a bit easier to swallow, and besides the slightly cartoonish drawing on the upstage wall meant to be a Greek fresco that I didn’t particularly care for (but understand in keeping with the parody that is “Invalid”), there is a lot to enjoy. Paradise Village, which is essentially an amenity rich, ultra nice old folks abode, is a great location for the play, as their 200+ seat theater is not only beautiful but has impressive sound and lighting features. 

THOMAS and DR DIAFOIRUS (Chris Fonseca, L and Greg McAfee, C) visit ARGAN (George Weinberg-Harter, R) in Talent to aMuse's "The Imaginary Invalid" by Moliere.  Photo: Michelle Waugh, Photo Baby Photography.
Not only can you support Talent to aMuse’s efforts by seeing the show, but you can donate to their Kickstarter account, which all goes to actor stipends. If you like what you see, or want to pledge “blind,” go to www.kickstarter.com and type in Moliere. “The Imaginary Invalid” will be there; simply click and contribute funds.

The Imaginary Invalid
Liberty Theatre
Paradise Village Plaza
2700 East 4th Street
National City, CA

Sunday, June 10, 2012


All in the “Family”:
Broadway San Diego brings out the best in their creepy and kooky musical revival

By Donnie Matsuda

There’s a lot to like about the current national tour of The Addams Family, which spooks its way through San Diego for a week long run, through June 3.  Here, let me count the ways (and the reasons) why this musical will steal your heart … and maybe your soul, as well:
Patrick D. Kennedy (Pugsley), Pippa Pearthree (Grandma), Sara Gettelfinger (Morticia), Douglas Sills (Gomez), Tom Corbeil (Lurch), Cortney Wolfson (Wednesday) and Blake Hammond (Uncle Fester) in THE ADDAMS FAMILY.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
First, is the darkly delicious and morbidly tongue-in-cheek humor of America’s most eccentric family, based on the sleek and sinister one-panel cartoons created by Charles Addams.  Here, the family’s gloomy outlook on life and their deathly demeanor are brilliantly brought to life by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s slick book which is filled to the brim with clever concepts, kooky characters, laugh-out-loud one-liners, and silly side plots that all pay homage to the masterfully macabre family of its title.  Their main plotline here concerns daughter Wednesday as she falls in love with a (gasp!) “normal” boy named Lucas.  This wouldn’t be so bad, except that Lucas’ parents are on their way to the Addams mansion to “meet the family” and they have no idea what they are in for.  Of course, there are further complications with said family as we find out that dad Gomez has been keeping a secret from his wife Morticia, Pugsley is scheming to sabotage Wednesday’s relationship, and Grandma is high on life (and a few “potions” of her own).  It’s all a recipe for disaster, but thankfully for us, things work out perfectly fine in the end - this *is* a musical, after all - and we are treated to some crazy conflict and some hilarious high jinks along the way. 

Second, is Andrew Lippa’s sharply tuneful score, which runs the gamut from a zesty tango-inspired “When You’re An Addams” to a soaring up-tempo in “Pulled” to a full Broadway-style song-and-dance extravaganza in “(Death is) Just Around the Corner” to a pop/rock inspired “Crazier Than You.”  Lippa has a great ear for catchy melodies and he peppers his eclectic score with a number of meticulous metaphors and highly effective wordplay.  Best of all, he ensures that each one of his eighteen originally composed songs has a reason for being sung and is appropriately linked with the style and flair of the character who sings it.  
Cortney Wolfson (Wednesday) and Patrick D. Kennedy (Pugsley) in THE ADDAMS FAMILY.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Third, this touring company cast is filled with Broadway veterans who show off their acting (and singing) chops with the most delectably devilish of delights.  Tony nominee Douglas Sills is appropriately suave and skillful as Spanish patriarch Gomez and Sara Gettelfinger is every bit his equal as the deliciously droll and deadpan Morticia.  Together, they are a perfect pair with just the right amount of sexiness, silliness, and savvy.  As Wednesday, Courtney Wolfson supplies some powerhouse pipes and a compelling stage presence that brings life to her deathly Goth-inspired get-up.  San Diego native Brian Justin Crum is easy on the eyes and ears as Wednesday’s love interest Lucas while another San Diegan, Tom Corbeil, brings hilarity (and a lot of height) to the role of towering butler Lurch.  And rounding out the uniformly first-rate cast are Blake Hammond as Uncle Fester, Pippa Pearthree as Grandma, Patrick D. Kennedy as Pugsley, Martin Vidnovic as Mal Beineke and Gaelen Gilliland as Alice Beineke.   They are all backed up by an incredibly talented song and dance ensemble of ghost-like creatures collectively termed “The Ancestors,” who are old Addams family members who have come back from the dead.

Fourth, the technical elements and inventive stagecraft add a great deal of quirkiness to the piece and each and every slick trick goes off without a hitch.  From a bed that transforms into a monster to a gold tassel that surprisingly comes to life (and indulges in some romantic antics with Cousin It) to a stratosphere-stretching pas-de-deux between Uncle Fester and the moon, there is definitely no shortage of wacky and wildly fantastic imagination here.  Add to that some ghoulishly grand sets by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, some out of this world lighting by Natasha Katz, and some lurking puppets by Basil Twist, and you’ve got one heck of a show that will knock the socks off even the most lifeless of corpses.
Sara Gettelfinger (Morticia) and Company in THE ADDAMS FAMILY.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Fifth and finally, the direction by the trio of Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, and Jerry Zaks really pops on the large stage (aided greatly by a sleek red velvet show curtain that sweeps back and forth, scallops up and down, and conceals set changes).  And adding to the slick staging, Sergio Trujillo provides some delightfully inventive choreography that fits the nature of the piece but still has a whole lot of exuberant fun with some unexpected dance styles, including a couples tango, a “death rattle,” and even a good old fashioned Broadway kick line.

So there you have it.  Five rock-solid reasons why The Addams Family is a musical that will continue to delight and devour audiences for years to come.  Better catch it while you can … because as Morticia warns us, death is just around the co-ro-ner!
The Company of THE ADDAMS FAMILY.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Things to know before you go: The Addams Family presented by Broadway San Diego plays at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street through June 3, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Ticket prices vary.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit TicketMaster.com, call (888) 937-8995, or visit www.BroadwaySD.com.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Dirty Blonde, playing Mae West
By Fred Dodsworth
[This interview was originally published in 2001 and is being posted here with permission by its Bay Area-based author]

Fred Dodsworth: We live in a world in which women are expected to behave in certain ways and…

Claudia Shear: Do you think that’s true? It’s certainly less true then when Mae West was alive. There’s no question with things like divorce and child custody and salaries and discrimination that it isn’t a little better now. As far as the way women behave… (pause) it’s not like women aren’t able to do what they want. Women are able to be shocking now in a way Mae West couldn’t have done. It’s just that Mae West was more shocking because there were stronger rules, it was a more Puritanical time.

You know William Randolph Hearst helped destroy her career. His papers refused to take advertisements for her pictures. One of his editorials asked, “When will Congress do something about Mae West?” He was very influential in creating a backlash against her and of course he was part of the whole thing with the Hayes Commission and the decency code. They cut her scripts to shreds. They weren’t letting her be funny anymore.

Dodsworth: What do you mean by funny?

Shear: Dirty! Funny! Raunchy! Bawdy! Suggestive!

By the time she got to “Belle of the 90s,” she had a line like “I wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole” and they made her cut it. They were so afraid of what people were going to say. This is a woman who was arrested and sent to jail, who did a play called “Sex,” did a play with gay men. Her films were wildly successful but there were a lot of people who were very shocked.

Dodsworth: Shocked by what?

Shear: She has sex all the time. She is clearly a prostitute. She ends up with a guy. The Hayes Censorship Act says a life of crime must always be punished but she kills somebody in “She Done Him Wrong.” In “I’m No Angel,” she’s hustling guys but she ends up as a rich socialite. Married, happy ever after? This is not the message they wanted to send.

And she’s clearly a woman who’s not a virgin, who’s having sex all the time, who likes it a lot, who is aggressive about it, assertive about it. You can understand why this was upsetting people.

Melinda Gilb stars in "Dirty Blonde" at Cygnet Theatre.  Photo by Daren Scott.
Dodsworth: But that was before the “Decency Act.”

Shear: It was Mae West movies and the Fatty Arbuckle case that shocked people and they cracked down.

Dodsworth: The Fatty Arbuckle case happened here in San Francisco.

Shear: One of the greatest travesties of justice in the history and who did it? William Randolph Hearst. Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials and the jury gave him an apology! But by then he was destroyed. Nobody would hire him. There was no question he never killed the girl. It was a salacious news item. Hearst saying look at these disgusting people, look at their disgusting orgies. Hearst was one of the greatest hypocrites that ever walked this planet.

Dodsworth: I don’t actually think that our times are that different.

Shear: I agree with you actually. “A plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.”

Dodsworth: But to me the more interesting issue is how women are demonized.

Shear: Mae West was definitely demonized by Hearst but the thing is that she liked being shocking. She knew that she was shocking. She liked that.

There's the whole other question, which is homosexuality and how people deal with that. Mae West showed gay men actually talking to each other, that they existed. It wasn’t like there was a gay subculture. You know what I mean? There was the eternal bachelor. The whole thing of homosexual culture was totally different. So she was really in the forefront of that.

There were men who had acts where they would come out in gowns and be female impersonators but it was considered family entertainment. You would take mom and the kids to see this. But it wasn’t really attached to having sex with other men. Then she did “The Drag” and things like that and suddenly people were like “Do you mean these guys in dresses actually want to be girls? They want to have sex with men? Whoa, wait a minute!”

These guys were wiped out. There was this really famous drag performer. Julian Eltinge was his name. He was reduced to bringing out a rack of dresses, pointing to them and trying to do his act! He died in penury.

Dodsworth: Today that would be performance art.

Shear: They wanted to see him dressed up as a girl doing his campy thing!

Steve Gunderson and Melinda Gilb in "Dirty Blonde" at Cygnet Theatre.  Photo by Daren Scott.
Dodsworth: Do you think there’s a misogyny in that? Is it making fun of women?

Shear: I think that there’s a flavor of that sometimes. It’s such a fine line. It’s not that I would accuse anyone of misogyny but Marlene Dietrich, when she dresses as a man, is not the object of ridicule. It’s the sexiest thing in the world.

You know the world is a big place, lots of things are allowed. But a woman dressed as a man is taking on power. Look at Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” there’s something really powerful about her because she has suppressed her secondary sex characteristics as a woman and therefore she is a man in the world. You take on a certain power if you dress as a man.

If you dress as a woman on some level you’re also taking on a power. A man who comes on stage dressed as Joan Crawford or Lipsinka! Lipsinka comes out on stage and this is a person of power.

Dodsworth: What is the root of that power?

Shear: The root of the power is when people transform themselves into what they feel they are, into what they feel they should be.

Dodsworth: So it’s transformation into true self?

Shear: Into what you imagine yourself to be. It’s why brides are always beautiful. The dumpiest girl in the whole world, bless her, the day of her wedding she will be beautiful. Because for most people it’s the one time in their lives where they wear a custom-made gown, where someone does their hair and their make-up, where everybody looks at them. They glow as a result of it and that runs through to everything.

I’m a big dresser-upper and how that transforms you. A lot of the time I’m in my sneakers, I’m in my T-shirt, I’m going to work out and yet when I transform and I’m in Manolo Blahniks and the Florentine cocktail dress, it’s a whole different persona that comes out. You know what I mean? When I go to Paris, for example, where I spend most of the time in a cocktail dress or out of the cocktail dress (half-laughs), it’s like I’m a different person.

But you know the thing was that Mae is really actually complex which is a thing that many people flatter themselves thinking they are...

Dodsworth: Everybody’s complex!

Shear: Everybody’s complex, but it’s not manifested in quite the same way. They’re just not simply as interesting. I don’t think Sandra Dee is as interesting as Mae West. It’s not the same conflict. Which is one of the things about drag that makes it so powerful is that underneath there’s this profound conflict (pause) between what we’re seeing and what we know to be true.

Melinda Gilb, David McBean, and Steve Gunderson in Cygnet Theatre's "Dirty Blonde."  Photo by Daren Scott.

"Dirty Blonde" plays at Cygnet Theatre through June 17.  For more information, visit: http://www.cygnettheatre.com/

Saturday, June 2, 2012


The “Pinter” Plays and a “Suite” of Neil Simon Play-lets

By Donnie Matsuda

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a collection of short plays packaged into two neat-and-tidy productions – “Two by Pinter” at North Coast REP and “California Suite” at Scripps Ranch Theatre.  In response to these short, easily digestible, bite-sized theatrical confections, I decided my review of these two shows should take on the style and structure of the pieces themselves.  So, here is my attempt at producing review-lets that tell you all you need to know in one brief, compact critique.

Elaine Rivkin as Sarah and Mark Pinter as Richard in Harold Pinter's "The Lover."  Photo by Aaron Rumley.
First, two plays by Harold Pinter – “The Lover” and “The Dumb Waiter” – randomly paired together and directed by North Coast REP’s artistic director, David Ellenstein.  It must first be said that Pinter is best known and admired (and sometimes avoided) because of his uncanny ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech.  His plays generally take place in a single room and his works, which blend comedy and drama, often focus on jealousy, betrayal, power, and sexual tension.  But with Pinter, it is more about how he says things than what he says that makes his dizzying dialogue so utterly intriguing.  Pinter's language, an oddball mix of lower-class vernacular and high class wit peppered with tons and tons of pregnant pauses, has been described as “Pinteresque,” and suggests a cryptically mysterious situation that is undermined by unspoken intrigue and imbued with hidden menace.  If that last line didn’t tickle your fancy or get your theatrical adrenaline flowing, then perhaps Pinter isn’t the playwright for you.

“The Lover” introduces us to an elegant, middle class couple who live in a detached house near Windsor. On the surface, they seem to have it all – a nice home, comfortable careers, and great chemistry – until we learn that their marriage is rather lacking in the bedroom.  The play begins with them openly bantering back and forth about their sexual (ahem) indiscretions as husband Richard (a winning Mark Pinter) nonchalantly quips, “Is your lover coming today?” and his wife Sarah (a fetching Elaine Rivkin) replies dreamily, “Yes.”   But don’t worry about potential inequality in this 1960’s adulterous arrangement because Richard has his own “slut” that he’s been seeing on the side.  It is all talked about with such flippant flair and anchored with underlying ambiguity and ambivalence that it makes one stop and think about what roles reality and fantasy play in intimate relationships.  And, of course, this being Pinter, there is a juicy twist that cinches the ending and puts a decided denouement on this hour-long pedantic and playful pas-de-deux.

(L to R): Frank Corrado as Ben and Richard Baird as Gus in Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter."  Photo by Aaron Rumley
After intermission, we are immediately transported to a completely different time and place (thanks to Marty Burnett's masterful set design that transforms from upscale English country manor to dark and dank basement in a matter of minutes).  Here, in "The Dumb Waiter," we meet Ben and Gus (a formidably amusing Frank Corrado and Richard Baird, respectively), two hit men who, while trapped in said basement waiting for their next hit, talk back and forth about a number of seemingly insignificant topics, including the latest newspaper headlines, the existence of an Eccles cake, the identity of cricket players in a photo on the wall, and whether the appropriate phrase is "put the kettle on" or "put the gas on."

And this being Pinterland, there are deeper and darker themes at work here, the most potent of which is the idea of political terror masquerading as stuffy murder melodrama.  As actor Frank Corrado states in his program notes, "What makes 'The Dumb Waiter' all the more intriguing is that the political terror has as its inscrutable operative a mechanical conveyance that seems to take perverse pleasure in making capricious sport of those who dumbly await their marching orders and those who unsuspectingly await their fate."  And here, as we sit though the play's maddening and discomforting dialogue until we reach a point where we can barely take the tedium anymore, the general sense of menace and absurdity grows to a surprising and most telling conclusion.  To top it off, it is all delivered with spot-on accuracy by Pinter pros Corrado and Baird whose comfortable chemistry and in-depth understanding of the playwright inform a most intriguing and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

(L to R): Bernard X. Kopsho, Teri Brown, and Susan Clausen Andrews as visitors from Philadelphia in Neil Simon's "California Suite."  Photo by Daren Scott.
The mood is much lighter over at Scripps Ranch, where Fran Gercke directs a whirlwind of four hilarious Neil Simon play-lets under the auspices of "California Suite."  Taking place in rooms 203 and 204 of the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, "Suite" chronicles various couples as they visit from New York (Scene 1), Philadelphia (Scene 2), London (Scene 3), and Chicago (Scene 4).  While none of the scenes are related, the sextet of actors frequently does double duty to portray the five couples featured in the play's mixed bag of scenes that adroitly unfold over the course of two hours.

The six actors here - Susan Clausen Andrews, Teri Brown, Bernard X. Kopsho, Julie Anderson Sachs, Eddie Yaroch, and Brian Salmon - are all superb and incredibly funny in their over-the-top characterizations and off-the-wall actions.  In Scene 1, Sachs and Yaroch are particularly compelling as Hannah and William Warren, a divorced couple from New York who bicker and banter back and forth as they are forced to decide what living arrangements are best for their daughter Jenny.  Not only do these credible actors handle their difficult dialogue with ease, but they share a very crude chemistry that is both mind-numbing and heart-breaking to watch.  Contrast that with the slapstick antics of Scene 2, in which conservative middle-aged businessman Marvin Michaels (a panicked Kopsho) awakens to discover an unconscious prostitute in his bed with his wife Millie (a wholesome Andrews) on her way up to his suite.  It's a comedy of errors as Kopsho pulls out all the side-splitting, physically comedic stops in order to conceal all traces of his rather obvious indiscretion.

Teri Brown and Brian Salmon as visitors from London in Neil Simon's "California Suite."  Photo by Daren Scott.
The two scenes in Act Two are perhaps a bit less satisfying - and they drone on a bit too long - but they are still solidly acted and amusing enough as written.  Scene 3 gives us the pompous British actress Diana Nichols (played with aplomb by Brown) and her once-closeted husband Sidney (played with suave smoothness by Salmon) as they prepare to head out for the red carpet at the Academy Awards.  Nichols is understandably nervous about the evening, as she is a first time nominee for Best Actress and this accolade could re-energize her dormant acting career, but we see in a sort of post-awards epilogue how things actually turn out.  (I won't spoil it here, but let's just say it's not pretty.)  It all comes to a comedic head in Scene 4, as we meet two tennis-playing couples from Chicago - Mort and Beth Hollender (Kopsho and Sachs) and Stu and Gert Franklyn (Yaroch and Andrews) - as their mixed doubles match ends with more than just a broken ankle.  It's a menagerie of verbal repartee that rather slowly devolves into a match of bangings and bruisings as the scene goes out with more of a whimper than a bang.

As is to be expected from the always excellent Scripps Ranch Theatre, the technical aspects here are uniformly outstanding with a spiffy two-room hotel suite designed by Chad G. Dellinger, dramatically diverse lighting by Mitchell Simkovsky, and regionally appropriate costumes by Melissa Coleman-Reed.  Overall, the pacing of the production is zippy and zany (thanks to spry staging by Gercke) and it all comes together rather seamlessly in one fun and funny collection of playful play-lets.

Things to know before you go: Two by Pinter plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through June 17, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm.  Tickets are $32-49 with discounts available for students and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

Things to know before you go: California Suite presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre plays at the Legler Benbough Theatre at Alliant International University through June 24, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, seniors, and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit www.scrippsranchtheatre.org.