WHY: A rollicking new musical chock full of 90’s references, teen hormones and punch ’em in the gut jokes, 13th grade follows the freshman class of a community college as they navigate through “like/totally/whatever/rad” love triangles. Come for the trip down memory lane, stay for the tight greek chorus harmonies of Pam, Emily and Katrina.
WHY: This play quietens the mind and requires you to listen. One incident in a woman’s day takes her back to a moment that she had silenced, forced herself to ignore its happening in hopes that she would forget. Yet life does not work that easily; as we know, moments can come back to haunt us. We witness a woman needing to deal – a woman in control of her life, yet in need of releasing a haunting experience she has carried alone. A piece of theatre that gives a louder voice to an issue that is usually carried in silence, as well as not discussed socially over dinner.
WHY: In 1871, Laura D. Fair murdered her lover on a boat off the coast of San Francisco. Laura’s trial became less about the murder and more about judging her moral character. This ensemble play might have made an interesting judge-and- jury, real-life crime drama, with a message about the treatment of women in 1871, but that is not this play. FAIR, delivers the feminist message in an inventive and entertaining way… a play-within- a-play, executed in a hilarious melodramatic style (complete with fake mustaches) and delivers a powerful indictment of Laura D. Fair’s unfair treatment.
FAIR opens with the cast onstage preparing for a performance of FAIR. One of the actors asks if she is playing “Susan Banthony” which is corrected to “Susan B. Anthony” by another cast member. Those clever first words set the tone for the play which jumps back and forth in time in a nimble yet cohesive way. I could tell immediately that this work had been developed over a period of time: the fast pace and furious blocking, the actors’ physical agility and focus, the quick blackouts and scene changes, the clever use of minimal props, and the writing—witty, provocative, assured and meaningful. It takes time for all these elements to coalesce into a well-made production.
And sure enough, the program states that The Wishbone Collective began this ensemble-devised play in the fall of 2014. They began “scraping together information about “twice-widowed, twice-divorced” Laura D. Fair—a woman so scandalous she was placed among the ranks of history and literature’s top-shelf femme fatales and yet [she has] somehow faded from memory.” Much of the dialogue is from a primary source—the recorded transcripts and letters printed in the “Official Report of the Trial of Laura D. Fair for the Murder of Alex. P. Crittenden”. There are five other sources listed in the program as well. Wishbone did their research.
There is never a question that Laura D. Fair is guilty of the murder. In this telling, Laura Fair’s guilt is almost beside the point “I did it. I don’t deny it” she states early on, and so Laura’s morality becomes the focus of the prosecution. The trial becomes a titillating media sensation and where much of the play’s hilarious social commentary unfolds.
The public vilification of someone who challenged society’s conventions by having many lovers and husbands is compelling. Making the trial a melodrama is a stroke of genius. The words are from actual court records but are delivered in a such a way that underscore the trial’s ridiculousness. Witnesses are called to remark on Laura’s “reputation of chastity” to which each replies some iteration of “bad” and “real bad.” She is called a “she-devil” and a “vile temptress”. The prosecutor blames the combination of “a controlling man” and the defendant’s “menstrual cycle”, stating Laura was a “victim of circumstance…and her own biology”. (That line got huge laughs.)
FAIR is a complicated tale woven into an entertaining melodramatic format. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it made me feel how unfair society still is to women in so many ways. The next person who says a woman is the way she is is because of PMS needs to read about Laura D. Fair. One more show on June 16th !!
WHY: No one is more obsessed with the month of October than Brooke Baumer. The autumn palette, pumpkin bread, and (oh-my- gawd!) Halloween cause her to squeeeeeeal in delight. Brooke’s also a fanatical planner; so when she decides she wants a second child, why not give birth during her favorite month? Things go pretty well in that direction…until they don’t. A unique (and true) solo show about motherhood and letting go of things that don’t really matter.
Working LA actress Brooke Baumer jumps right into “October Baby” (which was well-received at Solofest 2017—the largest solo theater festival on the West Coast) by telling the audience how completely obsessed she is with that tenth month of the year. She brings out her favorite mustard-colored sweater and shows slides of her Halloween costumes throughout the years, but “just” loving October is not enough for Brooke. Oh no, she strives for a much bigger prize—Brooke feels she must give birth to her second child during her favorite month. How hard could that be?
Does this obstetrical goal sound a “tad” compulsive? You have no idea! Brooke admits she fixates on controlling things so why not include her pregnancy? She plots her strategy as if it were the D-Day invasion, gets her husband on board (yes, he does play a “minor” part), and the story takes off. (I won’t go into details because the twists and turns in this unique and well-told tale are worth the surprise.)
Brooke is a passionate and sharp storyteller and has a wonderful stage presence. Comedy is Brooke’s bread-and- butter (or perhaps “comedy is her candy corn”?) and I was laughing from the start. The story flows with ease and at a good pace. She kept me on the edge of my seat because her story has more change-ups than a MLB pitcher! And after the laughs come “the feels” and by the end, I had tears in my eyes…in a good way.
Solo-show diva Jessica Lynn Johnson, directs and the show moves. I loved that Brooke showed us photos and even a bit of film footage to assist her story. She even gave out Halloween candy as we left the theater! A nice touch.
WHY: Why is it that Thanksgiving seems to bring out the best and the worst of human kind? Tiffany Cascio warns us this not-all-the-way true story is a look into her own dysfunctional family and within two minutes we know we’re in for a wild ride.
Chloe (Allison Youngberg) needs the perfect day, Needs everyone to fall in line, NEEDS her family to be normal for just this moment. But they’re being who they are and that’s messy, angry, manipulative, and all too human for Chloe who wants to protect her perfect fiancé (Gary Poux) from the truth.
Kitty Lindsay directs this strong ensemble cast through this hilarious, painful ride where the audience can see the scars left by childhood, divorce, abandonment and that no one is perfect and no one is really awful and what it means to be a family may not look like we thought it should. As Mom (Sharon Spence) copes by learning every new age path out there, Victoria (Susan Louise O’Connor) has booze and sarcasm, and Max tops them all by bringing his bestie Starr (Asia Lynn Pitts) who happens to be a stripper with a mouth like, well… a stripper. Ah, family! Still, we need it. We are forever bound to it whether we like it or not.
WHY: One of the ten Fringe Scholarship winners (awarded to shows that expand and diversify the Fringe community), charismatic comic Sofie Khan grew up with a Mexican Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father in a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican Chicago neighborhood. Such a multi-culti stew makes for a deliciously funny and poignant solo show.
Sofie’s warm, relaxed, upbeat stage presence immediately invites the audience into her world. I love her positive motto: “If you judge a book by its cover, you miss out on the story.” And Sofie tells her story very well, relating the many instances where her “cover” has indeed been judged—by cashiers, TSA agents, White House staff (to name a few). Her story is both unique yet highly relatable as our country becomes even more of a melting pot and we’re all “mixed” in some way (mine is a strict Catholic mom and Atheist dad, which was difficult in its own way.)
Sofie reads our minds by answering such questions as: Does she identify more with her ‘Mexi’ side or her ‘Stani’ side? Has she been a victim of a hate crime? What holidays does she celebrate? All these questions and many more are answered along with her imparting sincere wisdom about all of us being part of the World Community, and wanting to create a “safe space and understanding for all…especially for LGBTQ and Muslim individuals”. (To that end, Sofie has partnered with the Naz & Matt Foundation which tackles “homophobia triggered by religion to help parents accept their children”. Brava.)
Though Sofie is “charismatic AF” (to quote the kids today), a compelling performance and a well-told tale is often not enough to make a solo show riveting. It must be theatrical as well. Otherwise, I could just listen to “The Moth” on the radio. I love seeing solo shows at the Fringe and how they run the gamut from basic stand-up to the use of multi-media, props, and other elements to amp up the show. Tightly directed by solo show dynamo Jessica Lynne Johnson, MexiStani! makes use of projections, audience participation, impersonations, and Sofie even performs a rap song. All of the elements add up to a theatrical and highly entertaining show. So entertaining that the serious themes slipped right by my brain and straight into my heart and had me thinking about them days later.
One final note: Sofie is offering a free 90- minute Fringe workshop with the right-to- the-point title: “Getting to Your Authentic Happy Self When You Feel Like Shit”. It’s at the Asylum Underground Theater, June 10 at am. Maybe I’ll see you there!
WHY: Not all of Fringe can be fun-and-games. Audiences (like me!) adore fun but we also want theater that helps us to understand what’s going on IRL (in real life). This thought-provoking world premier ensemble drama was inspired by the 2016 shootings at the LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando on “Latin Night” in which 49 (mostly Latino) people were murdered by a single gunman. The play explores how “fundamental belief systems can give a perverse inspiration to the execution of hate in the name of ‘love’.”
The play opens in chaos—projections of people dancing are quickly replaced by screams and panic. Something horrific has happened and I was on the edge of my seat as the layers of what happened slowly unfold. The focus is on Rafi (short for Raphael), a handsome, young man in a blood-spattered t-shirt who grimly stares into the distance. He’s in shock, trying to understand and piece together the events of the evening. Carmen, another survivor, shuffles in, missing a shoe. A gentle detective arrives to comfort them, along with a uniformed cop (who is more judgmental than comforting). Eventually Rafi’s fundamentalist Christian mother comes to take Rafi home and though she’s ecstatic her son is alive, she cannot contain the multitudes of bias she holds within.
Rafi also takes us into his recent past. Questioning his sexuality and how he came to be at the Pulse nightclub that night and meeting a man there who is not who he seems. In Rafi’s memory, we meet his eclectic club friends; foremost is Enrique (a hot, Latin charmer Rafi encounters at an AA meeting). All good drama contains a mystery and this play has many. The obvious question is: “Where’s Enrique?” Rafi will not leave until he finds his lover and I was holding my breath, waiting…
The title comes from Psalm 23:4 “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me…” and refers to a Higher Power’s presence during death; but Katherine Cortez gives it another meaning—finding strength in love, all love. “Love is Love is Love” one of the characters says. Cortez’s writing is entertaining, and thought-provoking. A good thing as I was afraid a play based on such a tragedy could be depressing. And yes, it stirs up “the feels”, posits many questions, and calls out for more understanding—from the characters and the audience. And while the story made me sad, angry, and challenged, I was never depressed. I felt the “thin edge of the wedge” of hope, hope that things can change with love.
There is much humor to balance the horror, especially among the supporting characters, including a laughing-through-her-tears compassionate trans woman. Five actors played dual roles—each one wildly different from the other. (Especially impressive was Tania Verafield who plays the quiet Carmen but who quickly flips her hair to expose a shaved temple. She adds a long feathered earring and fully embodies butch bartender Hawk.) Special kudos to the Femme production members Heather Tyler (producer), Elina De Santos (director), Stephanie Kerley (set—her clever use of the standing set for Rogue Machine’s current production is outstanding).
One final note: There will be a special performance and reception on the one-year marker of the Pulse nightclub tragedy on Sunday, June 11, 7:30 pm. Proceeds will benefit the LGBT Center. Parking at the MET is difficult, give yourself time to get there. Your patience will be rewarded.
WHY: In a time when women are refusing to have their voices silenced and refuse to have their stories told for them, Tough Brown Leather is a testament to the powerful mantra: my time, my way. This solo show poetically takes us through the journey of a carefree little girl in love with football to a woman who must learn to face her past while accepting her sexual self. Tonya uses her body, football and comedy to reflect upon a pain that often quietly eats away pieces of oneself. Tonya thrives and overcomes – using her voice to heal not only herself but, without knowing, other women who’ve also faced sexual assault. An inspirational theatre ride that Tonya owns with bravura. GO!
When we heard that LA’s Fierce Backbone, home of some amazing women playwrights, was collaborating with the femme-friendly Drive Theatre on a new production, our ears perked up. And after learning the project was Amy Tofte’s murder mystery on a mission to Mars, WOMEN OF 4G, we felt we had to find out a bit more about what went on behind the scenes before this collaboration blasted off.
LA FPI: Love that a female writer is venturing into what’s often thought of as a male territory – space, the final frontier. What draws you to science fiction?
AMY TOFTE: I’ve always been into Star Wars and read tons of sci-fi. Even my plays/stories that aren’t sci-fi usually have an element of the fantastical or the famous “what if” being asked. I think I’m drawn to it because classic sci-fi is often related to allegory and challenging ideology. I’ve read somewhere that all sci-fi examines religion. I’d go further and say it questions what we know now by offering up an alternative of what could be. I was also raised and educated on truly magical theater experiences and I’m inspired to create moments that will be fun for an audience to experience together. I love seeing the impossible staged when I go to the theater.
LA FPI: Tell us a bit about the role the Bechdel Test played in the creation of this work, which has all an female cast.
AMY: I think The Bechdel Test is important to all story telling and I think every writer should think about it. Novels, films, plays…it doesn’t matter. It’s important because I think we are brain-damaged as a society. All of us. It’s not just a divide that puts men on one side and women on the other. When you don’t have a society that represents true equality, the dominant (which is currently white male) becomes the default. It’s a real problem in stories and scripts. You’ll see a character described as “African-American” or “Chinese”…but then everyone else is given personality traits because the default is white.
I give a lot of feedback on scripts and you still see really good writers who are very much about empowering women but their story somehow doesn’t give their female characters all the things a “default character” might get: the women in the stories will be denied making decisions and choices, denied making mistakes and having moments to learn, driving the action. I say we’re brain-damaged because that’s ingrained in us as children. I’m not saying anything new here. That’s why diversity is important in story-telling. If we don’t see women playing super heroes or leaders in our stories, we don’t expect them in our lives.
I’m also pissed off. I’m pissed off about the election. I’m tired of knowing that women are over 50% of the population and we still write less than a third of all produced plays and have so few reps in congress or as CEO’s of major corporations. It’s ridiculous we’re still even talking in these terms. But the best thing I know to do with that anger is to write a play with all women. And make them all complicated, interesting characters who get to kick a little ass when they feel like it.
LA FPI: Let’s talk about Fierce Backbone, a development lab that seems to be very supportive of women’s voices onstage.
AMY: Fierce has been the single most important artistic home I’ve ever had. The focus is on development and we produce when we have the resources and a script we want to produce. We’re now in our 10th year! Fierce has consistently boasted over 50% female playwrights in our Writers Unit. So it’s easy to also say the majority of our productions, workshop productions and readings have featured female playwrights. We’re very proud of that. I also have so much respect and gratitude for our actors. They are an incredible resource.
LA FPI: How did Fierce Backbone connect with Drive Theatre for this project?
AMY: Drive has been a friend of Fierce for a few years now. We’ve supported each other’s work and they did a workshop production late last year of one of our other writer’s plays (Defenders by Cailin Harrison). We’ve also shared development ideas and were always looking for projects that make sense to partner on.
I shared the first draft of 4G with Doug and Kat [Drive Theatre Artistic Director Doug Oliphant and Kat Reinbold, Curatorial Producer] in late 2015 and they got involved in the development process. That was really energizing as we had a lot of new voices joining the conversation. Like any playwright getting produced, I feel very, very lucky! And I’m particularly lucky to see this through with people who have given so much to help the script grow.
[NOTE: This is Drive Theatre’s is a longtime friend of LA FPI and WOMEN OF 4G is its seventh straight production by a female playwright!]
LA FPI: What was it like in rehearsals, with such a femme presence… and and a male director?
AMY: OMG. It’s so amazing. And so noticeable. It also felt like the cast bonded immediately. It was like a room full of passionate, unruly schoolgirls one minute and then intense intellectual conversations about life and being a woman in this post-election world. It reminded me so much of all the great female friendships I’ve had over the years, where you can bond so quickly.
During our table work we all shared stories prompted by events in the play…times we were afraid, things we have to do as women that men don’t have to think about. It was also great having Doug there as our director because he was like a reality check that men are clueless about certain things in the lives of women. It made me realize that the making of this particular play could be just as important as the story and performance. I think we’re all taking away something special. These women feel like sisters to me, like we’ve all been through something together.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
WHY: When I was handed a pink poncho and a condom—branded with the show’s name—along with the program (featuring a picture of the star dressed as a fluffy herpes lesion), I immediately thought “ahhhh, I’m at the Fringe.”
I use the word “branded” intentionally, because that’s how Cherise Pascual (aka “Cherry Cola”) the high-octane star and writer of this inventive solo show felt after being diagnosed with herpes. Sexual secrets are hard to reveal and even though it seems that “everyone has herpes now,” Cherise kept her herpes under wraps for a long time. As she says “herpes isn’t fatal, but it nearly killed me.” Her secret lead to substance abuse, fear of relationships, long-term celibacy, poor self-esteem and self-deprecation. Finally, to forgive herself, to survive, to live a life free of guilt, Cherise HAD to tell her story and she tells it with incredible humor, theatricality, and most importantly, a brave heart.
Directed by the “solo-show whisperer” Jessica Lynn Johnson, the charismatic “Cherry Cola” uses musical parody, projected images, hilarious props; she impersonates boyfriends, doctors, and her mother; and breaks the fourth wall to talk with the audience, all on her journey from self-hate to self-love. I was glad to be along for the ride. (PS: I won’t tell you what the poncho is for….you’ll have to go see for yourself.)