Theater in the Western Provinces


 Witches and Warlocks Pay Homage to the Queen

Halloween at the Alterena

When my friend Star Valdez, invited me to an evening of theater at the Altarena, a venue she manages, to see a revival of the Broadway hit musical “A Little Shop of Horrors” I thought it would be an interesting way to spend all Hallows Eve – especially since they requested that the guest show up in costume and a prize would be for the best disguise. So I decided to adorned myself in appropriate costume and take my chances.

As a big fan of Halloween when I was a kid it was an unexpected joy to witness the hordes of trick or treaters swarming through the streets of Alameda, going from house to house collecting candies and other sweets – albeit this being the California Bay Area some probably ended up with dried fruits, unsweetened grape fruit or prune juice and granola bars – as we made our way to the theater in a long line of creeping cars.

Although I expected the evening to be fun, I did not expect to see a performance of the quality that distinguished this production.  It is a small house on a rather ordinary street three thousand miles from Manhattan, where I usually spend evenings in the theater….and that more often than not can render even an open and fair minded person a bit Jaded.

Yet because I have spent countless nights witnessing theatrical performances, and have written theater and film reviews for major publications and broadcast media, in the US and Great Britain – see the film and theater sections on this blog – I recognize a good play when I see one wherever it is mounted. Thus I display my credentials not out of vanity, but to point out that as a result of all those nights watching thespians at work in the theater center of the world I have developed a critical eye and exacting standards.

Hence when I say that by any objective measure this was a superb production, it should be taken by readers in the far western provinces as something akin to the infallible utterances of the Pope regarding Catholic doctrine.  Thus when I say this house puts on a great show  lovers of good theater should stampede the ticket office in quest of a seat for their next production.  The night I was there the house was sold out, and I suspect that once the word gets around that they are opening a new production in this fabulous little theater, tickets will quickly become scarce.

The first thing the tutored eye will notice is the amazing efficiency with which they utilize the limited space.  For instance, rather than a lowered pit or bandstand off in the corner, the band is located in a raised booth which is shared by the sound and lighting technicians, who are all masters of their trade.  There are no jack legs here; these are real professionals who could work any theater anywhere.

The sound mixture is marvelous; it took me half the play to figure out where the music was coming from.  The exquisite balance made me think it was a recording, but its warm vibrant sound told me otherwise. There were some liberties taken with the score, but the changes made served to enhance and modernize the production with fresh melodies and lyrics performed by masters of the musical arts.

Next to the music the aura of magic one can experience in well executed theatrical production is conjured by the lighting.  And the lighting design for this production – a kind of absurdist farce rendered as musical comedy – was an excellent corollary to the imaginative set design.   Since the story revolved around a visual illusion, a small strange looking plant that grows to enormous size by eating people, the lighting and set designer had to work in close collaboration in order to pull it off.  And they pulled it off to great effect.

However no theatrical illusion is complete until the costume designers have sucessfully completed their conjurations.  As is demonstrated in this production, when worn by great actors a mere change of costume can induce a complete change of character.  And like music, the right costumes can transport us to particular times and places.

Yet after all the triumphs of the creators of a theatrical work, whose special alchemy constructs the environment for its performance, finally it’s the performers – the actors, singers and dancers – who bring it to life.   In the end, when all is said and done, it is they, the performing artists, who will make or break the work – give it immortality or consign it to the dustbin of history.

I cannot say for sure, so I offer this judgment as a bold speculation only, but I do not believe a small theater anywhere has been blessed with a more talented cast of thespians.  They sang, they danced, they joked and pranced, evoking pathos and bathos at the bat of an eyelash or twist of the mouth; they cajoled, titillated, and grandly entertained the audience.

Alas, in such a cast of gifted thespians selecting any singular performance for special accolades is an abritrary act. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is I do have my favorites and a unable to resist comment.  Avi Jacobson was both funny and convincing as Mushnick, the cockroach capitalist who owns a flower shop.

Since his shop is located on skid row in a deteriorating section of the city his outlook on life is a strange mixture of optimism and gloom.  When we first encounter him he is agonizing over the possibility of having to fire his employees and closing shop.  Mushnick is clearly a product of the immigrant Jewish shtetl on the Lower East Side of New York, populated with workers, radicals, gangsters, artists, and learned Yiddish autodidacts that the distinguished Marxist writer and Editor Michael Gold reported on first hand  and Irving Howe recreated so poignantly in his seminal text “World of Our Fathers.”

It was a community where the common language, Yiddish, was full of colorful aphroisms informed by an ironic sense of the comedy and tragedy of human existence. They even created a distinguished theater where only Yiddish was spoken, the great character actor Faisal Finkel was a product of this theater.

Avi Jacobson embodies all of these elements in his character, from his vocal inflections when speaking Yiddish words to his Oy Vey body language when things are bad, to his perky huckster attitude when his luck begins to change after his employee Seymour, played by Max Thorne, breeds a new and exotic flower that changes his fortunes.

Avi’s portrayal of Mushnick reminds me of every old style Jewish Shop keeper in New York,  and this is remarkable considering that he spent most of his adult life in Israel, where the Yiddish based culture of the Jewish diaspora has found a hostile or indifferent reception. His performance deserved and received generous applause.

The fact that it was All Hallows Eve and the audience were invited to don costumes and join the make believe made the production all the more magical.  If a jaded New York critic could be so moved….it’s a fair guess that this production would wipe out anybody here in the provinces and leave them breathless!

 It was a Little Shop of Horrors!!!
A Carniverous Flower swallowed a Star
And he was swiftly Slain


 By the Grim Reaper’s Sythe!
 His Reincarnated Spirit was so Docile
Even genteel Poets poked fun at him 
He became such a harmless impotent figure…
………the kindly Ms. Lottabody found him an object of ridicule
As costumed Revelers partied the night away
The One
The Grim Reaper stood guard….warding off evil spirits  
Text by Playthell Benjamin
 Photos by: Playthell Benjamin and Susanna Israel


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