WALKING TO BUCHENWALD
Stage Raw 2017
I saw the “Die Herren” cast, in which Schiller (Cappiello) and his lover Arjay (Huen) convince Schiller’s aging parents Roger (Ben Martin) and Mildred (Laura James), who live in Oklahoma, to join them on a trip to Europe to celebrate Roger’s birthday. Schiller, a high-strung museum administrator in Los Angeles, loves his parents but considers them hopelessly parochial (even though Dad retired from a long life as a university theater professor). He worries about how they will behave in “sophisticated” Europe. He needn’t have been concerned — in fact, as the family travels from England to France and then to Germany, it’s Schiller whose intense need to schedule and micromanage creates his own meltdown. Meanwhile, his parents’ failing health — and the increasing hostility of the locals to Americans as the Trump-tragedy continues back home — add conflict and suspense to their tour.
While I haven’t seen the “Die Derren” cast, the play, as performed by the Cappiello and Huen, is self- contained and powerful. Jacobson’s writing is rich and funny; at times he waxes sharply political, as when he offers his take on “Americans abroad,” or portrays how the world’s perception of a dominant America is fading. Elsewhere, his writing crafts a melancholy statement on mortality and the frailty of age, so poignant when observed in one’s own parents. It’s especially artful how the narrative transitions from a conventional story about a family trip to a barbed exchange laden with resentment and then to something larger, sadder, and more tragically involving.
Director Roderick Menzies’ tightly controlled but intimate staging proceeds in a series of blackout scenes, as Cappiello drags his increasingly exhausted parents and his lover on the European tour of his own devising. The stops on the tour are personified by supporting performer Will Bradley’s adroitly varied turns as the denizens of Britain, France, and Germany, who gradually become more and more hostile to Americans. Bradley is particularly memorable as a mean Paris waiter who refuses to serve the family, and later as a brutish punk in Berlin who might be Mildred’s distant cousin.
As the tightly wound Schiller, Cappiello skillfully devolves from a highly competent professional to (like so many of us) a whiny teenager in the presence of his parents. Huen is also really engaging as his lover — and even Schiller’s parents seem to like him more than they like their own son.
But it’s the deft, increasingly subtle performances by Martin and James that anchor the show. Their transitions from loud Americans to wise elderly people is both ridiculous and profound. James has the knack of appearing to smile when her character is clearly unhappy or removed, which makes her fascinating to watch. Martin draws a beautiful portrait of a man who knows he has outlived his own usefulness, but has to keep going, regrets and all. (Paul Birchall)
THE DEVIL'S WIFE
Los Angeles Times 2017
It wouldn’t be the first time a reckless marriage led straight to hell. Rarely, however, has a spouse — however demonic — turned out to be literally Satan. Which somewhat raises the stakes for three sisters hoping a mysterious suitor will rescue them from desperate financial straits in “The Devil’s Wife” at the Skylight Theatre.
Loosely adapted from an ancient Italian folk tale, prolific local playwright Tom Jacobson’s delightfully creepy new postmodern fable makes an entertaining and thought-provoking debut, despite piling on a few more layers of self-aware metaphysics than its spare mythic underpinnings can ideally support.
Director Eric Hoff situates the story in an ambiguous but vaguely Spanish-American Gothic setting that stylishly befits Jacobson’s whimsical mash-up of fairy-tale tropes and modern sensibilities. As in the original legend, the Prince of Darkness (Everette Wallin) successively woos three sisters in the guise of Nicolas Mastema, a wealthy, suavely seductive lawyer who promises to salvage their endangered family estate if one of them will marry him.
The only catch: His bride must never open the door to his cellar, which reportedly offers that which each visitor most desires. Oh, and there’s a curious business involving a wooden staff bequeathed by the sisters’ late father that Nicolas seems way too eager to acquire.
Naturally, the temptation to cross the forbidden threshold proves impossible to resist, first for the beautiful but haughtily insecure Bonita (Mariel Neto), then for the sweet-tempered sexpot, Dulce (Alana Dietze). It’s left to the brainy Sofia (Caro Zeller) to try to outwit Nicolas with a strategy that ultimately pits heaven against hell.
The sisters’ strong personalities and motives are clearly represented, though the characters rarely venture beyond their broadly sketched archetypes. In the more nuanced central performance, Wallin invests the charmingly devilish Nicolas with unexpected romantic longing and existential depth, while also bringing pitch-perfect comic timing to his secondary role as Mastema’s stooped, bearded servant (whose knowing smirk conceals yet another secret identity).
Jacobson’s signature intelligence and wit are never in short supply, and running a little more than an hour the play elegantly poses an ever-deepening volley of sophisticated theological and philosophical questions.
The dialogue’s stylized, idiosyncratic flourishes — in particular, a heightened contemporary spin on the story’s underlying subtext of female empowerment — don’t always mesh with the framing conceit of a traditional folk tale whose individual contours have been burnished away through countless retellings.
Nevertheless, “The Devil’s Wife” is a smart, satisfying thrill ride with a unique supernaturally tinged caution against depending on the kindness of strangers. (Philip Brandes)
House of the Rising Son
Los Angeles Times 2011
It's no coincidence that Tom Jacobson's “House of the Rising Son” at the Atwater Village Theatre is set primarily in New Orleans during the annual Tennessee Williams Festival. It's a play that Williams himself might have penned if not for the homophobic strictures of his day.
A generational saga, “House” bristles with the same kind of self-loathing secretiveness that forced Williams to cloak his homosexual themes in myth and metaphor. But that covert quality is balanced by an emotional openness and poignant pride reminiscent of Terrence McNally's “Love! Valour! Compassion!” All this, with plenty of laughs.
This world premiere, produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles, showcases the prolific Jacobson at his witty yet heartfelt best. (Another Jacobson world premiere, Circle X's production of “The Chinese Massacre (Annotated),” runs concurrently in the adjacent theater.)
To say much about the plot would spoil its genuinely shocking twists. The action centers around parasitologist Dr. Trent Varro (Paul Witten) who falls for young Felix (Steve Coombs) and brings him to New Orleans to meet his wealthy relatives, the courtly but distant Garrett (Patrick John Hurley) and the apparently homophobic Bowen (Rod Menzies, double cast with Nicholas Hormann.)
Richard Hoover's evocatively decaying set, Jeremy Pivnick's spooky lighting, and Bruno Louchouarn's original music and sound give this New Orleans mansion the feel of a haunted house, which in a very real sense it is. The cast is superb, particularly Menzies as the savagely sardonic Bowen, whose offbeat aphorisms garner the biggest laughs of the show. As for director Michael Michetti, he's the perfect guide for Jacobson's carnival fun “House” of a play -– and a ghostly, entertaining tour it is.
The Twentieth-Century Way
Back Stage West 2010
Playwright Tom Jacobson is known for tackling challenging themes, and his latest effort recounting a scandalous little-known chapter in Southern California history—is among his boldest. Not content to merely relate a fascinating milestone in gay-rights travails, Jacobson sets the stage for two versatile actors to explore multilayered ruminations on sexual identity, institutional corruption, the conscience of civil servants carrying out questionable duties, the mysteries of the acting craft, and more. Director Michael Michetti and first-rate actors Will Bradley and Robert Mammana take us on an illuminating theatrical adventure not likely to be forgotten.
During summer 1914, the city of Long Beach enlisted two actors, W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown, as "vice specialists" to go into public restrooms and other places in attempts to entice gay men toward sexual acts, then arrest them. These were the first recorded incidents in the U.S. of police entrapment of gays, setting the stage for myriad gay-rights violations in the 20th century and beyond. Jacobson's intriguing script shrewdly mixes historical fact and fictionalization.
The inventive play-within-a-play structure begins with two present-day actors meeting in a theater, ostensibly to audition for a film role as a con artist, circa 1914. The competitive actors instantly commence an edgy interchange. The forceful and ruggedly handsome elder actor (Mammana) convinces the reluctant pretty-boy thespian (Bradley) to engage in a series of improvisations. The dicey subject matter is the Long Beach entrapment campaign of 1914. By making split-second shifts in costume accessories, Bradley plays the entrapment agent Brown, the Long Beach police chief, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, an attorney, and an entrapment victim—a middle-aged Scottish druggist. Making similar instantaneous changes, Mammana portrays the entrapment agent Warren, the editor of the Sacramento Bee, a Minnesota florist, a gay party boy, a Long Beach police officer, a district attorney, and a housewife. On a purely technical level, the actors give virtuoso performances, mastering an astonishing range of characters apiece. Beyond that, their intelligent interpretation of Jacobson's text expertly serves the complexity of the piece, eliciting laugher, shocks, chills, and endless food for thought. The play takes a startling turn at the end, bringing Jacobson's central themes of role-playing, self-deception, and moral responsibility to a shattering conclusion.
The Friendly Hour
Daily Variety 2008
Playwright Tom Jacobson seems to challenge himself with each new project, from the ambitious interconnectivity of the two parts of "Ouroboros" to the giddy rewrite of famous literature in "Bunbury." On the surface, his latest play, "The Friendly Hour," may not seem stylistically in line with his other work, but it is its audacity is simply more quiet. It is a moving and funny piece, and the performances by a quintet of skilled actresses makes the play sing with jubilant, complicated life.
Jacobson's intriguing play structure, which tells the story entirely through meetings of a club, seeks to let the passage of life over seven decades provide the drama. This is more effective in the second act, in which characters grow old and die; the meetings in the first act run together without enough of a sense of progress or differentiation. Jacobsons' dialogue, however, and the cast are so good that this is essentially a quibble.
In 1934 South Dakota a group of young wives have formed a club called the Friendly Hour. Its an opportunity to see their friends, raise money for good causes and, always, to have a tasty lunch. Book lover Dorcas (Ann Noble) nominates her friend Effie (Kate Mines) for president, a decision shell regret over the next 70 years as the two regularly clash. The teasingly scatological Opal (Deana Barone) becomes treasurer, the German-accented Isabelle (Bettina Zacar) concentrates largely on cooking, and Dorcas ever-cheerful sister Wava (Mara Marini) keeps her sorrows to herself.
Noble is delightful as Dorcas, bringing brash humor and charm to the role and doing full justice to more dramatic moments as well. Mines is strong as the controlling and conservative Effie, whose bossy nature is undercut by interludes of hiding in closets due to fear or embarrassment. Mines inhabits this character fully. When Dorcas and Effie become great friends again toward the end of their lives, after all of the bad blood between them has passed, wer'e glad to see it thanks to the power of her perf.
Barone is superb as peacemaker Opal, strikingly different as the older version of the character but completely believable throughout. Marini is very good as Wava, a character underwritten compared with the other three. Zacar displays admirable versatility with multiple small roles, succeeding best as the sweet if somewhat dim Elvira.
Director Mark Bringelson keeps the pacing swift and the dense series of events clear, but his choice to have the characters regularly walk behind the audience to change costumes is unnecessarily distracting. Desma Murphys wooden home framework set creates a properly farm country ambiance, bolstered by Lisa D. Burkes nicely wrought array of homespun outfits that get fancier as the years go by. Costumes, Lisa D. Burke; lighting, Derrick McDaniel; sound, Christopher Moscatiello; production stage manager, Maurie Gonzalez. Opened, reviewed Sept. 12, 2008. Runs through Nov. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN (TerryMorgan)
Back Stage West 2005
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon Moncrieffhas invented an imaginary invalid named Bunbury so he may "go down into the country whenever I choose," but in the fantasticalworld of Tom Jacobson, a place where distinguished literature and literary genres reign supreme, there is a Bunbury; the only problem is that he has no idea he's fictional. As Jacobson's astonishinglybright new play opens, Bunbury (played with passion and elegance by Sean Wing) ponders the love interest of Shakespeare's Romeo before he went to that darned ball. "If he had kept mooning over Rosaline, he'd be alive today," but alas, Rosaline is only a plot device, never appearing onstage. "She's less than fiction," he argues. "She's sub-fictional." Soon a young ladyin Renaissance garb speaking in iambic pentameter (Ann Noble) arrives unannounced--and boy, is she pissed. Rosaline convincesBunbury she's more than just a "few drops of ink" and together they journey back to save the classic lovers right in their tomb, inadvertently changing the course ofall literature in the process. Back in Earnest-land, Cecily (Stephanie Stearns) prophetically surmises of Romeo and Juliet's permanently altered ending, "Why, if they'ddied, half the marriages in theworld would end."
Traveling from Poe's The Raven to visits with Streetcar's Blanche and Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, Bunbury realizes what they've done. "This newliterature," he wails, "where's the pity? Where's the fear?" They set about on a mission to correct their correction and for Bunbury to prove that even if he is fictional, he's not a trivial character, nor is anyone else in the world. How he and Rosaline's efforts play out--if you'll excuse the expression--is the stuff of which classic theatre is made: both extraordinarily clever yet ultimately touching and incredibly moving.
Jacobson's latest play is his most magnificent to date and here it's gorgeously mounted, acted and designed, featuring uniformly excellent and most committed performances and sharply visual staging by director Mark Bringelson. Still, the star of this production is the remarkable Mr. Jacobson. As Bunbury and Rosaline sweep through time and literature, his audience's collective imagination is also swept up in ways in which the world can change. A hundred years from now, people finding complex and ingeniously twisted great works of art could easily find it to be quite "Jacobsonian." (Travis Michael Holder)
LA Weekly 2004
When it comes to showing us the way, political theater is about as dead as political discourse in this country. On the campaign trail, we watch and hear the prevalence of smears, mangled logic, lies, hysteria and rage in the place of openhearted discussion. Slogans may tidily sum up fury, but they dont actually penetrate an idea. Strong leadership. Flip-flop. Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot. In this polarized nation, the hecklers have seized the day, leading the way to a greater understanding of absolutely nothing.
A recent, telling example appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times shortly after the Republican National Convention. Blowhard columnist William Safire, seeking to prove that both God and the American people are on his side, argued that the presidents 11-point lead in the then latest Newsweek poll demonstrated that, contrary to the whining of thumb-sucking liberals, the nation is not polarized at all, that the larger wisdom of the Republican agenda made itself apparent in the swing states, and that Democrats should now wipe the snot off their noses and retire to their corner. It was, as usual, an exercise in derision passing for discussion. Three days later, eminent pollster John Zogby confirmed that, in light of so many voters not being home over the Labor Day weekend, the presidents 11-point upward bounce was actually a mirage, that, as of September 14, the presidential horserace remains neck-and-neck. Safires premise was, as usual for Safire, planted in marshmallow goop.
Yes, this is a conflicted nation in which one camp is shouting at but not speaking to the other. As a character in Federico Fellinis last film points out to the noisy people around him, as he pokes his head into a wishing well, If youd all just stop talking for a moment, we might actually understand something.
In the theater, little Bushes are springing up on stages all over the map. Locally, you can find the U.S. president in plays at Evidence Room in Homewrecker, and at Sacred Fools in Dubya 2004. Hes also been sighted recently at Hollywoods MET Theater, Actors Gang Theater and, some time ago, at Santa Monicas City Garage. Not surprisingly, in New York Tony Kushner incarnated him last month for a work in progress (Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy). And in London, David Hares Stuff Happens and Tim Robbins Embedded feature our incumbent as a central player. In none of these plays does Mr. Bush appear even remotely sympathetic or halfway intelligent. And though it may be deeply satisfying to vent ones frustration through art, the half-truth conclusion Hes an idiot is not a signpost on any road to wisdom.
Enter Tom Jacobson, among our city's most brilliant dramatists. His new play, Ouroboros a reference to the circularity of a snake eating its own tail at Road Theater Company, is a political play in the abstract, a theological one in the concrete. If youre swimming in the sewage of the current election, Ouroboros must be seen for the way it floats above histrionic political cesspits, offering the wisdom and beauty of a broader view of whats in our control and what isnt. Ouroboros is a heady play, but eerily emotional at the same time. Its political only to the extent that its core elements, religion and spirituality, are playing such a pivotal role in current American politics.
As a backdrop, Jacobson takes us to the art and architecture of Medieval and Renaissance Italy, with its angels and devils and ghoulish Byzantine influences that are really the source material for the good-versus-evil mentality of our pop culture and, of course, our current White House administration. The contemporary characters, however Americans abroad are trying to find moral nuances in their own bad behaviors against this militantly harsh canvas. As in Jacobson's play, Sperm, presented last year by Circle X Theater Company, Ouroboros (which is considerably more audience friendly), is about the American Character and, like Sperm, is set on foreign shores. Sperm studied an American whaler/con artist who stumbled into the French Revolution. Ouroboros looks at two unrelated modern American couples, refugees touring Italy in order to find some relief from the spiritual malaise of home. Its as though Jacobson sees Europe as a beacon with some imaginary statue calling to America, Give us your tired, your confused, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
A woman named Catherine (Shauna Bloom) gazes into the mummified head of her namesake, St. Catherine, and, losing her mind (as she does routinely on antidepressants), sees a reflection of herself. In a further underscoring of the plays theological impulses, another of the characters, Margaret (Taylor Gilbert) is an Episcopalian postulate nun who literally lost her singing voice after observing the death of a friend from AIDS; in her friends final moments, she says, he claimed to have seen heaven, and in it Gods throne vacant. Her five-city trip, accompanied by a gay choir director named Tor (Paul Witten), is a pilgrimage to Milan where perhaps the opera at La Scala will trigger the return of her singing voice.
The man with whom Margaret winds up having an adulterous affair, Philip (K.C. Marsh), is a guilt-ridden Lutheran minister from Chicago, accompanied by Catherine, his mentally unstable wife, whos unable to bear children and has just been turned down for adoption. (Shes in Italy to study enamels.) Christ puts in an appearance (Josh Gordon, in one of 12 quick-change roles) as the devil in disguise. Themes of sin, sacrifice, guilt and redemption adorn the play.
Jacobson's works are both erudite and very, very clever a cleverness that can sometimes be his undoing, their being more clever than soulful. Hes our local Tom Stoppard but with a penchant for surrealism.
Jacobsons cleverest trick is to snag his couples in a twilight-zone time glitch. In their five-city tour from Rome to Milan, Margaret and Tor keeping bumping into Catherine and Philip, who at first, mysteriously, seem to know far too much about them. In Scene 1, Philip keeps referring confessing to an affair hes had with astonished Margaret, who insists shes never seen him in her life. This is because, in a metaphysical quirk, Catherine and Philip are actually traveling in the opposite direction as Margaret and Tor from Milan to Rome. By the time Margaret and Tor get to Milan in Scene 5, they meet Catherine and Philip as theyre just starting their Italian adventure stunned that Margaret and Tor know so much about them the inverse of Scene 1. For the audience, the resolution of this perfectly symmetrical play of opposites and inversions comes in the middle Scene 3 (Florence) where both couples temporarily occupy the same time zone.
Meanwhile, Jacobson keeps toying with opposites. At the end of Scene 1, in a labyrinth vault, the ground swallows up Philip, while his deranged wife is left scraping at concrete with her fingernails trying to find him. When we get to Scene 5, argaret leaps from a banister and floats above Milan. At play's start, Philip (at the end of his journey) begs Margaret not to go to Milan. In Scene 5, Margaret, at the end of her journey, makes precisely the opposite appeal, that Philip must see Rome.
None of this is letting the cat out of any bag: The subtitle of the play that follows Margaret and Tor from Rome to Milan is called A Nun's Tale. On alternate weekends, Ouroboros is played with the scenes inverted, subtitled A Priest's Tale, following Catherine and Philip from Milan to Rome. So one way or another, one play or another, you're going to know at least one of the endings after the first scene. This isn't a drama about suspense, its a mystery about balance. As Catherine points out in a Florence cathedral, Notice the symmetry of the four large devils, north, south, east and west. Ive forgotten their names, probably Asmodeus, Beelzebub but the interesting thing is the symmetry. Structure meets theme in Jacobson's play. Its like watching a fresco by Raphael come to life.
Michael Michetti's tender direction accents the actors cheerfully wry intelligence of the actors that floats over and then dips into their agonies. When Bloom's Catherine collapses with an emotional seizure in Siena after viewing St. Catherine's mummified head, Marshs kindly desperate Philip tries to calm her by having her pray. "Good," he says. "Jesus will be here with you while I go get a cab. Then well go back to the hotel and watch CNN." This is Philip's unwittingly ludicrous version of comfort: that network news will provide a happy escape from the harsher realities of Medieval relics.
Desma Murphy's multilevel Byzantine set, with its suggestions of arches and a nave ceiling, plays beautifully with Jeremy Pivnick's cinematic lighting design and David B. Marling's seductively haunting neo-Gregorian sound transitions.
When political conversation fails to converse, the arts drift toward theology for some comprehension of what, on Earth, were doing. The nihilistic Dada art movement was born from the chaos of World War I. The Theater of the Absurd emerged from the paralyzing terror of the atomic bomb movements that openly questioned the capacities of reason and language when God's throne sits so evidently vacant.
Ouroboros, however, skirts nihilism, existentialism and postmodernism. It's as comforting as a priest who believes. The play is back there with Galileo, looking with wonder at the paths of the stars and relishing the beauty of the trails they reveal. The play screams from inside out, and outside in, that the shape of things is orderly and symmetrical, that there really is a Guiding Hand. As theological dramas go, it's about as optimistic as any contemporary playwright can reasonably get away with. In the stench of an election year, its perspective is as fresh as an ocean breeze. (Steve Mikulan)
LA Times 2004
In a refreshingly original and imaginative debut staging from Circle X Theatre Company, Tom Jacobson's "Sperm" combines the literary DNA of 18th century French drama with postmodern irony to spawn a whale of a tale (literally the title refers to the species of leviathans that have loomed large in symbolic portent since Jonah's night sea journey).
History, mythology, poetry and scatological puns collide with dazzling ingenuity in Jacobson's quirky seriocomic gem, composed entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter. Clearly billed as an "adaptation" of a supposed subversive historical text ("Cachalot" by Jacques Miroir), "Sperm" explores the twilight of the French monarchy as it tries to stem the rising tide of republicanism among the populace. Amid the intrigues at pre-revolutionary Versailles arrives Richard (Joel McHale), a fair-spoken American seaman who accepts a royal invitation to instruct the French in the ways of whaling.
This Nantucket Yankee in King Louis' court comes bearing more than fish stories he also introduces contagious American ideas of democracy and equality, along with a mystical awareness of the animate spirits of hunted animals. These radical concepts are invigorating to the intellectually curious Louis XVI (Jim Anzide) but threatening to the more politically savvy Marie Antoinette (Michaela Watkins) and her scheming allies of convenience, the decadent Duc de Coigny (Casey Smith) and the corrupt abbess, Sister Louise (Sarah Hartmann).
Although Richard starts out as a political pawn, he confounds everyone (including the audience) by getting swallowed by a whale and mutating into a new life form after his rescue. Imbued with the spirit of the slaughtered whale, he uses his newfound magical powers to exact revenge on the human race. In the complex view of "Cachalot's" anonymous author, the need for social reform was urgent, yet the democracy we now revere seemed a force of anarchy, threatening the extinction of the human race.
This odd tale is a perfect fit for the Circle X troupe's signature offbeat sensibilities. In this inventive staging by Tara Flynn and Tim Wright (their first as the company's new artistic directors), even apocalyptic forebodings are tossed off with breezy wit. When King Louis recounts his prescient nightmare about being devoured and beheaded by wild animals, Marie Antoinette quips: "No wonder you could not get back to bed / A pillow's not much good for just a head!" (Philip Brandes, Special to The Times)