Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beautified

L to R: Rob Browstein, Karen Austin, and Joanna Strapp.  Photo by Ed Krieger.
presented by Katselas Theatre Company

review by Andrew Moore

We follow the friendship of Mike, a hair stylist, and Candy, one of his clients, over four decades of marriage, divorce, denial, self-honesty, addiction, sickness, grief, and personal triumphs.  What emerges is a eulogy for a certain type of person: a contradiction in terms defined by both his excesses and his devotion to others.  It is a lovingly rendered work that largely succeeds in spite of a few issues.

Tony Abatemarco plays with the theatrical form, breaking the fourth wall, allowing the booth to interject.  In one instance Candy says "Mike and I socialized one time ..." only to be immediately corrected by Mike who yells from backstage, "Twice!"  This informality conveys a sense of the beauty parlor rapport that Mike and Candy share.  Their voices are distinct, and we see their evolution as people as the play whisks us from 1969 to the present day.

Jeff McLaughlin's utilitarian set stands in ably for each decade with only minor changes in hairstyle portraits and a shuffling of magazines.  Allison Leach takes advantage of changing fashion to plant us in time, and she has way too much fun with Mike's togs.  Diane Matinous deserves some sort of special award for what can only be described as virtuoso wig wrangling.  The design work overall is very clean and consistent.  But there is one design component that really struck me.

The sound design (Martin Carrillo) is incredible.  The sound cue that takes us back to 1969 is a glorious mash-up of music and historic quotes that transport us to the time.  The transition from interstitial music over the speakers to in-scene music over a tiny clock radio is a very effective technique that puts us into each scene.  Even the phone rings from the phone's actual physical location in space.  Grounding us with such reality helps us track as the play whisks us from dialogue scenes to fourth-wall breaking monologues.

The cast latches tight onto the emotional lives of these characters and wring them for every drop.  They veer close to emotive excess at times, yet remain on the whole sympathetic and relatable.  Their evolution over time works, and I feel that we do "get to know" them over the course of the show.  Perhaps we don't get to know Rob Brownstein's Mike as well as Karen Austin's Candy, but that is rather the point of the play, I think.  Joanna Strapp is delightful as Sally.

I have a few specific issues.  Although the writer and director came up with clever staging solutions to work around the fact that you can't wash and cut an actor's hair in every scene every night, Mike is lacking a certain technical specificity as a hair stylist.  To wit (and perhaps the easiest "in" to fix this), he doesn't handle Candy's hair with the confidence and certainty of a professional stylist.  Handling another human being's hair can be intimate -- I marvel that people make a living of literally running their fingers through a stranger's hair! 

The blocking is at times aimless, seeming to grow out of directorial whim rather than the characters' immediate needs.  Candy's first entrance into the shop, for instance, as she floats at random around the shop, in contradiction to the numbness, the fresh trauma that is being expressed.  There needs to be more specificity in the blocking.

The age of the actors makes it a bit difficult to buy the age of their characters, particularly in the first couple of dialogue scenes.  This may fall under the category of "get over it" or in technical terms "willful suspension of disbelief," but it is what it is, and it works against them. 

There is a line and an action towards the end of the play that seems to indicate an impending end to the story, yet there is still more play to unfold.  Candy says "one day the old dog doesn't get up" and at that moment Mike stands and exits.  The dialectical action of text and movement in this moment communicates "Mike is dead."  Granted (and spoiler alert) this may be foreshadowing.  If that is the intent, it needs to be dialed back just a little bit, as it's a little too big a tip-off and feels like we're in the final moments of the play.

Finally, regarding the list at the end.  This is the payoff, but I think it is perhaps a little too dear to the playwright.  It could stand to be pared down.  The audience is ready to experience Candy's catharsis with her, but the moment is just a bit overwrought.  There must be a more elegant solution; a more economical way of conveying what Candy needs to say that also allows the audience to more fully share in the emotional climax.  It is a moment that I feel is earned, but doesn't quite arrive.

Regardless of these very specific things, Beautified is worth investing in.  It is a melancholy celebration of one man's life; a cool breeze of reflection that unfolds with a sweet free-verse telling.

Beautified goes up Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.  Tickets are $29, or $17.50 for students and seniors.  Reservations by phone: (702) 582-8587 or online:  www.ktctickets.com.

The Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 V. Vermont in Los Feliz. There is quite a bit of street parking in the area, but arrive early enough to find it.  That part of Los Feliz (near the Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Fred 62, etc.) gets a lot of traffic on weekend evenings.

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