‘Hybrid’ Actor Crafts ‘Everyman’ Show


Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?

Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a “hybrid” — the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father — is directing, choreographing and co-producing “Everyman for Himself.” Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.

Shaped by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would “float into different communities and never really fit into any of them.” As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, “you’d be in a room and nobody sees you.”

Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.

“Go with the flow,” is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.

None of Kaplan’s characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.

In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin “genius/fool”; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.

“People are essentially primal anyway,” says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors’ rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, “We’re all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up.”

We share more than not, she says, pointing out “the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together — sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing.”

Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: “The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one’s playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks.”

One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop — whether it’s a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to “Othello”) — becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.

Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.

“What he’s going through is the human condition,” says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.

As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.

“Everyman for Himself” plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.

 

Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’


When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.

“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”

Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.

“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”

The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”

That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.

Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.

When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.

In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.

“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”

Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”

“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”

“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.

Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.

The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.

When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”

Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.

“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”

The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.

“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”

Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.

“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”

This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”

“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com¬†or call (323) 308-6363.

Black (and Jewish) Is Beautiful


Rain Pryor solemnly chants the "Kol Nidre" as the spotlight reveals her silhouette — wearing a hilariously oversized Afro wig.

"What’s the big deal if I’m black and a Jew?" she says.

She answers the question in her irreverent solo show, "Fried Chicken & Latkas," which describes her tortuous journey toward self-acceptance. Pryor — the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor — virtuostically transforms into characters such as her great-grandmother, a brothel madam who taught her to tame her "in-between hair" and to cook fried chicken. Adopting a Brooklyn accent she becomes Bunny, her Jewish maternal grandmother, who taught her to speak Yiddish, light Shabbat candles, make brisket and, of course, latkes.

The singer-actress also morphs into the first-grade teacher who said she couldn’t play the lead in the school play because "there are no black Raggedy Anns."

"I cried for days after that," Pryor, 34, said in her Canon Theatre dressing room.

She’s had to deal with the same frustrations as an adult actress, which is one reason she’s developed "Fried Chicken." At a time when autobiographical monologues can launch actors to stardom (think John Leguizamo and "Sexaholic"), she’s hoping to showcase her unique talents and prove she’s capable of more than the TV roles for which she’s best known.

Her strategy seems to be working. Pryor — who played a junkie lesbian on Showtime’s "Rude Awakening" — moves "Chicken" to the Comedy Store next month.

"I’m hoping the show will help people see me for who I am," she said.

Her background is singular. Her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a go-go dancer and her father was a wild new comic when they met at Los Angeles’ Stardust club in 1965. Thereafter, the enthused Bonus donned a blonde Afro wig and turned her apartment into an "African Heritage Museum," according to her daughter. In the play, Bunny describes her shock upon entering the apartment and seeing "a black velvet Jesus nailed to the cross; I think I even saw his eyes glowing."

Pryor believes neither side of the family was initially thrilled when the couple married in 1968: "At the time, it was hard to explain an interracial marriage, let alone a biracial child," she said.

It didn’t help that, after separating from her husband in the late 1960s, Bonus moved her daughter to Beverly Hills for the superior school system.

"It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet crosses were burned on our lawn," Pryor said. "At school, children said, ‘You’re a n—-.’ But on my father’s side of the family, ‘n—-‘ was a term of endearment, so while I didn’t like the word, I was also called it when I visited my dad’s house."

While Pryor saw her father only sporadically when she was a child ("He was busy being a genius," she said), she was riveted by his revolutionary, expletive-filled act. "I’d share it in show and tell," she said. "The teacher would say, ‘What did you learn this weekend,’ and I’d say, ‘I learned to say m———-!’ and I’d get in so much trouble." Equally confusing was her stint at a Reform Hebrew school where classmates told her there were no such thing as black Jews.

"Because it was so hard for me to be accepted into Judaism, I pushed it away," she said.

Pryor took solace in her acting and dancing lessons.

"Performing allowed me to escape into someone else’s world," she said.

By age 18, she was playing tomboy T.J. in ABC’s "Head of the Class"; within a few years, her identity crisis had caused her to descend into alcoholism and a series of abusive relationships.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that she got sober, read a slew of self-help books, engaged a therapist and took a counseling job at Beit T’Shuvah, the program for recovering Jewish addicts.

"I have to credit [the program’s] Rabbi Mark Borovitz for allowing me to feel Jewish for the first time, and really opening up that world," she said. "I started to study the Tanach and to learn the songs of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach. For a time, I thought I would become a cantor."

Instead, she began writing a series of autobiographical songs and sketches that became "Fried Chicken & Latkas."

While she was initially nervous about her family’s response, relatives on both sides said they loved the show. She’s performed parts of it for her father, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1991 and is now completely paralyzed.

Grandma Bunny called the show "beautiful. I’ve seen Rain perform before, but this was like she came out of her shell and she was Rain, her own self."

Although Pryor culturally identifies as black and Jewish, Judaism is her religion. She has been married for a year to a Catholic man who hopes to convert and to raise their children Jewish. In the meantime, "Fried Chicken" has helped her integrate her diverse identities.

As she says at the end of the show: "I’ve come to love my family and my heritage."

"Fried Chicken" plays at the Canon Theatre Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 17. For tickets, call (310) 859-2830.

Banned in Berlin


Who says you have to be Jewish to write a play about the Holocaust? Certainly not John O’Keefe, author of the upcoming "Times Like These," which takes place in Hitler’s Berlin from 1934-1938. The plot focuses on how the life of intermarried actors changes when the wife is suddenly banned from the stage because she is Jewish. On the surface, the play, which is written with sensitivity, is a Holocaust piece and a love story; however, it encompasses what O’Keefe feels is a cycle of blame that has repeated itself in various incarnations throughout history. This time, Judaism just happened to be the target.

The two-person play, which premiered last March at the Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma under the title "Crystal Night," is the veteran playwright’s second of three productions focusing on this era. All three works deal with the concept of seduction and what happens when one’s freedoms are taken away.

The author said the common thread in all three stories is his own fascination with the period. "It has to do with resonances Americans and Europeans should be aware of in times like these — especially in times like now," said O’Keefe, alluding to the issues the United States has confronted in the last year, including terrorism and war.

The story in "Times Like These" is loosely based on the life of Joachim Gottschalk, one of Germany’s most popular film actors who was increasingly ostracized because his wife was Jewish. The 62-year-old O’Keefe also borrowed relationship dynamics and themes from literature and biographies to develop his characters. The San Francisco-based writer uses the couple’s relationship as a metaphor for the changes happening in Berlin. While a new dictatorship takes over the outside world, there is a parallel in the struggles of actress Meta Wolff (played by Laurie O’Brien) and her less-talented actor husband, Oskar Weiss (played by Norbert Weisser).

Meta, Jewish by birth, was raised Protestant, but must confront her Jewishness when the realities of the war affect her safety and her relationship with her Aryan husband. When the Third Reich begins to alter a production of "Hamlet" to filter propaganda, Meta is able to, in a sense, "fight the power" by satirizing the Nazi regime. Using sly acting tips and suggestions, Meta, as the play’s director, is able to poke fun at the Nazis with help from Oskar, who has the starring role in the odd version of the Shakespeare play.

O’Keefe said that the issues explored in "Times Like These" have remained current since the era of the Holocaust. "That period of time has not really stopped and the effect has continued to 2002," said the author. "I think it’s important to understand that it was the Jews [who were targeted] during that period and it could be anybody the next period. It just depends who the scapegoat is. We must have a catastrophe, we must have someone to blame and we must frighten people in that country. It’s an ancient and prehistoric premise."

While O’Keefe said that these horrific events are simply part of a larger pattern, he is clearly sensitive to the plight of the Jews. "I think that we all must be conscious of the Holocaust — and there have been subsequent Holocausts." As O’Keefe is an honorary Jew of sorts ("Fifty percent of the people I know in theater are Jewish. One of my Jewish friends wants to bar mitzvah me!"), like Meta, he had a tendency to ignore religious differences, until, like his heroine, he had a reason to explore the topic.

The writer’s first Holocaust-era play, "Glamour," was inspired by the eerie historic events that occurred when Robert Graves ("I, Claudius") and the notorious Laura Riding fled Europe to stay with Schuyler Jackson in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. O’Keefe has written over 40 plays and won three Bay Area Critic’s Circle Awards, six Drama-Logue awards and two L.A. Weekly Awards, among other theatrical accolades.

Through the relatability of his characters, O’Keefe successfully illustrates how people can be easily seduced by propaganda. "Rather than using the paradigm of marching armies, I used the paradigm of personal relationships so we can understand personally how people become fascists," he said. "It’s a microcosmic way of looking at how individuals insert themselves into situations."

"Times Like These" will run Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 16 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. There is wheelchair access and free parking. For more information, call (323) 692-2652.

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