Last week, three Pasadena theaters — A Noise Within, Boston Court and the Pasadena Playhouse — opened new productions, and all three plays deal with some terrifying incidents, factual and fictional. But don’t be scared. The frights are minimal and all of the productions have their merits.
The most accessible play of the three is A Noise Within’s revival of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” If you’re an ANW fan, you’ll want to see this because they intend to produce all 10 of Wilson’s American Century Cycle in chronological order and this is the first, taking place in 1904 — 40 years after slavery was technically abolished.
In the Pittsburgh Hill District (Pennsylvania started phasing out slavery in 1780), slavery exists in a different form through the employment practices of a mill, the main source of employment. A mill employee, Citizen Barlow (Evan Lewis Smith) desperately wants to speak with 85-year-old Aunt Ester (Veralyn Jones), spiritual adviser of the African-American community. All the action takes place in her home and will pit sister (Black Mary, played by Carolyn Ratteray) against brother (Caesar, played by Chuma Gault). The title refers to the name of the paper boat which will take Citizen on a journey to the City of Bones. Director Gregg T. Daniels beautifully conjures up this magical yet tragic trip against Stephane Kerley Schwartz’s lovely scenic design. Martin Carrillo’s sound design and original music suggest the ocean that we never actually see.
Going down the stairwell to the theater, Altadena-based photographer Ibarionex Perello’s exhibit “The Three-Fifths Project” tells us of the compromise that was written into the US Constitution, setting the stage and reminding us that the legacy of slavery continues. This exhibit continues throughout the play’s run.
Did you know there is a Japanese garden in Pasadena? Not the one at San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Museums and Botanical Gardens, but Storrier Stearns a Japanese Garden on Arlington Drive. For a short time, there has been another such garden, only mostly in the abstract, on the main stage at Boston Court for E.M. Lewis’ “How the Light Gets In.”
In a telephone conversation, the Oregon-based Lewis related that she began writing the play when she was in the midst of a health crisis, and during that time she was inspired by a Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon. The main character, Grace (Amy Sloan), is diagnosed with cancer and finds solace in her local Japanese garden. There she meets a homeless teenager, Kat (Chelsea Kurtz), and a Japanese architect, Haruki (Ryun Yu), who is commissioned to build a tea house. Kat sleeps in the garden on the sly and was saved by a tattoo artist, Tommy Z (Dieterich Gray). These four lonely people will make connections, but only when they allow the cracks in their perfect world to let the light in. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, “Anthem.”
Emilie Pascale Beck directs at a leisurely pace and Tesshi Nakagawa’s scenic design provides a mood-setting abstraction of a garden. At the end, you’ll want to either make or visit a Japanese garden and maybe even approach like-minded strangers.
The Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” about a plant that makes money for its skid row floral shop, but also needs human blood to stay healthy, has the wonderful Olivier Award-winning and former “Glee” star Amber Riley voicing the floral fiend, Audrey II.
Yet, the production suffers from a less than spook-tabular realization of the carnivorous plant via puppetry. Director Mike Donahue’s staging is, at times, static, even as the vocals soar (Mj Rodriguez of FX’s “Pose” and George Salazar portray Audrey and Seymour, respectively).
There are laughs when the initial plant puppet (designed by Sean Cawelti) is displayed. It is almost cute, but the later transition to the human-eating-sized creature lacks impact. On the other hand, your kiddies won’t be frightened off and this production is unlikely to inspire nightmares.
“How the Light Gets In” runs through Oct. 27 at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $5 to $39. Call (626) 683-6801 or visit BostonCourtPasadena.org.
“Gem of the Ocean” runs through Nov. 16 at the A Noise Within, 3342 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call (626) 356-3121 or visit anoisewithin.org.
“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through Oct. 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $159. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.