The Arts and Other Highfalutin' Stuff

Actors, troubadours, campfire singers, cowboy poets & purty pictures (Please don’t  shoot the piano player!)

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Best OC Playwright No Longer Living in OC
Johnna Adams
myspace.com/johnnaadams
Multiple winner of various OC Weekly awards and accolades, Adams has turned her back on California for the greener artistic pastures of the Big Apple. If her blogs are any indication, she has hit the Disneyfied Times Square concrete running: She attends numerous readings and plays; got a cool rejection letter from South Coast Repertory; has gone through the process of applying to New Dramatists; and has taken classes with playwrights as diverse as SCR-produced Christopher Shinn, Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel and avant-gardist Mac Wellman. She has also just started a new trilogy of plays. You can read about the process of an artist in development by making her your MySpace friend.

Best DIY Theater Program
Orange Coast College's Repertory
Orange Coast College
2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa
(714) 432-5072
www.orangecoastcollege.edu
Headed by brothers Alex and Rick Golson with David Scaglione and Cynthia Corley for more years than can actually be counted on two hands, all you need to do is simply plunk down the requisite unit fee, take the class and become totally immersed in the wonderful, back-breaking world of theater. Build a set with your bare hands and scavenged wood (plus a power tool or two)! Hang and gel lighting instruments! Direct a play—your choice! Edit sound! Learn how to operate a light or sound board! Costume actors in colorful retro clothing! Re-use props that have been part of hundreds of productions! Be privy to the myriad uses of flat black paint! Intimately understand the intricacies of running a snack bar! The Golsons and co. maintain just enough control to make things happen, but they allow their students to pass or fail on their own terms. Take the class enough times, and you'll know all you need to know to run a theater (Hunger Artists and Rude Guerrilla got their starts there).

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.

Best University Theater Program
UC Irvine
Campus and West Peltason drives, Irvine
(949) 824-6614
drama.arts.uci.edu/about.html
Theater doesn't get better than this talented staff of professionals, headed by newly appointed theater chairman Eli Simon. These aren't tired, dusty academics: These folks teach, choreograph, write books, create new plays, write theater criticism and theory, direct all over the world, and program a mind-bogglingly diverse season. Not the same old same old of some university theater programs, but rather a healthy mix of classics, premieres, comedies, dramas and musicals, directed by both the staff and the students. You can see work by Tennessee Williams, Stephen Sondheim, Charles Mee, Naomi Iizuka, Shakespeare, Jean Anouilh and Cole Porter.

Best Non-Theatrical Theater Company
The Maverick Theater
110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton
(714) 526-7070
www.mavericktheater.com
Maybe it's the drunken midnight karaoke on Saturdays, or the slinky femmes fatales gyrating to James Bond theme songs, or some fat fuck in a red suit squaring off with green Martians, or Stalag 17or A Few Good Men, or the unashamedly fan's-eye musical homage to Elvis, The King.Or maybe it's all of them. But the Maverick Theater in downtown Fullerton is the most un-theater theater in the county, trafficking in film and multimedia as much as Shakespeare and Neil Simon. Founder Brian Newell has opened up his two spaces—including his 1920s-speakeasy venue—to everyone and everything, from committed thespians and iconic light and set designers (hello, Jim Book!) to standup comedians and even the Fullerton Music Festival in September. If theaters want to remain relevant in an age of iPhones and high-def this and that, more should look at the model Newell and co. are building.

Best New Theater Troupe
The Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble
El Centro Cultural de Mexico
310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana
myspace.com/boft
This Santa Ana troupe is unabashedly political, talented and eager to look under rocks most people would prefer untouched, as proven by its inaugural production last year of The Mexican O.C.Culled from interviews with longtime OC residents, the piece was (and is) a triumphant blend of agitprop and studious oral history, anuncompromising examination of some of the more unsavory examples of the prejudice toward migrants that has existed in this county since long before Proposition 187 and amnesty marches. Most recently, the troupe staged 9ine Digits Away From My Dream,another oral-history project about undocumented students in the United States seeking college degrees.

Best Theatrical Hat Trick
Brian Kojac
Single and double threats are no strangers to local stages. Lots of thespian-leaning types can act, write, direct, run a theater or some combination thereof. But when it comes to keeping more balls in the air than anyone, you can't overlook the founder of OC's most established storefront theater, Stages. As a performer, he's capable of carrying shows as varied as Henry Vto the intentionally ridiculous Bullshot Crummond.He's as comfortable directing an antique murder-mystery as he is Jesus Christ Superstar. And some 12 years after he launched Stages in a grimy industrial park in Anaheim, and presiding over its move to a much more highly visible spot in downtown Fullerton, the theater is still very alive and very kicking.

Best Actor
Linda Gehringer
She's played the bad: the alcohol-guzzling hellion Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.She's played the good: the idealistic Helen Gahagan Douglas chopped into so much political mincemeat by an embryonic Tricky Dick in But Not for Me.But whether playing the whore or the saint, the accuser or accused, the victim or victimizer, Gehringer brings a grace, class and poise to her myriad characters that few actors can match. Gehringer, who lives in Laguna Beach, has been nominated for more OC Weekly Theater Awards than anyone, and she is one of the few two-time winners. She won in 1998 for Good as Newand in 2005 for perhaps her most stunning performance to date: SCR's Retreat From Moscow,in which she eloquently, acerbically and quite amusingly showed that even hectoring battle-axes are people, too. Oh, and consider this: Her great-uncle is Charlie Gehringer. Yes, that's right: Charlie Fucking Gehringer! You know? Major League Baseball Hall of Famer? Tried out for Ty Cobb? Suited up against Babe Ruth and alongside Hank Greenberg and Goose Goslin? Dominated the 1934 World Series in a losing effort? Probably could have found a cure for polio if he hadn't been so busy perfecting the sacrifice bunt?

Best Actor With an Asterisk
Jay Fraley
They may not get the living wages, the multigrain bagels or cases of Perrier like those privileged souls who perform on the county's few professional stages, but actors who exercise their craft on the county's storefront- and community-theater boards work just as hard—and some of them are just as talented. Case in point: Mr. Fraley. There's no other actor, union or otherwise, who's more versatile or watchable. The guy has created some of the most memorable performances in the history of Orange County's most continually interesting theater company, Rude Guerrilla. How versatile? He's played a gay Christ-like figure in Corpus Christi, and he's played Satan himself in The History of the Devil.But whether playing larger-than-life leading roles, Andy Warhol drag queens (Candy and Dorothy), psychotic medical experimenters (Cleansed),or leaders of ill-fated expeditions to the North Pole (Terra Nova),Fraley somehow manages to make all his characters achingly real. As sick, twisted, holy or profane as the role may be, Fraley imbues it with a convincing air of honesty, compassion and moral questioning.

Best Theatrical Institution
Hal Landon Jr.
Landon will always be associated with the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in South Coast Repertory's annual production of A Christmas Carol. He's played the guy for 27 straight years, and it's impossible to think of the show without Landon. But his non-Scrooge work at SCR proves Landon's great comic versatility. From small supporting parts (his poker-faced Piotr in Nothing Sacred and irascible Gravedigger in Hamlet) to leading roles (his unbelievably funny turn as cruelty incarnate in Play Strindberg), Landon is a master of subtlety and comic timing. The day he stops playing Scrooge will be a bummer; the day he stops acting will be a tragedy.

Best Dominatrix-Turned-Comedian
Norma Jean
myspace.com/normajeancomedy
Whether you're watching someone get kicked in the nuts or learn on national television that their spouse was having clown sex with obese circus midgets, other people's pain is universally entertaining. The sad reality is pain is funny. Humiliation is hilarious, and it's best when it's so funny it hurts. Costa Mesa resident and comedian Norma Jean Riddick is well-aware of these canons, and because of her BDSM background, she can cherry-pick from several egregious and provocative stories for her act. After a couple of failed marriages and enduring years of spousal abuse, the single mother unleashed her revenge on the male gender by becoming a professional dominatrix and whipping the undeserving pigs into submission. Although she gave up being a dominatrix, she's still a sadist onstage, so don't expect a safe word to protect your ego from her whip-like wit. Norma Jean regularly performs at venues in Pomona and Costa Mesa, and she plans a monthly show in Santa Ana. Through her company, Norma Jean Enterprises, she is currently pulling together a benefit show for Laura's House, a San Juan Capistrano shelter that helps female victims of domestic violence and their children.

Best Chance to See New Talent In Action
Directors Festival at Fullerton College
321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton
theatre.fullcoll.edu/festivals/dirsfest.shtml
At the end of every spring semester, Fullerton College sets aside four days for student and professional directors to tackle a diverse assortment of short plays. Limited to 50 minutes, a black box stage, a lighting instrument or two, and the director's imagination, the festival lets audiences see three or four plays a night for a few paltry bucks. Local critics and theater professionals critique the work and pick the finest to appear the fifth day in a Best of the Fest. All in all, it's a welcome bookend to the equally cool Playwrights Festival happening at the beginning of the semester.

Best Art Gallery for People Who Hate Art Galleries
Chuck Jones Gallery
131 W. Chapman Ave., Orange
(714) 516-9300
www.myspace.com/chuckjonesgallery
Cypress thrash-metal marauders Hirax have been inducing tinnitus and whiplash among their tenacious fans since 1984 (the whiplash results as much from the furious headbanging Hirax's music inspires as it does from watching the revolving-door membership of the band over the past 23 years). Led by one of the few African-Americans in the genre, vocalist Katon W. De Pena, Hirax follow in the bombastic, speed-demonic tradition of groups like Slayer, Metallica and Exodus. The current lineup includes De Pena, Lance Harrison (guitar), Glenn Rogers (guitar), Steve Harrison (bass) and Fabricio Ravelli (drums). By the time you reach the end of this piece, that lineup could be outdated.

Thick, thunderous and thwift, Hirax's music pummels and roils with apocalyptic intensity. Guitar solos scald and ululate like banshees, the bass is a perpetual blue-whale belch, the drums maniacally gallop and tattoo your ears like punch presses, and the vocals sound like the hoarse shouts of AC/DC's Bon Scott, if he'd eaten more raw meat during his tragically short, loud life. In this style of music, nearly every song strives to be a sonic facsimile of Armageddon. Hirax's versions of End Times just happen to be more convincing than most bands'. What's more, they record for Black Devil Records. Mercy!

Best Album of the Past 12 Months
The Willowz's Chautauqua
myspace.com/thewillowz
Anaheim quartet the Willowz—Richie James Follin (vocals/guitar), Loren Humphrey (drums), Jessica Reynoza (bass/vocals) and Aric Bohn (guitar/vocals)—formed in 2002 and shortly thereafter had a couple of their tunes on the soundtrack to director Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. Rolling Stone and Spin are on their jock, too, but don't hold that against the Willowz. Heady accomplishments and kudos for such a young band, but the Willowz haven't let that inflate their egos or force them to bland out. Instead, they've rampaged back with Chautauqua (Dim Mak), a brash refinement of the slashing, tuneful garage rock of 2004's Are Coming and 2005's Talk in Circles. The Willowz understandably draw a lot of White Stripes comparisons: Both groups embrace rock's pre-Summer of Love innocence and bare-bones raucousness while showing respect for its blues and R&B progenitors. Follin's vocals resemble Jack White's, but the former's are even higher and more dynamic than the ex-Detroit star's; that could be down to the Willowz's habit of having Reynoza sing in unison with or slightly behind Follin's lines. Together, they cohere into that sexy snarl Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema mastered so well in Royal Trux. Thankfully, Humphrey is a better drummer than Meg White.

In their earlier days, the Willowz busted a lot of familiar garage-rock moves, but did so with brash panache. The Willowz retain vestigial traces of that m.o., but they've clearly progressed, and in the process, they've positioned themselves as a unit destined to have a long, fruitful career—especially if Michel Gondry keeps making movies.

Readers' Choice: Robbers & Cowards, Cold War Kids

Best Record Collector
John Basil
John Basil has had more records pass through his hands than there are jobbed boobs in Southern California. Basil not only has owned several thousand of them (records, not boobs), but he has possessed thousands of the highest quality specimens, the likes of which have been envied by the wax-hoarding cognoscenti for decades. He currently owns about 3,000 vinyl recordings, but Basil figures that, at its peak, his collection topped 15,000. (He began accumulating records at age 12 in 1979.) His collection today is meticulously organized: library, sound effects/environmental/concept, soundtracks, rock (divided by country), American soul jazz/funk, 20th-century electronic, international, classical, spoken-word/incredibly strange. Other oddities include recordings about Buckminster Fuller, drugs, Walt Whitman's poetry, black American dialects—and ventriloquism. "Those are the most twisted," Basil says. "I like twisted."

Best Local Rock Band
Blank Blue
myspace.com/blankblue
Long Beach's Elvin Estela is moderately famous for being Nobody—the nom de musique under which he's released four albums (and a remix collection) of celestial soul-jazz-inflected hip-hop and honey-filtered psych pop. And now Estela has added yet another facet to his bejeweled musical output: Blank Blue. A collaboration between Estela and fellow Fingerprints Records employee and vocalist Niki Randa (along with a loose cast of friends including drummer Andres Renteria), Blank Blue expand Nobody's exploration of the underground '60s psychedelia of bands in which electronic experimentation factored as heavily as baroque melody. Blank Blue are still in their early developmental stages, but the songs they've finished so far possess a dreamy, baroque lushness—and a subtle funkiness. So, what's Blank Blue's debut going to sound like? "So far, every song is pretty distinct from one another," Estela says. "Some are really slow and murky, some are bright and beat-heavy. My friend Bill said it sounds like a sizzling sun. That made me happy. . . . It's the juxtaposition that keeps me going."

Readers' Choice: I Am Ghost

Best Cheap Concert Experience
The Parking Lot at Wild Rivers*
8770 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine
www.wildrivers.com
Seriously, who wants to get up at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, desperately log on to Ticketmaster in hopes of scoring a semi-decent seat for a concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, and even then, if you succeed, take the huge hit to your credit-card balance that shows cost nowadays? Forget all that jazz. For a mere 8 bucks—less than the "service charge" —you can park in the adjacent Wild Rivers parking lot and hear the bands loud and clear. One caveat is that this only works for day shows, as Wild Rivers closes at 8 p.m., but the opening acts are usually the most interesting bands anyway. And good news, cheapskates: Wild Rivers had its lease extended through next summer!

(*This practice not necessarily endorsed by Wild Rivers, but hey, it's extra parking revenue for them.)

Best Place to Remain Classy While Getting Aural
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
(714) 556-2787
The 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, an estimated $240 million expansion of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is a delirium-inducing cocktail of scale, architecture and acoustics. The three-tiered hall, which opened last year, was designed with aural pleasure in mind. It boasts an acoustic canopy, reverberation chambers and sound-sponging curtains to deaden certain frequencies from loudspeakers, when they are used. This world-class venue has already hosted renowned entertainers such as Placido Domingo and the American Ballet Theater, and it will likely continue to draw some of the most famous icons of highbrow entertainment for years to come.

Best Music Festival
Coachella
It's in the desert of Indio, but, nevertheless, Coachella has to win this category. Despite profound and manifold flaws, Coachella is the Taj Mahal of music festivals in Southern California. If you can tolerate nearly constant clusterfuck conditions; infernal heat; long waits for everything; and the chronic reek of horse manure, cigarette smoke, human b.o. and, uh, chronic, then Coachella's rewards will resonate with you for years. The organizers deliver strong, diverse lineups, especially for an event of this magnitude, with an enticing mix of mega-stars, cult favorites and promising newcomers. Even picky bastards can find plenty to like in any given hour during Coachella's three days of stimuli overload. Plus, the sound quality is generally very good for an outdoor venue. And if the music on the five stages ain't pushing your buttons, you can partake of the clever, eco-friendly visual-arts exhibits scattered around Empire Polo Field; sample overpriced cuisine of several ethnicities; engage in scintillating badinage with your fellow festival-goers; flirt and ogle; and take awesome photos for your MySpace/Facebook profiles. Coachella is one of those rare entertainments where you're likely to have the best and worst experiences of your life—several times over.

Best Outdoor Concert
Lexus Summer Concert Series at Pacific Amphitheatre
100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa
(714) 708-1870
www.ocfair.com/pacificamphitheatre.com
Concurrent with the Orange County Fair, the Lexus Summer Concert Series can't be beat when it comes to the band selection. Sure, it's no Coachella, but it lasts seven times longer, and that has to count for something. Like the fair itself, the Lexus Series has something for everyone, from top-notch legends such as Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, to hipster-enthused hard-rock band Queens of the Stone Age, to the mindless pop of Fergie. Is there any other stage in America this summer that has Heart booked to play the night after Dylan? Imagine holding your date close as you watch Earth, Wind & Fire perform under the open night sky. It won't matter that you're both bloated from carnival food—you will feel the love.

Best Theater for Reruns
Bay Theatre
340 Main St., Seal Beach
(562) 431-9988
www.baytheatre.com
The Bay isn't so much an art house/indie theater, though they do run those movies. If you don't want to watch a three-hour, black-and-white examination of human sadness—in French—but rather old American classics such as Jaws, Poltergeist and Animal House, then this is the place to go. The Bay plays movies you never thought you'd get to see (again) on the big screen. The Bay Theatre is a single-screen house that's been lowering the lights for 60 years in Seal Beach and continues to show movies, new and old, every day. So if you missed Xanadu the first time around, this is the place to see it.

Best Mainstream/Multiplex Movie Theater
AMC Theatres 30 at the Block
20 The City Blvd. W., Ste. 1, Orange
(714) 769-4262
Thirty screens, and not a one of them bad, though the four main houses are clearly superior to the rest (and most others). Ample electronic ticketing kiosks with very little wait time, even when there's a huge line at the main box office. Location, location and location—plenty of great eats in the surrounding area, and it isn't difficult to sneak in food. What puts the Block over the top against other multiplexes is the way it screens all the new releases at midnight on Thursday, and we're not just talking Spider-Man 3or Transformers. No, everything is fair game, from kiddie movies such as Surf's Up to almost-direct-to-DVD fare such as Slow Burn or the less-than-epic Mormon sequel The Work and the Glory III. At times, you may very well be the only person in the theater for such openings, but that hasn't discouraged the good AMC people from keeping it up every week. For those who want to see a movie first, but either have to be at the office on a Friday morning—or have trouble getting up for the first show—this is a godsend.

Best Bargain Movie Theater
Picture Show
Westfield Mainplace Shopping Center
2800 N. Main St., Ste. 999, Santa Ana
(714) 836-SHOW
Think back a couple of decades, when the mall multiplex was a new concept, THX sound hadn't been invented yet, and tickets cost only a buck. Nowadays, we have more technology, but don't you miss the good old days just a little bit? What can a dollar buy you today other than some processed hamburger on the McDonald's Value Menu? Well, if it's Tuesday, it can still buy you a movie ticket at the Picture Show six-plex; every other day, admission is only 75 cents more. Another dollar gets you a hot dog. And surprise—the screens and auditoriums are actually a respectable size! You'll be asked politely to please throw away your own trash, a concept long-since forgotten elsewhere, and get to see movies you may have missed the first time around just before they hit DVD, for less than the price of a rental—and on a bigger screen, to boot. There's also a party room if you want to rent the place out. It's not state of the art, but it's definitely an excellent bargain and a nostalgic throwback.

Best Indie Movie Theater
Edwards University Town Center 6
4245 Campus Dr., Irvine
(949) 854-8818
Even if you're not a college student, this theater will make you feel like you are, with its informal bulletin boards, unframed posters hanging from the balcony, and tables and chairs where you can polish off the last of your "outside" food (it's forbidden in the auditoriums, but okay in the lobby). But the low-key charms belie the quality of the theaters themselves, which are every bit as nice as the newest multiplexes and may be the best bet in town if you happen to be in a wheelchair—several seats have been removed to create appropriate spaces and/or extra legroom if no handicapped folks show up. Restrooms are clean and well-stocked (we've seen so-called "luxury" 12-plexes that fail to provide in this crucial area), and you gotta love the special $6 Tuesday-night screenings of crowd-pleasers ranging from Ben Hurto The Goonies.

Best Place to Meet a Film Major
The Friday Film Forum
Long Beach School for Adults
3701 E. Willow St., Long Beach
(562) 997-8000
Orange County resident Ray Sharp has been hosting a Friday Film Forum at the Long Beach School for Adults for 12 years now. Together with teammates Max Fraley, Rob Ray and Randy Skretvedt, Sharp hosts a weekly screening and postfilm discussion that draws from some of the more obscure corners of American cinema. For the cost of a dollar, cineastes can enjoy the generally esoteric feature selections of the Film Forum programmers, along with a smattering of shorts, cartoons and whatever else these cinematic archaeologists have dug up. While most local film programs focus on well-known classics, Sharp frequently finds movies that would be new discoveries for even the most ardent film fans. Following the screenings, the Friday Film Forum leads a discussion so you can express exactly how you felt about the film as loudly as you wish. In this age of faceless Internet interaction, isn't that a nice thought?

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