Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Long Beach's Sparrow Love Crew have steadily built a huge following with barn-burning live shows that have been known to make even the squarest unsuspecting attendees wave their hands in the air like they just don't care. Their debut EP, Burgertime, is upbeat, party hip-hop at its absolute best, featuring impeccable deejaying courtesy of Opi Styles (listen to those amazing synth twirls on "Naidu"—even if these tracks were instrumentals, they'd still be banging) and the deft intertwining flows of MCs Devoux, Diggery, Sureflo and Mikey Brixx, who spit absolutely none of that anti-social content your parents are so worried about. No thuggish posturing, no stretched Hummer with a Jacuzzi in the back (though they certainly deserve one), just pure talent and a drive to energize whatever room they're playing. Extra bonus points for selecting one of the most perfect group names in hip-hop.
Mark Majarian and the rest of this community college's theater department deserve a chorus of hosannas for launching and growing a new-play festival as strong as any in Southern California. This year marked the 13th installment of the summer event, which has premiered or helped develop more than 70 plays. Many of the writers—and several of the plays—have subsequently received full-fledged productions at regional and off-Broadway theaters. While that's a worthy feat to crow about, it's secondary to what makes new-play festivals such as Cypress' truly meaningful: They provide encouragement and incentive to playwrights, a strange breed of animal that chooses to work in an artistic field where recognition is hard to come by and financial compensation nearly impossible.
The singer always gets the headlines, and it was Van Zeiler's commanding turn as Hank Williams Sr. that drew the rave notices in this show. Great work, no doubt, but ringers in the lead role aren't uncommon in musicals. However, though full or partial versions of more than 20 Williams songs were included, this Randal Myler-and-Mark Harelik piece (Myler also directed) was much more than a musical revue or nostalgic stroll down the hillbilly highway. The duo did a fine job of not only tracing the trajectory of Williams' rise to fame and harrowing fall, but also capturing his aching humanity and singular genius. Anyone who walked out of the performance not realizing that Williams was every bit an American original as Louis Armstrong or Levi's wasn't paying attention.
She earned this laurel last year for her body of work over the past 10 years. But this year, Gehringer added to her already-sparkling résumé with her multilayered turn in South Coast Repertory's Doubt as an über-controlling nun in John Patrick Shanley's riveting play about secrets and lies at a Catholic school in 1964. Even more impressive is that, physically, Gehringer's slender frame and classic beauty didn't fit the image of a taciturn, ultra-conservative nun who would seem more comfortable wielding a ruler than quoting from First Corinthians. Although she nailed the rigid, black-and-white aspects of her character's personality, what made her performance resonate were the unexpected subtleties she found in the role, such as grace, dignity and a powerful (if disturbing) passion to find some sense of order in a seemingly chaotic universe.
When Itzen first walked onstage in Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! at South Coast Repertory, some audience members probably did a double-take: Isn't that the fumbling, spineless President Logan of 24 onstage? But the instant he opened his mouth, Itzen drew the audience into the spellbindingly ambiguous world of his character, a raconteur with a gift for gab and a host of spectacularly outrageous stories. He was charming, sympathetic and thoroughly likeable—even if he was lying through his teeth the entire time. Margulies' play was about memories and stories, and who owns the right to both; Itzen's uncompromisingly insistent portrayal made the show sing. He wasn't just flat-out entertaining, he was also living proof that theater will always matter because, at its simplest and most sublime, it's all about the spoken word, the fundamental building block of mankind's greatest creative achievement: storytelling.
Orange County has served as a sort of halfway house for some great writers, thanks mainly to some fine academic programs at area colleges (Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Richard Ford and Alice Sebold are among the literati hatched at UC Irvine's MFA writers' program). But there are authors of national rank squirreled away in every corner of the county writing in every genre. Start asking around, and everybody's got a favorite. Lots of us love T. Jefferson's Parker's noir-ish mysteries. Former Mater Dei and El Toro High English teacher Elizabeth George has a following for her Inspector Lynley mystery series. Canadian expat and current Laguna Beacher Lisi Harrison's "Clique" series strikes readers of a certain (tender) age, with its "bratfests" and backstabbing teen queens. UCI writing prof Michelle Latiolais' exploration of autism and redemption, A Proper Knowledge, has gained an audience among those who like their thoughts provoked. But for our money, Ron Carlson gives the best reads, taking the mysteries and absurdities of everyday life and turning them into meaningful narratives. With more honors than a war hero, Carlson embraces the modern American West and the relationships—especially the sexual relationships—between its denizens. We're fans of his 2007 novel, Five Skies, with its shiftless preparation for what amounts to a flying leap. And we're fond of his short stories that feature sailing mattresses, wife-stealing bigfoots and frustrated couples-with-children who are just too busy to fuck. Carlson's also good at explaining his craft—see his introduction to the short story collection A Kind of Flying—which is probably why so many brilliant writers come out of his UCI creative-writing program. Our only complaint? The stories don't come quickly enough.
Nobody has seen the underbelly of Orange County like we have, so we've got to admit that Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard nailed it with his crime-noir novel Snitch Jacket. The cover images for the paperback edition, which is out now, leave no doubt that Goffard's tale won't win Chamber of Commerce approval. There are two less-than-flattering photographs of deteriorating, single-story shops on a portion of Costa Mesa's Harbor Boulevard that has been unable to emerge from the 1960s. As a gift to those of us who appreciate dark humor, a lone, nearly dead palm tree helps frame one picture. With that backdrop, Goffard—who writes for his paper's Orange County edition—has imagined a world set in the Greasy Tuesday, a bar that brings together characters such as overeducated misfit Benny Bunt, a 41-year-old dishwasher and snitch, and ex-con bouncer Gus "Mad Dog" Miller. We're not going to tell you what happens. Read the book. If you like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, you'll dig Goffard, too.
After 20 years, 240 meetings, seven different venues, hundreds of poets and thousands of curious audience members, there's no question this monthly gathering has become something special. And the fact that it's produced by Santa Ana College professor Lee Mallory—a guy who has ridden the bus to work since 1978 and still doesn't have a cell phone or computer—is just icing on the cake. He started the readings with longtime colleague Jana McCarthy at the Chicago Pizza Factory in Santa Ana in 1988. For the past five years, Factory Readings poets have used the ultra-artsy setting of the Gypsy Den to spout verse as onlookers hoot and holler while imbibing tea and scarfing bran muffins. Stop by sometime and hear poems ranging from the solemn to the salacious, from the perverted to the just plain crazy.
Whenever we hear about a new show featuring the work of Long Beach sculptor/doodler Kiel Johnson, we drop whatever we're doing and scamper over, hooting excitedly. Johnson fills large canvases with drawings of bizarre contraptions of his own devising, incredibly complicated, crowded, cartoony cities where highways tangle together like the power cords beneath your desk. He also builds crazy stuff out of cardboard—little urban landscapes, intimidatingly large cameras, life-size submarines that poke their periscopes out of the gallery floor. His cartoons feel weirdly solid and real, while his physical objects are like cartoons come to life. Johnson has created his own wonderful world, distinct from ours, but always open to visitors.
The murals that decorate the Lemon Street pedestrian overpass (just south of Valencia Drive) won't make you forget Emigdio Vasquez—they're really just simple paintings of a pachuco, a Monte Carlo and similar Chicano-icon bric-a-brac. But they became the focus of a community uprising earlier this year, when city council member Shawn Nelson publicly accused the murals of promoting crime and tried to have them whitewashed within days. Thanks to a concerted effort that mixed MySpace and YouTube blasts with old-fashioned community meetings, the talk is now of restoring these 30-year-old treasures with a five-figure, city-contributed grant. Visit them as a monument to the best that public art offers—controversy, history and general peronismo (as opposed to the Argentine philosophy that allowed Nazis to hang out in Buenos Aires). Now, if we could get LA's Chicano All-Stars to give a damn about the rest of the county's Chicano murals . . .
For reasons no one quite understands, padlocks have been strewn along a chainlink fence on an Interstate 405 overpass for several years. As this item was being whipped up, about 50 locks hung in a single row over five consecutive sections of the fence that runs alongside the southbound lanes of Fairview Street in Costa Mesa. The mystery routinely catches the attention of the local press. How could it not in 1998, when the summertime appearance of 199 locks on the fence prompted Los Angeles Times reporter Geoff Boucher to fruitlessly seek answers from the city, police and Caltrans as to what in Hades was going on? The locks quickly disappeared right after the Times story was published, prompting more beats-us shrugs from government mouthpieces. Then, slowly, one by one, locks reappeared on the fence. Theories abound. Could it be part of a Mexican custom to signify answered prayers? A similar Chinese tradition? Students marking graduations? As indicated above, no one is quite sure, so before anyone takes credit for the practice, we'll deem this Mystery of Lock-ness an obvious public art display owing to Dadaism, the anti-art, post-World War I movement that protested oppressive intellectual rigidity. What better place to mock oppressive intellectual rigidity than over a heavily traveled freeway behind the fabled Orange Curtain? This county has cornered the market on locked thinking!
It is a measure of how healthy OC's art scene is these days that we actually had to think long and hard about which gallery most deserved this year's blue ribbon. Space on Spurgeon has been showing some great stuff, as has the J. Flynn (well, until it closed), @Space and a dozen others we could name. But when we think of the gallery we're most consistently wowed by, we have to go with the Grand Central Art Center's Rental and Sales Gallery. From their February "Subsumere: Assemblage" show (featuring the killer trio of Barry Krammes, Rebecca Edwards and previous Weekly Best Visual Artist winner Janice Lowry) to their "Happy Show" (which made us very happy indeed), this Cal State Fullerton-supported gallery has been a reliable mind-blower.