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New play “Wink” gives non-binary actor a chance to shine

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Andrik Ochoa stars in “Wink” at Zephyr Theatre (Photo by Ed Krieger).

It’s easy to lose your way in Hollywood

That’s especially true for someone who already faces challenges finding a way – anywhere – to be their authentic self.

“Wink,” a new play by Neil Koenigsberg currently onstage in a West Coast Premiere at the Zephyr Theatre, explores that experience.

It’s a story of the unlikely friendship that develops between the title character (Andrik Ochoa) – a homeless, gender-questioning teenager – and a former A-list actor (David Mingrino) who is now doing B movies.  Both down on their luck in Los Angeles, these two souls are connected by a synchronistic meeting.  They quickly bond over music, art, and life’s unexpected misfortunes; together, they learn that sometimes the best way forward is to stop fighting the past.

Playwright Koenigsberg says, “Volunteering at a New York LGBTQ center for homeless youth was a transformative experience for me. It became the inspiration for ‘Wink.’ I wanted to tell a story about a non-binary kid, about the unexpected connections that happen in life and how it can forever change us.”

For Andrik Ochoa, the non-binary actor who plays the title character, “Wink” is a role that feels very close to home.

“There are so many aspects we share,” they say.  “We are both alone in a big world and thrown into chaos that we don’t fully understand. We get impressed by values and character, not titles or money. Both of us have been outcast, away from family and home, embracing and fighting for our true masculine and feminine selves even when the world may never understand.”

“I wish I had Wink’s innocence, such an open heart,” they add.  “At some point I was like that too, but now the only people I open my heart to fully are the characters that I play. If I’m hurt or feeling joy, no one really knows. Maybe by the end of the run I’ll learn from Wink to open up a little more.”

Andrik Ochoa and David Mingrino in “Wink” at Zephyr Theatre (Photo by Ed Krieger).

Ochoa says it wasn’t always easy to navigate gender identity in their work.  They recall participating in an acting workshop with some of the cast of “Transparent” while still living as a transgender man.

“This was before I was non-binary and I was still finding myself.  It was a dark time in my life and I was surviving.  It was difficult facing the fact that I wasn’t really as happy as I thought, as a trans man, and my most important relationships were falling apart.”

The experience was transformative on both a personal and professional level.  A few days after the workshop, Ochoa was contacted by the “Transparent” producers, who invited them to play a small role on the show.

“Turns out, I couldn’t take the part,” they say, “because I had not gotten my working permit yet. I was very sad, but it didn’t matter because I knew I had what it takes, beyond my years of drama school and training.  Now I was able to understand my emotions like never before and that was a big change to my advantage. I just needed to keep moving forward.”

As a non-binary performer, Ochoa says they have found people in the industry open to evolving around matters of gender identity.

“So far, most people seem excited about it,” they say.  “My agents, even though they didn’t know much about non-binary or the gender umbrella, were extremely interested and eager to learn.  They were not sure how to promote me.  Finally, they said, with a smile on their faces, ‘we should present you as yourself.’

Even so, there are challenges.

“My biggest challenge, since returning to acting after finding myself, is signing up for auditions on casting websites. They require the submitter to choose if they are male or female.  That has been an issue for me, and for them, because I can and want to play both.”

They add, with a chuckle, “On some websites I signed up as male and others as female.”

They continue, “People ask me if I mind playing female characters or if I find it traumatizing.  Not at all traumatizing, ever since femininity is not a prison for me anymore, I feel like I can portray feminine characters with more love, freedom and acceptance than I ever could have before. It’s crazy and it’s beautiful.”

As for the inclusion of characters with non-traditional gender identities in Hollywood’s narrative content, Ochoa says they see progress.

“Maybe not as much right now, but I definitely see it coming in the near future.  People around the world are craving honest and diverse characters.  Audiences want to experience real life, they want to see themselves, and Hollywood is maybe ready to deliver now that there is so much positive feedback for other non-binary artists such as Asia Kate Dillon, Liv Hewson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Jill Soloway, Kaitlyn Alexander, and others.”

They add, “I am expecting the major streaming networks to come up with something like “Wink,” and I’m optimistic that they’ll start talking more and more about Trans, Non-Binary and all the different gender identities.”

The future may be bright, but for the moment, Ochoa is happy enough to be involved with “Wink.”

“It’s because of the message it gives to people,” they say.  “If we all get to know what every day of our enemy’s lives have been like, we could not hate them anymore, only understand why they are who they are.  People are tempted to think non-binary individuals are confused, I’ve been a female and a male and now I know exactly who I am. I am true. This need to classify people so we can treat them better or worse is just a social construct suffocating human nature. WINK strives to get to the very core of this.”

“And I love that.”

 

“WINK” continues at the Zephyr Theatre (7456 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA  90046),  8pm Saturdays & Mondays, 3pm Sundays through January 13, 2019.  Added performances on Fridays Dec 21, 28, and Jan 11, 2019, no performance on Mondays December 24 & December 31, 2018.

For reservations online www.Plays411.com/Wink or call (323) 960-1055

 

 

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Theater

Broadway gathers to honor Sondheim in Times Square

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim

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Broadway gathers to honor Stephen Sondheim (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Light snow flurries swirled around the stars of theatre and stage of New York City’s ‘Great White Way’ as they gathered Sunday in Times Square- members of every Broadway company assembled singing in a powerful chorus “Sunday,” the powerfully emotional act one finale to “Sunday in the Park with George.”

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. That piece being performed had garnered Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Broadway’s best were joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban, Kathryn Gallagher and Lauren Patton at ‘Sunday’ Performance in Times Square.

The man who was heralded as Broadway and theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century died at 91 Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

“This felt like church,” Bareilles told Variety after the performance on Sunday. “In his remembrance, we did what theater does best. We sang and raised our voices and came together in community.” 

Variety also noted that during the celebration, Miranda offered a sermon of sorts. Foregoing a speech, he opened Sondheim’s “Look I Made A Hat,” an annotated anthology of the composer’s lyrics, and read from a few passages before the crowd.

“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George memorial for Stephen Sondheim

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Movies

‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’ explodes with the love of Broadway

A perfect film for fans of musical theater

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Andrew Garfield shines in ‘Tick, Tick… BOOM!’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you are a person who love musical theater – or if you know someone who does – then you know there is something about this particular art form that inspires a strong and driving passion in those who enjoy it, often to the point of obsession. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that those who work in musical theater – the creators, performers, and all the other people who make it happen – are often the biggest musical theater lovers of all.

Because of this, “tick, tick… BOOM!” (the new film directed by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda and written by Steven “Dear Evan Hansen” Levenson) might be the most perfect movie ever made for such fans. Adapted from an autobiographical “rock monologue” by Jonathan Larson, it follows the future “Rent” composer (Andrew Garfield) for a week in the early 1990s, when he was still an unknown young Broadway hopeful waiting tables in a New York diner. He’s on the cusp of turning 30, a milestone that weighs on his mind as he prepares for a showcase of a musical that he hasn’t quite finished – even though he’s been writing it for eight years. With limited time left to compose the show’s most crucial number, his race against the clock is complicated by major changes in his personal life; his lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has quit acting in favor of a five-figure career in advertising, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is moving away from the city to accept a teaching job and wants him to come with her. With reminders everywhere of the ongoing AIDS epidemic still raging in the community around him, and with his own youth ticking away, he is inevitably forced to wonder if it’s time to trade in his own Broadway dreams for a more secure future – before it’s too late.

As every musical theater fan knows, the young composer’s obsession with time (hence the title) is laced with bittersweet irony in the context of what eventually happened in his real life: the day before “Rent” opened on Broadway and became a smash hit that reshaped and expanded the boundaries of what musical theater could be, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the full fruition of all those years of hard work, and that tragic turn of events is precisely what makes “tick, tick… BOOM!” relevant and provides its considerable emotional power. In that light, it’s essentially a musical “memento mori,” a reminder that the clock eventually runs out for all of us.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a celebration of life in the theater, and Miranda is probably better suited than anyone to make us see that side of the coin. Now unquestionably in the highest echelon of status as a Broadway icon, he came of age in the era of “Rent,” and he takes pains to make his depiction of Manhattan in the ‘90s as authentic as possible.

Capturing the era with touches like Keith Haring-inspired murals and the use of “Love Shack” as a party anthem, his movie keeps Larson’s story within the context of his time while drawing clear connections to our own. His reverence for Larson – whom he cites as a seminal inspiration for his own future work – manifests itself palpably throughout. Yet despite that (or perhaps because of it), so does an infectiously cheery tone. Yes, things get heavy; there are hardships and heartbreaks at every turn, because that’s what a life in the theater means. But at the same time, there’s just so much fun to be had. The camaraderie, the energy, and the joy of simply living in that world comes leaping off the screen (often thanks to the enthusiastic choreography of Ryan Heffington) with the kind of giddy, effortless ease that might almost make us jealous if it didn’t lift our spirits so much. No matter that the lead character spends most of the movie second-guessing his path; we never doubt for a moment that, for him, the rewards of following his passion outweigh the sacrifices a thousand times over.

That’s something Miranda also understands. His movie drives home the point that the joy of doing theater is its own reward, and he’s willing to prove it by turning up in a bit part just for the sake of being a part of the show. And he’s not the only one. The screen is littered with living legends; in one memorable sequence alone, a who’s-who of Broadway’s brightest stars – Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre DeShield, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, and at least a dozen more – serve as a high-profile backup chorus of extras for a song at the diner, but there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos in almost every scene. It almost feels like a gimmick, or an effort to turn the movie into a “spot the star” trivia game for hardcore fans – until you realize that these are the best and brightest people in their field, who have willingly chosen to show up and participate even though they did not have to. They are there purely for love, and you can see it in their faces.

Miranda scores big across the board as a director – this is his feature film directorial debut, which confirms the standing assumption the man can do anything. But “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a star turn for its leading player, and full credit must also go – and emphatically so – to Garfield, who surpasses expectations as Larson. The one-time “Spiderman” actor trained extensively to be able to master the demands of singing the role, and it shows; he comes off as a true musical theater trouper, worthy beyond doubt of sharing the screen with so many giants. Even better, he integrates that challenge into the whole of a flamboyantly joyful performance that makes Larson endearingly, compellingly three-dimensional. It’s a career-topping piece of work.

The rest of the principal cast – a refreshingly inclusive ensemble that reminds us that Larson was instrumental in making Broadway a much more diverse place – are equally fine. De Jesús gets a long-deserved chance to shine as Michael, and Shipp brings a quiet calm to the easily-could-have-been-overshadowed Susan that makes her the perfect balance to Garfield’s high-octane energy.

Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens contribute much more than their stellar vocal talents to their pair of roles as Larson friends and collaborators, and there are delicious supporting turns by Judith Light and Bradley Whitford – who gives an affectionately amusing and dead-on accurate screen impersonation of Broadway legend-of-legends Stephen Sondheim, one of Larson’s (and Miranda’s) biggest influences and inspirations, who accordingly looms large in the story despite his relatively short amount of screen time.

It should be obvious by now that “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a delight for people who love musical theater. But what if you’re not one of those people? The good news is that there is so much to enjoy here, so much real enjoyment, so much talent, so much hard work on display that nobody will have any reason to be bored.

Even people who DON’T love musical theater.

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Books

James Ivory on movies, beauty — and a love of penises

If you enjoy film and wit you’ll love ‘Solid Ivory’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

‘Solid Ivory: Memoirs’
By James Ivory
C.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$30/399 pages

Few things have been more pleasurable to me during the pandemic than Merchant/Ivory films. COVID becomes a dim memory as I ogle the costumes, beautiful vistas from Italy to India, music and spot-on dialogue of “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Remains of the Day” and other Merchant/Ivory movies.

For decades, fans from gay men to grandmas have enjoyed these films, directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant in partnership with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

In “Solid Ivory,” Ivory, 93, gives us his memories of movie making, growing up gay, his decades-long romantic and professional partnership with Merchant and (you’re reading this correctly) the penises he has known.

If you believe that elders don’t enjoy sex, Ivory’s memoir will blow your ageism to smithereens.

From watching the movies he’s directed and knowing his age, you might think (as I did) that Ivory would be shy about talking of his sexuality. Wow, was I wrong!

Ivory appreciates penises as a sommelier savors fine wine.

Ivory knew that he liked boys early on. Ivory recalls playing at age seven with a boy named Eddy. He and Eddy were “putting our penises into each other’s mouths,” Ivory writes, “…I made it clear that Eddy’s dick must not touch my lips or tongue, nor the inside of my mouth. I had learned all about germs at school by then.”

Though Ivory and Merchant were devoted partners, they each had other lovers. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer who died from AIDS, was Ivory’s friend, and sometimes, lover.

Chatwin’s penis was “Uncut, rosy, schoolboy-looking,” Ivory writes.

Ivory’s memoir isn’t prurient. His sexuality doesn’t overpower the narrative. It runs through “Solid Ivory” like a flavorful spice.

The book is more an impressionistic mosaic than a chronological memoir. Ivory, often, tells the stories of his life through letters he’s written and received (from lovers, friends and professional contacts) as well as from diary entries.

Many of the chapters in the memoir were previously published in other publications such as The New Yorker.

“Solid Ivory” was originally published in a limited edition by Shrinking Violet Press. The Press is a small press run by Peter Cameron, a novelist, and editor of “Solid Ivory.” Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. He was originally named Richard Jerome Hazen. His parents changed his name when they adopted him.

Some of the most engaging moments of the memoir are when Ivory writes about what life was like for a child during the Depression.

Ivory’s father lost his savings when the stock market crashed, and his mother frequently gave food to “tramps” who came to the door.

His “eating tastes were definitely formed during the Depression,” Ivory writes.

Since that time, Ivory has lived everywhere from England to Italy. “But although I consider myself an advanced expert in the more sophisticated forms of cuisine,” Ivory writes, “My gastronomical roots remain dug deep in the impoverished soil of the American Depression.” Ivory became smitten with movies when he saw his first picture when he was five.

He and Merchant, a Muslim from India who died in 2005, fell in love when they met on the steps of the Indian consulate in New York in 1961. I wish Ivory had written more about the 30+ movies that he made (mostly with Merchant and Jhabvala, who died in 2013).

Yet, he provides tantalizing recollections of filmmaking, actors and celebs.

The chapters on “Difficult Women like Raquel Welch and Vanessa Redgrave” are fun to read.

Welch, a bombshell brat, doesn’t want to play a love scene in “The Wild Party.” During the filming of “The Bostonians,” Boston is captivated by the drama of Redgrave’s off-screen politics.

Ivory isn’t that impressed when in 2018, at age 89, he becomes the oldest Academy Award winner when he receives the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Call Me By Your Name.” “Its fame eclipses even Michelangelo’s David and the Statue of Liberty,” Ivory says, with irony, of the Oscar statue.

If you enjoy the movies, beauty and wit, you’ll love “Solid Ivory.”

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