“Bootycandy” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

I shouldn’t like the people at Celebration Theatre. Several years ago, I discovered they’d chosen a play of mine (a pretty good one, too!) for production, but then, due to internal politics, it was dropped in favor of another show. Boo hoo! How dare they? Yeah, I should be mad at them.

But how can anyone be angry at people who have given Los Angeles theatregoers the gift of so many terrific productions? Especially when this one – Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy – is simply stupendous.

The program for Bootycandy includes a list of the scenes, each of which has a title. Strange, I thought, it’s almost as if it’s a series of sketches – and, indeed, the play began life several years ago as an evening of unrelated short plays by Mr. O’Hara. Over time, he reworked the scenes and the characters, and created a sort-of through-line, so while many of the scenes can still stand on their own as extended comic sketches, by the end, we feel as if we’ve indeed seen a play rather than a revue.

Given its cobbled-together nature, Bootycandy isn’t neat, it isn’t tidy, it’s actually sort of a mess. But I’ll gladly trade neat and tidy for this kind of gorgeous, glorious, wild mess. The first scene, titled “Bootycandy,” introduces us to the central character, a young black boy (played by a grown actor, Anton Peeples), as well as to the meaning of “bootycandy,” which, according to his mother (Travina Springer), is a nice name for his… um… member. The scene is outrageous, the actors are hilarious, and we know right away we’re in for craziness.
 

L-R Anton Peeples, Julanne Chidi Hill, and Michael A. Shepperd. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

L-R Anton Peeples, Julanne Chidi Hill, and Michael A. Shepperd. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

 
Which erupts like a volcano in Scene 2, titled “Dreamin’ in Church,” in which a minister (Michael A. Shepperd) begins a fire and brimstone sermon and builds to a surreally magnificent turnabout which had the audience collapsing in guffaws. Seeing Mr. Shepperd follow his recent titanic dramatic performance in August Wilson’s Fences with a sublimely ridiculous one here is a special treat.

More guffaws in Scene 3, titled “Genitalia (A Phone [Land Line] Conversation)” in which Ms Springer and Julanne Chidi Hill play four – yes, four – distinct and distinctly stereotypical black women in a series of phone conversations. That they’re able to do this while never leaving the stage is a tribute not only to their formidable acting talents, but also to the sly and flamboyantly inventive costumes of Allison Dillard.
 

Cooper Daniels (L) and Anton Peeples. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Cooper Daniels (L) and Anton Peeples. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

 
Indeed, every scene is richly funny, even those with genuinely touching or gasp-inducing moments. One of the latter features Cooper Daniels as a mentally unstable man whose desires lead not only to a stomach-turning plot development, but also to a turning point for our central character: the acting by both Mr. Daniels and Mr. Peeples at this dramatic juncture is as truthful and affecting as their command of comedy in the previous scenes.
 
L-R Anton Peeples, Cooper Daniels, and Travina Springer. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

L-R Anton Peeples, Cooper Daniels, and Travina Springer. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

 
The cast is uniformly first-rate throughout, and a good part of the credit must go to director Michael Matthews, who consistently draws exceptional performances from the actors in his shows. As usual, he has paced the evening beautifully, allowing each moment the time and energy it needs, no more and no less. Unlike many directors, Mr. Matthews also recognizes that, especially in an intimate theatre, scene changes can be as important as the scenes themselves: he has choreographed the many shifts here with wit and military precision, giving the audience not only something to look at, but also helping tie the scenes together.

With the aid of top-of-the-line tech credits – set by Stephen Joshua Thompson, lights by Matthew Brian Denman, sound by Rebecca Kessin, props by Michael O’Hara, and Ms Dillard’s costumes – Mr. Matthews has created a magnificently over-the-top theatrical event: this is a party, a celebration, a joyous exclamation. It’s spectacular in every way, and deserves to run for years.
 

L-R Michael A. Shepperd, Julanne Chidi Hill, Cooper Daniels, Travina Springer, Anton Peeples. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

L-R Michael A. Shepperd, Julanne Chidi Hill, Cooper Daniels, Travina Springer, Anton Peeples. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

 
Hollywood was made poorer a couple of years ago when Celebration was forced out of its longtime home on Santa Monica Boulevard and replaced with a marijuana dispensary – ah, the joys of market rents. After wandering in the desert (well, Atwater Village) for more than a year, it’s good to see the theatre is back home. It’s better to see that it continues to present innovative work. It’s best – and a cause for rejoicing – that it’s chosen to open its new home with a full-throated, thrilling shout of “Look at us – we’re fabulous!” Playing it safe is never a good choice for a theatre. Nice to know Celebration still thinks that way.

(Oh, and guys, if you promise to do my play as well as you did this one, it’s still available. Just sayin’…)

Bootycandy
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Michael Matthews

Through December 20

Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com


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