Charm - Theatre Review

A review by Joshua Kahn.

Esteban Andres Cruz, Lana Houston, Ashley Romans, Armand Fields and Chris Aguila star in the Celebration Theatre's West Coast Premiere of "CHARM," directed by Michael Matthews and now playing at CELEBRATION THEATRE at the LEX.

PHOTOS: Matthew Brian Denman  

               "OASIS" reads the rainbow lettering above the white board in Mama Darleena Andrews' etiquette class. But what is her class an oasis from? From the mean streets of Chicago, or has the desert of intolerance and misunderstanding already begun to seep in?

                Celebration Theatre's west coast premiere of Philip Dawkins' well-meaning Charm is light on story, yet does its best to skate by on its, well, charm. Based on the true story of a transwoman who taught an etiquette class to Chicago LGBTQ youth, Charm finds itself verging into afterschool special territory, or, at the very least, another entry into the "inspiring teacher helps inner city youth" genre. The problem is, Mama Darleena doesn't come across as a good teacher. For having transitioned from male to female over 40 years ago, she seems shockingly insensitive to the needs of her primarily Millennial students. She rolls her eyes at the idea of gender neutral pronouns. She demands her students pick one gender and stick with it. During a dance lesson, she splits the room up between the "sissies" and the "butch." Much of society's ideas of "proper etiquette" are steeped heavily in traditional idea of gender norms, so one would hope Charm could start a dialogue on these contradictions.

                 And though the script is brimming with clever one-liners, the play is frustratingly ambivalent as to whether or not it condones Mama Darleena's unorthodox, vaguely condescending teachings. Lana Houston's performance as Darleena isn't dynamic enough to convey the darkness and longing of her character, so by the time she's finally taken to task for her actions and we learn what truly makes her tick, our reaction is less, "Poor Darleena" than it is "Finally." A case of too little, too late.

                Darleena is a fascinating, flawed woman, completely worthy of having her story told on stage...but this play is unwilling to confront those flaws head-on, instead choosing to treat Darleena like a tragic figure, like a martyr, culminating in an ending so saccharine that it makes the lessons learned almost unnecessary.

Alexander Hogy, Chris Aguila and Ashley Romans

But what is a teacher without her students? Darleena's class consists of gang members, homeless, prostitutes, wealthy kids just wanting to see what all the fuss is about... Though these characters begin as one-note symbols of the walk of life they represent, they're eventually fleshed out into real human beings. Director Michael Matthews has gathered a diverse ensemble of talented physical actors. While some performers find themselves trapped in the cliches of their characters, others transcend. Armand Fields as flirtatious college student Jonelle delivers a wonderful, hilarious performance and Chris Aguila, as lonely transwoman Lady, gives the ensemble's most subtle, emotionally affecting performance (once the script finally figures out what to do with the character).

                The costumes by Allison Dillard and set design by Archer Alstaetter are gorgeous and understated, perfectly evoking the characters and setting. Leaving the theatre, I was wishing for the rest of the play to match that level of restrained specificity.

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm thru October 24, 2016.

Celebration Theatre
6760 Lexington Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90038

Tickets: $20.00 (Thursdays only);
$25.00 (General Seating), $35 (Reserved) and $40 (House Seats)
on Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances.

For tickets, please call (323) 957-1884 - or visit to purchase tickets online or to view a complete schedule!

Posted By Joshua Kahn on September 12, 2016 10:58 am | Permalink