Rosdely Ciprian (l), Maria Dizzia (r) in “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Mark Taper Forum through Feb. 28. Photo by Joan Marcus

THE TIMING COULDN’T BE BETTER

I’m glad I didn’t write a review right after seeing “What the Constitution Means to Me,” onstage through February 28 at The Mark Taper Forum downtown. Opening as it did during the impeachment of the current president, it could not be timelier. And with Senate deliberations more a cover up and Constitution shredding than a trial, this play could not be more poignant. If you find yourself attending only one stage production this year, let this be the one.

Writer and original performer Heidi Schreck remembers the days when she traveled the country, participating in American Legion high school competitions for scholarships, giving speeches about The Constitution. It paid for her college education.

In Los Angeles, Heidi’s role is performed by Maria Dizzia, who’s such a natural it’s hard to believe the words emanating from her mouth aren’t her own. For Heidi, a self-described “debate nerd,” the challenge of the contests is to explain, compellingly, the meaning of a particular amendment and its personal impact on her own life.

FROM CHEERLEADER TO CRITIC

As a teen, Heidi truly loved the Constitution. Her “stump speech” was “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution,” calling it a “living, warm-blooded, steamy document.” But as an adult, after piecing together the history of women in her family and acknowledging an early, unwanted pregnancy from an apparent rape, she begins to reassess her enthusiasm, recognizing that the Constitution is more about negative rights than positive.

Negative rights, she says, protect us by telling us what the government cannot do. And, she notes, these rights help those already in power and are already protected, unlike women, gays, minorities, and non-white males.

Lest you think this is some kind of a boring lecture, you couldn’t be more wrong. Enjoy the fun of the competition, the goofy outfit, the nerdy American Legion judge (Mike Iveson), and the dorky teen-level energy of young Heidi, followed by the gradual evolution of adult Heidi’s disillusionment. This comes about as she reconsiders the 9th Amendment—which established a right to privacy, paving the way to birth control and eventually to abortion rights—and the 14th Amendment—which created the equal protection clause—through the lens of male violence and injustice throughout her family’s history.

WOMEN AND THE CONSTITUTION

She raises the abuse of her mother, her maternal grandmother and great- grandmother, plays excerpts from recordings of (male) Supreme Court justices deliberating birth control – with their constant throat-clearing, because they’re so embarrassed to be having this conversation. Control of women’s bodies was decided for decades by a court of white men interpreting these laws. And could happen again.

As “Heidi” concludes this portion of the play, she invites a high school student onstage to debate the question of whether or not to abolish the Constitution and an audience member is selected to be the judge. The teenager in the production I saw was a remarkably talented young woman named Rosdely Ciprian, who has been with the production since its days on Broadway. Jocelyn Shek, a 14-year-old from Sherman Oaks, alternates in this role.

Rosdely supports keeping the Constitution – and as an African-American female, the irony is not lost. For Heidi, it’s time to scrap this founding document and create a new one with rights for all, including those that are not explicitly enumerated.

Get tickets for “What the Constitution Means to Me” here: https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/mark-taper-forum/2019/what-the-constitution-means-to-me/ or call the Box Office at (213) 628-2772.

COWBOYS AND ALIENS

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble created “Circa 69” Season to celebrate its 50th anniversary, featuring significant and adventurous plays that premiered in 1969, around the time of the company’s founding.

Director Darrell Larson takes the helm of two one-acts by the inimitable Sam Shepard, with whom he worked closely over many years. Two one-acts “Killer’s Head” and “The Unseen Hand” are performed back to back, moving from the last moments of a man in an electric chair to an absurdist sci-fi comedy, featuring an alien who comes to Earth to recruit a trio of bandit brothers to save his people.

In Killer’s Head, performed by a rotating cast, a man strapped to an electric chair in his final moments gives a stream-of-consciousness monologue about trucks and horses. Opening night featured Steve Howey (best-known for Showtime’s “Shameless” as hunky barkeep Kevin), and upcoming are Dermot Mulroney, Magnus Jackson Diehl, Jeff Kober, Darrell Larson and Jonathan Medina.

In “The Unseen Hand,” Blue Morphan (Carl Weintraub) is a 120-year old drunk cowboy and former outlaw living in a broken down, rusty car on the side of a road in Azusa. He’s sought after across two galaxies by alien Willie (an astoundingly energetic Matt Curtin), who needs Blue and his brothers to save his people from their overlords, who control them by means of an unseen hand that stifles their thoughts when they think of revolting.

Willie brings Blue’s brothers Cisco (Jordan Morgan) and Sycamore (Chris Payne Gilbert) back to life. Meanwhile a gay high school athlete (Andrew Morrison) is booted out of a car by school bullies, landing in the middle of all this, raging about how he’s going to kill the other team and outlining tactics for guerilla warfare.

While it’s a pretty weird and ultimately hysterical romp with some seriously tour-de-force monologues by Willie and The Kid, director Larson says the play is, in part, about versions of toxic masculinity.

The plays will be onstage through March 8th. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Visit http://www.odysseytheatre.com for tickets and info.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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