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No need to leave Claremont for excitement

by John Pixley

 

I hadn’t gone to Los Angeles in a month and a half, since I went to a friend’s open house on New Year’s Day. And now I knew why.

It wasn’t because I was taking a long winter’s nap after a busy, stressful December and traveling over the holidays. It wasn’t because there were plenty of year-end movies to catch up on at the Laemmle theater or because Claremont is so pleasant and beautiful during these cool (if not cold) months. It wasn’t because things were okay here, even with nothing going on at the Colleges over the long break between semesters.

I told myself this was why I hadn’t ventured very far out of town for about six weeks, but then I remembered when my friend and I got on the freeway to go to LA a few weeks ago for dinner with a friend and a play.

Traffic. That’s what I remembered. That’s what I was missing. Or not missing. 

It was Saturday afternoon, we were driving towards the city and we were stuck in traffic, bumper to bumper at two or three points. It wasn’t “five-o-clock traffic.” And it wasn’t rush hour.

No, this was business as usual, as I remembered. I told my friend, as we sat in traffic, “I am seeing more and more reasons to stay in Claremont.”

But the bad traffic isn’t the only reason to stay in Claremont. It isn’t even the real reason to stick around here, as I’m also reminded of these days.

Just a week later, another friend made the comment that we don’t need to go to LA. That was clear after seeing the Ophelia’s Jump production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike.

I have seen a number of shows put on by this tiny, four-year-old, Claremont-based theater company. All have been top-notch, but the company outdid itself with this comic masterpiece, which brilliantly riffs off the works of Chekov, directed by Caitlin Lopez.

When the play was done at the Mark Taper Forum early last year under the direction of David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, the Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty declared it better than the Broadway production. I saw the play at the Taper, and I enjoyed the Ophelia’s Jump production just as much if not even more, even though the lights went out during the show I saw.

What was most remarkable was that this was done in the barest of rooms—a place where the lights really could go out—in a storefront in an industrial mall. The stripped-down venue, along with the effective but minimal set designed by Beatrice Casagran, only highlighted the wonderful dialogue and, especially, the superb acting. The six-member ensemble was stunning, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give special notice to Trajei Wright, hilarious as the housekeeper with some extra skills, and Ms. Casagran, again, so soulful and mopey as the put-upon, adopted daughter Sonia.

Ophelia’s Jump Productions is clearly a labor of love (Ms. Casagran also did the costumes for this show), and I hope it is successful in its search for a theater to call its own, although I also hope it continues to put on its summer two-play Shakespeare Festival at the lovely Greek Theater on the Pomona College campus. This is a tiny gem of a company, shining bright, bringing provocative and sometimes challenging LA and world-class theater to the Claremont area.

World-class. Provocative. Challenging. That’s also what came to mind when I saw Invisible Anatomy at Pomona College two weeks before, in early February. The electronic music group is from New York City, and I felt like I was in New York City when I saw its performance in Lyman Hall.

With keyboards and guitars enhanced by computer-generated effects, the group lead a steady musical adventure lasting a bit more than an hour, backlit by bright white neon tubes. What’s more, it featured a vocalist named Fay Wang, who sang and gyrated, not unlike Yoko Ono, and is herself an artist of some repute. The performance of new pieces that the group members had composed definitely had a big-city edge, with the artists sharing a new vision in a relatively new medium.

But there was something even more exciting. There was a Claremont connection, or at least a Pomona College connection, in this brave new group. Its guitarist and one of its composers, Brendon Randall-Myers, is a graduate of the college, class of 2009. At least in the world of modern music, this was a particularly exciting case of someone contributing based, at least in part, from his experience in Claremont.

Such experience was what was celebrated a week later in a concert at Bridges Hall, where Mr. Randall-Myers also performed. This time, he was one of eight Pomona College graduates who are successful musicians featured in a special “Alumipalooza,” in honor of the hall’s centennial year.  

This was again a performance that, with this unique twist, brought the big city here with the artists having won acclaim since graduating from Pomona. Mr. Randall-Myers not only had a piece performed by pianist Kathleen Supove ’73 (along with electronics); he also played guitar with fellow 2009 graduate, and vocalist and pianist Noah Dietterich, performing with Alex Pfender as the indie-folk duo, yOya. Ms. Supove also performed with soprano Lucy Shelton ’65, arguably the most renowned artist featured (one piece was by Pomona College faculty emeritus Karl Kohn).

Ms. Shelton was also accompanied by pianist Raj Bhimani ’82. Mr. Bhimani and Ms. Shelton performed other pieces, including with Katharine Rawdon ’82 on flute, Lucas Harris ’96 and soprano Hayden Eberhart ’07. On a piece by Henry Purcell, Ms. Shelton, Ms. Eberhart and Mr. Harris were accompanied by faculty member Roger Lebow on the cello.

This was a broad-range concert, with a wide spectrum of artists and music (from Purcell to Randall-Myers), true to its “palooza” name.

Another concert a week later in Bridges Hall was just as broad-ranging but also quite unique, as LA Harpette took to the stage with Pomona College with faculty member Mary Dropkin, this was a quartet of harpists.

The music ranged from Handel and Debussy to songs from American musicals. It may have been less challenging—with the notably large audience, there was a pops concert feel—but seeing this music played, and played very well, on four large, beautiful harps, wasn’t a typical concert experience.

If all this wasn’t reason not to leave Claremont for excitement in the last few weeks, there was the anti-illegal alien protest, complete with bull-horns and sidewalk debates with students, that happened when the Democratic congress leader spoke at Garrison Theater. Who needs the big city, at least for now? 

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