About ‘Guards at the Taj’ by Rajiv Joseph

i got the chance to experience guards at the taj (written by rajiv joseph) at the geffen playhouse for a saturday evening performance…and it was definitely an experience that left an unforgettable impression.

1435269377_info_image_GuardsattheTaj_KeyArt_206x270the title of the play simplifies such a charging journey. for 90 minutes the audience goes on a two-person voyage and that voyage actually starts before a word is said. it starts when you enter…while you still carry the mind- and heart-chatter from the day. it’s happening as you find a way to settle into your seat and as you stand up for the later-comers that need to squeeze past you who were also having the same parking issues as you.

on stage a guard waits.

this guard, humayun (raffi barsoumian) sets the tone. he’s there. firm. planted. sure. but there’s something in his eyes that wants to embrace (and explore) the curiosity that is deep-set within the hearts of all human beings. the energy shifts with the late and zippy entrance of the second guard, babur (ramiz monsef) who — unlike his counterpart — isn’t afraid to ask life’s questions and has more than likely lived a full life of tenderheartedness and the greatest expectations. (there is an indication that perhaps humayun lived with wreckless abandon as babur did when they were younger, but it’s possible that he only lived that way when he was with abur. we don’t know how these two meet. only that they are more than colleagues. they are brothers and friends.) so it’s not surprising when the guileless babur suggests that they do what they have been forbidden to do — to turn around and plainly look at the taj mahal.

history lesson: the taj mahal — “crown of palaces” — is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the yamuna river in the indian city of agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the mughal emperor shah jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, mumtaz mahal. the taj mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million indian rupees, which in 2015 would be valued at around 52.8 billion indian rupees ($827 million us). the construction project employed around 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by ustad ahmad lahauri.

humayun and babur, though different, are alike in that they are both unfussed and undecorated (dare i saw lowly) with humorous imaginations who have been given  one task — to guard the taj mahal. the simplicity of their assignment is disturbed when they are issued a distressing and gruesome task, a task they are forced to complete.


with playwright rajiv joseph

it’s rare that a piece as profound as joseph’s envelops complex angles and presents them with such a digestible simplicity. it’s easy to invoke thought about something that’s above a common view, but it takes skill to do otherwise. skill that joseph possesses and on which he clearly has a handle. you don’t have to be a “fan of something” or “like a certain type of art” to lose yourself in the story or to be able to enjoy ‘guards…’ (i actually hate using the word “enjoy” here because you love it, but you leave not wanting to talk about it and wanting to find the nearest bar, have a drink, and process.) no. you just show up and get infected. what i love most about ‘guards at the taj’ is that it meets you right where you are and carefully guides you through a hallway of the plain and before you know it you start to think, “wait. how did this get so complicated?” you’re pushed into a room of all that emotion and the door is swiftly locked behind you — almost as if you had been tricked — and all you have to light your path is the torch of hope. may seem unfair but you’re taking the same journey as the characters and the characters in the play weren’t given a heads up or a choice…or were they? you ask what is true loyalty? as it touches on friendship, beauty (and how it can be killed), dreams, and price. at its heartbeat are sounds of imagination, loyalty, betrayal, childlikeness, acceptance, reality, and conscience. it makes the chatter of the day cloak itself in silence. it labels the trial not finding a perking spot for 20 minutes as trivial. ‘guard…’ invokes thought and — if taken sincerely — promotes change.

and even through all that, there were still plenty of moments when humor was present. even in the midst of literal blood being on their hands…and face.

1444156596_front_image_GuardsattheTaj_KeyArt_206x270-photothe technical aspects of this show aren’t to be dismissed. director giovanna sardelli has done a superb job peeling back unseen layers with two very powerful actors. raffi and ramiz so distinctly embody their characters that it’s hard not to love them both and to be on their side. tom buderwitz‘s scenic design is both surprising and naturally appropriate. coupled with ned mochel‘s “violence designer” — a very necessary element — this show is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. rajiv joseph is truly a talent, and it almost feels patronizing to label him as such. words like “genius” and “trailblazer” come to mind immediately. do yourself a favor and get on board. see. this. show.

and if you’re wondering what my drink of choice was post show? jack ‘n’ coke. i had to settle for a mission beer because apparently kids in college love whiskey and the bar was all out.

‘guards at the taj’ (written by rajiv joseph and directed by giovanna sardelli) is currently in previews at the geffen playhouse and will run through november 15 in the  theater. to get your tickets, click here.

Interview with Al Spencer who plays “MAC” in a new play called ‘Basement’

Al gave The Story By Corey a few minutes of his time.

The Story: Al, I noticed that you ride a motor bike.

Al: Yup. And I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I wear a helmet!

The Story: Good! Safety first! So, Al, where are ya from and when did you move to L.A.?

Al: I’m actually a native Los Angeleno.

1618 Final 2The Story: One of the few.

Al: Yes! I mean, I’ve been to other places, but haven’t been to the place that can take the place of home. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but it hasn’t yet.

The Story: I hear you. Being from L.A. what do you think about L.A.’s theatre scene?

Al: I have no experience with Theatre in other cities; and, therefore nothing to compare it to. L.A. Theatre has been good to me so far. I’m just having lots of fun too.

The Story: You’re in this play ‘Basement’ playing Mac. How do you relate to your character in Basement if at all?

Al: You have to know that Mac has a back log of projects in tow. He loves his family and is enjoying his life. He digs music and likes to dance. He likes to poke others too. Ditto.

The Story: You’re saying you and Mac would have a man cave together.

Al: And we would freely eat our chips and drink our beer.

(I laugh.)

The Story: What’s been your favorite part about the process?

Al: Man. I gotta say, working the play and observing the characters of my fellow actors come to life. They effervesce with vitality and I enjoy observing their transformation.

The Story: That sounds like it would inform how you embody your character as well.

Al: For sure. And that’s exactly what it should do. It’s how to focus on the bigger picture. Letting the others affect you.

The Story: Like life. What makes Basement relevant to today’s audiences?

Al: Wow. This play touches on many familial issues. For instance: A spouse withholding sex. Sexual orientation. Parental expectations of a child, and what a child perceives them to be. School tuition and non-delivery. Dependent, or partially dependent adult children. Parental co-dependence. Poor diet leading to illness. Alcohol consumption below the legal age limit. Milk toast dad (maybe not completely) leading to mom wearing the pants. Caring for a disabled, or handicapped relative. Making funeral arrangements ahead of time. There are more, but you get my drift. I think truth will resonate with the audience in this play.

The Story: Holy crap. All that? That’s a lot.

Al: But it’s the truth of this — and other — families.

The Story: So true. Okay, last question:  if you were actually stuck in a Basement with 4 other people, who would they be?

Al: Provided there are no life threatening emergencies the following individuals would be on my list for temporary occupancy in the basement: Fellow Classic Car enthusiast Richard who is also a Lock Smith. Friend Mary, I love her spirit and the sound of her voice. We would laugh and enjoy the time. Friend and artist Harvey, has a great disposition, let’s nothing bother him, remembers everything, has lot’s of interesting information and is a great story teller. Last but not least, friend Betty, a woman who can keep you laughing no matter what the situation.

The Story: Sound like y’all’d have a great time. Just laughin’ and doin’ art.

Al: Exactly.
The Story: Thanks for bein’ here, Al. Happy Opening!.

Al SpencerAl has been in the shoes of a Shakespearean General/Statesman, a zombie, a soldier, a dad at his financial end, an overwhelmed actors agent, a farcical Avenger, and numerous other projects. Al says, “It’s been fun. I see acting as living art. God gave each of us at least one gift. Acting is one of mine and I’m seeing to it.” He has expressed a particular joy in presenting as “Mac” in this production of the Basement. He see’s in Mac qualities he desires for himself and hopes the audience appreciates his spin on this ever-loving dad.

Basement‘ is a part of the very first Los Angeles Theater Festival and will be playing October 7th – October 10th. Tickets can be secured at Basement.BrownPaperTickets.com.

Interview with Mercedes Steele who plays “SHARON” in a new play called ‘BASEMENT’

Mercedes took the time to meet with me before a rehearsal.

The Story: Mercedes! Glad I was able to catch you between your regular life and rehearsals.

Mercedes: I’m glad too! This is one of those times when I wish that I could get another hour in the day. I’ll call the President to see if he can make that happen.

The Story: You’re used to this pace though, right? Are you from New York?

Mercedes: Yeah. Born and raised.Mercedes HS

The Story: So, when did you move to Los Angeles?

Mercedes: [I moved to Los Angeles] two years ago.

The Story: Nice. And what do you think about L.A. theatre scene?

Mercedes:  I’m actually in love with L.A.’s theatre scene and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it.

The Story: Talk to me about Sharon, the role that you play in Basement.

Mercedes:  I like my character, Sharon. She’s the mother. She is the glue that holds all of it together and the fuel that keeps the train running. Strong, yet loving and sensitive. Sharon wants the best for her family in and out of the basement no matter what.

The Story: Are you like that?

Mercedes: Most definitely. I’m the person that would show up to a party with something, help to set up, and help to clean up. It’s in me. I like being hospitable. That doesn’t mean that you can walk all over me though. It’s a respect thing.

The Story: That makes complete sense. What’s been your most favorite part about the process?

Mercedes: Well,  I’d have to say the interaction and bonding with Corey and my castmates/new family. I love these people. You know, when you start a job it can go one way or the other. You can either fall in love with the people you work with or you can not fall in love with them.
The Story: To put it lightly.
(She laughs.)
Mercedes: Right. But this process has brought these 5 other people into my life and I hope that we can stay in touch after we’re done every now and again. I think I might cry on closing night.
The Story: Don’t do that! You might make everyone else cry too!
Mercedes: Good! Then I won’t be alone!
(We both laugh.)
The Story: So, you like the people you work with. Do you like the piece? And what I mean is do you think it’s relevant as far as today’s audiences are concerned and how?
Mercedes: I absolutely think it’s relevant. The themes found in this play are many and no matter what happens to come out, there’s so much love (even though they may show it in different ways) and love is always relevant. What makes Basement so relevant to today’s audience is the situations are real in whole or in part for most people and therefore relatable, both serious or funny.
The Story: Wow. Sounds like you’ve been doing some good work in figuring it out.
Mercedes: I sure have.
The Story: Last question. If you were stuck in a basement with four other people, with whom would it be?
Mercedes: Hmmmm. If I were actually stuck in a basement with four other people it would probably be with my own parents and sibling. I’d like to add that my father is also slow about certain household chores and my mom always has several for him to do!
The Story: HA! That’s funny. But what about the last person.
Mercedes: I’ll let fate decide that one.
The Story: That’s amazing. Thanks for being here, Mercedes. Where you off to next?
Mercedes: To lock in these lines! We’re onstage for most of the play!
The Story: Then I won’t keep you!
image1Mercedes Steele is a New York Native who relocated to Los Angeles to pursue her lifetime love of acting. Mercedes is grateful to her mentors, Lisa Pescia, Mark Teschner, & Richard Lawson for their guidance, inspiration, and support. Mercedes is also super excited & thankful to Corey for choosing her to be a part of the cast of his FABULOUS play ‘Basement.’Twitter: @1MercedesSteele

Basement‘ is a part of the very first Los Angeles Theater Festival and will be playing October 7th – October 10th. Tickets can be secured at Basement.BrownPaperTickets.com.

Interview with Vincent Soto who plays “Taylor” in a new play called ‘Basement’

Vincent took some time post rehearsal to answer a few questions.

The Story: Vincent! Thank so much for being here with me. I know you’re busy.

Vince: No, problem. I’m excited to do this.

Full Vince PicThe Story: Awesome. First, Vince, where ya from?

Vincent: I’m from Chicago, IL the Windy City.

The Story: You miss the snow?

Vincent: Not really. I miss the fall though. And Chicago, I dressed up a lot, but here I ride my bike a lot so I just spend a lot of time sweating. So I miss dressing up. But they can keep the snow. Plus, I know where it is if I want it.

The Story: I hear you. When did you get to L.A.?

Vincent: I moved to L.A. December of 2013.

The Story: Almost two years. Happy early Anniversary.

(Vince runs his fingers through his hair.)

The Story: Before we go any further, I just have to comment on that head of hair. It’s fantastic.

Vincent: Thank you. I’m trying to grow it out. It’s my staple.

The Story: I can relate. Let’s have a hair-grow off.

Vincent: Challenge accepted. Whoever gets to 22 inches first is the winner.

The Story: Deal.

(We both laugh.)

The Story: Back to the interview, what do you think about L.A.’s theatre scene?

Vincent: Actually, I used to think that L.A.’s theater scene was essentially non-existent… but now, after being here for some time, I’ve learned that it’s way more plentiful than I imagined and that the talent in this city is very well-rounded and doesn’t just cater to television and film performers.
The Story: You think that’s the problem?
Vincent: Part of it. Also, the thing is when people see a bad play or musical here, they give up and they just stop trying to see theater. But if Sony or Universal produced a bad movie, no one says, “I’m gonna stop watching movies by Sony.”
The Story: That’s an excellent point. Can you talk to me a little about the character Taylor that you play?
Vincent: Taylor is interesting. He’s smart, put-together, and has a big heart. I think I relate to his confidence and passion, but he’s a little more disciplined and uptight than I’ve ever been.
The Story: Has that been a challenge.
Vincent: I’ve definitely had to dig into some thought processes. Not only about Taylor but myself as well.
The Story: What’s been your favorite part about the whole thing?
Vincent:  My favorite part of this whole process has been getting to know the other actors and seeing how we all do things so differently and watching how it all becomes very cohesive and seeing how it all just works.
The Story: That makes sense. A lot of you guys have alluded to that. If you were stuck in a basement with four other people, who would be down there with you.
Vincent:  Oh, hands down, Rihanna (because you know she’s entertaining.) Chris Pratt because…well, he’s Chris Pratt. Ariana Grande.
The Story: Oh, really?
Vincent: Are you kidding me? She’d sing to me and use her pony tail to keep me warm.
The Story: That makes sense. And the last person?
Vincent: My best friend, Imara (because I think she’d thoroughly enjoy being trapped in a basement with these people as well.)
The Story: Hilarious. Last question. What makes Basement relevant today?
Vincent:  I think what makes ‘Basement’ relevant to today’s audience is its authenticity and its ability to relate. We all have our secrets, demons, things we hide from — whatever you want to call them — and I think this show will get the audience to think about theirs and how they have — or haven’t — dealt with them.
The Story: There should be therapists on stand by.
Vincent: For sure. I think I’m gonna go cry right now…
12001993_10153618856789594_2142959616_oVincent Soto is a recent Chicago transplant where he performed in various productions of ‘Grease,’ ‘Hairspray,’ and ‘The Incredible Ice Cream Suit.’ Vincent studied at DePaul University and furthered his acting training in L.A. at Anthony Meindl’s Acting Workshop. He would like to thank his friends, family and especially his director Corey for their never ending guidance and support.
Twitter: @vincentRsoto
Basement‘ is a part of the very first Los Angeles Theater Festival and will be playing October 7th – October 10th. Tickets can be secured at Basement.BrownPaperTickets.com


She’s starting a meal-prep business, is leading a community group for the L.A. campus of City Church, volunteering at City Church and is working it OUT as Michelle in ‘Basement.’ She was able to fit in this quick interview between pilates and a conference with her CPA.

The Story: Where ya from and when’d you move to L.A.?

J Jones: I am originally from San Diego and have lived in 2 big cities (SF and NYC) and I moved here 2 years ago.
The Story: Oooooo! NYC. Do you miss it?
J Jones: Every single day. There’s no place like that city.
The Story: Adam — who plays your brother in the play — is also from San Diego!
J Jones: I know! We’ve bonded over it a few times.
The Story: So you’re pretty new to L.A. then.  What do you think about L.A.’s theatre scene?
J Jones: I think L.A.’s theater scene is great and that means a lot coming from New York which is known as a place where you get the best theater. But since living here I’ve been so impressed by all the theater companies and shows they put up at places like Pasadena Playhouse, East West Players, Center Theatre Group, and so many more. I am so happy to a part of the L.A. theater scene. I think this festival is a good way to expose L.A. to new writers and directors and actors. Crap.
The Story: What? Are you okay?
J Jones: Yeah, I just remembered that I needed to go to the store!
(She grabs her ipad and starts tapping away.)
The Story: You’re a busy girl!

J Jones: I gotta get these visions out!
The Story: Amazing. Talk to me about this: how do you relate to your character in Basement if at all?
J Jones: I absolutely LOVE Michelle! We have many similarities. Although she teases her siblings a lot, at the core of who she is — no matter what — she truly loves her family and would do anything for them. And these boys — Yosef and Adam — have really become like my brothers. I also relate to her thought processes and desires for the simple life while at the same time pretending that she desires something else.
The Story: Sounds like girls got some issues.
J Jones: Yes, but she doesn’t think so and believes that — even though she know that she not doing the right thing — she’s doing the right thing.
The Story: Sounds like a lot of people. Wait.  I just realized that you have one of those names that screams “give me a nickname!”

J Jones: I know.

The Story: Top three?

J Jones: J Jones, Jen, and a recent favorite: Jenji. Somebody tried to call me JJ once. I didn’t stick.

The Story: HA! What’s been your favorite part about the process?
J Jones: Oh gosh. My favorite part about the process has definitely been understanding the family dynamic and playing in different situations while trying to navigate through the craziness. A lot of people don’t realize this, but acting is hard. You have to dig and dig and dig into these people and find out everything about them and their situations then you have to portray a constant discovery.
The Story: It’s like knowing the end to the story and having to pretend that you don’t in a way.
J Jones: In a way, yes.
The Story:  If you WERE actually stuck in a Basement with 4 other people, who
would they be?
J Jones: HA! If I were stuck in a basement, Hands down it would be my best friends Corey and Shamicka! We are 100% nutty and we would probably build forts and eat cookies! The other person would be our imaginary friend we would have created.
The Story: HAHAHAHA!
J Jones: It’s true! We’re nuts. I think we should have our own show.
The Story: Maybe one day. J Jones,  what makes Basement relevant to today’s audiences?
J Jones: Basement is relevant to today’s audience because the family dynamic is so similar to today’s family. There are secrets, hurt, love, laughter…but no matter what, we choose to stay together and work through difficult situations. There is always an annoying sibling, a fun parent, or sneaky children covering for each other all to keep the “PEACE” in the home.
The Story: Have you covered for someone to keep the peace?
J Jones: Have you?
The Story: Let’s toss that answer into the basement shall we!
J Jones: Deal!
Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 11.05.48 AMJennifer Jones began her professional career as a dancer. She has performed nationally as well as internationally in Industrials, live stage shows, and in concert dance performances. After receiving her BFA in Dance Performance Choreography with a minor in Speech Communications from SFSU, she began choreographing for numerous stage shows, dance concerts, and international competitions while studying at the prestigious dance conservatory Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She recently shot a pilot for BRUNCHED the Series and is excited to be a part of Basement!

Basement‘ is a part of the very first Los Angeles Theater Festival and will be playing October 7th – October 10th. Tickets can be secured at Basement.BrownPaperTickets.com