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Reviews: Parasite Drag

Parasite Drag

Elephant Theatre Company at the Elephant Space

Reviewed by Les Spindle

August 18, 2010

The title of Mark Roberts’ lacerating drama refers to resistance factors limiting an airplane’s ability to gain altitude. Roberts’ characters are driven by passion in their desperate quests for happiness and inner peace, while a complex web of emotional baggage prevents their efforts from taking flight. The heart-wrenching work—in its West Coast premiere, under the expert direction of David Fofi—offers profound ruminations on family dysfunction in contemporary Middle America.

In small-town Illinois, Gene (Robert Foster) and Joellen (Mim Drew) have endured a staid, hostile, and sometimes violent 20-year marriage. The ever-uptight and hypocritical Gene is a Bible-thumping religious zealot, while the once-spirited Joellen attempts to drown her sorrow and boredom in marijuana. As Gene’s drug-addicted, AIDS-suffering adult sister lies in a hospital, near death, his long-estranged elder brother Ronnie (Boyd Kestner) arrives with his unsophisticated but kindly Southern wife (Agatha Nowicki). Gene and the ornery Ronnie instantly clash, dredging up a hornet’s nest of skeletons in the family closet, leading to an explosive climax.

Fofi guides a triumphant ensemble, creating an illuminating array of life-size characters. Foster and Kestner give riveting, multilayered portrayals; their interactions are frightening and fascinating, and the actors skillfully sidestep contemptibility in playing unpleasant characters whose redemptive qualities are submerged under strident behavior. Leavening the intense tension is the playwright’s mastery of ironic dark humor. Nowicki is a revelation, imbuing her ostensibly naive country bumpkin—to whom Kentucky Fried Chicken is a gourmet meal—with innate wisdom, compassion, and a purity of spirit that has eluded her new relatives. In the subtlest role, Drew likewise elicits sparks of sanity and hope, helping to anchor the play’s tumultuous events with her moving depiction of Joellen’s survival instincts amid the bleakest of circumstances.

Some viewers may carp that Roberts lays on the Book of Job parade of tragic family revelations a bit too fervently at the hell-and-brimstone conclusion. Yet that’s a minor quibble in light of the genuine chills, laughs, and food for thought generated by this harrowing work. Add the impeccable artistry of Fofi, his deeply committed cast, and an inspired design team (set by Danny Cistone, lighting by Joel Daavid, costumes by Louis Douglas Jacobs, original music and sound by Peter Bayne), and the result is a haunting evening of theater not soon to be forgotten.

Presented by Elephant Theatre Company at the Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Aug. 13–Sept. 18. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m. (213) 614-0556.

Parasite Drag — Theater Review
By Jay Reiner, August 16, 2010 03:16 ET
Bottom Line: Strong theater, bold and bleak in equal measure, but bracing.

In “Parasite Drag,” Mark Roberts continues his examination of the dark side of small-town life in Illinois. Another Roberts play, the deliciously black “Rantoul and Die,” covered some of the same territory last year, but in a more comic and exaggerated style. “Parasite” indulges in no such blandishments, and the result is an unsparing look at truly miserable and often unpleasant people.

Once again, we meet a couple whose marriage has reached its expiration date. As the play opens, Joellen (Mim Drew) has just slugged her mild-mannered, sexually inadequate, devoutly Christian husband, Gene (Robert Foster), because he objected to her smoking pot in the hospital with Gene’s dying sister. As they continue to argue, it’s apparent that the marriage has been dead for years, if it ever was alive. Pushed to the limit, Gene finally says, “I wash my hands of you,” and it’s hard not to sympathize with his plight.

In the next scene, Gene’s estranged brother, Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), and his wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), pay an unexpected visit. We can sense a train wreck in the making as Ronnie is an uneducated, foul-mouthed bully — with a bad case of hemorrhoids to boot — almost too obnoxious to bear. He goes out of his way to antagonize Gene, and Gene finds subtle ways to reciprocate.

Gradually it becomes clear that both men have been badly damaged by parents whose behavior ranged from the cruel to the criminal to the psychotic. The dying, misbegotten sister is another casualty of this nightmarish family. But whereas Ronnie has learned to ventilate his anger and spit life directly in the eye, Gene’s anger is largely repressed or submerged in religious beliefs he clings to for dear life.

If the impression to be gained by all this misery and bleakness is that sometimes people are damaged beyond repair in childhood, fair enough. But if you’re going to present your characters warts and all, it’s best not to show us just the warts. There has to be more to these characters than the playwright is telling us — forget about a drop of forgiveness — in his desire, perhaps, to exorcise the demons they embody.

Roberts writes the sort of pungent dialogue actors love to speak, and the cast, under David Fofi’s direction, brings his words passionately to life. Although too much of the drama relies on swapping stories, there’s no denying the intensity and brutal honesty of the writing or acting.

There’s a touching coda at the end of the play — after a gut-wrenching climactic scene — that underscores what appears to be the drama’s central point. Captured in home movies, we see the smiling, playful, innocent children these characters once were — or could have been — and we’re moved to wonder how their lives could have gone so wrong. One could think this of course of any story with an unhappy ending. But in this case, the contrast is heartbreaking.

Venue: The Elephant Space, Hollywood (Through Sept. 18)
Cast: Robert Foster, Mim Drew, Boyd Kestner, Agatha Nowicki
Playwright: Mark Roberts
Director: David Fofi
Set designer: Danny Cistone
Lighting designer: Joel Daavid
Producer: Lindsay Allbaugh
In association with: Don Foster

GO PARASITE DRAG As screwed-up families go, the one on exhibit in Mark Roberts’ ultra-dark comedy makes a serious run for the top prize. The first glimpse of Gene (Robert Foster) reveals a sullen man hunched over a kitchen table, with an ice pad on his eye, as he nurses a shiner he got from his wife, Joellen (Mim Drew); she sits, staring out of the door, wryly commenting on the impending tornado about to strike their tiny Midwestern town. Eight years without sex, and trapped in a loveless marriage, they are bonded only by the conventions of small-town propriety, shallow pretense and Gene’s fanatical Christian beliefs. The real twister, however, comes in the form of Gene’s boorish, foul-mouthed brother, Ronnie (the outstanding Boyd Kestner), and his countrified wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), who drop in unexpectedly. Apparent from the outset is the seething resentment between Gene and Ronnie, which Roberts’ fine script slowly heats to critical mass, uncovering a dark undercurrent of shared emotional and psychological mutilation. Sordid revelations emerge about the family’s troubled past, their mother’s bloody suicide and the sexual molestation of a drug-abusing sister, who is now dying of AIDS in a hospital. The final plot turn is raw and dirty. Notwithstanding the play’s bleak tapestry, Roberts instills plenty of comic relief into his writingThe characters are well sketched and without a trace or urbanity. David Fofi delivers spot-on direction and draws very good performances from his cast, particularly Nowicki, who artfully blends Southern charm and simplicity with trailer-trash attitude. Elephant Theatre Company, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat, 8 p.m.; through September 18. (213) 614-0556. (Lovell Estell III)

Theater review: ‘Parasite Drag’ at the Elephant Space
By Charles McNulty

August 26, 2010

Family drama, garnished with angst and served with a heaping side of regret, has been the staple American theater dish for decades. From Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” and beyond, the genre has come to define a national style of playwriting.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to wring new life out of the old misery, as Justin Tanner’s ill-conceived “Procreation” demonstrated earlier this summer with its toxic brew of dysfunctional caricature and stale sentimentality. Now at the Elephant Space, Mark Roberts’ “Parasite Drag” offers a more straightforward confrontation with domestic distress in a sincerely acted production, directed by David Fofi, that attempts to make up in somber honesty what it occasionally lacks in dramatic finesse.

Set in a modest home in small-town Illinois, the drama revolves around two estranged brothers with night and day temperaments who have reunited as their drug-addict sister lies in a hospital dying of AIDS. The play takes place as a tornado watch becomes a more dangerous warning (ah, good ol’ pathetic fallacy!), and the turbulent family history that has created the longstanding fraternal rift threatens to wreak even more havoc.

Gene (Robert Foster), a straitlaced churchgoer with an infuriating judgmental streak, operates under a rigid principle of denial. His marriage to Joellen (Mim Drew) has reached its breaking point, but he’s so convinced of his righteous nature that he hardly bothers to notice — even after his wife has just punched him in the face. When brother Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), as wild and disruptive as Gene is sanctimonious and repressed, turns up unexpectedly with his wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), the past finds all kinds of sneaky ways of repeating itself.

Roberts, a playwright (“Rantoul and Die”) who was an executive producer on “Two and a Half Men,” has thought through the psychological profiles of his quartet, varied the vices and virtues of the characters and given them each an emotional weight. His television background (he’s currently the creator and executive producer of “Mike and Molly”) reveals itself not just in his facility for setting up situations but also in his claustrophobic sense of action, which tends to revolve around kitchen or living room chat, even as the plot spirals in melodramatic directions.

The language of the play sticks largely to a banal idiom that’s in keeping with the milieu, but then, out of nowhere, an authorial voice not unlike the one that came up with the cumbersome aeronautic metaphor for the title can take over and a character as previously inarticulate as Susie starts using words like “conflicted,” “convoluted” and “highly suspect.” This Southern cutie with a dirty mouth isn’t the joke others mistake her for, but should she suddenly adopt the diction of a young teacher writing her master’s thesis?

The climax is even more jarring. As the story moves from quotidian exchanges to something resembling an expressionistic explosion in its final moments, the only thing holding the piece together is the conviction of the ensemble. Roberts provides enough substance for the actors to sink their teeth into. But this tale of two brothers can seem like a Greek tragedy trapped inside a soap opera.

Reviewed by Madeline Shaner
August 26, 2010

Parasite Drag: Anything but a Drag

Parasite drag is an aeronautical process which measures the freight an aircraft must pull before it can rise to the atmosphere in which it can approach the height and altitude it needs to maintain speed and mobility. The painfully splintered family in Mark Roberts’ devastating play stutters through an indeterminate cloud cover of love and hate, fear and loathing, memory and its aftermath – regret, before its characters can rise above the fog, fire and soul sickness of despised and pain-filled memories of a family in disarray, misalignment and distress, if that is ever possible.

Mim Drew as Joellen, a wounded, rebellious spirit, is married to Gene, played by Robert Foster, in a compelling turn as an Illinois Pastor who’s lost his way but has wrapped his nastiest instincts in a cloak of religious hypocrisy that preaches love but celebrates hate. There’s nothing that can be recognized as love in this destructive relationship, and none returned; this sterile marriage is way beyond saving.  Looming between husband and wife in this unloving relationship is Gene’s sister, a longtime, worn out, drug and alcohol addict who is lingering in the hospital, still clinging to the last shreds of a failed life lived in the shadowy and shattering pain of liquor and narcotics, soul sickness and despair.

When Drew’s brother, Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), shows up with his naive wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), ahead of the imminent wake of their dying sister, long term familial dissension and a lifetime of rivalry vie with grief and painful memories of a father who broke all parental boundaries in using his children as battering rams and perfidious outlets for his twisted will and creature comfort.  This could have easily developed into one of those run-of-the-mill, southern-fried dramedies that defy art and welcome guffaws and heehaws, but there are none coming through the painfully opening portals of the spoiled lives that are the result of a lifetime of abuse and family dishonor.  Just pain and loathing, and a creeping dissatisfaction at the turns their lives have taken. The two women, Joellen and Susie, bond over family portraits and a sanctified belief in infinite goodness and sweetness somewhere just beyond their grasp, and just after Joellen and Ronnie have, you might say, ‘bonded’ as retribution for all they’ve seen in the name of love and family dysfunction.

A dramatically wonderful second act takes this seething drama and turns it into almost a masterpiece as Ronnie lets loose and tells it all like it really was.  If a play should turn your inside out and leave you shuddering with sadness, horror and fear and loathing, then “Parasite Drag” fulfills all the ambitions of a first-rate playwright whose desire is to stir men’s and women’s souls beyond the merely ordinary.  If ever a second act stirred cavities  in the heart and soul that one never knew existed, this goes even beyond that to tear the soul into shreds of pain that leave deep, dark furrows that linger all through the drive home…and beyond.  Marvelous acting, superior stage design by Danny Cistone, lighting by Joel Daavid, original music and sound design by Peter Bayne, costumes by Louis Douglas Jacobs, and a stirring story by Roberts, combine to make this one more success for brilliant director/producer/artistic director, David Fofi, whose work has pulled the Elephant theatres into the top ranks of Hollywood 99-seat theatre centers, again and again.

RELEASE: Erich Bergen Celebrates Release of Solo CD with Concerts in LA and SF


In celebration of his first solo CD release, former Jersey Boys star Erich Bergen will debut his new club act in Los Angeles at The Magic Castle in Los Angeles on September 15, and at the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco on September 24.

Erich Bergen recently completed a three-year run starring as Bob Gaudio in the Tony and Grammy Award-winning Jersey Boys, as part of the Los Angeles, San Francisco, First National Tour and Las Vegas companies. Other recent credits include Gossip Girl (CW Network), White Christmas (Pantages Theatre), and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (Reprise).  In 2009, he co-produced, directed, and served as musical director for Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson, a benefit concert which raised $118,000 for Music Education in Nevada public schools.

“Erich Bergen, as Bob Gaudio, is the show’s breakout star.  With his lanky good looks and vibrant intensity, his charisma feeds off the spotlight,” said Charles McNulty in his Los Angeles Times review of Jersey Boys.  Said Steve Freiss in Las Vegas Weekly, “Bergen has a youthful and affable presence, an ability to play with audience expectations, a willingness to take risks and a confidence that does not come across as arrogance.”  And, Bonnie Priever at said, “Erich Bergen is a star on stage … a fresh, promising, musical talent.”

Bergen’s CD, titled The Vegas Sessions, will feature new studio recordings of original compositions in the pop genre, along with live tracks recorded during three sold out Las Vegas appearances at the Liberace Museum in April, 2009. The disc will be available for purchase at the upcoming Los Angeles and San Francisco club dates, and available October 1 at, CD Baby, iTunes and other digital music outlets.

The Inner Circle at The Magic Castle (7001 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood) will host Bergen’s California club act debut on Wednesday, September 15 at 8pm (doors open at 6:30pm).  Tickets are on sale now, at $15 for Magic Castle members and $25 for guests; there is VIP seating available for $50, which includes a copy of the CD, a post-show reception, meet-and-greet and a champagne toast.   Reservations  can be made at or by calling (323) 851-3313, ext. 303.  Attire at the Magic Castle requires jackets and ties for gentlemen, and absolutely no denim.

Bergen’s San Francisco appearance will be on Friday, September 24 at 10pm at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, located at 222 Mason Street.  Tickets are on sale now at $25 and $50 (same VIP package as The Magic Castle), and can be purchased at or by calling TicketWeb at (866) 468-3399.  Admission to both The Magic Castle and the Rrazz Room is limited to those over 21 years of age.

Visit Erich Bergen at, on Facebook at, and follow Erich on twitter @erichbergen.

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The Magic Castle, located at 7001 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, is the world’s most famous club for magicians and magic enthusiasts as well as the home to The Academy of Magical Arts, Inc.  Known worldwide as the showplace for some of the greatest magicians from around the globe, its latest artistic contribution, the Cabaret at the Castle, has also become the cabaret stage at which to appear in Los Angeles and whose recent performers have included Carol Channing, Florence Henderson, Lee Roy Reams, JoAnne Worley, Jason Graae, Ilene Graff, Rachel York, and the recent addition, once a month, of the popular New York hit Cast Party with Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch.