High Hopes: The Medical Marijuana Telethon

Written and Directed by Virginia DeMoss

At The Found Theatre in Long Beach

Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014

By Ross Altman

High HopesIt was a solemn occasion, Mother’s Day, taking the whole family out to a Champagne brunch at Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site in the morning, where you could enjoy Randy Newman’s “another perfect day” in sunny Long Beach, to the Latin beat of the James Cheeseman Jazz Trio and Grand Marnier French Toast and Bourbon-soaked ham (well, some of us could; a 12-stepper like myself enjoyed the vegetarian frittata and fruit salad, orange juice and coffee), catered by Sofia and hosted by Rancho Los Cerritos own Ellen Calomiris.

But the solemnity quickly ended as soon as we got to the Found Theatre further down Long Beach Boulevard, where we caught the Mother’s Day Matinee of their latest twist on reality—The Medical Marijuana Telethon. The play takes on “one of the burning issues of the day,” the concerted attempt to make the fruit of the weed available to “every man, woman and child in America.” If you believe what you read in the papers, that Sid Caesar, the Show of Shows creator and greatest sketch artist of all time, had passed away, you would be in for a rude awakening. For he is alive and well in Virginia DeMoss’s flamboyantly capable hands as Caesar and his co-conspirators Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks inspired this madcap comedy riot for 90 minutes of non-stop laughter.

It was a low rent, high hopes faux-celebrity festival of great sketches that captured unerringly and pushed over-the-top the uniquely American phenomenon of the round-the-clock Telethon pioneered by Jerry Lewis for Muscular Dystrophy and L.A. Chabad’s manic Rabbi Shlomo Cunin over the past thirty years. It was hosted by “Dr. Kenny Kushner,” (surely inspired by playwright Tony Kushner) portrayed by Cameron Moore—who projected a Billy Crystal sweetness even as he lampooned the medical necessity of so much free-floating Mary Jane in the air and on the airwaves. The only thing missing was “Bob Dylan” singing Hava Nagila, or better yet Everybody Must Get Stoned (Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35).

If you thought the 1960s were over since the death of Jerry Garcia, you would have been thrilled to see them levitated in the high-voltage guitar solos of “Axl Thorn” who did a spot-on impersonation of Guns N’ Roses namesake Axl Rose—as portrayed by Ron Grigsby with enough hair to costume the entire cast of Hair. His performance was as delicious as the French Toast from the brunch (which—full disclosure—I sampled without the Grand Marnier sauce—the powdered sugar was enough for me).

The sixties were also reincarnated in the life-transforming performance of “Musty Springfield,” as portrayed by Jen Moraca with her chart-topping Son of a Reeferman.

You could almost smell the THP blowing in the wind.

Whatever your musical or sexual orientation Virginia DeMoss’s psychedelic script had it covered, including a late-inning rendition of a joyous Klezmer tune that blind-sided me with its Old World heymische tug at some heartstrings I didn’t know I had. It was just what the doctor ordered.

It would not have been a Telethon of course without an on-going flow chart of monetary contributions kept up to the minute throughout by the “Jumpin Beena-Deenie” chorus line and telephone operators—who logged in pledges totaling $28,179 before the play was through. Even there Virginia threw in some screwball comedic touches as the total number occasionally went down—indicating that viewers had called in to rescind their previous pledges. I won’t spoil the ending for you by letting you know what happened to them, but it was worth the price of admission—which by the way was only $15.

For me there were two standout performances of the show; one a faux sermon by the remarkable actress Lauren Nave who portrayed an Aimee Temple McPherson street-corner preacher named Loretta “Lordy” Lovejoy, and whose impassioned eyes captured the spirit of genuine religious fervor as she made the case for the medical benefits of pot; it was both laugh-out-loud funny and profoundly moving at the same time—a delicate balance that took a real artist to pull off. Lauren Nave was also responsible for the dazzling choreography.

But for those of us who grew up on the greatest entertainer America ever produced—and her nearly-as-talented and desperate daughter—the most memorable moment was the uncanny appearance of Miz “Lisa Minnulli” as portrayed in all her razor-sharp and dysfunctional glory by the stunning lookalike Beverly Shields—who managed to capture both mother (perfectly timed for Mother’s Day) Judy Garland and daughter Liza-with-a-Z in one sweltering performance. She won my heart, and I told her so after the show. She single-handedly lifted me over the rainbow.

The Found Theatre’s The Medical Marijuana Telethon—with all its comedic energy—has a serious point to make—and that’s the right of the people to seek what Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in his masterpiece Dover Beach called “surcease from pain.” It’s now an answered prayer in 21 states, but the Obama administration has still to catch up, and tragically depends for many people on local law enforcement’s willingness—as they sometimes do—to look the other way rather than add to overcrowded jails bulging with patients who are simply trying to manage chronic pain with a known palliative—marijuana.

It was a point well taken by this reviewer, since I cut my activist teeth on Prop 215, the 1996 California Medical Marijuana Initiative that put the Golden State in the forefront of social change. A few years later my friend and fellow performer Lee Boek’s wife Marlene was enduring painful cancer treatments and relying on marijuana for some relief, when the Bush 2 administration watch dogs shut down the West Hollywood cannabis dispensary and put its organizer (and Prop 215 architect) Pastor Scott Imler in jail— who, himself, was being treated for cancer and relied on marijuana for pain management. They couldn’t catch Osama Bin Laden, but they caught Scott Imler. A great day for America.

This play performs a public service by reminding the audience—with the brilliantly orchestrated counterpoint video segments produced by Mike Brown of Back of the Mind Productions—of the truly dark ages of government propaganda films against smoking marijuana from the 1950s—the horror stories against which the hippies, Yippies, flower children and finally even Methodist ministers like Scott Imler rebelled. They were the rebels with a cause, and this cause still resonates. Lighting and AV technician Ken Bosworth brought this historical backdrop to life with a seamless visual narrative that punctuated the stage production with mind-blowing contrasts—like a Greek chorus commenting on the play throughout. It added a rich layer of sub-textual annotation to the broad comedy that engaged our conscious attention.

Too see such punitive laws still on the books after a rising chorus of enlightened live-and-let-livers ranging from San Francisco’s former Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom to the late great Yale graduate and Libertarian Republican William F. Buckley have all come to the conclusion that the government has simply no business punishing people for exercising their right to control what they put in their own body is disheartening to say the least. But we the people still have a voice—and the Found Theatre’s Virginia DeMoss is speaking for many of us in this passionate plea for tolerance—using laughter as a weapon in the time-honored satiric tradition of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

So here is my modest proposal: Do yourself a favor; go and see this play. It will be there for one more weekend.

In memory of Marlene Boek; with thanks to Virginia DeMoss for a press pass; for information and tickets to the Found Theatre’s production of The Medical Marijuana Telethon visit their website. The Found Theatre is at 599 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802 (at the corner of 6th St and Long Beach Blvd.) 562-433-3363 .

On Sunday, May 18 at 4:30pm on the Railroad Stage of the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest in Paramount Ranch Ross Altman will present Sing Out for Pete!, a tribute to Pete Seeger; see www.topangabanjofiddle.org for tickets, information and volunteer opportunities.

On Sunday, May 25 Ross Altman will be honored by the Chinese human rights organization the Visual Artists Guild for his song Tiananmen Square, which he will sing in Chinese. See his May/June column Tiananmen Square for details and reservations.

On Saturday, May 31st 2014 Ross will present a protest song workshop and concert at the Claremont Folk Music Festival at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. 10am-9pm. General Admission: $40

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com