Wednesday, November 15, 2017

King John (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the third time (including the BBC effort to do all of Shakespeare's canon) I have seen the play King John from start to finish. Not a most-produced work to be sure. Easy to see why.  Not a play with an obvious hero nor a fascinating villain. It lacks some really exciting war or startling battle, nor for that matter does it contain a love story.

Porters of Hellsgate production made me really appreciate the play for what it is, not an exciting delve into villainy or heroism (with all the complexity of either) but rather on a more subtle issue.  What makes a good king?  In fact, this theme was one Shakespeare explored time and again.  More, he ventured into the thornier question of making the right choice.

Credit: Mike Quain
This marks the first production of this play with that kind of utter focus, and makes it the best yet I've seen.

Never mind historical accuracy for now. Shakespeare never pretended to be an historian but a playwright and poet. Here we meet the title character (Gus Kreiger), younger brother of the noble, enshrined to eternal memory Richard Coeur-de-Lion, as well as the last surviving son of a brilliant mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hersha Parady). But the play starts off immediately with a problem for the monarch. According to the law, the son of his elder brother Geoffrey should be King not John.  France has taken up the cause of this young Prince, urged on by his mother Constance (Betsy Roth). So immediately we have a contest for England's throne.

Credit: Mike Quain
Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the plot, it all comes down to a deal to keep a war from continuing when neither side has the advantage.  In retrospect, the original audiences would probably compare this to another monarch, Henry V, who braved all when outnumbered five to won, yet prevailed.  But neither John nor his French counterpart (Jacques Freydont) do that, rather insist on making a peace by wedding John's sister (Cindy Nguyen) with the Dauphin (Jono Eiland), thus betraying the widow and her son Arthur (Molly Wear)--a role that could have been so cloying as to earn the audience's hatred but proves one of the best performances in the whole work.

What follows is a crude bit of plotting, bringing in John's contest with the Pope, a deep friendship that develops (mostly off stage) between young Arthur and his jailer, Hubert (Dan White), and sudden turns of fortune. The play has its problems, to be sure.

Credit: Mike Quain
But at its heart we feel the tragedy of King John himself, not so much that he was an evil man, but that he was not worthy of wearing a crown. Kreiger bears most of the weight of this play on his shoulders, doing it with skill.  We see into this man, most especially his vanity (the bright red uniform helps) and his lack of resolve. He longed for respect, and by play's end we so wish he had done what others urged him to in scene one--give up the crown to Arthur. We sense from this seed and example the vicious Wars of the Roses would one day grow.  Just as we realize had John done this, his name would been revered for the rest of time!

A subtle point, but one that echoes in the heart, where all human history is first writ.  And that is what makes this just a fine production, that it brings the human first and foremost before the spectacle (even though--let it be said--the battle scenes are just amazing).

King John plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through December 10, 2017 at the Whitemore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd (west of Lankershim) North Hollywood CA 91602.

Wake (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Audience expectations tend to be tricky things. To some degree this depends upon genre.

Wake by Gordon Dahlquist, if not science fiction, certainly begins and explores a pretty clear and well precedented science fiction trope. Someone wakes from cryogenic sleep far into the future and must adjust.  Buck Rogers essentially.

Except, no.

Irene (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) had advanced pancreatic cancer and used her resources on a wild chance, that someone frozen in liquid nitrogen just might be revived in later centuries. When she wakes in a strange room to the greetings of May (Alicia Rose Ivanhoe), a cheerful young woman with a strange vocabulary, the truth dawns on her pretty quickly. It worked. Behold the future! 


At this point many a science fiction tale would begin describing the future world, if in fact the story turns out to be some kind of social commentary on the trends of human society. Or it may become some kind of adventure in which the awakened person will prove crucial to history or some such (this was the story of the second JJ Abrams Star Trek movie). I never thought the latter very likely here, but wondered how the first part of that expectation might play out. That at first May seems reluctant to tell Irene much heightened that expectation.  At first.  But increasingly, as we get to know more about this future, the less terribly important that became.  Details all proved important, but not what the story was about.

Irene began and remained the story's focus, for every moment, and she remained the only character on stage the entire play.  All seventy minutes with no intermission.  Even as we meet the sentient computer (or something like that) called The Platform (Megan Kim) that both runs and enables, nurtures and learns from the lives of those like May and her would be boyfriend Sen (Jeffrey Gardner), the more we share Irene's curiosity and frustration.  When is this?  How much time has passed?  Hints given early prove disturbing.  Her capsule? Found in sea water.  People have very odd beliefs about her own time, not least the amount of violence. No one, not even The Platform, knows what she's talking about when Irene mentions ancient Egypt or the Pyramids.

Her world is gone. Her context has vanished, evaporated over time. Hardly anyone else was ever found frozen and with enough left to be revived.  That was Sarah (Sandy Mansson) who died decades ago.

With us, Irene endures this loss -- the realization of being utterly alone, not physically nor literally, but robbed of every single detail that made life make sense. Not by anyone, just by chance.  This then proves the exploration, the odyssey of this work -- not a revelation of plot or world-building, but of human courage in the face of tremendous loss.  All in all, Wake does an astounding almost Haiku-esque job of giving us the heart, the soul of the story and very nearly nothing else.

We see someone find courage to go on. To trust the supremely unfamiliar. To begin to let go of what after all can never come again -- the past.

Wake runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm (pay-what-you-can at the door only) until Sunday, December 17, 2017 at the City Garage, Building T1, Bergamont Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Final Girl (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When I finish telling you about this, you might believe this stageplay should have been a movie.  For the record, if you do think this, you are wrong.  The fact is seems like it should be a movie makes an essential part of the delerious fun!

The Final Girl takes its title from a trope in all those 1980s slasher flicks.  Remember that one girl in the end trying to get away from the masked maniac with a knife or an axe or a scythe or something?

She's the hero of this show.

In fact the play is a virtual sequel to every single one of those flicks, but re-imagined not as simply another slasher film but a superhero origin story!

Victoria (Andrea Nelson) alone survived a spree killing that killed her family and friends.  Seven years later, we meet the almost frighteningly focused young woman she has become, among other things an impressive martial artist.  Her former therapist Dr. Harriet Lewis (Kristin Carey) turns out is worried about her.  She has reason, since Victoria is moonlighting as a vigilante hunting down explosive psychopaths who escape from prison or asylums to go on brand new killing sprees.

Photo: Darrett Saunders
So when Wayne Walton (Eric Rollins) breaks free to return to his hometown, Victoria dons her own mask to follow.

Okay that sounds like a fun, straightforward Holloween fare, but believe me the twists come fast and furious.  The whole story has a very dark (and funny) sensibility, not least how Victoria's personal "kink" involves the masks of those psycho killers she's killed.  Plus the cliches that do backwards sommersaults in all sorts of entertaining ways.  The fight scenes prove absolutely spectacular, sometimes with the help of black-clad stage hands who move things "unseen" by the cast.  It helps also the cast proves so uniformly high quality, up to and including the seemingly innocent college kids who've gone to have a relaxing weekend in a hunting cabin miles from anywhere right after the psycho killer has escaped (Jason Britt, Zoe Yale, Juan Carlos Haro, Chloe Madriaga, Andrew Clark).

Or not so innocent.

This show is one of the most fun and original I can remember, zany and yet adult, over-the-top yet somehow real, dramatic yet hilarious.  Strongly recommended.  Really.  I mean it.

The Final Girl plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until November 4, 2017 (with a special performance Halloween Night at 8pm) at the McCadden Place Theatre (east of Highland, just north of Santa Monica Blvd) 1157 North McCadden Place, Hollywood CA 90038.

Deviled (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

'Tis the season for spooks and horror, for the dead to walk and the insane to stalk the living.  It is also time for Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in NoHo to offer a tour of Hell.  Well, of course.

Deviled is precisely that. We the audience find ourselves greeted by...someone.  Or something.  Could be both.  Anyway, our host offers a glimpse of something so long as the magical wards remain in place.  Do not go beyond the wards he/it warns, lest ye never escape.

Longtime ZJU fans may know what to expect next.  They will be partially right.  Many of the cast are ZJU veterans and various newcommers.  Acts of the grotesque and disturbing make up the fare of what we see, but as ever this is not generic set of horror images.  The earlier description holds -- a tour (or perhaps "glimpse") of Hell itself, that part of the afterlife consisting of cruelty. 

What follows lacks the raw shock of many works directed by Zombie Joe, as well as the simple horrifying details of those done by Jana Wymer.  No, in this case Brandon Slezak goes after a landscape that remains totally disturbing on many levels right from the start.  A place where dark impulses literally become the flesh and bone of its prisoners/inhabitants, where loss of self and degradation seem part of the air itself.  Not simply because of random acts like a man trying to crawl away only to be found and raped by a silently gigging imp.  Or the insectoid birthing scene almost everyone seemed to enjoy way too much.

(Did I mention no one under 13 is admitted?  Yeah.)

No, what really disturbed were those moments when what seemed like human souls were being awakened, invaded, warped.  A ritual/dance/sleepwalking series of metaphormoses proved in some ways the worst -- what (presumably) were once human beings reshaped into monsters via an instinct to fuse their flesh together.

Yeah, no clowns jumping out and yelling "Boo!"  This makes for much more disturbing fare.

Please note the cast overall did a fine job, so kudos to Patrick Beckstead, Megan Combes, Michelle Danyn, David Dickens, Ian Michaels, Baba Njie, Brandon Slezak, Michaela Slezak and Claire Stephens.  

Deviled (which given the spelling really should be pronounced dee-VILE-d) plays Wednesdays at 8:30pm, 9:30pm and 10:30pm until November 15, 2017 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.