Thursday, October 13, 2016

Siamese S*x Show (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Watching Siamese Sex Show, I had the weirdest sense of deja vu.  Odd really, because yes the show is set in the future.  And more, its style remains firmly hip hop.  Yet I kept getting an 80s vibe, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Phantom of the Paradise!

Consider that a clue as to just how positive this review is going to prove!

In essence, we are in a world where a corporation has pretty much taken over the entire Earth, but the evil CEO (Keith E. Wright) wants more.  It isn't enough to have wealth and power over the entire human race.  No!  He means to turn every single person alive into a personal slave!  It all depends on the proper marketing of the latest invention, which will allow human beings to experience sexual pleasure sans any physical intimacy with any other human being.  Think about that for a second.  And shudder at the genuine depth of evil it represents, way more real than mere desire for political office.  Worse certainly than any supervillain in any recent movie, no matter how fun!

Central to the plan is George O. Thornhill (Eddie Gutierrez), advertising wiz kid, recruited  by the CEO's personal assistant Vivian (Jillian Easton). But rebellion is slowly taking shape, centered around the Siamese Sex Show of the title, a club where actual physical contact is encouraged, even celebrated.  There the once-great rock star Malika (Cloie Watt Taylor) forced into porn finds herself also recruited.  Others will soon join her, including the formerly idealistic stage magician Mr. Hadji (Riccardo Berdini) and maybe rapper/ex-con/head of the CEO's security forces Jamal (Sean Leon).

Adding to the cast are in effect two sets of narrators--MC (Isaac Cruz), and the svelt/sexy Board of Directors of the corporation (Dayna Alice Austin, Janelle Dote, Miki Holmes, Alyssa Noto).  Add to this a robotic rock star Cherry (Erin Rye) and the President of the United States (Todd Waring).

But a bare description of all this doesn't really cover what makes this show so very appealing, so very insightful.  For one thing, the plot is anything but straightforward.  It does more than a few curley-cues along the way, usually in the wake of a series of revelations.  Now, seeing as much theatre as I do, one thing I long for but rarely get is a genuine surprise on stage.  This show gave me one lovely little twist after another--even the ones I saw coming had an element or two I didn't expect!

Apart from the genuinely fun musical numbers, the very good and expressive dancing, the energy a show like this needs and the very real success it achieves in creating its own world that somehow still feels like it has something to do with our own--apart from all this Siamese Sex Show does something fairly rare.  But excellent.  It does not pull its dramatic punches.  Yet it does not become cynical.  Not once.  Lots of genuine tragedy makes its way onto the stage, real humiliation and moral complexity.  Nobody among all the characters is without sin, often carrying a fair amount of blood on their hands.  Two of our heroes are actual murderers.

Yet hardly anyone save the CEO is really evil--and he comes across as a major league sadist and sociopath.  The real thing, not exotic and lame versions seen on police procedurals--he thinks your life is a toy for him to enjoy.  But part of his real and terrible evil is the way he's corrupted others.

Still, the story is built around hope.  The hope that we can choose.  The hope we can--with some luck, but especially if we act together--make a difference.  Love can be real.  Evil does not always win.  Truth exists.  Redemption happens.  Sometimes what is broken can heal.

Not what we think of when we hear the words "a hip hop musical."  But one of the many little things I like about this show is how it confounds that expectation among many.  Siamese Sex Show manages that rare trick of threading a needle, blending entertainment and really thoughtful storytelling, winning high marks for both. Call in zany.  Call it mind-bending.  But never forget to also call it Art.

Siamese Sex Show plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until November 13, 2016 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd (one block east of Vine), Los Angeles CA 90038.

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, I loves me a good vampire story, and every Halloween I eagerly look forward to new productions of Dracula as well as any other vampire play in this theatre-filled metropolis!  Twice I was even the author of same (end blatant plug).

This year the Loft Ensemble in Sherman Oaks gives us Dracula: Blood Before Dawn.  Written and directed by Raymond Donahey, the first thing that really stuck in my mind was how he took Bram Stoker's novel and did something original with it.

Honestly, that is harder than it sounds.  For decades every single attempt at dramatizing this story felt the shadow of Bela Lugosi, then for a time Christopher Lee.  Since 1992 it seems as if the Francis Ford Coppola film had such influence.

Here at least we see something new!

Part of this consists of re-arranging certain details.  Mina (Ainsley Peace) becomes Jonathan Harker's (Mick Ignis) sister rather than fiancee, allowing her to be Lucy's (Lauren Sperling) lesbian lover (as well as the Victorian equivalent of a Feminist--which ironically in the novel she denies while behaving as if she were).  In the novel Dr. Seward (Paul Romero) is older than Holmwood (Jefferson Reid) while here they are contemporaries--more they argue quite a bit between the tried and true tradition versus the ways of science.  This particularly comes out in debates over evolution.

Credit Shane Tometich
Interestingly our Dracula (Matt Gorkis) proves to be an atheist, one who regards himself as the next step in evolution.  Yet at the same time, while glorying in his power, he proves bitter at his condition having tried every way he could imagine to cure himself.

Now this is all good stuff!  Under the circumstances one might think (as some have) that the tale should become a warning against science and trumpeting faith.  But no.  The whole show avoids such simplicity, not least by showing a Van Helsing (Marz Richards) firmly convinced vampires are but science we do not as yet understand.  But then, he also yearns for revenge.  This Van Helsing's grandfather died at Dracula's hand, while his father lost his mind.

Credit Shane Tometich
On top of all that, Renfield is transformed into a woman, Mary (April Morrow) the only survivor of the ship which brought Dracula to England. As ever, Renfield/Mary remains one of the juiciest of roles--as Gollum is to Lord of the Rings, so this character is to Bram Stoker's classic.

An ensemble portray mental patients, gypsies and the like--Marian Gonzalez, Victoria Anne Greenwood, Alex Fream, and Bree Pavey.  The result expands the story outward from what most theatrical versions do (for, let us be fair, perfectly logical reasons).  Now, while all this is good and fun and worthy of praise, I"m going to mention a few things that aren't equal to the rest.  For one thing, the supporting characters really are nothing but walk-ons, which is a shame.  For another, plenty of tiny anachronisms creep into the tale--even to the point where Holmwood quotes modern American Creationists in arguing with his friend Seward.   In terms of performance, I found Van Helsing as written more compelling than as played--simply because I find anger on stage one of the most common and boring choices.  When Richards is not being angry, his Van Helsing becomes far more compelling.  And while Sperling is a very charming performer, her Lucy as written has little or no personality.  One wonders why Mina fell in love with her.

Credit Shane Tometich
While I regard this criticisms as valid, I also feel compelled as well to offer praise.  Too many versions of Dracula play the whole story as melodrama (often with dash or two of pure camp).  Not here!  In fact there's quite a lot of nuance pretty much everywhere one looks, up to and including the ending which is anything but what one expects.  Or at least what I expected.  Because at heart this version isn't about an undead fiend being defeated, or an anti-hero coming to the end of his ways, or for that matter long-lost lover re-united across oceans of time.  What instead we find is the story is that of Mina Harker herself, whose defeat of (or defeat by) Dracula is just part of her history.  The ending proves open, a little surprising, and containing rather more hope than one might expect overall.

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm at the Loft Ensemble 13442 Ventura Blvd. (across the street from The Psychic Eye), Sherman Oaks CA 91423 until November 20, 2016.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Phoebe Zeitgeist Returns to Earth (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The City Garage latest show Phoebe Zeitgeist Returns to Earth is another complex piece of dream theatre by Charles Duncombe. This marks the second of his plays I've seen.

Conceived as a sequel the play Blood on the Cat's Neck by German playwright/film director Rainer Werner Fassbender, this work focuses on an alien Artificial Intelligence looking to issue a report on the inhabitants of this planet.  She lands in the city of Los Angeles during a Presidential election!  What a lovely opportunity to see humanity at its most raw and honest!

Or is it?

Credit: Paul Rubenstein
Therein lies much of the question as to whether any specific person will get much out of the show.  Back in the 1980s, while living in New York, I saw a fair number of plays by Fassbender.  His vision remains a vivid one to this day and so a sense of deja vu came with watching the performance.

Phoebe (Megan Kim) arrives and almost instantly begins encountering others, starting with the Cop (Zack Sayendo) who notes she shouldn't walk around naked like that.  Yet he offers to look the other way in return for sexual favors.  Phoebe has zero notion what he means and never does learn English.  Along the way she meets a Garbageman (Bo Roberts) who yearns for yesterday he remembers as better than today.  Later a suave Gigolo (Andrew Loviska) makes his profession sound almost kindly, countered by a Homeless Vet (Anthony Sannazarro) who can no longer function in the civilian world.  A English Professor (Trace Taylor) who comes on to Phoebe in a genteel sort of way, a ruthless Foster Mother (Mardaweh Tempo) who insists this is a hard life and if taking care/ignoring a bunch of orphans gets her some income, then great!

Credit: Paul Rubenstein
If you're suspecting we're getting a cross section of humanity--or at least America--you're not far off.  At least of the middle and lower class.  Phoebe never seems to encounter the relatively few rich and powerful.  Instead she meets (and scans) a College Girl (Lindsay Plake) with a history of sexual abuse she's still trying to process, a Porn Star (Kate Rappaport) turned skilled businesswoman, an Invisible Boy (Jeffrey Gardner) whose head brims with conspiracy theories and/or simply delusions or hallucinations, a Scary Girl (Kat Johnston) fairly bubbling with rage, an 80s Rock Star (David E. Frank) cruising on memories that haven't got much juice left, and finally the Activist (Johnny Langan) full of passionate ideas about what we should do to make the world better.

Part of the whole feel of this play, and in keeping with Fassbender, is how this last character increasingly seems like the least effectual of the lot--which is startling high bar.

Credit: Paul Rubenstein
Although everybody begins with the daunting task of acting to someone who doesn't respond (but they must presume she is), the cast eventually starts interacting with one another.  The whole point of the play eventually reveals itself--their interactions with each other barely change from with the totally alien, uncomprehending Phoebe Zeitgeist.  In a way they are worse!  Because they end up lying to each other as well as themselves.  More, while Phoebe shows no compassion or kindness she at least is never cruel.

Not so everyone else.

Fassbender's world view (at least as seen in the plays I've seen) was unrelentingly dark.  This play mirror or echoes that, every single character seems to devolve into a worse version of the person we initially meet--or, as is implied, they become more purely themselves.  Eventually everyone is on stage and begins arguing about the election, then everything involved in it, then every detail of each others' lives.  It becomes something like a mini-riot from which Phoebe emerges to give a devastating report to her far-off creators of life on planet Earth.  She notes the strange four-limbed mutant parasites are doomed to naturally make themselves extinct.  So, good news for the universe!

What we the audience experience is this story told with the focus of a laser beam, a dark and fierce critique of everything horrible we as a species do to one another--not in terms of nations or wars, political power or social policy, but in how we treat one another as individuals.  That focus is the direct result of efforts by the cast and director Frederique Michel's successful efforts in bringing these words to (disturbing) life.

Phoebe Zeitgeist Returns to Earth plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until November 13, 2016 
at City Garage, Building T1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.

Note: Sundays are "Pay What You Can" at the door.

Nevermore (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Just in time for All Hallow's Eve, Theatre Unleashed offers a "secret history" of the most macabre of America's poets--Edgar Allan Poe.  It even opened on the anniversary of the man's mysterious death.

Nevermore, by Matt Ritchey, becomes equal parts mystery and mind game pretty much from the very start.  Poe (Michael Lutheran) arrives at the estate of his childhood friend Montresor (David Foy Bauer) for a visit.  Upon the wall we see a portrait of the host's sister, Lenore (Elise Golgowski).

Fans of Mr. Poe should already feel alerted.  The easter eggs will keep on coming (some not even from Poe's own works).

When I call this a secret history, let me be precise.  The play intends to tell of events unrecorded in Poe's life, revealing a supposed "truth" about the man and his entire career.  Dudley (David Caprita), the estate's sinister butler, and Montresor's attorney Catherwood (Courtney Sarah Bell) make up the rest of the cast.

All five do wonderful jobs, and frankly the performances they pull off prove to especially impressive the more I think on it. For one thing the temptation to pull out all the stops and make this a camp melodrama sits there like...well...a raven above a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door!  Director Sean Fitzgerald wisely eschewed this, in favor of playing this as a drama--taking the gothic sensibilities as simply part of the play's world rather than a joke.  Wisely, in my view, not least because so much of the story ultimately depends on secrets each character is keeping from the others, practically from the first word!

More, this doesn't "feel" at all like the gothic tales we often think on--the Draculas and Frankensteins, the Dorian Grays and Dr. Jekylls.  Such remains our stereotypes of the gothic, firmly rooted in the Old World.  But Poe was an American to his fingertips and even his tales set abroad don't "feel" European somehow.  Class, for example, simply isn't as front and center.  Our sexual conflicts, likewise, arise not from a Roman Catholic perspective but rather a history of Puritanism.  The differences can be subtle, but very real. It even shows in Gregory Crafts' set design, with a lack of the traditional Victorian flourishes and bric-a-brac.  American homes, even those of the very wealthy, tended towards less ornamentation, less flamboyance.

Apart from design choices, though, what really lingers in memory is how the story progressed and how every piece fit together.  As we slowly get hint after hint to explain the odd tension between this two old friends, why they both drink quite so much around each other, what resentments simmer under the hearty welcomes and toasts to each others' health. 

I really want to praise Courtney Sara Bell for going an extra mile, because as written her character seems little more than a placeholder with some personality.  She took it further, making an interesting and compelling person who fits into the overall tale--this eccentric story of odd people caught up in strange events.

But specifics aside, the whole cast captured with genuine feeling and truth the sense of American Gothic which Poe so embodied. The whole play, design and blocking and writing and performances, felt very much not like an Edgar Allan Poe story so much as a story taking place in the same world as one.  A tricky and very entertaining balancing act to achieve!

Nevermore plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until November 5, 2016 at the Belfry Stage, upstairs at 11031 Camarillo Street (west of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91602.