Friday, October 18, 2019

Never is Now (review)

Just a quick note/moment of boasting--Night Tinted Glasses has been declared one of the "Top Thirty Theatre Blogs."  You can check this out for yourself at the link to the top right!  Woo hoo!

Spoilers ahoy!

The subject matter of Never Is Now by Wendy Kout can almost not not work.  Recounting in chronological order the lives of young people who survived the Holocaust nearly seven decades ago needs only basic competence to strike the heart.  Such remains the nature of that atrocity--or, more accurately, that cascade of atrocities.  Who cannot find themselves moved?

So in a way, the subject matter makes things easier.  As does the format, reader's theatre, in which there's little overall story but an almost documentary-style presentation of events.

Make no mistake--it works.  It works due to a simple fact--these real lives harrow us, just by the sharing.  Such truths lash out, making audiences wince and often weep.  I certainly did.  Which remains the whole point.  If we let ourselves feel, then the experience of such memories shared changes us.

The readers' theatre format is an almost too-easy way to approach the subject matter--which, to be sure, I've experienced dramatically with much greater power and pathos many times--but seems almost perfect for its avowed audience.  Never Is Now existed first as something to perform at schools, exposing very young people to this slice of genuine horror out of history.  It need not be superlative, only good.  Which it succeeds at, very well.  In fact, technically the production co-directed by Tony Abatemarco and Celia Mandela Rivera proves almost a "how to" for shows with many, many sets and constantly changing locations and times.  Someone like myself who sees theatre a lot can savor the raw, seemingly effortless (not it isn't but it looks that way) flow of story amid the constant change which in so many productions stops the action dead in its tracks.

So the basics are good.  Given the subject matter, good means heart-piercing.

It goes one better--by creating a sense of the players themselves reacting to the material.  One of the most powerful saw Sarah Tubert realization that she, as someone deaf, would have been targeted and early on.  She captures the helpless rage of looking back a vicious injustice, one that would have included her, the retroactive fear and longing to change things, which of course cannot be.  That story is written.  It cannot be undone.  All we can do is learn from it.

Likewise this "framing" delves into current events, with Eliza Blair for example noting how she has now become weary and afraid in the face of rampant, resurgent hatred.  Like so many in the Reich, she feels a desire to wait out the troubles, hoping to survive.  A bit more complex is Michael Kaczkowski as the only cast member who admits to voting for Trump, spewing sincere concerns that sound so utterly shallow--and Adam Foster Ballard calls him on it with his own story as one of those already targeted under Trump.  But to be honest, this framing doesn't always work. Maybe it cannot, given how little time we are given to know the players (or the versions of the players the piece calls for).

Still, it remains good.  It does more than tug at the heart strings, actually beating on one's heart like a drum.  Playing "Taps" most likely, for the dead and the vanished in their still-uncounted numbers (no one can ever know the exact death toll, still less the measure of pain involved).

The show ends with a simple coda, the faces of  real survivors whose stories have been told.  Faux writer Evie Abat and director Joey Millin spring this "change" on the cast, just as they feel exhausted not only from the play but their explored reactions to it.  So it ends on a note of melancholy hope.  Which again, is good.  It moves us, as it should.  As it must.  As it will--and if it does not frankly that seems like a problem if it does not.

Never Is Now plays Fridays at 8:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8:30pm, plus Sundays at 2pm until October 27, 2019 at the Skylight Theatre (north of Hollywood Blvd), 1816 1/2 North Vermont, Los Angeles CA 90027.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Manitou House (review)

Just a quick note/moment of boasting--Night Tinted Glasses has been declared one of the "Top Thirty Theatre Blogs."  You can check this out for yourself at the link to the top right!  Woo hoo!

Spoilers ahoy!

Just in time for Halloween, The Manitou House comes out from the Culver City Public Theatre.  Written and directed by Trace Oakley, essentially the show is an homage to a certain type of made for t.v. horror/thriller movie churned out in the 1970s.  Since these were indeed my own teen years, I totally 'got' what he intended to both spoof, honor, and emulate.

Let me be very clear.  As an idea this seems fine.  During the performance, plenty of times spooky events genuinely felt spooky.  One of my favorite types of "horror" might better be called "meeting the uncanny" and this play fits that bill!

Novelist Martin Hale (James J. Cox) returns to the small Colorado town where he grew looking for inspiration.  A little eerily just to start, the town's name turns out to be Manitou Hills.  But the eerie details start to mount, as the house where Martin grew up turns out to have been vacated days previously, available for rent at a ridiculously low price.

And the eerie mounts.  His cell phone won't work in the house.  The landline sometimes works, sometimes does not.  People come to see the former owners, baffled as to why they'd leave.  For that matter there's the townsfolk, who seem just plain odd.  Plus someone he used to know way back when gives him the strangest looks when Martin mentions where he is now living.

Then he finds out the realtor who rented him the house died years ago.

Now doesn't this sound cool?  Nicely creepy?  A good Halloween show?  Well, it is.  Sometimes,  Sometimes it is not.  Frankly I think the author didn't have enough time to transfer his idea with complete success to the live stage instead of film (it began as a screenplay).  Many scenes are much too short, and don't really contribute smoothly to the overall feel and rhythm.  Yet sometimes they hit it out of the park.  Cannot say how much I liked the scenes when Martin sat down to watch one of his favorite movies as a kid, while we see Young Martin (Jack Heath) and his equally young sister Simone (Maggie McKissick) watching the same movie with their easily terrified babysitter Luch Rish (Lauren Bruniges).  In fact, these scenes prove vital to figuring out What Is Going On Here.

I could easily name half a dozen things wrong with this show, including a set that doesn't quite work for all it is supposed to do, and a denoument I don't quite understand.  Yet there remains something here that works, something that makes me hope the show gets good audiences and eventually a second production after some re-writes.  It also makes for a refreshing change from classic ghost stories in weird old mansions, usually in New (or olde) England.  The cast deserves praise as well--Nicola Henry, Jeremy Lima, Michael Clark, Robertha Mallmann, Chelsea Smith, Stusan Stangl, John David Wallis, with voices by Grace O'Neill, Sharon Grambo, Bom Grochau, Brian DeGracia, Margery Whalen, and Dave Parks.  A cast this size usually includes some duds, but not this one.  More, while I myself was not as thrilled as I'd hoped, the rest of the audience seemed to have a great time (instead of my own just "good" time).

The Manitou House runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, through October 26, 2019 at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Last Swallows (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, must confess right from the start playwright Cailin Maureen Harrison and director Kiff Scholl are friends of mine.  My respect for their respective abilities led me to expect quality when going to see Last Swallows.

Mind you, I have felt disappointment this way before...

Not this time though!  What I found going in, to my ever-growing pleasure, proved a profoundly moving family tale, a mini-epic focusing on the intimate, the little stories and dramas (and comedies) which make up most of our lives.  The experience felt poignant, infuriating, often funny, but in the end hopeful and forgiving.  Even grateful.

Which frankly seems what the characters went through as well.

Essentially the plot deals with elderly couple Elizabeth (Shaw Purnell) and her bird-watching husband Robert (Bob Telford).  The latter's periodic references to swallows, their migratory patterns, as well as his concern (to the point of some real confusion now and then) for some individuals gives the play its name.

They have three children--Julia (Tina Berckelaer), Caroline (Abby Eiland), and a middle brother Thomas (Ty Mayberry).  As with some families, sibling relations in this case veer towards combative, assigning blame, almost deliberate miscommunication, with someone functioning as a mediator (and in the process somewhat stifling their own maturity).  Each has a spouse--Edward (Matthew Downs), Simone (Leah Zhang), and Moira (Leilani Smith) respectively.  Each act focuses on how this believable, often amusing, at more often infuriating dynamic plays about as their mother seeks to get the whole family together for a vacation together this year.  She feels keenly, and sadly the tensions that keep them apart.  Besides, as becomes gradually obvious, a ticking time bomb awaits which means their possible time together must approach an end.

Now, the content of this deeply human family drama/comedy generated more than a few moments of personal recognition.  Let us say I am middle brother between sisters myself, and saw my own family's tension go unaddressed for too long.  But that is me.  Other specific details methinks resonates with others, because it highlights a wide variety of how humans interact with each other, especially when close (or hoping to be, or hoping to be less so).  I am notoriously stingy when it comes to standing ovations, while other members of the audience felt otherwise.  Small wonder!  The cast, directed by someone I already know superb at his job, brought this script to life with great skill and emotional truth.  This last frankly makes up a lot of what acting skill must be.  Telling the truth.  Even if that truth is make believe.

(Paranthetically a friend recently asked how good actors manage to create some powerful real moments which do not reflect anything of their own lives?  I answered "Actors pretend really, really hard--the way children do, but with the discipline and experince of adults."  This cast show off exactly that.)

I really want to also praise the play's style.  Eschewing anything like a box set with its nailing down of all action to one location, this play goes much further than a mere black box.  Rather the suggestive, rather lush set suggests a rich tapestry of life and homes.  People shift from location to location with minimal shifting of set elements--and often with scenes happening simultaneously!  This, the kind of thing only live theatre can really pull off, added to the power and beauty of the experience.

What I am not doing is telling how the story proceeds nor how it concludes, despite the warning above.  Rather let me say the odyssey of this family left me feeling I had taken the journey with them.  As the lights faded at the very end, I genuinely felt a tiny bit older and wiser for having lived a little bit of their lives.

Even though, of course, these lives never happened.  But that is what we mean when we talk about the Magic of theatre!

Last Swallows play Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until October 20, 2019 at The Other Space (part of the Actor's Company) 916 A North Formosa Avenue, West Hollywood, CA 90046.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Deadly (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Something about serial killers.  Like demons or dark lords or James Bond villains, they fill the role of charismatic antagonist in a way both over-the-top yet grounded in reality.  They make for excellent sources of theatre, from Sweeney Todd to The Vagrancy's Normal (about Peter Kurten) as well as lots of plays of Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. Now Sacred Fools offers a musical based on H.H.Holmes (also the subject matter of the best-selling Devil and the White City).

Deadly, however, takes a whole new--and entirely welcome, even thrilling--take on the whole idea.  Writer Vanessa Claire Stewart chose not to focus on the admittedly fascinating Holmes (who does follow the pattern of such being dysfunctional in the extreme) but rather on a handful of his victims.  The all-too-often forgotten ones, in part because there are so many, plus being so ordinary (in other words like you and me), and then there's the worst part.  They were women.  No a particularly prized commodity in our society at its worst.

Holmes (Keith Allan) was a doctor/pharmacist/mostly con man who owned and ran a building in a town outside Chicago during the 1892 World's Fair.  This building, in theory a hotel, earned a different title before burning to the ground in the wake of his arrest.  Murder Castle.  Full of traps and implements of murder, it included a chute taking bodies to the cellar.  He sounds rather like a figure in some horror movie, probably torture porn.  Most histories of the man and his crimes tend to assume he had sex with most of his victims.  In this, they are taking the murderer's word.  This show assumes he was lying a fair amount of the time.

Central to the entire piece breathes and sings (it is a musical recall) an amazing metaphor on many, many levels.  Holmes' Castle remains haunted by those he has slaughtered, at least some of them.  They turn out to be our protagonists.  Emiline Cigrand (CJ Merriman) was a nurse, helping those suffering from alcoholism, then looking to move up in the world.  Her favorite patient, a weak man under Holmes' control named Benjamin Pitezel (David LM McIntyre) developed a crush on her.  She did not reciprocate--an excuse for Holmes to kill her.  Just as Pitezal's temporary replacement Evelyn Stewart (Kristyn Evelyn) proved immune to Holmes' charms so he gassed her to death in her room. 

Not that it mattered.  Julia Connor (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), bored by her husband, did willingly go into his arms, believing his words of love.  He stabbed her to death, then pressued Pitezel to poison her daughter Pearl (Ashley Diane).  None of these are the first or last.  Indeed the chronological first victim of those we meet, Lizzie Sommers (Britney S. Wheeler) begins the show as a shade, sadly welcoming others as they cross the veil.

As their numbers grow, so too their rage and indignation.  Hopes and ambitions destroyed.  For what?  Lives snuffed out.  Why?  Human beings reduced to rotting flesh and broken bone, half-remembered names on ledgers here and there.  Spirits gather and seek to make their voices heard.  Eventually, they begin to succeed.  Pitezal begins to hear them, vaguely.  So does Holmes, although he fiercely insists otherwise.  Pinkerton Detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) never manages to, although he at least tries to find some of them--and in the end does discover the remnants.

Perhaps most poignant of all is how these ladies grow as people, in the company of each other and in the wake of what they've experienced.  Julia's sad lament on the Other Side, asking forgiveness of Pearl for not being a better mother almost broke my heart.  Anna Williams (Rebecca Larsen) and her sister Minnie (Samantha Barrios) weirdly, funnily, sweetly reconcile. 

But the refrain of their names, their demand to be found, to be remembered--this becomes a thread to unite the story especially in Ryan Thomas Johnson's tunes titled "Find Me Now" "Light a Fire"  "Herman Can You Hear Me?"

Clearly, Holmes (that wasn't his real name, btw) was caught in the end.  A true psychopath he never stopped playing his games, even when admitting guilt.  One of many strengths in this show is how some hints of the child he once was do emerge, yet excuse nothing.  Casual, calculated cruelty remain his hallmark--and we never ever forget it.  He never becomes a protagonist.  Never earns a drop of forgiveness, as perhaps he might have.  Pitezal does, in large part because of his eventual horror at his own actions.  Not so Holmes.

In fact, that brings up perhaps the best thing about the musical as a whole.  Director Jaime Robledo and Choreographer Brin Hamblin pull off a wonderful moment as, at long last, Holmes leaves life and meets his victims again.  He of course does not acknowledge them by name.  Nor apologize.  He gloats they'll never get rid of him now.

But--he is wrong.  Very wrong.  As they simply and profoundly demonstrate.  In a theatrical performance that cover quite a lot of ground, those final moments pleased me the most.  The simple but hard-earned victory of what should be over what should never exist.

Deadly plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm (with an exra performance Monday Oct. 21) until November 2, 2019 at the Broadwater Main Stage,  1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood, CA 90038.