Thursday, August 25, 2016

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I've had the good fortune of seeing three previous comedies written and directed by Any Shultz, so I approached viewing Don't Go Breaking My Heart with confidence, even pleasure.  When comedies fail, it feels especially awkward.  The silence becomes louder than any gunshot.  Likewise you know a comedy works by echo of laughter in your own ears.

Good news!  I suffered no disappointment at all.  What I did find was a series of surprises--because Shultz does that.  He surprises us with a kind of zany twist on reality, but with a genuine heart behind it all, even at his most farcical.

Although Don't Go Breaking My Heart does not qualify as a farce.  Rather, I'd dub it a romantic comedy--thankfully one that avoids all the cliches plaguing the genre, especially in terms of films.

We begin in the home of Alan (Stephen Anthony Bailey) and his lovely, geeky wife Diane (Emma Chandler).  It is poker night, so Alan's best friend Jeff (Jon Christie)  is joining Diane's brother Mark (Javier Melgar Santovena) in the garage--because Jeff is no longer welcome in the house.  Calling this character a bull in the china shop that is his friends' (and his own) lives captures his personality pretty well.  He causes trouble.  He says things people shouldn't say.  By most standards he is a loser--not least because that summer job at a theme park at minimum wage remains his only source of income years later.  No wonder his wife Susan (Ilona Kulinska) wants a divorce!

Of course Susan is joining Diane in a get-together in the house, which results in one of a seemingly endless gyre of complications--the open conspiracy to not let these two know the other is present!  Adding to the brew--two more couples.  Mary (Samantha Grace Peterson) and Steven (Adam Messana) just moved into the neighborhood--squeaky clean to a degree just inside the bounds of reality.  Then there's cheerful, pretty Becky (Brianne Mammana) and her reluctant boyfriend Joe (Christopher Jewell Valentin) who knows with looming horror Becky expects a proposal any time now.  Believe me, the permutations possible with these ingredients bubble forth, with hilarious results!  And it bears noting a major reason remains how the characters remain real, remain not caricatures but living breathing people--silly, stupid, wise, flawed, delightful and infuriating people.

But wait, you may ask, didn't I say this was not a farce?  Yet the description sure sounds like one, doesn't it?

I know.  And no, this is not a farce--despite having the ingredients of one.  Rather it remains a romcom in the same vein as a lighter, zanier version of Love Actually.  Because in a farce one nearly always laughs at the people, at their foolishness and whether they have anything like a happy ending largely depends on the tone.  Don't Go Breaking My Heart is all about couples connecting, which makes it a romantic comedy, a remarkably successful one.  Each of these couples--and Mark kinda/sorta ends up part of one after he meets a Minister (Tom Jones)--undergo a quite funny trial by fire.  Each confronts issues arising from their personalities, from mistakes and assumptions made, finding hope in self-awareness and emotional courage.

Which could be maudlin as hell.  Instead, the script and actors together offer what too often gets little serious attention--the charm and importance of the ordinary.  Maybe that is why tragedies have historically so often been about the powerful in our society, but comedies increasingly deal with our neighbors, our classmates and the like.  The fellowships of the mundane, where the vast majority of human happiness and misery take place.  Not a huge drama about an arrest for murder, but the repercussions of a discovered lie between people who love one another. Not madness, but the frantic efforts of someone trying not to admit they have failed big time.  All, in this case, with a light and loving touch that looks unwincingly but also forgives.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart plays Thursdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until August 28. 2016 at the Archway Theatre, 10509 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

As Straw Before the Wind (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The program of Felix Racelis' As Straw Before the Wind contains a fact sheet about World War II in regards the Phillipines and about the survivors of that conflict, who make up a startlingly large percentage of the nursing profession in California.  I did not know this or most of the historical facts given. Which seems to be part of the point--to open up about the Filipino and (especially) Filipina experience.  Admirable.

Does it succeed?  Well, somewhat.  There's something here in the show, in the tracing of one family and how it the Japanese Occupation's abuses continue to shape events and relationships today.  Our focus is on Nene (Tita Pambid), who runs a convalescent home in San Gabriel Valley in 1993.  Impressively, although many of her acts seem despicable, I never hated her.  The play does a good job of hinting trauma lies behind many if not most of her life's choices.  Specifically, some flashbacks to what happened during the War begin building on that early on.

Here however lies a major problem with the production.  Whenever these flashbacks happen, the whole play stops.  The lights go down, people enter to remove the scenery in silence, then the lights come up for the brief flashback.  And then the process reverses itself.  Worse, this happens throughout the entire play!  Opening night began a few minutes after 8pm and ended roughly at 9:40pm.  At least twenty minutes of the play consisted of scenery shifts, totally ending all momentum or interest while the audience sat in darkness, bored.  Had the production played appropriate sound during these shifts, it would have made a big difference.  Maybe radio broadcasts from the era of the Occupation?  Music or songs that touched upon the themes of the play?  Instead we got darkness and silence, with every single scene then starting from zero.

This is a major technical problem and severely interfered with the play.  Frankly, given the relatively subtle nature of the dynamics involved, it comes near to derailing everything.  Nene and her daughter Pilita (Sarnica Lim) run the Home, and the two ambulatory clients we meet are Mr. Enrile (Muni Zano) and Mrs. Novak (Anita Borcia), both frail human beings falling apart at the seams.  These two pretty much steal every scene, but then in hands of good character actors these are the roles designed to do so!  Nene is not the most gentle of health providers, but at heart she seems to mean well.  She does not however listen much better than Mr. Enrile or Mrs. Novak.  When her daughter tries to tell her she's going to marry her boyfriend, Nene simply cannot accept it.  Is sure she doesn't mean it.

Later, during a meeting at a bank Nene gets lost in a memory, that of her family seized by Japanese soldiers and her uncle (Zano in a double role) managing to salvage her doll from the burned home.  Typically, she seems unable to follow the bank officer's process.  These are all very good building blocks to tell a compelling story--although frankly the structure does resemble a movie rather than a stage play.  Or so it seemed, because the production is designed that way.  Honestly, why not have the flashback in the bank officer's office?  Would be far more interesting and you don't lose momentum.

In the style of modern drama or tragedy, As Straw Before the Wind proceeds as Nene's life essentially falls apart around her.  We understand why Maria (Rochelle Lozano), Mr. Enrile's daughter, comes to resent her as she finds her father in restraints then is present as the old man has a stroke.  Just as how can we not sympathize with Pilita as she seeks her own life from this smothering presence  But the constant total ceasing of all action to overload the set with furniture bleeds away our attention--nor does it help given the cast has picked up on that funereal pace.

Finally, catastrophe happens.  A fire, almost certainly begun by the senile Mrs. Novak with her cigarettes amidst a very charming dreams of her late husband, burns down the home.  All the patients save Mrs. Novak survive, and we learn Nene has plenty of insurance.  But this house, it was one her uncle build for her.  Nene collapses emotionally, as we flash back to her rape by a Japanese soldier all those  years ago.  We understand how that avid need for control, for physical things and for people to protect twisted this woman into what she is now.

Yet the pacing and scene shifts made me work much harder than I should have to keep my interest.  Later, headed home, I kept thinking of all sorts of ways to stage this play in a more dramatic and interesting way.  Frankly I hope somebody someday does exactly that.

As Straw Before Wind plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and on Sundays at 3pm through September 4, 2016 at the Ruby Theatre in the Complex on 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Suitcase (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In some ways I live a truly wonderful life.  Mostly because I get to see a lot of theatre and much of that from a group of fantastic theatre companies, who produce shows that genuinely nurture the soul.  My soul.

Like The Suitcase by Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk.  No really, this takes the stuff of tragedy--on a scale both vast and intimate--and through the alchemy of art makes beauty in the shape of truth and joy.

Franswa Jackloh (Vincent Castellanos) is a retired gentleman in Paris, who at the insistence of his wife goes out one day.  They are officially separated but he cares still.  She insists and he goes, in part because she has seen he is looking for something, some fundamental truth.  Franswa doesn't know he is looking, but he is.

We know this because The Narrator (Jeff Alan-Lee) tells us.  He knows because he called the man's answering machine and voice on that machine told him.  In fact, that voice emerges from the phone line to find out who this Narrator might be.  Hence we meet Jackleen (Claire Kaplan), our second but named narrator.

Credit: Spencer Howard
Up front let me say that the two Narrators have their own love story going on, linked the tale of Franswa, makes one of many reasons I loved this play.

But back to Franswa--whom you may note is French but whose name is spelt phonetically.  Just a tiny detail.  But fun.  Now he tells us many things about himself but two stand out, two events.  First, his mother refuses to tell him anything about his birth father, who died when Franswa was a baby, never seeing the child.  And let us make this clear--she's told him nothing but the man's name:  Pantofelnik.  Second, years ago Franswa and his wife visited a city with what he called a "magic wall" where--locals said--you could leave a note in its cracks to be delivered to Heaven.

Against his better judgment, Franswa had written such a letter, rambling about his own lack of belief and intense but submerged desire to know his father, not merely the (good) man who married his mother and raised him. That note took the form of a fierce plea for a sign.  Of course, he says, nothing came of it.

So one day while his wife was having surgery, Franswa wandered into a museum, a Holocaust Museum in Paris, to meet with a frantic young lady, The Miserable Tour Guide at the Holocaust Museum (Alexandra Freeman) who has had it with this place!  She's depressed, and nervous, and this is her last day because she cannot take it any more!  The hundreds of photos, the unclaimed toys, the vast hill of empty shoes...!  She pulls herself together enough to answer Franswa's questions.  She even points out a suitcase.

Credit: Spencer Howard
A suitcase.  One of three, she says, to have somehow survived the travel from France to Auchwitiz Concentration Camp and then returned now to Paris.  No one knows whose it was.  There is a name, written in what seems to be a feminine hand, evidently on a card.  So they know the name of the man whose suitcase this was, but nothing more.  Save that of course he was a victim of the Holocaust.  Murdered, long decades ago.

The name?  You already know.  I did.  Still, when it was spoken out load, I felt it like a lightning bolt--just like Franswa.

Pantofelnik.  Franswa has found his father.

I don't want to reveal too much more.  I want you to buy a ticket and see for yourself.  But as you can imagine Franswa has problems dealing with this.  He even seeks out a Poet (Sigute Miller), well runs into her actually.  Later, he returns to find The Miserable Tour Guide no longer miserable!  Someone came to claim the suitcase, after all!  She imagines one day, perhaps, in the fullness of time, someone may yet claim all the items there--all the toys, all the shoes.  Maybe.  That such a minor character has such an arch helps make The Suitcase a little more special--no small feat.  I can tell you the memory of Pantofelnik (Eric Keitel) does in the end make an appearance.

Meanwhile the Narrators watch, and their lives are changed.  As are ours, the audience.  As yours can be.

The Suitcase plays Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm until August 25, 2016 at the Echo Theatre in Atwater Village, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039.

Passages 2016 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Each year Theatre Unleashed in North Hollywood shows a series of short plays directed by company members but using non-company members for the cast.  It has proven quite handy in recruiting new talent and highlighting original writing.  The event is called Passages, and is underway.  As ever, the results end up a tad uneven but worth the price of admission.

Five plays make up this year's lineup:

Telemachus, Friend is a musical of all things (don't scoff--TU did a cluster of mini-musicals this past Hollywood Fringe to justified audience acclaim).  A western love story, about a triangle that refuses to become a tragedy because the people involved--Telemachus Hicks (TR Krupa), Widow Jessup (Kristen Bennett), Paisely Fish (Jeff Blumberg)--prove just too nice to let it get to that point.  Lindsay Zana and Mel Hampton make up the rest of the cast as singing Narrators. It makes for a charming show, but Bennett kinda steals it. Book & lyrics by Michael Gordon Shapiro and directed by Graydon Schlichter.

Revisiting the Cave by Ben Atkinson is an interesting little slice of life, equal parts hope and despair, but without much judgment aimed at the two characters--a Friend (Francesca Gamez) visiting the cave of the title, home of the Gamer (Lena Raff) who still gets high and plays games and is still in show business with not a lot of focus or prospects.  Yet I liked them both.  Liked them together.  They'll probably never see one another again, which was bittersweet yet okay.  Kudos to the cast and director Liesl Jackson.

The Picture of Oscar Wilde by Brandie June Chernow might be my favorite script offered this year.  Essentially it imagines the great writer Oscar Wilde  (Samwise Aaron) on the verge of death in exile following his release from prison for sodomy.  A handsome young man approaches and turns out to be none other than Dorian Grey (Damien Luvara) , arguably his most (in)famous and personal creation. Author and creation have a conversation, immortal character and dying human man, about life and art and desire.  Frankly, the whole thing proved so well-written I wanted a longer play.  Half an hour at least!  I was less than fascinated by the actors, but then I also thought they probably had the most difficult task, and director Matthew Martin certainly drew something quite real from them.

Cyrano di Padua by Bobby McGlynn frankly felt rather odd.  Imagine if you will Cyrano de Bergerac (Jeremy Michael Kozeluh) as a good friend of Petruchio (Nate Champion) from The Taming of the Shrew.  Hence the famous "balcony scene' of the former's play is reworked into a plan to help Petruchio win himself a bride, Bianca (Madi Vodane).  Yeah, Bianca.  That he ends up with Katherine (Kimberly Sadovich) is the twist, one I personally found a bit beyond my understanding, but maybe that was me.  Director David Foy Bauer certainly seemed to have done a fine job.

Get a Job by Wendy Gough Soroka might be the most successful miniplay of the show, simply  because it comes closest to realizing its full potential.  Plus I love the premise--an afterlife for fictional characters who died.  Hamlet (Michael Marcel) goes to an employment agency in this afterlife and finds out his worker is none of than Medea (Libby Letlow).  Honestly, this is my kind of zany, played to a tee by both performers and with some genuine surprises to enjoy along the way.  Directed by Courtney Sara Bell.

Passages plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until August 20, 2016 at the Belfry Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St, North Hollywood, California 91602 (upstairs).