Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Very Die Hard Christmas (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This year Theatre Unleased has two of its very popular holiday productions in repertory, dubbed "Naughty" and "Nice."

"Naughty" (for language and violence mostly) is A Very Die Hard Christmas.  The premise is pretty simple.  Take the 1980s action blockbuster Die Hard (which did after all take place at Christmas time) then blend it with a variety of different beloved Christmas specials and movies--including Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Nightmare Before Christmas.   Add in some show tunes, plus plenty of jokes and behold one of the zaniest musicals you're ever likely to see!

The story basics are there for anyone who has seen the movie.  NY Detective John McClane (Wade F.Wilson) is on his way to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Kire Horton) and the daughter in Los Angeles.

For some strange reason Holly's employers are having their office Christmas Party on Christmas Eve, when a group of terrorists led by the West German but seemingly very English Hans Gruber (Josef Knauber) take over and want access to the super high tech vault.  McClane isn't expected and escapes into the unfinished floors of the skyscraper, starting an elaborate--and very, very, VERY violent game of cat and mouse.  No, really, I mean it.  By the curtain call McClane is dripping stage blood from all the fights.

This narrative is taken about as far as a theatrical venue and a really dark, absurd sense of humor will allow.  Musical numbers are the least of it.  So too the constant gags based on pop culture (usually but not always of the 80s).  An example of the latter is someone asking Gruber what "Hermione is really like" much to his rage.  But it gets more grotesque than that--up to and including deaths that are actually in slow motion.

Most of the cast--including Mark Lopez, Liesl Jackson, Robby De Villez, Lee Pollero, and Twon Pope actually play multiple roles.  One of them actually has to play three characters in one scene!  Meanwhile references to other Die Hard movies as well as bizarre little homages to Christmas abound.  One of the tenets of comedy is that everything isn't quite "real" (most of the time).  Everything is removed enough from reality we don't take what happens seriously but can wallow in the absurdity.  So a play in which an audience member is chosen to portray a character no one remembered to cast gives us a set up to laugh out load at someone being machine gunned to death.

Make that several people.  By a woman giving birth.  On Christmas.

Yeah, if you are easily offended don't go see this show.  I on the other hand laughed and laughed and laughed.  If you saw last year's production of the same musical--most of the cast is different and there've been other changes.  It is a different performance in many ways.

Enjoy!  I know I did.

A Very Die Hard Christmas plays Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8pm until December 18, 2016 at The Belfry Stage, upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood CA 91602.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Along with A Christmas Carol, screenings and adaptations of the Frank Capra film It's A Wonderful Life flood the media each yuletide season.  NoHo's Theatre Unleashed, like many a Los Angeles theatrical group, proved unwilling to simply mount a classic.  They re-imagined it, in part because company member Jim Martyka wrote a fresh version--one with more than a few delightful surprises.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play proves itself a play-within-a play.  Like many an adaptation, Martyka's script uses the style of a radio play to get around the flashbacks and vast character changes required by the story.  But what his version does--and others do not (at least the ones I've seen)--is give a parallel story to the radio performers themselves.

We find ourselves in the studio of KAWL, a struggling radio station in 1940s Los Angeles with the cast and crew of tonight's live performance straggle in.  Honey (Caroline Sharp), Harriet (Molly Moran) and Holly (Ariana Weiss) set things up and gossip among themselves.  In the show they'll serve as a chorus singing Christmas carols for transition and atmosphere.  Soon the actors start to enter.  Victor Saul (Graydon Schlichter) almost trips into the studio, obviously drunk and as a result a little loose-lipped about his past with almost has-been Claudia LaBelle (Jennifer Ashe), while not-very-bright starlet Jennifer DaVinci (Sammi Lappin) waltes in chattering about her recent name change to seem smarter while sometimes-leading-man Clifton Logan (Andy Justus)  tries to woo her--as he evidently does with any attractive woman in reach.  Steven Pennington (Steve Peterson) can be heard doing his vocal exercises.  Newcommer Mitchell Thompson (Lee Pollero) cannot get over his good luck to be working here.  Each seems a real person, vivid enough to come across in not-very-many minutes--and each will reveal depths before curtain.

Pretty soon things start to go seriously wrong.  They don't have a Clarence!  But someone (Carey Matthews) who seems, possibly homeless (although pretty clean to be such), has wandered into the studio and hidden.  Station Manager Michael Anderson (Spencer Cantrell) simply recruits him to play Clarence--and fortunately he turns out to have a nice voice as well as a real ability to act!  After that crisis, the foley girl/assistant Judy Anderson (Margaret Glacuum) demonstrates why she only has this job because she's the boss's cousin.  She never delivered the telegrams from the male and female leads they cannot make the show!  So Michael and his girlfriend/co-manager Melanie Peters (Courtney Sara Bell) have to play the leads without warning!

And so we're off!  As a playwright myself, the trick of getting the audience invested in the play's production made we want to applaud!  Eventually of course I did!  Because apart from the--very clever--writing, everything about this production struck the right notes.  The comedy veers between madcap to achingly human.  The stories echo back and forth on many levels, heightening the power of both the radio play and the radio players.  In fact, this may well be my favorite version of IAWL ever!  So writer, cast and director Jenn Scuderi Crafts all deserve lots of applause from plenty of audiences (which I hope they will get).

Because after all who doesn't know the story of the movie?  Haven't we all seen it time and again?  Plus many variations on the same theme?  Yet this production gives us more, pretty much flawlessly integrated and full of interesting characters who all live through yet another story--which changes them, in a way that feels so very very right for Christmas, or what Christmas is supposed to be.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play plays Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through December 18, 2016 at The Belfry Stage, upstairs from the Crown, 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood CA 91602.

The Latina Christmas Special (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

What is Christmas all about?  In fact, it seems unlikely more than a small handful of people would ever agree on one answer, but here's one many can see--Christmas is very often about memories, especially ones involving your family.

The Latina Christmas Special at LATC returns with a deeply entertaining exploration of memories, of three Latina women--best bestest friends--spending Christmas together.  They get a little drunk, they dance, they share stories.  Eventually they start talking about Christmas growing up, about their families (especially their mothers) and these are the ones shared most explicitly with the audience as well as each other.

In that respect, the show ends up a bit of hybrid.  Half a play, half a stand-up routine--the latter the kind involving stories with a funny/bittersweet and very moving climax.  Evidently, in this case, based on the lives of these three performers--so it cannot really be done the same way ever without this specific cast.  (This show goes back at least to 2014 and this year marks its second time running in LA's LATC).

Credit: Xavi Moreno
Maria Russell begins, in her Christmas suit showing plenty of leg and cleavage.  Gorgeous and knowing it (in part because of the absolutely unbounded support her mother gave growing up), hers tale comes across as the most...well, odd.  Not bizarre, you understand, but just unusual enough to make one wonder.  Yet at the end, the curiosity recedes into appreciation.  Curvy enough to attract the nasty comments of other children, one feels Maria's almost cocooned family life left her both more vulnerable to such yet at the same time with the defenses needed to meet them.  Plus of course her mother's unwillingness to allow anyone to bully her beloved daughter!  The details seem eccentric--like the way her mother still disapproves of Maria having left home to marry the man she loved--yet also natural.  One ends up feeling a bit envious of what seems pretty clearly a very happy childhood, an extremely loving  home, a wildly successful marriage as well this unashamed (yet very generous, even loving) Diva.

Credit: Xavi Moreno
Diana Yanez tells her story of growing up in Florida, the child of Cuban refugees whose parents bear some of the emotional scars of that upheaval--such a certain fierce materialism.  Diana has loads of stories to tell, about the family's encounter with a huge flying cockroach (Note: Having grown up in Florida, I can tell you every word brought up memories) as well as her first hint about Santa Claus' true identity.  Here's a hint--it has to do with buying on sale.  Still, we walk away with a lot of affection as well as laughs.  Because if we are lucky, our families do create that safe and happy place for children--at least enough to remain in our hearts for all the days that follow.

Credit: Xavi Moreno
Which brings us to Sandra Valls--tiny, gay and the one in whose home the trio have gathered.  Early on, they mention the holidays as hard on her.  Now we find out.  Again, much of it stems from her mother.  Honestly, it feels a little heartbreaking then bittersweet as she relates year after year Christmas presents from her mother that can best be described as "girly."  Sandra is not girly, and as the slide show (the whole performance includes a lovely bit of multimedia via designer Yee Eun Nam) demonstrates she never, ever could be called such.  So every year, Sandra's presents from her mother ended up given to Sandra's sister.  But--in this household family presents were for Christmas Eve, with Santa's opened Christmas morning--the next morning would be totally appropriate gifts!  What many would call "Boy Toys."  Only in retrospect does she realize her mother did see the real her--but obliquely.  Years and years later, as her mother slowly died from a disease that wasted her away, Sandra took care of  her, which in turn led to an epiphany.  A profoundly wise, gloriously comforting one--and which I think you should see the show itself to appreciate.

Geoffrey Rivas directed this show to capture exactly that--the way memories weave themselves into our souls, and how Christmas becomes a time for those memories to emerge, offer comfort as well as truth.  He and the cast succeeded enough I felt wrapped up in their stories, as if those memories were mine.  What more could we ask for, really?

The Latina Christmas Special plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until December 18, 2016 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Fairy tales, like children's stories (maybe especially children's theatre) tend to be tricky.  Ursula K. LeGuin once compared writing for children with raising them, in response to someone assuming such would be "simple."

Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass maneuvers around the pitfalls with great skill, not least in rendering a medieval German folk tale celebrating peasant cleverness into a more contemporary setting, turning it into a story of familial love in the face of all kinds of darkness.

In this re-imagination, Hansel (Caleb Foote) and his sister Gretel (Angela Giarratana) are a little older, on the threshold of puberty, with the natural bickering that entails.  Both deeply distressed over the loss of their mother, these two Appalachian children in the Great Depression get caught up in the backlash the coal mine where their father works shuts down.  We never see this father, instead having a narrator called Duke (Bradley Whitford) relate this storv via the radio.  Seems he got a letter from a little boy, complaining about how useless his little sister was.  This story consists of the Duke responding--and one of (very) many lovely nuances lies in the feeling this is somehow personal.  I walked away thinking maybe the Duke was Hansel, all grown up.  Or perhaps their father...

Credit: Cooper Bates
Their father, desperate to give his children some chance, some hope, gives in to a kind a madness in his despair.  Feeling he can do nothing for them, he abandons them in the woods in the hope that someone--anyone--might find his son and daughter to give them the succor he cannot.

Someone does, a weird and blind old Mountain Woman (Sarah Zinsser) who lives in a cave.  Perhaps a witch, perhaps a psychic, maybe a ghost or just someone so removed from the world she has in some way left reality as we know it behind.  Bryan Davidson's script never makes it clear, so we remain unsettled as well as subtly frightened of her.  First and foremost she remains strange, subtly cruel, very manipulative and yet in a way gracious.  Her desires seem focused on hearing Gretel sing for her.  Why?  I'm sure the actress has a shrewd idea but I can only guess, although that desire remains believable throughout.

Credit: Cooper Bates
She lures the pair to her cave--which seems like a nice house to them--and begins her ways to degrade the brother and ensnare the sister. Director Debbie Devine with the cast makes a fine job of balancing the unreal and the believable.  The set design by Keith Mitchell in particular helps, because while solid somehow everything also seems insubstantial.  Shadows created by Dan Weingarten's lights interplay with the layers of and colors of the set, so the same stage easily becomes a shack, a forest, a house, a cave.  That slippery reality--which many of us experience now and then--is where this production dwells.

And where tragedy is so narrowly averted.

Credit: Cooper Bates
Indeed the whole play creates the feel of a dream that might just come true, or perhaps arise from a memory of strange events.  Like a child, I felt drawn into a world both real and mythic.  One of my favorite experiences and nearly always only found in live theatre.

Listing all the wonderful ways this play and production explores and creates it world could take a lot longer than anyone wants to read.  Suffice to say, the dread and danger rises to Hansel and Gretel's souls--echoed in no small part by the sounds (Chris Moscatiello) and music (Megan Swan), the latter capturing that melancholy sense of courage and emotions so perfect in part through the Get Down Boys.  In the end, instead of the overt oven and cages of the folk tale we get a trap of the mind, coupled with a fiercely cold danger in a rainy night in the mountains, as two children end up defending themselves from a knife-wielding blind woman.  What happens next?  We do not know.  That, it seems, is another tale--and to paraphrase a novelist "while life goes on, this chapter has come to its end."  And I applauded with a lot of enthusiasm.

Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass plays Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm until March 26, 2017 at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th Street, Los Angeles CA 90007. Note:  After December 10, performances will only be Sundays at 3pm.