Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Permanent Image (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The new Breakdown Productions decided to perform Samuel D. Hunter's play A Permanent Image as their premier production.  Easy enough to see why.  One set.  Three characters on stage, one projected onto the wall.  Modern dress.

All well and good but what really struck me was the raw power of the piece.  Like a haiku, it packed a multi-faceted emotional and philosophical punch.

In essence we begin with a video recording of the man we soon come to know as Martin (Robert Clenenin).  He's trying to say something, something he evidently finds important but uncomfortable.  Off screen we hear the voice of his wife, who comes across as a bit of a nag.

When the lights come up, the next person we see is Bo (Andrew Loviska) , luggage in hand and eyes wide at seeing how everything in the room has been painted white.  Even the pillows.  Even the magazine on the table.  His mother Carol (Clara York) soon enters and explains away the painting as something she wanted to do.  A series of facts emerge.  Martin is dead.  He was Bo's father and Carol's husband.  It is Christmas Eve and tomorrow will be Martin's funeral.  Mother and son--who is an international photo-journalist--do not really get along.  Eventually we learn this is Northern Idaho and pretty soon we meet Ally (Sasha Venn), Bo's sister, who lives a few hours away.  She runs a business, has a lesbian partner and a little boy together who haven't visited this house in years.  They are not there today.

Pretty bare, those facts.  Even stark.  Of course more emerges, much of it increasingly startling.  Amid the tensions and arguments that follow, we the audience try and assign blame.  More, we try to assign simple explanations to the relationships here.  But as Bo and Ally soon find out, that will require a whole lot of looking the other way.  Which becomes increasingly difficult.  In fact, maybe the only way to do that is to run away.

Which they both already did.  With, to be fair, plenty of good reason.  Martin and Carol, we learn, were not particularly good parents.  Not horrible in terms of physical abuse or neglect.  But distant.  Difficult.  Obnoxious and demanding at times.  Even shrill, when there.  One can easily imagine the two overwhelmed kids trying to find themselves amid the neuroses locked in that house.

But after a time, one sees them as no less neurotic.

More, we begin to see the unplumbed and disturbing depths neither sibling saw in their parents.  "Who knew he had an inner life" Bo says of his father, which sounds funny and then really sad.  Because we all have inner lives.  We all have to find our own answers.  Not about career so much, or where to live, or even how one figures out how to make things right.  What we learn about Martin and about Carol is that sans their identity as parents, they began reading up on things like string theory and quantum mechanics.  While this shocks Bo and Ally, even more shocking is that clearly their parents understood what they were reading.

Disturbingly, they came to a conclusion based on it.  On it, and on the lives they'd led, how little control, even importance they've felt.

The warning atop this review to the contrary, I don't wish to spoil the play, not least because the journey for characters and audience seem to require experiencing rather than description.  Family dramas of this kind tend to create expectations.  One might think of diagnosis, meticulously working out the mistakes and situation, much like Chekhov and Tennessee Williams for example.

  This play seems far more akin to Edward Albee, his existential exploration of human questions.  Who are we in this cosmos?  What decisions and reactions emerge from the mysterious alchemy which makes up our lives?  How much can one person's answers be of any aid to anyone else?  And amid all this, one of the very last lines in the play resonates in to my soul and out to the stars.  "I wish we knew each other better."  Even thinking of it now, brings a tear to my eye and for a legion of reasons.  Which stands as a fine testimony to the author, the genuinely talented (and courageous) cast, as well as director Genah Redding.

A Permanent Image plays Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 6pm until January 20, 2019 at the Skiptown Playhouse, 665 North Heliotrope Drive (at Melrose),  Los Angeles CA 90004.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant (Auditions)

Auditions ahoy!

I've already put new of this into a Facebook event as well as Better Lemons and Backstage magazine.

Silly not to have it here as well!

Quite simply I have edited Shakespeare's Richard III down from a four hour length to under two.  I've reduced thirty six speaking roles (a good dozen of whom never reveal their names) to about fifteen.  Along the way, in keeping with my focus on what I see as the play's themes, scenes got re-arranged, some characters were cut, others fused together, and even lines as well as scenes from other Shakespeare plays.

So this adaptation/edit focuses essentially on the questions "What makes a Tyrant?" and "What makes a kingdom (or nation or group) that Tyrant's prey?"  Rather topical in my opinion. 

There are two days of auditions scheduled.  First is Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 11am to 3pm at Oh My Ribs, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038.  This location will also be where the production goes up.  Second is Sunday, February 3, 2019 from 12noon to 5pm at Studio 100, 900 East 1st Street Los Angeles, 90012. This is south of Union Station and east of the Little Tokyo Gold Line station.  We will be having a fair number of rehearsals here.

I am asking folks to bring a single one-or-two minute monologue from Shakespeare of some other forsoothly piece (Johnson, Webster, Poe, etc.).  Everyone does their monologue in a given hour-long bloc and then I lead everyone in that bloc in an exercise. 

Right now the only overtly open bloc is at 4pm on February 3.  However, I encourage anyone and everyone to simply show up at the top of each hour any particular day.  The fact is, there are always no-shows and I will struggle to fit in everyone.

Meanwhile you can contact me at zahir13@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Dozen of 2018!

I have no idea why this didn't post automatically on January 1 as it was supposed to.  My apologies for not double-checking.

Every year I do this, draw up a list of my dozen best.  Given the amount of wonderful theatre I get to see, some rules became necessary.  First, no two shows from the same theatre company.  Second, I limited myself to actual plays, rather than (for example) dance performances.  This year I faced a dreadful choice between two plays by the same writer who is a friend of mine!  

The Flu Season (Pico Playhouse) was an exquisate poem of a play, about people who meet and feel and try to endure what they have or have not said, done. felt.  When you see as much theatre as I do, frankly any play that keeps you guessing as this does, while continuing to make sense, is a treasure.  That all this surprise surrounds so many fundamental human issues, tricky ones, the might have beens that haunt us, helps make this a very special show, brought to life by an ensemble that moved me in so very many ways.
Romeo and Juliet (Vagrancy)  Why does Juliet fall for Romeo.  In answering this question, the Vagrancy's production makes this centuries-old play extremely topical for our specific day and age.  For that reason I'm sure some audience members were offended.  But to me, the entire company created a world for the play which echoed our own in some terrible, tragic ways.  This ended up the best production of this play I've yet seen.

Native Son (Antaeus)  Another topical work, one which has sparked quite a bit of controversy amid my circle of friends.  Some lifted their eyebrows as this milky white dude reviewed a play based on this classic African American novel.  Others were upset at the liberties taken with the novel's story.  Some found the central character (understandably) repellent.  I certainly did.  But--and here is what puts this production on my list--as disgusting as I found that young man's actions, I grew to understand the why of them.  In seeing and knowing the shaping of his paranoia, his myopia, his desperation--and also realizing fundamentally he was far from the only person so shaped--I came to stunning realization.  Namely, that I am a monster.  In this society, even moreso in the era of the play, my white skin makes me a creature of whimsical and vast power.  It changed me by revealing a truth.  What more is Art for?

The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man (Son of Semele) may be the most original work on this list--a musical taking place inside the mind of a real science fiction author, a woman who pretended to write her works as a man.  What we saw on stage was an Odyssey with a female Odysseus confronting all the most important people of her life, up to and including many aspects and avatars of herself.  This theatre company, which put on the single best piece of theatre I have ever seen a few years ago, once again wowed and shook and moved me to center of my heart.

The Woman is Perfected was a one-woman show, the title coming from the last poem written by Sylvia Plath.  So.  A comedy!  Well, no--rather a searing portrait of a woman whose soul has become infected with and then totally converted to misogyny.  It was a horror story, in monologue, not told in terms of a story related but rather the monologue itself. 

Play On! is another one woman show, this time a cabaret of songs written by and for the performer, each inspired by one of Shakespeare's great female characters from Olivia to Ophelia, Viola to Juliet and Gertured and Lady Macbeth and others.

Longing Pinocchio (ZJU) was an original retelling and re-imagination of the 19th century novel that somehow (much like Alice in Wonderland or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) somehow succeeded in becoming a modern fairy tale.  Breathed into new life by looking at the source material with a fresh, often irreverent as well as sharply observant eye.

Winter Solstice (City Garage) is an example of why I give each theatre company only one slot on this list each year.  It otherwise proves too hard.  This play from Germany, superbly acted and directed as ever by City Garage, touches on an extremely topical question--that of the covert rise of fascism, via attractive lies and alluring half-truths all wrapped up in a generally friendly, supportive package.  But what does one do?  That question, powerfully asked by the play, is not answered here.  Rather, the answer is left where it belongs--with us, for us to come up with something, each individual.  Where else after all does the responsibility lie?

Gray People (Force of Nature) was written by a friend of mine, and this is one of two plays of his that opened this year.  I was very hard pressed to choose which one to put on the list.  It came down to which feels a tiny fraction of a shade more complete emotionally.  And it could have gone either way.  In the middle of the night, three people who prove both strangers and not-strangers to each other have met within some far-off woods.  Thriller, mystery, dark comedy, tragedy, and redemptive drama plus more, this play and cast enacted a soul-shaking tale of disturbing surprise to haunt audience members.

King Dick   is literally the funniest political farce I have ever seen, to the point where I sometimes cried and/or had trouble breathing.  At one point in history (this part is true) Elvis Presley requested a meeting with President Richard Nixon. From this emerges a comedy of error, mismanagement, paranoia, fantasy, drugs, and talking to the dead.  The cast superbly managed the absurdity of the situation so perfectly my brain is still reeling from it.

Blue Surge (Sixty-Six Theatre Company) tells a seemingly simple story about some flawed but generally likable folks in an ordinary small city.  It might almost count as a soap opera.  But we sense from almost the first line this will dive deeper into the human condition, fathoms deeper.  With a wonderful cast that is how deep it proceeds to go, down to some of the saddest facts of being human and alive--yet also how we can endure, how we can heal, how we can find a reason to breathe at all.

Love's Labour's Lost (Chase What Flies) proves a brilliantly delightful and "on target" production of what may be Shakespeare's lightest comedy.  Honestly, this script makes As You Like It look like Romeo and Juliet!  But--and this oft ends up forgotten in heavier fare--it has some genuine emotional truths, some sharp insights, and a melancholy or bittersweet undertaste that makes the humor so much more poignant.  That is portrays women as more mature than men, yet does not condemn either one, marks just one more detail this production hit in the bullseye! 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Special (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For those of you who don't know, in the wake of the very first Star Wars movie back in the 1970s, a Thanksgiving special was produced and was aired exactly once.  It had problems, so many that George Lucas exerted a great deal of energy preventing it from ever being aired again.  He sought hard to prevent it ever from being seen.  Certainly no official VHS or DVD was or is forthcoming. 

Special by Andrew Osbourne is about the making of that special, about a train wreck of talent and skill and myopia as well as raw misunderstandings turned into a dark comedy, almost but not quite a farce.

The elements involved include about forty characters, all with different motives and viewpoints about the special, what it should have been, what they were trying to do. whether anyone should and/or who should be blamed and why.  Frankly George Lucas did not want to do this special, but when he came up with a framework for it, i.e. the Wookies celebrating a holiday called Life Day, the studio execs and others were baffled.  Lucas, deep in the heart of preparations for The Empire Strikes Back. wanted next to nothing to do with television and felt overwhelmed, especially since he was/is a control freak now in charge of a gigantic process/franchise of whom all his film director friends disapproved. 

Credit: Kerr Seth Lordygan
So the execs try to push on with a director who'd never worked with American television before and organized everything for a one camera film shoot, a diverse team of writers brought in who prepared things for Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur, over twenty minutes between the Wookies in which not a single word of English was spoken, Harrison Ford not wanting to appear in the thing at all, Carrie Fisher willing if she got to sing (and was high as a kite when she did), the director quitting halfway after they were seriously behind schedule and way over budget, so a new director was brought in from Disney (ironic huh?) only to learn there was no money left to build a major set...

And so on.

Credit: Andrew Osborne
The roller coaster ride involved uses six very talented actors to perform the forty roles, come of them commenting to the audience about what really happened, others playing everything from extras to nerds eagerly awaiting the special, to many of the execs and actors directly involved.  Paris Benjamin for example, plays Carrie Fisher (among others--this goes for EVERYONE in the cast), giving her quite a complex little internal story going on.  Other standouts include Lance Guest who is Harrison Ford as well as one of the directors, Rich Lehmann who is George Lucas, Marty Yu as Harvey Korman as well as two of the execs who are always together on stage--imagine the logistics of that!  Then there's Jennifer Hugus, whose largest role seems to be that of George Lucas' wife, as well as Alex Elliott-Funk, who plays a whole host of different characters--honestly, the sheer number is dizzying. I literally cannot recall all their names, even with the program in front of me.

Which is really a testament to the fact I knew who these people were during the show itself, even if I didn't catch their names.  Each performer walked on and after a while we know who they were by them simply walking on!  You can call this skill, you can call it good directing (by Kerr Seth Lordygan), or natural talent, stage presence, the result of practice.  Hardly matters.  Some combination of "all of the above" seems pretty clearly the answer.

Credit: Andrew Osborne
Honestly, I'm not going to go overboard with praise.  Comedies notoriously prove tricky, and to be honest while I laughed more than once during the show, more often I was just smiling.  Having said that, let me know that smile was a pretty huge grin.  I did not know a lot of this story before, and that in and of itself kept my attention.  The cast achieved a real tour-de-force by creating a huge number of characters vividly.  An achievement worthy of praise!

But neither I nor the audience ever broke up with laughter.  But--more importantly--the show lost not one audience member at intermission, and never once was I bored or less than entertained.

Special by Ol'Bait Productions plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm until January 13, 2019.  It will also have a special New Year's Eve performance on Monday, December 31 at 8pm.  All performances are that Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. (just north of Sunset), Hollywood CA 90028.