Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Body of Water (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Actors' Coop offers something special in their current production of A Body of Water by Lee Blessing.

Now, the play's premise is intriguing, and may remind you of an episode of the classic The Twilight Zone.  A man and woman, both middle-aged, wake up next to one another, in bed and quite naked.  But neither has any idea who the other person might be.  Nor where they are.  Nor does either one recall their own name, profession, home--well, anything.  All attempts to find clues prove tantalizing at best, more often utterly fruitless.

So who are they?  How did they come to be here?  The view in this isolated and quite lovely home proves spectacular--including a winding body of water which seems (they aren't quite sure) to surround them on all four sides.


CREDIT: LARRY SANDEZ
When a young woman named Wren (Ivy Beech) arrives, one might think answers would be soon forthcoming.  A few even are!  The man learns his name is Moss (Bruce Ladd), and that he's a judge.  The woman, Avis (Treva Tegtmeier), is his wife and runs a charity. 

Yet who is Wren herself?  She claims to be their daughter.  At times.  Then again, she also claims to be their defense attorney, trying to jog their memory so their trial for the murder of their real daughter Robin may begin.  Worse, in this scenario Wren thinks them guilty.

Or--as she also claims--was that her cruel game, played out of boredom from having to watch over two amnesiacs year after year, who forget everything every single day?  It seems believable--as to be fair is the claim she sometimes pretends to be their daughter, for the sake of peace as well as hoping to jog their memories?

We don't know.  In truth, we never know.  How could we?

CREDIT: LARRY SANDEZ
This play and production begins with a fair amount of wit, even humor.  The humor remains almost to the very end, not least because what else can one do under the circumstances but try to make light of it, to laugh rather than cry in existential terror?  No doubt jokes and laughter will rear their heads again after we leave these character to their...fate?  Punishment?  Bad luck?  Something else?

One obvious factor, given the premise, is for we the audience to come up with some kind of answer.  Blessing firmly inserts doubt into any such we might come up with.  Are the couple, for example, in Hell?  One character actually asks this question, and of course what kind of answer might they receive?  Nothing they could believe, when you think on it.  Nor anything they will remember.

Worse, their sense of reality becomes increasingly fluid, until neither Moss nor Avis seem to be able to hold on to anything as real. 

CREDIT: LARRY SANDEZ
And here, the fine cast and director Nan McNamara really make the play shine. Because they might so easily have gone through the motions, played everything up for effect, maybe hinted at some mutually agreed upon solution to this situation.  Instead, they dove into the horror.  Not merely the rawness of the situation in which they find themselves, re-living again and again the fact of their seeming amnesia while trying so many different ways to cope.  No, there's a more subtle horror.  Quite simply, they lack the personal resources to cope.  This is too much for them.

Well, it would be for must of us I think.  But Blessing has changed the play to make their situation much more stark, far more disturbing.  Without revealing the details (despite the warning above), things happen.  Or seem to happen.  And inspire someone to ask that question I mentioned before.

"Are we in Hell?"  Which brings up another question for us all--how would we know? 

A Body of Water plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2:30pm on February 22.  Closing is March 15, 2020.  Performances are at the Crossley Theatre, 1760 North Gower (one block north of Hollywood Blvd.).

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Frida - Stroke of Passion (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Frida Kahlo (to use the super simplified version of her very lovely name) easily counts as one of the most fascinating human beings to breathe during the twentieth century--and that is not a low bar.

Frida - Stroke of Passion, produced, written and directed by Odalys Nanin (who also plays the title character) functions as dream-like retrospective of her life in the week before her death.  It is her 47th birthday, and she lives sheathed in pain.  Yet she remains devoted to her art, lingering on memories of her many lovers, fierce in her demands for attention from her husband Diego (Oscar Basulto), and scheming to leave this world and fly.

There's a lot of content here, and frankly teases one into learning much more about the figures in the life of this unique personality.  Yes, we've all heard (haven't we?) of Leon Trotsky (Paul Cascante) and Josephine Baker (Celeste Creel).  Perhaps unusually for a gringo I have some idea of who singer Chavela Vargas (Sandra Vallis) is.  But I had to look up movie star Maria Felix (Jorie Burgos), Cuban spy Teresa Proenza (Kesia Elwin), and photographer Tina Modotti (Mantha Balourdou).  Quite a tapestry of lovers--and honestly such makes up only a portion of what makes her life extraordinary.

All of which combines into a narrative of Kahlo's last days, and her memories of a rich life, coupled with her machinations to leave this world on her own terms, just as she has lived in it as she saw fit.

Nanin's script functions extremely well on this level, and at time soars to splendid heights (entwining songs into the show was a brilliant choice).  But honestly it felt almost too short, or too long.  Some more exploration of what was there feels needed, or cutting away some details to give greater focus.  Maybe both.  Still, while I truly miss learning more about Kahlo's actual art (which can be wildly difficult to dramatize, to be fair) that we get a portrait of this artist seems beyond doubt.  Her loves, her passions (not quite the same thing), her disappointments and regrets, even her ghosts (a couple pretty much literally just that)--such makes an intoxicating recipe of Frida Kahlo's life, and if the play cannot tell it all, well how much of such a life can be told in one evening?  There's a lot there to whet the appetite!

This production, by Macha Theatre/Films, is a revival and somehow I doubt the rest of the audience doesn't join me in hoping for yet another revival--one of many.

Frida - Stroke of Passion as of this writing plays one more performance on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at 2pm at Casa 0101 Theatre, 2102 East First Street, Los Angeles CA 90033.




Saturday, February 1, 2020

Largo Desolato (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Leopold Nettles (Troy Dunn) is a philosopher in an un-identified country (but we can be pretty sure is Soviet Czechoslovakia), waiting to be arrested by the Secret Police.  When the lights come up, we see him sitting on the sofa in his apartment, sitting and staring at the door in quiet terror.  He reacts at to the slightest sound--sounds we in fact do not hear.  Approaches timidly the door to stare through the peephole.  Seeing nothing, he retreats again to the sofa.

He does the same thing again.  And again.

That should be dull, but instead becomes nerve-wracking for us, the audience.  So begins Largo Desolato by former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel, translated by Tom Stoppard, directed by Frederique Michel.  Written after Havel himself emerged from prison, the play proves a harrowing portrait of slow psychological torture, as an essentially good (albeit very flawed) man of deep thoughts and lofty ambitions is whittled away before our eyes.

By fear alone.

Part of what makes the whole thing so compelling are all the other around Leopold, all of whom exert pressure, all of whom share the same knowledge of his impending fate.  A few, such as his girlfriend or maybe wife Suzana (Emily Kellis) --the text does not make it clear--offer simple, straightforward support.  He finds little comfort there, but then who can blame them for also withdrawing at least a bit?  His friend Edward (Gifford Irving) is there, checks up on him, is friendly--and then takes Suzana out to the ballet.  We soon learn Leopold drinks too much, takes drugs, cheats on his girlfriend with a friend of hers Lucy (Angela Beyer) while refusing to show her any public affection or simply say the words "I love you" without going into a long speech about how he doesn't mean what she does by that word.  He tries to be polite, but that crumbles soon enough.

Likewise he must deal with Bertram (Trace Taylor), a colleague in effect delegated by others to check in on him--not to offer much comfort to express concern he will break, that he will fail to meet their expectations, that he is no longer the man he once was.  In effect she dissects what he himself feels has become under the weight of waiting.  Word for word as it turns out.

Remember that fact.  Because certain phrases repeat themselves over and over throughout.  He speaks of love as if quoting a specific essay.  When he talks about what he fears he is becoming, he repeats Bertram's paragraphs--more than once.

When a Marguarite (Melissa DuBois), a young student, comes to see Leopold out of raw fandom, she likewise repeats word for word what Lucy said about her feelings and hopes in loving Leopold.

Compelling it is, and more than a little mysterious.  And as he goes through the motions of his routine of subtle, grinding terror, wearing nothing but pajamas and a bathrobe, drinking more and more rum, popping more and more pills (in lots of vivid colors), a disturbing question arises.  How much of what we're seeing is real?

Intriguingly, I don't know.  Some of it seems clearly a kind of hallucination, yet other parts might well be real.  When the secret police (Aaron Bray and Anthony Sannazarro) do show up, he momentarily becomes the strong, even compelling man that makes it clearer why so many depend upon him, as well as why a dictatorship might make him a target.  That too seemingly crumbles as they make him an offer to avoid being taken away--an offer which clearly tempts.  But he doesn't take them up on it.  Is this his vision of what he hopes to be but fears he will become?  Or is this real in some way, a fractured memory?

More importantly, does it matter?  Leopold's crisis itself remains real. If in fact much of what we see happens to be his own mind, that implies a piercing amount of self doubt as well as self-delusion.  If the repetitions are merely style, then we get the same effect in many ways--the chipping away of himself under pressure.  Just like his constant, terrified vigil of watching and listening to his own apartment door.

Little wonder he'd rather be taken away to "that place" than live like this.

As ever City Garage surprises and haunts.  Every cast member of Largo Desolato is a veteran of the company now, and deliver their performances with power as well as precision.  The direction continues to use the (seemingly) simple presence of being in the same room with another human being to vast effect.  The result feels raw, and terribly honest.

Largo Desolato plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays (pay what you can at the door) at 3pm until March 1, 2020 at the City Garage, Bergamot, Building T1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.




Friday, January 31, 2020

Sweeney Todd (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Fans of Stephen Sondheim's grand guignol musical Sweeney Todd have this weekend left to see what in many ways is a remarkable production in South Pasadena.

Beginning back in the days of "penny dreadfuls" i.e. chapters of stories sold for a penny in Victorian England, the legend of Sweeney Todd the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" has been simmering in the cultural background of the English-speaking world.  Whether based on any fragment of truth is not really relevant.  Something about a barber slitting the throats of his customers so his landlady Mrs. Lovett could use their corpses as meat for pies sold to the public grabbed the imagination.

Well, why not?  The very stuff of what we call Creepy Pasta today!

Sondheim's musical, based on a stage play re-imagining the tale, makes of this more than a period slasher piece.  It turns the whole thing into a dark morality play of sorts, a portrait of the consequences of casual cruelty as well as greed or just raw lust.  Todd (Jack L. Bennett) we learn is a man much wronged--his entire life destroyed because a powerful judge (M.Hayward Scott) lusted after his wife.  Returning to London much changed by years spent in the hell of Botany Bay, Todd learns from his former landlady Mr. Lovett (Gloria Bennett) his beloved Lucy ended up raped, then committing suicide.  His daughter Johanna (Serenity Robb) is now that same Judge's ward.  What begins as a relatively simple quest for revenge becomes something much worse--a nihilism that feels like glory, wherein all of this man's massive pain is diverted into a murderous rage that proves ecstatic!  "We all deserve to die" he sings, because "...the lives of the wicked should be made brief/to the rest of us death would be a relief!"

So how is this production?  Fundamentally it works, among other things due to an extremely well-done staging as well as a top-notch chorus who know they are there to do more than stand there then sing.  Nearly every performer has at least a few scenes where they shine.  More, the use of this tiny stage area works extremely well--including when the show spills into the audience!

Yet there are problems.  One member of the cast simply does...well, pretty close to nothing in their role.  The fact the production is so obviously copying things like costumes and makeup from other productions (like the Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp) says a lot.  So too the mixed nature of the dance and combat.  Sometimes very good, sometimes quite poor.

But again, the ensemble as a whole did a fine job.  The staging by director Mirai Booth-Ong is very fine indeed, as is the music itself under the music direction of Daniel Koh.  In the supporting cast I'd especially like to offer some praise to Liz Kelly Barone as the beggar woman (she literally sent chills up my spine near the climax of the play), Jacob Dalton as Pirelli (easily the most theatrical character in the show), Hudson Barone as the poignant, doomed Toby, and Grant Garry as the Beadle, who ultimately made the character so vivid and entertaining.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays Friday and Saturday (Jan. 31 and Feb.1) at 8pm, with 2pm matinees Saturday (Feb. 1) and Sunday (Feb. 2) at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030.