Monday, September 22, 2014

Somewhere... (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

The Crossbow Theatre is a new company, and Somewhere... their initial production, a world premiere in fact. Their website has this to say about the show:
On a wet, winding road in Upstate New York, prominent architect, Michael Fields, loses his life in a horrific car accident ... After the funeral service, his wife makes their Manhattan apartment available for a small gathering of family and friends. Caught in limbo, Michael appears as a spirit ... with humor and desperation he reflects on his life and soon realizes that he has to endure the surprising revelations brought on by family and friends. Michael has to bear witness to the hard truths about his personal and business life... although he feels helpless in this environment his journey of self-discovery finally allows him the freedom to move on... somewhere!

Let me say at once the production is a good one. The praises it wins from me are ones not that often given. First and foremost, the cast does a uniformly excellent job. As the dead man sharing with us the experience of attending his own wake, Josh T. Ryan proved hard to take one's eyes from. He has a lot of monologues to give, often in the form of stories, and those things can quickly become dull. Especially since his tales aren't really traumatic or exciting but just slices of life. Yet he engages us, often by the simple but quiet act of listening. No small feat! His performance makes up one anchor of the whole story, with that of Kristen Hansen as Vivian, his widow, the other. The bulk of the play takes place in her apartment, where she plays hostess and center of all the other characters' actions. Her Vivian combines genuine, searing sorrow with a complex layering of other emotions but never once does she go simply inside herself. She, like the rest of the cast, maintains a constant flow of action interacting with other characters. You can even tell at times when she's simply trying not to mention something, or struggling to figure out what to say.

Likewise Amir Khalighi as Michael's business partner demonstrates a very wide and ever-shifting range of behavior and reaction, the exact opposite of what so many actors fall into, that of playing one or at most three notes. Khalighi's Russell is a complete person, not least in the simple yet subtle fact that he tells different kinds of lies with varying degrees of skill! Technically, that is no small feat! Yet vital because it represents actual human character!

Rounding out the uniformly high quality cast are Melissa Kite as Claudia, family friend and former college classmate, Tammy Minoff as Nikki, Michaels' assistant and protoge (as well as partner in flirting), and Willy Romano-Pugh as Michael's autistic brother Albert (I've seen Romano-Pugh the most of this cast, in such shows as Fragments of Oscar Wilde and Whore's Bath). I almost cannot emphasize how much the entire ensemble felt right, how their internal dynamic matched what the script called for them to be. One would think this to be common, but not so! Not at all! Subtly but profoundly, many a production stumbles in this way by showing a group of characters whose relationships don't quite gel, never quite mesh. Not so here! Apart from the genuine abilities of the cast, credit for this belongs also to director Jeanie Drynan and playwright Anthony J. Bowman. Clearly this must have been a collaborative effort, with admirable results.

Having said--and meant--all that, allow me to offer a few caveats. Given the premise, one could go several different directions with it. The two most obvious--existential farce a la Woody Allen or desperate angst along the lines of Rainer Fassbender--were eschewed in favor of a minute examination and consideration of just life and love, with all the regrets and hopes and mistakes involved. Not unlike Thornton Wilder (Our Town) or Neil Simon at his very best. Not a bad choice at all! In fact such makes it much easier for us (the audience) to connect, to share the experience of the play's emotional heart. However, in terms of that the script does seem to pull its punch a bit. Michael seems to take the facts of his sudden death, the startling revelations and the virtual assaults on his memory (which, and this is very much to Bowman's credit, remain unanswered), rather blandly. He never seems angry or particularly frustrated, nor does he seem to notice his own emotional detachment. Something about his character as written seems a bit less intense than it feels it should be, which robs the play of some power.

Two other points. First, I felt the play leaned heavily on stereotypes. The bitchy middle aged gay man always looking for young tail. The bitter divorcee businesswoman who uses sex in lieu of intimacy. Honestly, the play got away from these stereotypes to some degree, but it robbed the whole story of some nuance and in the process some power. Second, the perplexing question of why Michael is still on earth isn't really addressed much and (without giving too much away) that also dilutes the climax. We the audience need to be asking these questions more, to feel the discomfort of not having any answers, to get the full impact of what the playwrights seems to want. Please keep in mind, I'm here talking about nuances. Somewhere... still works, still engages the emotions, still delivers a story with a completion that feels right. But it feels like a the dramatic target ended up hit with a 22 caliber instead of a 44 magnum. But it did hit the target! A bullseye in many ways! I look forward to further shows from this company!

Somewhere... plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm through October 26, 2014 at the Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose (across the street from Fairfax High School--but you do need to turn north onto Ogden Drive to find the entrance). Tickets are $20 at the door, but you can purchase them ahead of time here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Animals Out of Paper (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Origami is a Japanese art form based upon the folding of paper into new shapes. As the central character notes, paper begins flat but when folded it gains a scar and becomes something new. More folding and more scars can in time create a shape, something beautiful or mediocre, but certainly new--so that even if unfolded the paper cannot help but remain forever changed. As vivid a metaphor for life as one can imagine, yes? And playwright Rajiv Joseph's Animals Out of Paper takes that metaphor and examines it in countless ways, played out in the lives three people.
Credit: Michael Lamont

Andy Folley (C.S. Lee) teaches calculus and acts as Treasurer for American Origami. He goes to see a renowned origami artist he's admired for a long time, Ilana Andrews (Tess Lina), whom he's met only once. He arrives at night, unannounced, amidst a thunderstorm she herself hasn't noticed, since her studio has no windows. She's retreated there following a double tragedy--the disappearance of her beloved dog and the end of her marriage. Why has Andy come? That question is at the heart of the first scene, and it is awhile before this cranky, interesting, driven woman finally gets it out of him. Along the way, he leaves two things behind--one deliberately, the other by accident. Tellingly, in many ways it is the latter that seizes her interest. A book, filled with a hand-written list kept since childhood.

The consequences which follow involve a high school student of Andy's named Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar), brilliant and traumatized by the sudden death of his mother as well as other things (we get a hint of a somehow helpless father and an unreliable sister). Recently having discovered origami, Suresh respects Andy enough to go and allow Ilana to tutor him.

Credit: Michael Lamont
Along the way we find the metaphors in very nearly every breath of dialogue.  Illana has stalled in her work on helping design a mesh to surround damaged hearts. She gives away a huge origami bird hanging abovethe sofa where she sleeps.  Later she and Suresh visit an origami convention in Nagasaki, second city in history to have been seared by atomic fire. The two argue over different styles of origami--he in particular having trouble with how she does all kinds of "first drafts" many of which are failures. Likewise he loves a neat environment and she needs things in the open, visible, a mess in short. Illana and Andy go out on a date, on Valentine's Day no less and he gives her an origami heart, a crude one. Frankly, the playwright deserves lots of credit for handling what could be awkward, symbolic hammer-on-the-head message-writing and instead simply turns the story into something like a poem.

Or a piece of origami.

Credit: Michael Lamont
Likewise the words of the playwright really are pretty much dead without the actor. Although well-written, the fact remains these characters might easily come across as a bunch of ticks rather than people in the hands of less-accomplished performers. Andy could become farcical. Illana (a Sagittarius if ever I saw one) is so tactless one must be careful not to let the audience end up hating her. Suresh (a Cancer, in my opinion, complete with shell) has such strong emotions he's trying to hide or suppress all the time it takes more than an average actor to bring him to life. The whole cast made for an intense three-person ensemble, covering between them an extraordinary range of the human condition. Even if I did know almost exactly how it was going to end by halfway through the second act.

I want to also make a point about the direction and staging of the production. When sets change, or we're supposed to simply accept that a certain amount of time has passed, many productions lose the audience at these moments. They have to struggle to get them back. Not so here! In fact, I'd offer this production as a virtual lesson in how to avoid that potential problem!

Credit: Michael Lamont
My biggest complaint--which is perhaps not very fair--remains that after a time I knew what was going to happen. But is that just, really? Isn't the nature of this kind of story--the rebirth of one's life through a transformative pain (see the description of folding paper above)--like a formula? And one thing I cannot deny is the precise emotional impact created. Save perhaps that I personally saw Andy as going through as great and as potentially positive a change as the others. In effect he loses a ritual with which he has avoided pain, avoiding learning and evolving through it. But we're left unaware of how he will cope. Left wondering and hoping and fearing.

No bad thing, that.

Animals Out of Paper plays at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 through October 5, 2014. You can purchase tickets online here or by calling  (213) 625-7000. Ticket prices range from $28-$38 each.

Western Society (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I have seen many an attempt to blend electronic media and live theatre. They rarely work, but when they do the results often end up magical. Essential is that the media feels part of an organic whole, rather than stapled onto a performance.

Western Society, a US premiere by the Gob Squad at the REDCAT Theatre, manages this with a wonderful finesse. It left me feeling quite moved, thinking about parts of my own life--and all this from the examination of one two-plus minute video on youtube over and over and over again.

Credit: David Baltzer
Sounds dreadfully arty and pretentious, doesn't it? But no! Well, arty, yes--in the best sense. Keep in mind if what you're looking for is a compelling plot, a conflict between fascinating characters with entire lives at stake, mysteries to  be solved--the standard fare of story-telling--then this show probably will prove quite the surprise. Maybe a pleasant one. Because Western Society ends up as a carefully constructed interactive experience looking at moments of time, fragments of life, the relationship we feel between those who know and those we see and how we project our own lives onto others--but how that still works as a connection, or can anyway. How that evolves into something else, sometimes positive. Or sad. Or both. Well, often both.

Credit: David Baltzer
So no murderers to catch. No love affairs struggling against huge obstacles to be born. Nobody commits suicide or homicide or even picks someone's pocket. Instead the audience watches and takes part in the examination and re-creation of a short little video. Performers discuss this, share with audience what they feel as they perform the actions in the video--recreating tiny slices of life without any context at all, and so naturally enough impose/create their own contexts. Nor does it stop there. For the only contexts the performers can really use are their own lives--which in turn becomes quite revealing, melancholy, equal parts foolish and wise, weak and strong.

Not for everybody, not by a long shot. But my imagination found itself captured, while the analytical part of my mind strongly suspects a lot less of this whole performance was left to chance than might at first seem. This is a compliment, incidentally. Each actor/performer seemed totally "in the moment" and (for example)
Credit: David Baltzer
seemed to be answering questions for the very first time. Mind you, I wouldn't be shocked to learn the questions they asked each other were new each performance! Neither would I be surprised to learn they were asked the same questions.

I walked away with that much belief in the performer's skills-- Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom and Bastian Trost.

Although, to be fair, I did feel the pace was a bit slow. On the other hand, the more I think on it the more I suspect that deliberate. European theatre and film does tend to take their time more, but the whole show seemed so carefully crafted the effect seemed planned. So often we hear or read the admonishment "leave the audience wanting more' whereas Western Society ends at the point of "that's exactly enough." Accidental? Seems unlikely.

Western Society plays through September 20, 2014 at the REDCAT Theatre 631 West 2nd Street. You can make reservations at (213) 628-2772.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Snug's Revenge (review)

Spoilers ahoy!
design by Adam Neubauer

Fresh from the wake of ZJU's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream comes a dark farce about another production of the same play, only in this one a certain actress doesn't like the role she's won. No, she doesn't want (or intend) to be the fairy Snug when the part of Puck lies within her reach. Or seems to be, anyway. Like Richard III she intends to open up the way to what she wants, with all the ruthlessnss of Iago, the focus of Henry V and the compassion/sanity of Titus Andronicus.

Snug's Revenge, written and directed by Adam Neubauer, stars Hannah Kaplan in the lead, huge of smile and fierce of eye.We get surprisingly little backstory for the theatre company which turns out to be the setting. Mostly just the fact they're doing Midsummer because, well, it is the middle of summer. Kinda like they'll be doing A Christmas Carol in December. Of course they will. One of many, many in-jokes are lain on top of one another--ZJU did the Dickens classic itself this last holiday season! Just as references to other actors  well known at this venue dot the dialogue. But in truth you don't need to "get' any such references. The humor works on its own level. Producer Daniel Krause stepping on director Jason Britt's toes, oblivious of the latter's habitual and weary rage. Bickering/flirting between the four actors (Clayton McInerney, Julian Martinez, Jenna Doolittle, Zoe Rose Moacanin) playing lovers. The
  Credit: Jim Eshom
fact we don't know where any of this is really taking place doesn't matter, not really.

What matters is how the humor works. Farce depends upon the absence of rational limit. Like a crack in the ice, that absence grows until everything shatters. In this case Hannah wants the role of Puck so badly she gradually performs acts less ethical and more bizarre. When she eliminates the director's first choice by slipping him a mickey finn, the role goes to someone else. Violence is her answer. She actually seduces the hygiene-challenged next choice (Leif La Duke--hilarious and fearless as ever) before going over the deep end when the director insists on by-passing her yet AGAIN! Gradually (or as gradually as any one-hour play can allow) her madness proves catching and a clownish Jacobean tragedy begins its climax, with an impressive number of dead bodies piling up before the end.

Which gives me an excuse to pontificate a bit. Humor, in terms of acting technique, lies in two major skills.
Credit: Jim Eshom

First is inappropriate value. When the Director and Producer share the "good news' that they've found a replacement for the important role of Puck, the fact one member of the cast reacts by screaming GODDAMMIT! makes for a perfect example. Likewise, when someone suggests you kill another human because (they insist) there's no other way to ever get a chance to direct--if you treat that suggestion seriously! The second is sudden emotional change. When some one goes from loathing every inch of your guts to offering you (Emily Cunningham) the friendliest of drinks in the space of maybe six seconds, the suddenness helps make the offer funny. Likewise when a mousy girl (Lydia Muijen) goes from chronic insecurity to wild enthusiasm at her own abilities, that too becomes funny--especially when things are at stake!

All of the above skills are demonstrated, both in performance as well as in potential within the script. Which makes for a very funny sixty minutes of dark humor and plenty of laughs. Is it a perfect show? No. Most obviously, this kind of humor needs more rehearsal than it seems to have received to work as effectively as possible. The result is a perfectly good letter opener, instead of a scalpel. But the paper gets cut! The audience laughs! One might find oneself wishing (as I did) the play were longer, with a gradual build-up into its levels of insanity. But that doesn't take away from what remains very available to enjoy!

Which is what I did.

Snug's Revenge plays Sunday nights at 7pm until October 5 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601 (just north of Camarillo, across the street from KFC).  Tickets are $15. You can make reservations at 818.202.4120 or at zombiejoes.tix.com