Thursday, March 23, 2017

Malicious Bunny (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Matthew A. Sprosty’s world premiere of Malicious Bunny contains an amazing scene. Near the end of Act One, blue collar worker Jonathan (Markus Taylor) visits the very swank, expensive apartment of his wife Angela’s (Heidi-Marie Ferren) parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Parsby (Larry Gilman and Jennifer Edwards) pretty clearly despise their son-in-law.  They certainly have no desire to look at him, much less talk with him.  Reasons why—apart from the snobbery of money—emerge as Jonathan, whose visit clearly surprises them, insists on staying.  What the parents don’t realize is that Angela is with them as well.  She listens to it all via her husband’s Bluetooth, and she remains in constant communication with him.

Honestly, doesn’t that description whet your dramatic appetite, at least a bit?  Because honestly, this wonderful scene eclipses everything else in the play. It plays out with tension and mystery, character and tensions emerging one after another, while the cast does a genuinely splendid job.

It also leads up to murder.

Here lies the problem.  Not that we already know such is the reason for the visit (although from a technical point of view that does weaken the scene) but because the rest of the play never reaches this level.  Understand—elements turn out quite interesting, even engaging, but overall the script remains uneven.  Billed a dark comedy, honestly I hardly ever laughed or even grinned. Part of that must lie with the slow way scenes shifted (this remains a complaint of mine with many productions—no one wants to watch furniture being moved) but also frankly the lack of insight we receive about most of the characters.  The only one who consistently seems very much alive and himself is Greg (Andrew McIntyre) whose relationship with best friend Jonathan remains the biggest unexplored mystery of the play.

Clearly, the playwright has some real talent.  Ditto the cast.  Director Bryan Fox shows some skill and cleverness, albeit amid some problems, but truthfully the production does not gel into a coherent experience.  Given its avowed nature as a comedy, this comes down more than anything to rhythm.  One can indeed shift tone and genre successfully and to great effect.  But the skill to do so only shows in small flashes.  Meanwhile three extremely minor characters—the Pit Boss (Nicholas Maes), Detective Grilling (Tess Kartel) and Detective Ispy (James Vallejo)—seem wasted.  Honestly I could not figure a single reason for the first of the three to even be in the script!  The other two come across as just weird, but purposelessly so.  I like weird.  But weird needs to fit.  Just as a deliberately jarring note in a piece of music has to be the right jarring note and placed in just the right moment.

Malicious Bunny plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until April 9, 2017 at the Actor Company’s Let Live Theater, 916 North Formosa Avenue, Los Angeles CA 

The Cruise (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

(rather more appropriate this time)

Sometimes titles of plays (or novels, short stories, etc.) can prove problematical. At least they should give a hint to the audience what awaits.  Some alas make very little sense (Other Desert Cities I’m looking at you). Others, such as the Jonathan Ceniceroz’ The Cruise at LATC end up a source of contemplation, because the title actually suggests so much.  Consider the word “cruise.”  Obviously, given the play takes place on a cruise ship, we have the simple act of traveling on the surface of the sea—as ancient a metaphor for life as boats. It also harkens to “cruising” as in looking for partners.  And to constant travel without landing anywhere, never really finding a home.

All of which makes perfect sense.  Because this play explores all that and more.
James (Kenneth Lopez) comes aboard the Majestic, a high-end cruise ship, to spend some time with his semi-estranged father Ramon (Ric Salinas), recently hired to give an entertaining lecture about native peoples in the Caribbean.  As father shows off the digs, son clearly feels uncomfortable. Part of it seems discomfort over Ramon’s unrelenting enthusiasm that reaches the level of garish. As time goes by, layers peel back and we learn more. Some of it we probably expect. Yeah, James is gay. No, Ramon did not get this job under totally above-board circumstances (he gave a false name and lied about his credentials).  All this sounds like something of a zany comedy coupled with a bonding experience between father and son so far, right?

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
It proves more.  Soon enough James meets Judith (Carolyn Almos) and her partner Howard (Gary Lamb), taking one of many mini-vacations aboard the Majestic.  They turn out to be conservatives who’ve come into money and now want to enter politics.  Well, Judith has and does.  She wants to help groom a Latino for the GOP nomination to the legislature.  Given this day and age, one might expect this pair to be demonized.  Not so.  At the very least, maybe a Jekyll and Hyde situation wherein an evil bigot emerges when the subject turns to politics.  Again, not so.
Given these end up coming across as charming, in many ways positive, and very much individuals, formula might call for James and Ramon to function as stereotypes.  But yet again, not so.  The layers continue to peel back, revealing surprises.
For example, James recently panicked over a long term relationship.  He feels adrift, unsure of what his life can or should be.  Ramon it turns out has a long, long history political activism—so much so it ultimately wore away at his wife’s considerable patience at his absenteeism and lack of support.  His planned lecture aims to upset the guests with extremely unpleasant truths about Christopher Columbus.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Navigating amid such shoals we find Cruise Director Boyd (Brian Wallace), whose long history with Ramon blends enmity as well as friendship, frustration and loyalty, even some romance as well as fierce judgment.  Boyd’s character seems almost designed to steal the show, with a scalpel-sharp wit and ability to metaphorically tap dance with great skill. He’s the Malvolio of the play, far from the lead but too vivid to forget and whose presence put everything else into sharp relief. Under Heath Cullens’ direction, in fact, the whole ensemble does a fantastic job of keeping a lot of emotional, dramatic and comic balls in the air simultaneously.  Perhaps what impresses most is how those balls have not at all come to rest as the play ends.  They remain in the air, although moving on to a different pattern—one we can only guess at.

Ultimately we end up with a show full of genuine and warm charm, but a charm that firmly bites.  The script brought to life cuts us, but with an extremely sharp blade—one effortlessly and almost painlessly breaking the skin to leave a delicate scar, yet without drawing one drop of blood.

The Cruise, produced the Latino Theatre Company, plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until April 9, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Paradise Lost (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Not Man Apart and its members created three of my top dozen shows of 2016.  Now they offer an all-movement multimedia adaptation of Milton's epic poem, titled Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Destiny.  As you would expect the work covers the creation of the Cosmos itself, including Earth, the "birth" of the Son of God (Zachary Reeve Davidson), the rebellion of Lucifer/Satan (Jones [Welsh] Talmadge), then the temptation of Adam (Leslie Charles Roy Jr.) and Eve (Alina Bolshakova) which results in the world we know now.  Well, that is in the title after all.

Two aspects of the show I want to really talk about and praise.

First, the actual production which proved spectacular as usual.  As ever the entire cast showed not only talent but physical training to a very high degree, but now backed up byextraordinary multimedia.  Not only do we the audience see amazing images dance across the stage and set, but the cast interacting with those images!  One of my personal favorites involved Satan emerging from hell, then leaping from world to world until he finds Eden!  Fantastic!

Second, though, must be the story itself and how Milton's epic emerged into a new form--with, frankly, some welcome changes.  For one thing, the poem's misogyny never popped up.  For one thing, we see not only God the Father (J-Walt Adamczyk) with a wave of some kind of wand bring stars and worlds into existence, but the God the Mother (Marguerite French) at his side.  The Archangel Michael (Anne-Marie Talmudge) as well as other members of the Heavenly Host are played by women, just as Eve is given a far more central role than in the original.

But what really impressed me most how much of the story's symbols and unique features emerged crystal clear in performance.  Of course as Satan rebelled a female figure seemingly appeared on his back, raven haired and sheathed in red.  Who could this be but Sin (Laura Covelli) herself.  Once they coupled a darkness appeared from them, at first amorphous yet even before he took human form I realized this must be Death (James Bane). Must be!

Which means of course because the ideas and characters remain so vivid, the situations so clear, the disturbing questions about the narrative remain intact for us to ponder.  Why for example were Adam and Eve not warned by the Trinity or any of the Angels (Kendall Johnson, Elisa Rosin, Joseph Baca III) about Satan?  Why did they not intervene?

Meanwhile, why could they not simply be forgiven?  I don't think this a weakness.  Encouraging the audience to think and question seems to me a virtue--one of many in a piece that seems like one the company will return to, again and again in years to come.

Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Destiny plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until April 2, 2017 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Disinherit The Wind (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I feel strange writing this.  Disinherit The Wind (the title is a sly reference to the famous Pro-Evolution play Inherit The Wind--one of several) is a polemic about the relationship between science and spirituality, with an emphasis on how the two can live side by side.  It attacks pure materialism, while eschewing anything smacking of fundamentalism or Creationism.  But it also rejects Darwinian Evolution.

Now, most of this is actually my own point of view as well.  I also see the universe itself as the manifestation of a transcendent consciousness of which we are a part.  I see no inherent conflict between my faith and science.


Disinherit The Wind tells a moving story, one that centers around some fairly esoteric questions of evolution, biology, genetics and other sciences.  The fact such seemingly dry fare becomes a source of fascination and passion marks one of the play's great strengths.  It urges, encourages, almost makes audience members think!  Which is nearly the highest praise I can offer.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Dr. Bertram Cates (Matt Chatt--the playwright and owner of the Complex Theatre) is our protagonist--a neurobiologist fired because (he claims in a lawsuit) he disagreed with Darwinian Evolution. Financially he defends himself while the University has prominent attorney William Brady (Ken Stirbl) assisting Dr. Jared Brown (G. Smokey Campbell).  The only witness Cates has on his side is graduate student Howard Blair (Stephen Tyler Howell), engaged to Dr. Brown's daughter Melinda (Renahy Aulani).  One can see how the case cannot help but strum the strings of conflict, also the real battle happens in Act Two.

That is when Cates confronts the University's prime witness--Dr. Robert Hawkins (Circus-Szalewski) a very thinly veiled version/parody of Richard Dawkins.  Since all this takes the form of testimony before not a scientist but a judge, both debaters are forced to make their points in layman's language--which sometimes even strays into the poetic.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Juicy stuff.  It works  I feel for the characters, and the rest of the audience felt for them as well.  More I was so involved in the debate my urge to enter into it, making a point, needed stifling!  Wow.  Well done!  Entertaining, moving and thoughtful--as fine a trio of adjectives as most plays could hope for!  And totally deserved!

So why do I feel strange?  Especially since I essentially agree with the protagonist in what after remains a play with a great big MESSAGE delivered pretty explicitly over and over again?

Well, I don't think he succeeded in making his case.  Not in the way he claimed, anyway.  Frankly Hawkins is set up as a straw man, the authoritative voice of the opposition.  And he comes across as very intelligent, very arrogant, very unwilling to consider any world view other than his own--to the point where he storms off rather than even talk with Dr. Cates.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Frankly that feels like cheating.  I wanted to step on stage and take his place--specifically because I do agree with Dr. Cates and wanted to hear him expound on important things such as punctuated equalibrium, and alternate definitions of life, and other matters.  The play presents the question of evolution and beginning of life as in any way related--they are not.  The latter is an infant science and anyone who confidently claims ideas common before I was born as current thinking--as Hawkins does--of course comes across as a fool.  The playwright set up his voice of dissent to fail.

Of course that also makes for a good story, so in a way I cannot blame him. It helps as well the whole cast does a fine job--including Lon S. Lewi, Tony Cicchetti, Caroline Simone O'Brien and Christina Hart. All of which adds up to an almost startlingly good piece of theatre, a theatre of ideas that (and this makes for very high praise) fuels serious thought on the part of the audience.

So despite my whining, this remains a good play and very compelling production.

Disinherit The Wind plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 9, 2017 at the The Complex (Ruby Theatre) 6476 Santa Monica Blvd (between Vine & Highland), Hollywood CA 90038.