Monday, May 16, 2016

The Superhero and His Charming Wife (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Due to scheduling problems, I did not see this work until it had but one more performance scheduled. This frustrates me so much, because to share wondrous experiences is a major reason for writing these reviews.  The Superhero and His Charming Wife certainly qualifies!

Not merely because the physicality of the production proved amazing (although it certainly was).  Given the genre it explores, that of superheroes, small wonder so many scenes dealt with deliciously staged combat.   Hero (Jones Welsh) in particular did a series of wonderful dance/combats throughout, nearly all with women not coincidentally.  Including, yes, his charming wife Julie (Joanna Bateman).

What most impressed me about this play written and directed by Aaron Hendry proved not the awesome choreography by Michelle Broussard, but rather how it treated the whole subject.

I have a friend baffled by the popularity of superheroes, viewing the whole trend as an example of our nation's immaturity.  Not sure I disagree, although seems to be the best of the genre often involves an attempt to move forward into maturity.  Is not this one of the functions of myth?

The Superhero and His Charming Wife sends our central character on a Hero's Journey with all the mind-blowing wonder of the best mythic quests from The Mahabarata to the Popal-Vu.  Hero has great strength, but needs understanding--making him Samson, Heracles, Thor and a dozen others.  But of course in a modern age he seeks not a Golden Fleece nor a Holy Grail.  Rather, as a certain Demon (Paul Turbiak) explains to us at the very start, his question will lead him to a box, at the heart of that most modern of paradoxes, involving a feline described by Shroedinger.

Like all myth, everything managed both strangeness and familiarity.  The Master Criminal (Alina Bolshakova-Roldan) whom Hero does not at first recognize (blind as Oedipus in his way).  The Dark Creeper (Anne-Marie Davidson).  Even his wife Julie (Laura Covelli) who seems different somehow.  Seems is right.  Perhaps he sees her as she truly is for the first time. 

Perhaps.

Ultimately the Quest must be one for identity, which by its very nature terrifies, especially in modern times.  We lack so many of the rituals with which to give us that--so a Waiter (Zahary Reeve Davidson) wants to become a superhero and tells a Waitress (Sydney Mason) to get out lest a job devour her hopes.  With then is Julie (Courtney Munch) in terror of what she's lost and pretending so hard she's forgotten she was doing it.

Does the Witch (Jessica Carlsen) know the way?  Does she know how to find what others are seeking?  Maybe.  Or maybe she only sees part of the answer and it has driven her mad.  But why?  Because it was not her answer perhaps?

We define ourselves by our jobs, but our enemies, by our loved ones, by what others perceive about us.  Hero in this play finds himself forced past all of that.  How horrifying!  How glorious!  But in the end his strength of body proves secondary, at best.  Sublime but not particularly useful at the quest's final moment.  Just as physical courage helped him arrive, but will not serve when confronted by the Box.

Let us say I'm not surprised Hendry based his play on a dream.  And for the record, I hope NMA (Not Man Apart) Physical Theatre Ensemble mounts this amazing work once more.




Friday, May 13, 2016

The Archer from Malis (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Interesting, how in such a theatre-heavy burg as this one (400+ theatres and counting) certain patterns start popping up.  Last Halloween the sheer number of vampire plays startled me!  Right now I'm starting to see a fair number of works based on Greek myth.

In this case, the Griot Theatre dove into the great epic of the Trojan War which to them was rather like the Bible plus Star Wars.  The title character of The Archer of Malis (adapted & directed by Malik B. Al amin) is Philoctetes, friend to the great hero Hercules and inheritor of his great bow (think Excalibur and you've got the right idea).

Without going into too many details, Philoctetes for reasons of convenience was marooned on an island en route to Troy, by the order of Odyssea (made into a Queen for this version, one of many non-traditional points of casting, to great effect).  After a full decade, the betrayers of our hero have returned, warned by an oracle only Philoctetes and his bow can conquer might Troy, thus ending the war.

Herein we get into what fascinated me most about this play, even more than the uniformly fine performances.  Although we often portray Ancient Greece from Disney cartoons to sfx-laden films to cult t.v. shows, we nearly always get it wrong.  Very wrong.  Because our world view is so in variance from theirs on so many levels!  We see the Trojan War as a huge stupidity that cost oceans of blood for no good reason.  But the Athenians who watched the ancient tragedy of Philoctetes saw that war as justified.  War was glorious!  Pride was to be avenged!

Nothing shows this more than two details.  For one, the central character as we see it is not the wounded betrayed warrior who rails against pitiless fate--against whom he has no ultimate defense--but rather Achilles' child Neoptolemus. This individual has chosen to help Odyssea trick Philoctetes out of his bow.  Neoptolemus feels wracked by guilt and the play focuses on their decisions rather than the ostensible "hero."

Second, whereas in the original Hercules is a deus ex machina, this play places both he and Zeus (his mother in this version) on stage, commenting and effected by events.  That a god intervenes to prevent the worst of tragedies, and does so at peril, alters the feeling of the play profoundly.  It feels more in tune with the modern, yet harkens back to why Sophocles' version remains an inspiration as well as actively performed piece over two thousand years after it premiere!

The Archer of Malis plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through May 22, 2016 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90038 (two blocks east of Vine)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Urban Death 2016 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

 Affionados of ZJU in North Hollywood make up a group well aware of that company's perennial performance art piece about death and horror.  Urban Death is always strange, disturbing, funny (if your sense of humor tends toward the dark) and in some sense moving.

But every single iteration remains itself, exploring subtly distinct aspects of death and fear and obsession. Every time, new vignettes make their appearance while old favorites often end up re-invented with some kind of twist.  Previous performers arrive or leave.  Fresh meat...er, faces make their debuts.

What to say about Urban Death 2016?

First, I would compare it to last year's edition.  I can still recall my genuine shock at some of the scenes witnessed at that time, but also my feeling the shock (and yeah, at times the nausea) seemed invoked for its own sake more than anything else.  Okay, that is fair and appropriate.  This time, I would say the show proved less shocking and more unnerving.  My eyes did not turn away so much as they stared with a kind of horrified fascination.

Second, I will note a fair number of new cast members this year.  Singling out individuals seems slightly out of sync with the whole idea of this ensemble piece, but also because a lot of the time I've zero idea who is on stage (unless a very specific body type stands out).  But many faces I did see were new, and seemed very much to dive into the whole macabre atmosphere this piece builds upon.

I want to touch on an interesting difference this year--a matter of focus.  In the last few versions, many of the shocks came from our reaction to a scene that appeared shocking or gross.  This time the horrors carried with them the idea of a character being trapped in some kind of personal Hell.  For the record, methinks this is somewhat more "classical" in tone.

Along those lines, I will also say the whole show this year included the return of certain set pieces, with many new faces and as such feeling fresh again.  Some of these haven't been staged in two or three years, while new bits have been added to fit into that whole "Personal Hell" theme I picked up upon.

More, this year's images and scenes don't features so many "ends" as UB sometimes dwells upon.  Relatively fewer deaths for example, one way or another, but lots of situations in which someone clearly is (and feels) totally trapped and without hope.  Yeah, we get the voices in the dark and a shocking apparition here and there (some of them with all the subtle nastiness of an abcess in your mind) but this year the climax of individual terrors seems to rest of some realization.  Usually.  Not always.

The last thing Urban Death strives to be is predictable.  Hence part of its very real power.

Urban Death runs Fridays and Saturdays at 11pm through May 28, 2016 (unless there is an extension) at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood (just south of the NoHo sign) CA 91601.

Lunatics and Actors (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay that warning is a little bit of a lie.  I'm going to spoil the show Lunatics & Actors as little as possible while writing this review.  My hope remains strong that audience members -- and this show deserves a great many such -- will come fresh to the experience and have their minds blown.

As mine was.

Honestly, I've never seen a single show from 4 Clowns I did not enjoy immensely, this one certainly not an exception.  More, no two of shows presented have resembled each other in the least, yet remained clearly the result of a similar point of view -- an exploration of the human condition eyes open to the pettiness and horror one may find therein, yet willing to laugh, to find hope, to ask questions rather than present answers, and forever to entertain while sharing all of the above.

Credit: Elena Flores
With luck, this comes across as the praise it is intended to be!

Stepping into the theatre to see this performance, one has a vivid yet not-easily-identified sense of place and time.  That odd disconnect nine times out of ten emerges from imprecision.  Here, one of those tenth times, it proves the exact opposite.  But even now I cannot tell precisely where we were, except itself.  Very much itself! Perhaps a dream, or an ersatz laboratory from another age, a steampunk asylum found in some alternate timeline.  All of the above and neither? 

Almost immediately we meet a Dr. Duchene (Thaddeus Shafer) who purports to have learned the mechanism of the human mind and emotion. Smiling in his antique garb and somehow fiercely precise way, the good (?) Doctor promises a demonstration. 

Credit: Elena Flores
Very soon we meet his assistants for the evening: Bon Bon (Tyler Bremer), Fifi (Alexis Jones) and Pepe (Andrew Aldredge). Assistants they prove, since they do in fact assist him, but one might well presume the three might also deserve the title "patients."

Might. Probably do. Then again I'm not completely sure Dr. Duchene is really a doctor.

Of his passion for this, his work, however we can have no doubt. Just as the truth of the emotions explored in the demonstration likewise leave little room for doubt. Ironic that--since every person on stage is an actor, which brings up the title. What after all is a Lunatic, really? What for that matter is an Actor? Is there a difference? Should there be? Who decides? 

Again, I don't want to spoil the performance, but I can promise a intriguing odyssey on many levels -- some emotional, others artistic (along with one of the most interesting performances of Hamlet you're ever likely to see) and many philosophical. Philosophy such as metaphysics, as well as epistemology, and yes, ethics. All of it startling, sometimes chilling, very often funny, frequently disturbing and for nearly every single second compelling. 

Lunatics and Actors by David Bridel, directed by Jeremy Aluma, plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through May 28, 2016 at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026.