Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wonderful Life (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Jason Lott performs a one-man adaptation of the Christmas film classic Its a Wonderful Life for the second year in a row.  Right up front let me predict he'll do this show he co-wrote (with Helen Pafumi) many more times in a lots more venues. The reasons seems simple enough.

To begin, Wonderful Life admirably boils down and re-tells the perennial classic into a new format without seeking to somehow reproduce a motion picture on stage. That way lies madness, or at the very least near-certain failure because the two remain such different media. Rather than even try, the authors made their play first and foremost a theatrical experience, one where a shift of lights or simple sound cue coupled with a shift of position transports us via our imagination anywhere the story demands. No elaborate soundscapes nor super-detailed sets. In fact we only see a black space and a bench. Likewise the flow of the story feels the way a story does when related by a good narrator. Not necessarily linear, at least not in terms of time and space. But emotionally, yes. Very much so. I especially like how we learn details of the story as we need to--not in terms of data retrieval but for purposes of emotion, feeling, the visceral sense of this tale.

Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Likewise Mr. Lott's performance sucked me right into the tale. That he never seemed to try and copy any of the actors in the movie is all for the good, indeed excellent, and generally the major characters come across as genuinely complex individuals. This often proves a trap, at least in my experience, in playing overtly "good" characters because it seems so easy to play them without nuance.

Mr. Lott does all this admirably. More, he sustains our interest and sympathy for seventy full minutes. Without that, the story wouldn't work. Like A Christmas Carol, this story (which is in some ways a mirror image of Dickens' classic) has been told and retold, revised and remounted time after time. But if we don't care for the characters, if we don't believe in them, we are not moved.

I was moved. Quite a lot.

Indeed the only wrong note in what was otherwise a tour-de-force was treatment of the villain of the piece, Mr. Potter. While giving him a little backstory was great (really--this seems like the only time anyone's ever bothered to do that--KUDOS) giving him all kinds of political rhetoric that sounded "on the nose" almost undid it. He ceased for awhile to be a human being (only for awhile though) and more like a straw man for terrible, terrible ideas--but put into words that rang false.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed and praise this performance and encourage anyone who wants to dive into the Holiday Spirit to see this if they get the chance!

Wonderful Life will play Saturday, December 20 at 8pm, Sunday December 21 at 2pm and Wednesday December 24 at 2pm for a special holiday matinee at the Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way (at Santa Monica Blvd). Tickets are $10 and available at the door or at

Monday, December 8, 2014

Morrison Christmas (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

Good theatre often generates a sense of deja vu. A sense of the familiar, the already known, a memory brought to life on a visceral level. More than once, for example, I've watched a play and with something like a chill said to myself (about someone portrayed on stage) "That is me." Such proved my experience in viewing Morrison Christmas at ZJU. I felt thirteen again, back in the 70s when black lights and weirdly hypnotic music coupled with swirling patterns of color and stream of consciousness words. Didn't much like it then. But I was a kid. And I never forgot it.

Morrison Christmas is one of those pieces I like to call "Theatre of Dreams' which has become pretty much a staple at ZJU. In keeping with the holiday, though, this show eschews the spooky and the creep out in favor of mysticism a la Jim Morrison himself. Every single moment felt like the recreation of a genuine religious experience, a Mystery Play for those who need to get past trappings of the safe, the complacent, the too-familiar. Fourth Chakra stuff. Equal parts mardi gras and meditation, both celebration and contemplation. Life and death, individuality and union, animal and spirit. Enacting the central mystery of the transcendent Divine awakening within a doll of flesh and bone and blood, surrounded by bars of time and space.

I honestly cannot imagine a more appropriate subject for Christmas--the festival in the name of a Jewish Boddishatva.

Photo: Josh T. Ryan
Josh T. Ryan is one of those directors whose work always fascinates and enlightens, so much so I kick myself for missing any work in which he's involved. Of the cast of Morrison Christmas, I'm familiar with about a third. All accomplished what this kind of performance needs--a kind of vivid individual charisma and talent, a commitment to the experience. Alex Walters falls so smoothly (I suspect not effortlessly) into the flow of this event he brings us along from the very start. He's the first ensemble member we see, guitar in hand and song to sing. He's followed by the rest--Amir Khalighi, his natural intensity grown stronger, Chelsea Rose ever increasing in her skills at precisely this sort of theatre, tigress Vanessa Cate showing us vulnerability just as powerful as her usual strength, Cheryl Doyle (just as interesting and as fearless as the last time I saw her--which was well into the level of excellent), Alison Stolpa and her quiet intensity (especially the way she listens), Marc Erickson who manages to seem both human and unworldly, plus Cynthia Salazar and Olivia Spirz and Brenda Nicole Walsh.

To be honest, not everyone will go for a show like this. So very non-linear, so stream-of-consciousness, so blending of seemingly diverging elements in so Dionysian an event. Which is fine. Some will find a frank, open (but hardly taudry) approach to sexuality disturbing. The references to multiple religious traditions might confuse some. Others might feel offended. So it goes. But if you take the time to see this performance (which, I highly recommend) and let it wash over you like music, something valuable might come of it. I myself felt drawn in and refreshed. To give a visceral (how appropriate) example of the impact, let me note I was feeling
Photo: Josh T. Ryan
in pain just before the show began. I started having some muscle spasms in a limb.

But after awhile, I just didn't pay attention to any discomfort. What was before me took all my attention, and I left the theatre with a rather deep smile on my face. What more, really, can I say?

Morrison Christmas plays at 11pm Fridays and Saturdays until December 20, 2014, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601 (north of Camarillo, south of the NoHo Sign, across the street from KFC). Tickets are $15. You can make reservations by calling 818-202-4120 or visiting

Monday, December 1, 2014

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Here we go again. I can almost hear the tiny internal groan at the news of yet another production of THE Christmas story, the one rendered into cliche by repetition, reinvention, parodies, tributes, reinterpretations, etc. What after all can Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group bring to the table that a whole slew of previous productions, including musicals and muppets, have not? Well, a different cast for one thing. Any dramatization depends on that, and experiencing a good performance frankly is its own reward. Don't you think? But if you're looking for a new twist, the current production by ZJU of Dickens' classic also has a distinct 'steampunk' flavor. Does that count?

Me, I'd go a bit further. A Christmas Carol in all its incarnations doesn't remain popular due to some weird media conspiracy. No, when done right (with Mickey Mouse, Doctor Who or Alister Simm) it remains a tale that works. Dickens created a ghost story, one in which the past actively reaches out to the present and grabs it by the scruff of the neck to give a good shake. But more, it tells a story that is at the very heart of what we most hope Christmas to be--a time when remember to be kind, that we need not suffer loneliness, that love really does exist. With Ebeneezer Scrooge (a wrenching performance by Sebastian Munoz) we see a very special fantasy played out. The second chance. Who of us does not at some point or other long for that?

Photo Credit: ZJU
But again, it just won't work without good performances (nearly always requiring a director with enthusiasm, vision and a keen eye, Denise Devin in this case also playing the various Ghosts of Christmas). This show has that.

Now, ZJU mounted this production last year and does pretty much the same frenzied, fascinating, roller coaster as before. The plot, startlingly, is all there. Frankly, it usually is not. One of my favorite moments has always been when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two hideous gaunt children--their names are Want and Ignorance. We see this. Likewise we not only get to see Scrooge's face as he watches the love of his life (Lara Lihiya-- who as violinist in the show's Steampunk chorus, lets loose her inner goblin) walk away from his youthful self, but his expression upon seeing her now--seeing the family that could have been his.

All this works, not simply because it zooms without letting us get bored by a story we already know (really, the whole performance clocks in at about sixty minutes) but hitting the emotional moments, including bits of silence and waiting. Bob Cratchit (Jason Britt) and his wife (Redetha Deason) especially do wonders with quiet joy and even more quiet, but searing grief. They give among the top performances in the show, but then they have to--if they don't love Tiny Tim (Courtney Drumm) for example, we the audience will not.

The whole ensemble does a fine job, not really in exploring the dark recesses of the Human Condition, but in telling this story. This specific, hope-laden tale intended to move and give comfort, reminding us of the light in the dark and the warmth amid the chill. Kudos to everyone, such as Gloria Galvan, Patrick Albanesius, Sarah Kessler, Kelly Rhone, Kevin Pollard Jr., and A.J. Sclafani, each of whom played a variety of roles and managed to make it clear to us that fact. No small feat, incidentally. This story can be so very cloying, so by-the-numbers. But this production, with this cast and crew, summon up the magic that made Dickens novella re-read to this day, over 175 years since it first appeared in print.

A Christmas Carol runs on Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm, through December 28, 2014Tickets are $15. For Reservations call: 818-202-4120, or go to . Zombie Joes is at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601 (north of Camarillo, south of the NoHo sign, across the street from KFC).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy No Year! (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

The world premiere of Jon Christie's Happy No Year marks my introduction to this playwright, his company, the cast and also the Missing Piece Theatre in Burbank.

Having been invited to the show by someone I know on Facebook, I honestly had zero notion what the play's subject matter might be. The only clue seemed its title, which pretty clearly hinted at comedy. Correctly, as it turned out.

A comedy, a fantasy, a love story and as it turns out a murder mystery. In fact watching this show brought all kinds of others to mind unbidden. One of these was Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton's film--mostly because of the play's central conceit.  Each character is a human being somehow put in charge and responsible for a particular holiday. Pat (Ben Austen) for example embodies St. Patrick's Day. Hally (Cherami Leigh) is in charge of Halloween. Not too surprisingly, the former speaks with a brogue while getting drunk all the time, the latter on the other hand is always changing costumes. They join several of their fellows at the end of the year for the gala celebration given by Eve (Grace Birkita MacMillan) and her brother Dave (Felipe Figueroa), New Year's Eve and Day respectively.  Some of the holidays aren't present. Esther (Easter) ate too many chocolate bunnies and isn't feeling well. Indy (Fourth of July) is taking a vacation. And so on. Guests do include Puck (JR Ritcherson) in charge of April Fool's Day and a surprisingly lonely Val (David Lewis) who is Valentine's Day. But the "big" guest remains the bitchy diva Chris (Rachel Boller) i.e. Christmas, with her virtual servant Autumn (Tammy Olson), Thanksgiving. Not too surprisingly, the guests have their own issues with one another, from friendship to rivalry and the like. Eve and Chris loathe one another, but plenty of other emotions bubble to the surface.

Then the lights go out. A shot is fired. Someone has been shot! Or have they?

What follows is a fun enough murder mystery that doesn't take itself too seriously, with echoes of the motion picture CLUE as well as the musical Drood. All well and good. The entire cast is charming, the humor earns smiles at least and sometimes outright laughs. It clearly is intended as light fare, completely appropriate for the young and young at heart. But while the show achieves the goal of Fun it lacks the depth of really classic children's stories such as Peter Pan or How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Which may be unfair to say. After all, where is the justice in calling a given drama "not the equal of Hamlet?" On the other hand, had I really believed in this world and in the characters I'd've care more. A lot more. Thus would have enjoyed it far more. The script is nice. Light. Sweet and smile-inducing. Anyone who's ever attended comedies that never became funny will appreciate Happy No Year for its success in amusing. No small thing! But what interested me most were the most human elements, the surprises instead of the cliches. That it had such moments, such elements is frankly worthy of praise! Just wish there were more.

On the other hand, the cast did well and the show itself hits most of the marks it seems to be aiming for. It makes for a light sweet, a touch of whimsey with actually more human truth than one would expect, including some rather more complex relationships than is usual for a lot of successful t.v. shows for example. So I do recommend the show, while hoping the writer/director continues to hone his craft. He's a very young man, with hopefully lots of productions yet to come.

Happy No Year plays until December 20, 2014 at the Missing Piece Theatre 2811 West Magnolia, Burbank CA 91505. Tickets are $20 each.