Sunday, March 29, 2015

KARAOKEAPOCALYPSE (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Kinda/sorta. Actually, a show like this is very difficult to spoil, because it changes.  But I'll get to that in a moment.

Remember when  you were maybe thirteen years old? And you had this great idea of a party? One where you'd get to celebrate all those horror movies and monster comics and weird stuff you loved?  Of course you didn't have any money, but if only there were some basement or attic room--a place to set up some black lights and enact some really cool creepy stuff from the Halloween Haunted House last year, but this time with some friends who really understood?

I never had that party, for a whole host of reasons. Probably only a very few of us ever did. But this show--Karaokeapocalypse at ZJU--is exactly that event!

We have a cast in ordinary, grungy clothes, wearing ghoulish if generic makeup. We have spooky music to dance to--sung live and sometimes we the audience joined in (at one point given makeshift musical instruments). Action figures re-enacted a cheesy movie, followed by a werewolf puppet singing a song. Games and dance. Posters used to set the mood exactly the way we imagined doing so way back in our early teens.

But I cannot give you a cast list per se, because each performance will have a different cast! Each show will consist of different, fresh, fun and (yeah, let us say it) a little bit sophmoric "acts." Which is the whole point! In Australia, where December falls squarely in the heat of summer, there's a holiday called Christmas in July.  That is really what this show ends up as in many ways--Halloween in Spring!

Therein lies the key to the essential question every theatre review seeks to answer--should you go to see this show?  It all depends on how much you like Halloween. Does this kind of party sound like fun, keeping in mind it isn't run by a bunch of barely-teenagers who don't really know what they're doing? No, these folks are theatre professionals and having a great time.  You're invited to come along.  To listen to recordings of Vincent Price and sing "They're Coming to Take Me Away" and just relax.  Halloween revisited.

Me, I had a blast!


Karaokeapocalypse plays Friday nights at 11pm until April 10, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (across the street from KFC, just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601. Tix are $15 and you can get reservations by called (818) 202-4120 or by going to zombiejoes.tix.com

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TV Live (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

All me to be brutally honest here.  Not mean or dismissive but up front and sincere.  In the last few years the notion of a "ten minute play" became very popular with lots of theatres.  One can easily see why!  Logistics for one thing--less rehearsal, less demand of attention from an audience weaned on sitcoms and music videos.

Me, I find it very hard to get much out of ten minutes.  Very hard indeed.  But far from impossible! TV Live at ZJU in North Hollywood is a collection of these plays, all written by a friend of mine who quite frankly I regard as a very good playwright with an interesting, entertaining and often insightful voice.  His name is Adam Neubauer.

Credit: Adam Neubauer
And if I claimed to be disappointed or that I didn't enjoy myself, that would be a total lie.  I enjoyed myself quite a bit.  The five plays (or playlets) gave me plenty of reason to smile, to raise an eyebrow, to nod while recognizing something I didn't know I knew.  Really, this was very nice.

Get Right (directed by Roger K. Weiss) stars Kurt Cotton, Evan Henderson and Chelsea Collins in what amounted to a strange triangle, one not based on romance really but obligations of friendship.

Gonna Live Forever (directed by Mark Hein) features Justin Banek, Mason Kale and Inetri Brazil as three people at a bar reacting to a startling claim by one of them, that in turn brings out all kinds of truths from the other two.

Credit: Adam Neubauer
Box 4815 (directed by Adam himself) follows a bank robbery veering into tangled and dangerous mine field of conflicting goals--with Julie Inmon, Sarah Shankman and Kyle Marie Colucci.

Club Mirror (directed by Jana Wimer) sees Sean Sekino, Randy Marquis and Mariya Pesheva give us a glimpse of a kind of deeply dysfunctional triangle with echoes of violence and deceit.

A Mid-Morning Conversation (directed by Denise Devin) is the one playlet with a two character cast--Dorian Antonacci and Rachel Scorpio as a seemingly perfect couple in an almost Barbie and Ken kind of way, which all turns out to be so very much darker than that!

Do these sound interesting, entertaining, maybe even insightful and/or moving?  I hope so, because to some degree or other each of the five were all that.  More at its best the direction brought all kinds of interesting details into sharp relief, forcing the audience's mind outside the box of formula and expectation.  Performances included some which were spot on perfect, others showing loads of
Credit: Adam Neubauer
talent and several that mastered the tricky art of doing next-to-nothing with profound truth.

Parenthetically, I note that Neubauer's voice as a writer has its own peculiar rhythm, one only he himself managed to capture pretty much perfectly.  Which doesn't change the overall quality of these performances and mini-productions.

However, I really did leave with my artistic appetite whetted not really fulfilled.  How well can any of us get to know even one character in a mere six thousand seconds, after all?  Much less two or three?  That challenge is considerable and to be brutally honest I've seen it answered maybe twice ever (and one of those might well be in this show).  Neubauer tells funny, engaging, surreal stories and peppers them with people that feels as if there's something
Credit: Adam Neubauer
more we'd like to know.  Left us wanting more, good theatre and storytelling technique! 

But I did want more.  A lot more.  The glimpse was tantalizing.  I recommend the show without hesitation.  But I want more than ten minutes from this writer.  I want at least nine times that, so I can see what lies behind these amazing glimpses of back story and character, so I can wrap my head around what is happening as if it were more than an SNL sketch.  There's an extraordinary talent and ability here, but instead of a wonderful meal all I'm getting from this is h'ordeurves.

Very good h'ordeurves, let us be fair.

TV Live plays Fridays at 8:30pm through April 10, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre at 4850 Lankershim (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.  Tickets are $15 and reservations can be made by calling (818) 202-4120 or by going to zombiejoes.tix.com.


Bedlam Explosivo Variety Hour (review)

Spoiler ahoy!

The term "variety hour"feels retro in this day and age.  It used to indicate something quite fun, a collection of different acts and entertainments, part of a tradition going back to Vaudeville and the Victorian Music Hall and before.

The Bedlam Explosivo Variety Hour at ZJU in North Hollywood recreates this idea.  Which is not to say it feels anything like an antique.  No, this remains modern, remains ZJU which is to say it has equal doses of the macabre and edginess with more than a few dashes of dark(ish) humor plus a bit of gender-bending here and there.

Photo: Sebastian Munoz
When I went to see it, a friend who was helping with the house told me I looked like I could use a night of relaxation and fun.  She said this show was for me.  Well, she was right!

Live music accompanied several musical numbers, which naturally enough included more than a few scantilly clad performers.  Most (but not all) of them female.  Dance and singing made up a goodly percent of what we saw--much of it with a twist!  A translation gone horribly wrong from Carmen for example.  An all male striptease involving monks, a long running gag from Monty Python and music from the group Genesis for another.  We also got a lovely striptease number done to classic opera (courtesy of the lovely Vivi Varon)!

Intercut amid all this included a series of magic acts, not in a classical style (at least no top hats, no bunnies, no beautiful assistant looking something like a Vegas Chorus girl) but in the more modern, ironic way we've grown used to.  Less Kreskin, more Penn and Teller.  With a few bits of Alice Cooper maybe.  Bald and bearded Scott Michael did the prestidigitational honors, and kudos to him. (BTW some might find his act a tad hardcore.  I'll admit to squirming a bit.)
Photo: Sebastian Munoz

Meanwhile what other acts made us laugh, and smile and sometimes nearly dance in our seats (although maybe that was just me...)?

A slightly mad gymnastics routine by a pretty-much-clothed Ian Heath. (Quick note--this guy seems born to play The Joker, just sayin')

Elif Savas showing off a really fine vocal range along with a very fine gift for comedic timing.  This is no small thing, since making some of her "bits" work isn't anywhere near as easy as it seems.  She and Matt Hislope also did a hilarious bit about a plumber and the tools of his trade.  I really cannot describe this, but note you should see it for yourself.  Really. 

Michael Guthrie's singing, who gives us not only the power of a good strong voice but the skill to let us hear, understand and (important) feel the words!

Photo: Sebastian Munoz
Jennifer Chun--the very first performer we see--acting by playing the cello (for real). 

Allison Fogarty doing the same while playing the flute, maintaining a specific character throughout (this is good stuff).

Ellen Runkle and Emily Craig who shone in a simple little skit that left me snickering and who throughout created a series of small, but vivid characters in one bit or sketch after another.

Mostly though I was truly impressed with Sebastian Munoz, a director I've followed now for several years and seen his skills with choosing talent and shepherding good performances (and in this work, working out humor that works) continue to grow.  I recommend this show highly for sixty minutes of fun!

The Bedlam Explosivo Variety Hour plays Saturdays at 8:30pm through March 28, 2015 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA 91601. Tix are $15.  You can make reservations by calling (818) 202-4129 of visiting zombiejoes.tix.com.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Road to Appomattox (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Must say it feels a little bit like kismet, this spattering of theatre lately entwining fictional events with real history.  The Road to Appomattox by Catherine Bush enjoys its west coast premiere right now at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. By some very nice good fortune I got to see this show, which essentially comes down to an extremely nice staff at the theatre itself.  Really, very nice.  So is the building, the seats, the decor of the lobby (highlighting photos and set designs from years of shows)--even nicely priced snacks and drinks at the concession stand.

All this is intended as both praise and criticism--neither extreme, but both heartfelt.

The Road to Appomattox (according to the program) was commissioned as a play about Robert E. Lee, one of the most famous and powerful figures in American history. What playwright Bush decided to do (and I've nothing but congrats for this choice, it being near and dear to my heart) is interplay a few specific events at the end of the Civil War with the current day lives of those tracing those events, which echo in a way their lives.  What a marvelous idea!  How lovely to see enacted the relationship between past and present, history and our day to day lives.  That a character comes out and says as much is frankly indicative of what I found disappointing.

Credit: The Colony Theatre
Not horribly disappointing!  Sitting there in the really very nice theatre (honestly, I felt such envy for that space) I enjoyed myself.  The play never stopped entertaining, no small feat.  Kudos!  The dialogue sparkled at times, the story followed through on its ideas to a logical and emotionally touching conclusion.  I genuinely liked the characters.  Sometimes I wanted to slap them!  Other times they cringed on their behalf!  By the end my heart wanted the best for them.

This is all to the good, yes? Of course!

Yet I honestly feel the script itself pulls its dramatic punch in all kinds of ways.  The central characters, Jenny (Bridget Flanery) and her husband Beau (Brian Ibsen) clearly are a marriage in trouble, with the latter searching for something and the former trying to help, but both of them going in blind.  Yet in the end, when we're given the so-called reason for the trouble, all I could think was "Is that it?  Really?"  It seemed so mundane, so fixable with a good talk and a bit of hard work, a surface problem at most.  Nothing really deep there, no hint of more fundamental problems or issues or even questions.  This tiny domestic problem, pleased as I was to see it resolved because Jenny and Beau seem nice enough, just did not measure up the grandeur and scope of the Civil War.  In fact, this comparison diminished that conflict, which cost so very many lives and wrecked so much of this country, leaving scars that continue to bleed today a century and a half later.  Where was the scope?  The depth of the issues involved?  Where a comment on the human condition beyond a platitude worthy of an (above average) birthday card?

Chip (Tyler Pierce) plays the third wheel and not-quite-third-point in a not-really-triangle, a history professor who in the later part of the second act talks about what caused the Civil War.  That bit of dialogue actually felt insulting.  Not the actor's performance, which was smoothly competent throughout and often spot on in terms of comedic timing.  But when the issue of slavery, for example, was raised and dismissed in a sentence and a half, I know this is work not taking history seriously.  At all.  And as a lover of history, I did resent that.

Credit: The Colony Theatre
Structurally this came out in the plot as well.  As a writer myself, this seemed baffling.  Much was made of an old telegram Beau found among his great great grandfather's things from the Civil War, where he served as a lieutenant in the Army of Northern Virginia.  The text is in a cypher and Beau desperately hopes to find out what it was, what role his ancestor played.  Chip meets the couple, offers to find out, and we learn this telegram may prove that ancestor was a deserter directly responsible for Lee having to surrender days later due to it never having been sent.  This is all good! That Beau needs to come to terms with his hopes about the past evaporating--also, the very essence of drama and human conflict.  So why is so little made of it?

All this becomes more vivid when one considers the story of Lee and those around him, played out in and around the modern story.  Lee (Bjorn Johnson) in this version is a man somewhat at odds with my own image of him from history, but he comes across as a brilliant, surprising and deep thinker who is ever ready to act, ever firm in his goals, who bears tremendous responsibilities while refusing to become cold or heartless.  His relationship with the young Lt. Colonel Taylor (Shaun Anthony) becomes similar to that of Hamlet with Horatio, someone with whom he can share his thoughts and fears and diminishing hopes. But in many ways the climax of that part of the play comes at the very end--when faced with Grant's call for a surrender, Lee agrees but would rather "die a thousand deaths."  Then a Captain Russell (Pierce in a double role) offers another option.  Disperse the army and fight it out in guerilla tactics, raiders harassing the Union armies without letup, foraging off the land.  Lee all too clearly sees the horrifying long-term consequences of such a path.

But that awareness doesn't seem to belong in this play.  It seems too large, too important, to serve as a counterpoint to Beau and Jenny's pretty simple marriage problems.  The scale of the problems don't mesh, not because the domestic issues between two souls necessarily are tiny, but because in this case they haven't been imbued with the power of Lee's choices and options.

So what we get is an enjoyable couple of hours with a few pleasant characters saying some funny lines and settling their differences pretty quickly once they actually start talking about them.  Which is fine.  But it only plucks at the heartstrings a tiny bit, rather than piercing my heart so I cannot but walk away feeling for the story I've just glimpsed.

The Road to Appomattox runs through March 15, 2015 at The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. For further information, call (818) 558-7000 or email the box office at boxoffice@colonytheatre.org