Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Urban Death 2015 (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!


Waiting in line for the box office to open at ZJU's 2015 edition of its signature show Urban Death, I chatted with a small group ahead of me. Seems none of them were veterans of either this show or this theater. Two young ladies wanted to know if it was going to be "gory" or "creepy." One liked gore, the other liked creep.

I said this show usually has violent congress with your mind.

Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
My prediction proved true. The entire audience (taking up every single seat) reacted in ways I"m sure made the hearts of the creators swell with pride. Quite rightly, too.

Urban Death seems like equal parts performance art, macabre sketch fest, halloween haunted house and maybe a fever-induced nightmare. Now in its fifteenth year or so, the show continues to evolve. Certain bits and...not sure what to call them...scenarios? That'll do. Certain scenarios return almost each year, but with new twists and turns every time. The pervasive humor is dark, perverse, often shocking, sometimes hilarious and not a few times all of the above simultaneously.  Other times the darkness lacks any shred of humor, with a simplicity that sends shivers down one's soul.  Still other times we're just plain scared!

Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
Having seen the show several times, I can tell you the versions directed by Zombie Joe tend towards greater gore and shock. Jana Wimer on the other hand focuses more on psychological horror. This year, they share the directing credit. What results blends the two with great skill and (very important) power.

What I'm not going to do (despite the disclaimer above) is give away much of what happens. Up to you, the reader, to decide is this show is your cuppah tea. If not, you probably don't wish to read many details, lest you lose sleep. If the idea of this show appeal, however, then 'tis a poor critic indeed who ruins the theatrical event for patrons!

But let me note the audience reacted with equal parts glee and shock, like grand guignol theater of old, fascinated by the emotional pit yawning before them and sometimes laughing despite themselves. Not that any of this would work without a truly splendid cast. Some I've seen before--such as Vanessa Cate, Charlotte
Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
Bjornbak, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, David Wyn Harris, etc. Others are less familiar to me, but also created the weirdly wonderful, horribly beautiful world of Urban Death, including Ian Heath, Kevin Pollard Jr., Elif Savas, Danny Whitehead and Melissa Whitman.

Urban Death plays Saturdays at 11pm for who knows how long. Probably as long as folks buy tickets and most of the cast remains available. Bet on four to six weeks, although try not to gamble on missing this show, unlike any other. The location is Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankiershim Blvd (across of KFC, just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA 91601. Call (818) 202-4120 for tix or go HERE.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Grow a Pair of...Wings (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

The world premiere of Amelia Phillips' grow a pair of...wings by Fresh Produce took place last week and I had the good fortune to be there. Front row, no less. Venue was a brick-lined black box with frankly better lighting and sound than I've come to expect. So kudos there!

Here's the idea behind the play.

Our playwright portrays Sarah Klein, the lead, who we meet trying desperately to host Passover for her family, especially her parents and grandfather. Her sister/roommate Aubrey (Riva Di Paola), a successful artist, wonders why she's going to all this trouble. Soon enough Sarah's gentile boyfriend (Tyler Cook) and good friend Irving (Greg Nussen) arrive as well.

This Passover, Sarah's beloved grandfather (Barry Vigon) dies.

All this is about ten minutes into a ninety minute play. The family and relationship dominoes begin to fall almost immediately, complete with overreactions great and small. Rather than give some kind of blow-by-blow of the plot, let me instead focus on the overall experience of this play and its impact. As the title suggests, the focus remains on Sarah, upon an existential crisis in which she finally leaves the emotional nest and learns to face the world's woes. Exactly the kind of subject matter which can be sickeningly saccharine. Thankfully, that never comes close to happening!

Director Stacie Hadgikosti did the first, most vital duty of any stage director--she cast this play well, extremely so. Really, I am so used to seeing productions with at best average performers in the supporting parts to see this--a uniformly excellent cast--was like a very special dessert at the end of a meal. In particular I want to praise how the temptations to play stereotypes never seemed to catch even one performer. No small feat, especially since a big chunk of the play's humor plays on stereotypes (while its tender heart confounds them).

Along those lines Jennie Fahn as Sarah's mother and Robert Dominick Jones as her father do wonders with what really isn't much stage time--but they give us the foundation from which to emotionally understand so much of what happens throughout! The way they blindly try their best, and sometimes fail (sometimes having barely a clue they've done so) feels utterly real--as does the strained sisterly relations between Sarah and Aubrey. Kudos to everyone, really.  Even Donna Simone Johnson in what has to be a near-thankless tiny role makes that character real. I walked away hoping to see everyone in something else one day.

But I will note a problem in the script, one of inconsistency. Here is the blurb for the play:

Imperfect perfctionist Sarah Klein was a good student, a good daughter, a good girlfriend and now, at the age of 26, she's falling flat.  Guided by the whimsically opinionated spirit of her Holocaust survivor grandfather, Sarah struggles to emerge as more than just a failed artist, smothered daughter, competitive sister, unsatisfied girlfriend, and accommodating friend.  In order to define herself, it's simple: All Sarah needs to do is grow a pair of...wings.
 I hope this reads as potentially charming to others as it did to myself. Honestly, I found the play as written more complex and more moving than the blurb suggests. However--please not the underlined section. The presence of her dead grandfather sticks out like a sore thumb--not because he doesn't serve a dramatic function (he does--very much so) but his presence puzzled me. When he first appears, for example, Sarah can see him. In the very next scene, again, she can see him. After that--she certainly behaves as if he's never there until the very, very end. More, she behaves as if she never had seen him for most of the play. I don't get it.
Honestly who in an otherwise naturalistic world reacts in such a blase manner to a dead relative wandering around their apartment? At one time he wanders into the room when she's having sex and says something to her!

Now, I can well sense devoting time to this dangling plot point could easily have added another half hour onto the play. But it does end up distracting. Yet including Grandpa makes so much dramatic sense I for one hope she doesn't even consider cutting him!

Yet I hope she fixes this point. The cast and play deserve it. And even with that problem, the play moved me--not because of plot per se but because in the end I cared about all these people. No small feat!

Grow a pair of...wings plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm at The Lounge Theatre 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90038 until May 10, 2015.  There are also Thursday night shows at 8pm starting April 30. Tickets are $25. All photo credits:  Joseph Bornilla

Friday, April 17, 2015

Medusa Undone (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Medusa Undone, by Bella Poynton, frankly is the kind of play near and dear to my heart. It enacts a story from Greek mythology, hopefully (successfully in my view) rendering it topical to our own lives. Medusa has popped up in many a work of entertainment, most usually as a relatively straightforward monster--a woman with snakes instead of hair, whose gaze means death by transformation into stone.

But she wasn't always so. Poynton's play deals with how this beautiful sea nymph once a priestess of the goddess Athena became so cursed. The details reveal something we don't often recall about the classic Greeks--namely, their view of the world as dangerous and unfair, plus the ingrained misogyny in their culture  we ourselves carry with us.

The nutshell of the plot tells what happened, but fleshed out to make the characters feel more psychologically accessible. Medusa (Deneen Melody) runs away from her home in sea sea, seeking a life of service to the Goddess of Wisdom (and War) Athena (Karen Wray). She's met by Echo (Carmen Guo), a former Oracle of Delphi, now High Priestess here. Eventually she meets the Goddess, and before too long also meets that lady's uncle Poseidon (Derek Long) God of the Oceans. Medusa is accepted, within two years is elevated to High Priestess, when her sister Stheno (Caitlyn Lowerre) shows up with a letter from Athena telling her to come fetch the girl home. It seems the growing friendship between Medusa and Poseidon upsets her. At a crisis, the Sea God rapes Medusa. The Goddess does not blame him, but the girl, and transforms her into a monster for punishment. The trauma, and lack of comfort from any quarter, transforms the once-naive young woman into a cruel creature as terrible as those who inflicted this upon her.

Of course her ultimate fate--to have her head cut off then given to Athena to place on her shield--cannot but be an extra dollop of vicious irony.

Most of the heavyweight acting in this play falls upon Medusa, Poseidon and Echo. No surprise then they are the three who shine most. In particular all three demonstrate an extraordinary range, each in a fundamentally different way. For example, Melody as the title character is a tiny beautiful girl who comes across as very young, but matures in all kinds of ways (some of them terrible) in the course of two acts.  She in particular listens with great power, and conveys powerful emotion from stillness. No mean feat! Long as Poseidon manages to keep a tricky emotional dynamic going on--genuine charm and blind ruthlessness, sometimes at the same time. He does it also with fairly constant movement and a subtle dignity, even gravitas. One never, ever doubts for one second he has vast powers at his disposal, that here after all stands a King.  Likewise Guo (who sadly doesn't seem to have website) does most of her action in the play by looking at others. Which should have made her last scene, one where she and Medusa do not dare look at one another, less effective. Quite the opposite!

I do feel compelled to point out the play has a very uneven tone. But no play is perfect. These figures from Greek myth wander back and forth between what might called grandness and the most mundane--up to and including contemporary slang! Not that I object to such a thing, but it does require some tricky rhythmic and emotional balances within the text--balances I did not see. Or feel. Or hear.

Some members of the cast have a bad case of wandering feet--lots of tiny steps to nowhere for no clear purpose. The set looks very simple and yet quite effective, with I must say inspired sound and lighting design. The costumes didn't always work for me, but mostly they did so that seems like nitpicking.

Overall, I should also offer some praise to director Sonja Berggren for not only bringing this powerful story to stage with the punch it needs, but along the way solving a real technical problem--since the audience is on two sides of the stage, the blocking needed to be careful and yet smooth. With exception of the wandering feet (which didn't happen that often but is pet peeve of mine as an actor and director) the whole thing flowed nicely in what is after all a small space. Yet it seemed in the end as a corner of a much vaster universe, a cruel one achingly familiar. Because in the end we've all known a Medusa or two. Just as we all grew up around more than a few Poseidons, as well as few Athenas and Sthenos. Echos too now and then. So we get the most vibrant 'message' a play an often hope to convey.

Here you are. Here we all are.

Medusa Undone plays through May 3, 2015 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays and 2pm at The Garage Theatre 251 East 7th Street, Long Beach, CA 90813. You can make reservations by calling (323) 377-2988.  All photo credits go to Rebecca Taylor.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Slings and Arrows (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks my first review of a work from the Monkey Wrench Collective, an experimental theater group pretty much headed by Dave Barton, director of this re-imagination of Shakespeare's Hamlet. A commissioned work, intended to be site specific, rather like The Manor in Beverly Hills, Slings and Arrows can be seen at the Casa Romantica in San Clemente. The idea is to use the lovely seaside mansion (utterly charming and gorgeous btw) and its rooms as the settings for a carefully tailored set of reworked scenes using Shakepeare's most famous play as its foundation, inspiration and (in many ways) a seed. We the audience are encouraged to wander between a certain set of rooms, where scenes take place. We all begin and end each act together.

So let me address the production in terms of three elements.

First, this moving around. I remain convinced it could work, and in many ways it did, but on a fundamental level a lot of my energy was focused on figuring out the map included in the program. I got lost. More than once. As a result I missed a scene from Act One and rushed to see truncated scenes for Act Two. This helped me not at all when it comes to entering into this world, losing myself in the story. In fact, I got lost once. Outdoors. In the dark. I applaud the whole notion of the audience becoming voyeurs into the lives of this dysfunctional family! Really--simply adored the idea! Sometimes the impact of that worked wonderfully. But mostly the raw mechanics of it distracted me something fierce--and cumulatively.

Second is the script, the re-imagination. Overall, I was pretty impressed! I'm not one to complain about re-imagining or re-working Shakespeare, far from it! This production accomplished it at times with considerable aplomb! Cutting Horatio for example--brilliant! Especially when his important scenes are transferred to others like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (expanding this characters proved a magnificent choice) and in one very crucial scene, Gertrude!  Really, I might have problems now and then accepting Horatio as a character in future productions! But I did get confused. The world of this play, as opposed to Hamlet, is explained in general terms by director Barton. Honestly, that isn't a good sign. I end up wondering why the play cannot speak for itself in performance? And the initial setup of this world feels jolting, out of sync. Maybe they intended it, but I never quite entered into this new reality, never quite understood it on an intuitive level. Many of the details were lovely or intriguing--the Mexican painted skull for Yorik, the paper cranes of Hamlet's love letters, the weirdly clownlike yet somehow mundane normalcy of Rosencranz, etc. But I was left with a fair number of problems in terms of visceral impact. Central to the conceit (we are told) is that Hamlet suffers from schizophrenia, to the point of hallucinations (these two are the skull-faced Shadow Hamlets, who take the place of the ghost and with whom he shares so many monologues--while they themselves take Hamlet's place in many scenes). But--everyone seems at most mildly surprised at Hamlet's obvious and severe mental illness. How is that possible, no one noticed until now? Who are the Shadow Hamlets, anyway? Archetypes of his unconscious somehow broken free? Demons? Echoes of his future actions? I don't know. They're intriguing, but I don't understand them--or a lot of other things in this world.

Which brings me to element three. The performances. Like the rest of this production, a seriously mixed bag.  Rather strangely, I thought in many ways the weakest performance came from Hamlet himself! He seemed to be doing an imitation of what a good Hamlet should be rather than a real character (most of the time--in fact he, like everyone, had some very fine moments indeed). Polonius and Laertes, as usual, remain cyphers although the performers at least brought an intensity that felt real and were more than cardboard cutouts (the fate of both characters in most Hamlets I've seen). Ophelia at least had a great scene with one of the Shadow Hamlets while Rosencranz had another great scene with the other Shadow. Those two were by far the best scenes in the whole performance.

I'm glad I saw this, not least because of the genuine quality that dazzled in spots, amid what frankly ended up feeling pretty murky. Lots of productions rarely even achieve that!

Slings and Arrows, Shakespeare's Hamlet Re-Imagined will play at Casa Romantica 415 Avenida Granada
San Clemente, CA 92672 Friday April 17 and Saturday April 18 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 and you can check availability at (949) 498-2139.