Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cat Fight (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and in all the times seeing theatre here since then I'd given standing ovations exactly twice. Seen lots of really good theatre, wonderful shows worthy of praise. But standing ovations should be something special, an act which one feels compelled to do. There've been times I got stares for not standing when others did.

Cat Fight received my third standing ovation in fifteen years.

The premiere show from the True Focus Theater, this show blends monologues, dance, performance art, song and dance in a tapestry about the feminine. What it means to be a woman today, in our society amidst these times. Good, bad, joyous, horrible and all things in between. Sounds a tad like any one of a dozen or so theatrical pieces going on around the country, doesn't it? But then--isn't this a time to explore that idea, those issues, to ask those very questions? The only real question remains is how Cat Fight measures up.

Credit: Angie Hoover
Doing a blow by blow of what happens in the ninety minutes  of the show serves little purpose. Let me instead note this really does cover a lot ground, often in a way that hits the gut. I'm generally not much of a fan of theatre that has such a specific focus, such an open agenda. But that is because too often what I see is someone trying to tell the audience what to think. Here, we get something more fundamental. Far more. Instead of a lecture, the audience watches a metaphorical spotlight aim right at things that happen all around us. The pressure of women to be mothers. The judgment based on looks or some other surface details. How people talk about rape. More, how motherhood can be glorious, life-changing. How beauty can be found in a thousand different ways. How cruelty comes to be accepted. And more. We the audience are not given an argument, nor answers to questions, but rather a series of experiences that reach right in to pluck the strings of our nervous systems.

This might easily turn into a very long review. For brevity's sake (and to avoid boring readers who would be better served just going to see the show), let me mention a few highlights.

"Which One Are You?" really touched a chord, with a simple yet devastating exploration of identity in terms of pop culture. That sounds soooooo academic, doesn't it? It is not. Rather it makes one laugh, and for fans of a certain t.v. show, one's heart to soar!

Credit: Vanessa Cate
Crystal Salas is an actress I hadn't seen before, but who grabbed my heart several times. The most piercing was something so simple it showed the power of a laser beam. You'll see what I mean in "The Optimist" (more than one member of the audience gasped during it).

Likewise "Trans" proved something of a tour-de-force. The monologue, given by and about born male mid-transformation into female, is written very well. Yet it contains traps for a less-than-stellar actor. Jonica Patella on the other hand is the very opposite. Instead of 'sincere' she is real. Instead of showing off, she simply uses the natural wit of her character. I really could go on and on about how superb I thought that performance is, but instead please see it for yourself.

She's in excellent company! The whole show juxtaposes images of how women are seen, how they see themselves, how they deal with preconceptions, how they change, how even their relationships in objects demonstrate some disturbing truths. For example, there's a double whammy a little more than halfway through involving pole dancing. "The Pole is Raunchy" (with Natalie Hyde doing something edgy and dramatic--she's so often cast in perky roles that other side of her talent goes unseen) proves very uncomfortable to watch, yet Iris Smoot in the following "The Pole is More" reveals another side to exactly the same object.

Credit: Vanessa Cate
Celebration and horror. Degradation and bliss. Loneliness. Community. Struggle. Success. Oppression. Ecstasy. In ninety minutes this ensemble runs the whole gamut and gives us a startling insight we feel (or at least most of us did) down to the marrow. Writer/director Vanessa Cate had collaborators with others such as Caroline Montes and Angie Hoover, along with a company of thirteen startling and vivid performers. Many are new to me like Kire Horton (funny and aching in "I Don't Want Kids"), Meghan Derr, Mariana Leite (another wonderful monologue dubbed "Motherhood"), Alicia Lourim, Chelsea Militano, and Lori J. Ness Quinn (who has a prime attribute for any performer--a face that always seems to have something going on behind it). Deneen Melody, like some others, I've seen before and continue to admire her courage as well as her expressiveness in voice and body.

I cannot think of a single performer in this show who didn't sooner or later take control of the stage, seize my attention and move my heart. That they were able to do so certainly serves as a tribute to their skills. That Cat Fight allows them that opportunity proves the same for the writers, choreographer and director. Not simply for the individual vignettes but how they flow together. To see what I mean, you'll have to see the show. Hopefully, you will.

Cat Fight plays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm up to July 27, 2014 at ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, California 91601. You can get tickets ($15 each) at catfight.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 805.791.1503 for reservations.


Disclaimer: Vanessa Cate and several others in the cast and crew are friends of mine. More, when a problem involving the graphics for the post card developed Vanessa asked for my help and I gave it. Rather extravagantly, she credited me 'Poster Design' which isn't really accurate. But generous.

"Noah" and "Jonah" (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Four Clowns is a theatre company which eschews naturalism in favor of...well...the stuff of clowns. By that I mean a lot more than a bright red nose (although such remains in evidence). Rather they take the flare, the exageration, the bright colors and obvious gags as a springboard into their shows. The result feels up close and personal, funny, surprising and pushes us the audience outside the box of how to see the world.

Potentially, this can be great!

Noah
In the two shows Noah and Jonah (both by David Bridel) the result qualifies as 'great' easily. But what do I mean by 'great'? Well, first of all the plays entertain on many levels. Both are based on the biblical tales (and I must admit the second is something of a favorite of yours truly). Yet each ends up told in such a deliciously over-the-top way, the manner you might expect in a children's show with puppets and sound effects and anachronistic silliness. Yet all this glorious tomfoolery remains aimed at adults. Puppets of the Wicked People in both plays gloat at how awful they are, cackling like cartoon villains but describing acts more worthy of Hannibal Lecter than Witchie-Poo (if you don't get that reference go do a search for "H.R.Puff-n-Stuff" at once!). God appears as a character in both plays, both as strange and amusing presences that might well upset those deeply wedded to more traditional depictions of the almighty.

For the record, I didn't mind at all. Although quite devout, I saw these plays as fitting very much into what I personally see as the purpose behind Creation--for the Divine to become something new by enacting out a universe. But I digress...

'Great' also because the shows move, provoke, entertain and remain surprising yet weirdly logical throughout. They re-imagine stories we all know in ways to make us question them, our assumptions and even ourselves without force-feeding answers. Yet they remains charming as well as simply fun.

Noah tells the story we've all heard, of a wicked world that God decides to purge and the one family Chosen to survive. In this one God is a huge face and hand way up in the sky. Amid it all is a blend of the slapstick with the profound, especially when it comes to Noah himself and his wife Delilah (nice touch that God keeps getting her name wrong).

Jonah
Jonah goes further in the re-telling, turning the story of a deeply reluctant prophet who finally does God's will only to see God forgive the city Jonah warned when they repented. In this one, Jonah is a modern day "dude" in Los Angeles who's writing a screenplay about his life, and keeps trying to take a long nap rather than face any real issues. God in this one is a hippie on a skateboard, but increasingly we realize that is nothing but a mask for something we probably cannot ever really understand. It becomes a psychedelic odyssey for Jonah, complete with a strange friendship he develops with The Whale.

All of which adds up to a thought-provoking piece of total charm, one which reminds us (maybe) that the destination is not unimportant but the journey is what counts--not so much where you go and what you do, but who you are and become.

Both shows play at the Annenberg Community Beach House at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, CA 90402--a venue with more than a passing resemblance to Shakespear's Globe. Which seems appropriate. It is outdoors, using the stairs and porch and balcony of the Beach House as a stage with us (the audience) likewise in the open air. Dress appropriately. Bring a hat at the very least. Here is the schedule:

Noah - 4:30pm on Wednesday 7/9, Friday 7/11, and Thursday 7/17
Jonah - 4:30pm on Thursday 7/10, Wednesday 7/16, and Friday 7/18   


Tickets are free to the public; reservations required.  Reservations may be made at fourclowns.org; the elderly may call 310-458-4904 to make reservations.



Monday, June 30, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream (review)



Spoilers ahoy!

Quick disclaimer: I know the director, who is a friend, and who asked me to design the postcard for this production, which I did. Yet at the time I'd not seen one split second of any performance.

Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group enjoys a reputation for the grotesque and edgy, but in truth also does such diverse works as A Christmas Carol and Bob Hope's Birthday. They also regularly (as in, at least once a year) put on a Shakespeare or some other classic.

This time director Denise Devin tackles what counts (in my opinion) as the Bard's silliest comedy--A Midsummer Night's Dream. More than any other of Shakespeare's works, this play is all about how ridiculous human beings can be and usually are. Like all his comedies, there's a streak that could lead to tragedy! Hermia (Arielle Davidsohn) and Lysander (Robert Walters) are in love, but her mother would literally rather see her dead. She begs Prince Theseus to heed Athenian law and allow him to execute his daughter for refusing to marry Demetrius (Dorian Serna). The Prince cannot but agree, giving a deadline (one hopes he thinks some time will let things find their own natural solution).

Lysander has a plan! A good one, or at least it sounds good. They will elope by fleeing into the woods to his aunt's house. Of course it won't go as planned. If it did, where is the play??? They get lost! And on top of that they were stupid enough to tell someone--Helena (Nicole DeCroix), whom they know is so desperately in love with Demetrius she's bound to tell him all! Which she does!

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe
More complications follow! Within those very woods (where all four lovers soon get lost) King Oberon (Lamont Webb) and Queen Titania (Ashley Fuller) of the faeries are fighting, with the former willing to go to extreme lengths to get his way. But he's not without compassion. Spying Helena following a scornful Demetrius, Oberon decides the  young lady deserves love. So he orders Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (Katherine Bowman) to use the juice of an enchanted flower to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena.

Naturally it all goes wrong, since Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius!

In the meantime a group of "rude mechanicals" (i.e. very amateur dramatists) decide to put on a play and have a rehearsal in the very same forest! Thus Bottom (Quinn Knox), Flute (David Wyn Harris), Snug (Emily Cunningham) and Quince (Sarah Fairfax) enter into a plot to further complicate matters!

Not going to explain every single plot permutation, but rather note it becomes a wild parade of mistaken identities, people getting lost, over-reacting to pretty much everything--all with a couple of modern pop songs turned into production numbers! Sexual innuendo and sight gags abound. Characters run on and off stage with great energy, their costumes increasingly bedraggled (and revealing). All under a summer moon of cardboard tapped to the black stage wall. How appropriate!

Like the rest of the audience, I laughed out loud again and again. One can make AMND into a slightly heavier or darker piece. Such can work. It can seem a bit nightmarish, or touch upon a sense of wonder. But at its heart the whole thing centers on its most famous quote: "What fools these mortals be!" Yep, we are. Especially when we fall in love. Isn't it grand?


A Midsummer Night's Dream plays Fridays at 8:30pm at ZJU 4850 Lankershim (just north of Camarillo, across from KFC), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15. Call 818.202.4120 or visit ZombieJoes.Tix.com

Riot Grrrl Saves the World (review)

Spoilers ahoy!


I was supposed to see Riot Grrrl Saves the World earlier in its run, but got sick. Not that the show from Will Play for Food Theatre needed any help from yours truly! They won an encore award as part of the Hollywood Fringe and are getting an extension (details not yet available).

Kudos to them!

While enjoying the play, I didn't like it as much as others clearly have. That sounds as if I'm putting it down--not at all! The play has charm, wit, sincere and energetic performances, snappy direction as well as a message that combines truth with hope amid the tears.

Yet when some spontaneously rose to their feet during the curtain calls, must admit doing so never entered my mind. My own applause was far more than mere politeness, but a standing ovation? Really?

Part of this may well be contextual. The whole Riot Grrrl Movement remains something outside my knowledge, save that it existed and seemingly still does. From the play I get the impression of a gleefully angry rebellion against sexual stereotypes most especially regarding women and a social structure that encourages same. Okay. Brava on that one. But since I'm not caught up in that idea already, methinks the production inherently is pressing buttons that remain absent inside my head.

Whether the play should take the time to place them there, even temporarily, is a personal choice. I do believe doing so would read a larger audience, maybe even helping change some minds.

Honestly, the whole play really feels unfinished, an early and extremely promising draft of something that feels like it should take at least ninety minutes to really explore. Too much of the dialogue feels generic. A lot of story points and character arcs happen too fast to follow. It would be a shame to take this subject matter and this context only to make it mundane, a "well made play" in some sense, but I feel certain these very elements can be revealed in keeping with the sensibilities of Riot Grrrls. If anything the play seems a tad too naturalistic for my taste. The title itself even begs for stuff from the Book of Revelations, from tales of the Viking Ragnarok, from pamphlets about the Rapture, etc. Or maybe just a deeper diving  into the emotional dynamics of the characters. Again, this translates into more time. Not a mere hour. Either that or a far greater focus on fewer characters (which seems a shame--I want more, not less of them)!

Essentially the play deals with a group of teenage young women and what happens about the time they form a band. It isn't about the band, not really, although it does show the positive impact the band's music has--most especially by letting someone know they aren't alone in feeling rage, frustration, a need to shriek out at a world too narrow and uninterested in those outside the mainstream. The initial three are Josslyn ( Zoƫ Lillian ), Steph ( Emma Servant ), and Harriet ( Tiffany Mo ). Their bare-bones meeting gets a surprise visitor, Darla ( Poonam Basu ) a Jehovah's Witness who isn't trying to convert them but just wants to talk. Needing to get stuff off her chest, she finds barely concealed tolerance from everyone save Josslyn. Given she can play bass, she even ends up in the band. In time, Darla and Josslyn fall in love.

The entire cast demonstrates a consistent excellence in terms of energy, listening, commitment and (no small thing) a kind of charismatic simplicity of doing things on stage that arrest attention. Indeed, during the initial scene or so that alone kept my attention. But by the time Darla shows up, the masks of stereotypes crack and start to fall away. Josslyn's heart remains in the right place, but more by talent than hard-won wisdom. Darla has courage but cannot access it very much all alone. Steph of the pain wielded into willpower, whose arrogance taints too much of what she does. Harriet, willing to do so much for her friends and for the Revolution, but reacting in an all-too-human manner when taken for granted, thwarted, used. The whole panorama of their relationships are like the human race boiled into a tiny group of four. The author Louisa Hill said she had in mind the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Honestly, I never made that connection, for better and for worse. I thought of them as the four elements, the four humours, etc. But at heart when for these characters the world does end--yet they survive--I felt for them all. Give credit to the script for that. Also for the actors and director Scott Marden.

So what am I complaining about? Because I saw something very good, and suspect it could have been great. I was moved, but maybe could have been shattered then uplifted. This whole review consists of what I call the opposite of damning with faint praise.

I seek to praise by (extremely) faint damnation.

Since Riot Grrrl Saves The World has won an extension, I urge you to check out its facebook page to learn more.