Saturday, January 19, 2019

Brilliant Traces (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A startlingly simple formula for writing a play:  Two or more characters are trapped with each others' company and nothing else.  Maybe they are the last people on Earth, or are in a single room in the afterlife, shipwrecked together on a desert island--it hardly matters.  What matters is the potential in the set-up.

For Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson, the location is a cabin somewhere in Alaska during a white out.   Harry (Chris Cardano) lives here, a virtual hermit when he's not a cook at an oil rig.  Imagine his shock when someone starts banging on his front door, and a woman in a soaking wet, freezing wedding dress bursts into his home!  She does shut the door behind her, then deliriously insists she must have walked an hour from her car before collapsing in exhaustion.

Her name, we will learn, is Rosannah (Caitlin Carleton) and on reflection her car must be not too far away, not really.  After all, she's still alive.

She wakes up two days later, dry and under blankets, to find this stranger has made some soup to help warm her up--oh and if she goes outside while the storm continues, she will almost certainly die.  Everything will turn white, the sky become indistinguishable from the ground, even your own sense of herself will just blur out of existence.  Harry warns her.  Harry knows.

The two have a lot to share, albeit often reluctantly, as the play proceeds. 

Both come across as a cluster of paradoxes (I think most human beings do, but only good writers manage to capture that fact and good actors successfully portray it).  Harry seems too polite, too sociable to be a hermit.  He doesn't want her here, insists he did no more for her than he would a starving dog.   For all the brusqueness, though, and all the irritable courtesy, he really does seem both thrilled and terrified to have her here.  Likewise, she comes across as clearly intelligent, clearly able and insightful, yet spouts a lot of what sounds like gobbledegook.  She claims for example to not really be here.  Something happened to bring her to this place, and perhaps not surprisingly she views revealing it as akin to gum surgery.

Eventually, the question comes up about what brought Harry here as well.

Answers do emerge.  Those answers matter.  But even more compelling is what happens between these two strangers, as on some level they grow to recognize themselves within one another--and thus see themselves and each other anew.  Makes for an exciting, deeply moving theatre.

Plus it ends up very funny.   No, really, the weird things each of them say, and the reactions they give alone are just a delight.  Both in a real sense are not only ducks out of water, they seem like all sorts of different creatures, each totally removed from their natural environs.  Moles in the air, elephants at sea, camels on a glacier--take your pick.  Really, the effect proves not only hilarious but deeply illuminating--and not only to we the audience.  Not least because when you think about it, both of them must feel in danger.  Yet there's nowhere to go.  No one to help or flee from or run to save each other and themselves.

This marks the third director's effort I've seen by Kiff Scholl and every single time it hit a home run. Here we have another example of the same.  Highly recommended for all the passion, all the humor, all the feels, all the mysteries, and all the startling moments of beauty.

Brilliant Traces plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until February 10, 2019 at the Lounge Theatre (just east of Vine) 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90038.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Definition of Man (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A few years ago I was invited at the most moment to see this very show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Since then it has traveled abroad, to Berlin as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Now it has returned to Los Angeles for a limited run.

The Definition of Man marks a type of performance I call "Theatre of Dreams" because it simply makes more sense to so many audience members to think of it as a dream.  In this case a man and woman, the sole survivors (evidently) of a world-wasting apocalypse, seek to fill their time.  What can they do, ultimately, save contemplate themselves and each other?  Truths uncovered prove uncomfortable, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, but in the end something wonderful happens--or is achieved.  Certainly purchased with a process of self-awareness that hurts as much as it frees.

We never learn their names, but we learn a fair amount about their backgrounds.  XX (Jason Rosario) and XY (Nikki Muller who is also the playwright) are both Americans from broken homes.  Both carry with them the habits of dealing with the traumas of youth.  For him, a lack of identity or sense of home, an eternal other-ness as he existed between the Anglo and Puerto Rican worlds.  She likewise sought to somehow reconcile the deep, abiding love she felt from a father whose calculated cruelty aimed at her mother never ever stopped.

But the apocalypse of which they are the sole survivors?  Nothing.  Nor does it matter. 

Instead we get an image of dirt and dust, an arid seemingly flat wasteland sans any real features and with water too precious to do anything save horde to quench thirst as an absolute last resort.

Simply, they have nothing.  Except each other.

During the course of an hour, in dance and drama, movement and aching words, not only do they wallow in their own issues, but slowly (sometimes quickly) whittle away at what underlies them, to their most primal shapes.  It gets ugly.  It also becomes beautiful, as they learn so much about each others' pain.  Once all things are exposed, all wounds revealed, every dark or neurotic impulse with their consequences now stand naked--then real communication happens.

The heart and soul of each reveals itself at the end, allowing words to fall away, permitting forgiveness, making possible something fundamental.

A harrowing Odyssey not to conquer fanciful monsters, but the aspects of one's self when in the end there is nothing else to explore.  No more words,  No more scenes.  In the end, movement and action and therein a hopeful truth amid nothingness.

The Definition of Man plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 2pm until January 27, 2019 at the Arena Stage on CalState Campus Los Angeles, 5151 University State Drive, Los Angeles CA 90032.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Diary of Anne Frank (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank (the book, not the play) in my early teens and crying.  Decades later I heard a new, unedited version of the book had been released--one with slightly more disturbing, more complex content (we are talking about the innermost thoughts of a pre-teen then early teen after all, under far more than usual stress).  The play being done now in Hollywood is based on this new (or if you prefer, original) version.  Written by Wendy Kesselman, based on the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

For those who (and frankly I find this upsetting) are not at all familiar, here is a breakdown.

The Diary of Anne Frank is all that remains of a life of a teenage girl who happened to be Jewish in Europe during the Second World War.  Her father Otto (Emiliano Torres), seeing the rising tide of anti-semitic discrimination in Germany, fled with his family to Holland in the 1930s.  Sadly in 1940 Germany conquered Holland.  Soon, Jews all had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes at all times.  They were forbidden from attending public schools, using public transportation, going to the movies.  All this proved a prelude to ordering healthy young Jews to work camps, from which they would eventually be transported east to God Knows What Fate.

Credit:  Elvira Barjau
Of course today we do know.  What awaited them was a systemic attempt to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe (plus Slavs, Romany, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, homosexuals and various dissidents as well as those with various health problems).  It came very close to success, with victims numbering in their millions.  That today we have people insisting it was all a hoax despite tons of physical evidence serves as a horrifying reminder this has been neither the first nor the last attempt at genocide, albeit the most infamous.

Only Otto Frank survived of his family, despite his best efforts--which finally came down to hiding in a hidden annex within the factory owned and run by a former business partner.  Anne (Genesis Ochoa) with her sister Margot (Nikki Mejia), their mother Mrs. Frank (Tasha Dixon) were joined by a family of three--Mr. Van Daan (Robert C. Raicch), his wife (Raquenel) and their son Peter (David Gurrola) who was a few years older than Anne.  Later a dentist named Mr. Dussell (Aris Alvarado) joined them.  With almost no privacy, needing to remain utterly silent during the day, full of terrifying dreams of what might be happening to their friends, everyone sooner or later on each other's nerves--yet through it all this remarkable young girl kept her diary, which was discovered after the war and became this shining voice echoing out of a very very dark shadow of history.

Credit:  Elvira Barjau
Which to be fair could have ended up maudlin beyond words.

Instead it comes across as deeply real.  I'm not going to pretend the current production is flawless, but the people on stage do come across as real rather than stereotypes.  Perhaps to emphasize this even more, the director took a startling but powerful chance:  Having read that some refugees are hiding from ICE in safe houses here in Los Angeles, director Stan Zimmerman decided to use that as the frame for the whole show.  In a place not unlike the Annex of the book, Latin American refugees gather with copies of the script and begin reading the play aloud.  Soon, in a not very clear transition, they go from reading the play to becoming the characters in the story.

Which some may find disorienting but works to hammer home a central truth that needs repeating--we are all human beings.  Differences of accent, cruisine, language, etc. are fundamentally trivial at worst--delightful and exhilirating at best!  And reminds us, the worst of human nature is still with us.

Credit: Elvira Barjau
Now--since I know some are going to take offense at equating the United States with Nazi Germany much less ICE as the Gestapo, let me state my perspective on this.  To deliberately slaughter millions  was by any definition an atrocity.  But is letting two children die of thirst really any less of one?  How many children can we let die of thirst before it becomes something that horrible?

We as a nation, as a species, and as individuals need to remember that.  And good theatre, like all good art, exists to help remind us of that.

The Diary of Anne Frank plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until February 24, 2019 at the Ruby Theatre in The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Soul-Crushing Disco Ball (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Honestly, when the guy telling us to turn off our cell phones and how to exit in the unlikely event of a fire also took a moment to remind us this was a comedy, I felt dread.  Experience says anytime someone makes a point of telling you something is funny--that makes for an omen of humorlessness.

On the other hand, maybe he was using reverse psychology on us.  I actually enjoyed Soul-Crushing Disco Ball quite a bit.  I even laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  So did the rest of the audience.

Has a few problems, though.  None unsurmountable.

Fundamentally the play follows the lives of these two guys who become best friends when both were immature idiots in grade school (is okay--children are supposed to be immature idiots, and when they are not they become icons of certain genres of horror films).  By play's end, they have both grown up.  A lot.  Both have gone through quite a roller coaster (or roller coasters) of life and death, love and loss, success and failure.  In the end, they become much more rounded human beings in ways we all probably hope to grow up. 

Credit: Glen Gainor
Sounds pretty good, right?  Now let us throw in the fact both actors have quite a bit of personal charisma and acting talent and the ingredients all sound right.  But a few problems do pop up.  One I just mentioned.  Both actors.  As in two and only two.  The play has numerous scenes, jumping "o're time" in a way that makes perfect sense for the story--going from childhood to teenage years, early adulthood, marriages, etc.  But this requires in effect the entire cast to leave the stage ever few minutes and do a costume change.  Literally, the play stops.  I've seen this kind of thing gotten around before, but it always proves tricky.  In this case, playing music loudly (music that almost never resonated with me in terms of the story, but your mileage may vary) and having an attractive pair of young women rush on to change the set slightly did not fill these moments.  So in effect the play stopped then had to start again.  Which set up an emotional drag, one I could feel.

So we have a problem the production evidently hasn't found a way to overcome, not yet.  Frankly, the story also zips by too fast.  I kept beginning to like and get genuinely interested in these guys, then things changed so fast.  For one thing, the sheer number of off-stage characters left me lost after a time.  I'm usually pretty good at this, but what with parents and several different fellow students, cousins and doctors, a succession of girlfriends and friends and wives then at least one child and in the end references to some children from the very first scene--I was lost.  I feel strongly that last scene was supposed to wrap up a mystery which was intended as a hint to a lot of behavior later on.  But for the life of me I couldn't remember enough details to put it all together.

Credit: Glen Gainor
Again, far from insurmountable.  The story, one that feels real and affirming, is there.  But obscured.

I want to recommend the playwright and production take this play back to some workshop process.  As it stands now, what's feels like some misfires short circuits the whole process of telling this story.  There was humor, but the balance felt off.   They need to find a way to fix the dead space between scenes.  Simplify yet expand it enough to feel more complete, less confusing.  And I'll add I'm not quite sure what the title is supposed to mean.  Maybe I got it.  But I"m not sure.

Soul-Crushing Disco Ball runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until February 3, 2019 at the Hudson Theatre Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.