Sunday, February 14, 2016

"Playing Shakespeare"

Next weekend I'm conducing an acting workshop focusing on Shakespeare.  For those of you who don't know, I have a BA in Theatre Arts and graduated the (now sadly no more) National Shakespeare Conservatory in NYC.  Among the roles I've played are Jacques in As You Like It, the Fool in King Lear and Malvolio in Twelfth Night as well as a host of characters in an experimental production Off Off Broadway of Macbeth.  I've directed plays and run workshops before--this one focusing on the fun of playing Shakespeare.  Folks think his works difficult and hard work, but in fact once you learn a few simple things they are enormous fun!

So come on Saturday, February 20 from 10am to 1pm for Free at Zombie Joes Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood.  Donations accepted on behalf of the Actaeon Players.  I'll also hold a raffle to give away one free ticket to that evening's performance of Tempest Redux at the Odyssey.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

BED (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, this is the kind of show I tend not to like.  At all. The whole "look how messed up this person is" all too often comes across as self-indulgent and (worse) boring. Mostly due to generic issues explored in timid ways with neat solutions of one kind or another.  At best one can sometimes see this explored in a vastly entertaining manner, usually comedy.

Then there's BED, by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Jennifer Chambers, staged by the Echo Theatre Company in Atwater Village.

I got a very nice press packet accompanying this play, but I'm not going to reference it.  No, instead I want to focus totally upon my experience as an audience member.  As my initial paragraph hinted, my expectations weren't high.  A ten year relationship told in scenes with the characters in bed together.  Sounds like a racier version of many a play I've seen in community theatres to be honest.  But I said to myself--c'mon this is the Echo!

Credit: Darrett Sanders
Yeah I have a high opinion of this company.  A high opinion based on productions like this. BED has characters who defy the words (and concepts) "generic" or "formula."  Yes, we meet two people the night they spend together for the first time--Holly (Kate Morgan Chadwick) who seems a Dionysian rebel and Cliff (TW Leshner) a Romantic Apollonian if ever one breathed.  Yet they confounded expectations, even though this seeming-formula is something a staple.  But the contradictions almost immediately began to pile up.  No, not contradictions.  A better word is paradox. Because therein lies the heart of what we see in real human beings, genuinely fascinating characters.  Holly is so nihilistic, yet accepts a marriage proposal with hardly any resistance--issuing a warning that hangs over the rest of the play.  Likewise Cliff seems like such a rock of stability.  He is not.  He tries so very hard to make things right, to adapt, to support.  In truth a part of him changes with the wind, and he cannot seem to find his way.  Except, he doesn't dissolve into uselessness and impotence.  Rather, he grows into a subtle and strange courage.  Holly turns out to be a fantastic mother, despite her disdain of children.  Still, her fire burns (in part maybe to try and sear away a bit of venom in her soul--the hints of which are chilling).

Adding to all this the play eschews strict naturalism, not content with the bed (and yeah, character names) as a metaphor but with the metaphors piling up and up.  The final scene becomes totally surreal, as this couple do not (as we would expect) break up but instead enter into a new level together.  A strange, disturbing, as-yet-unexplored place seemingly full of danger and hope.

None of which would work if the cast (including Johanathan McClain as JC, Cliff's brother), director, designers etc. didn't do their jobs! The major point I want to make is how nobody seemed to hold back.  The commitment of everyone to explore this story, these people pushed a good (even excellent) script into something uniquely powerful in its own right.

BED plays at the Echo Theatre 3269 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90039 Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 7pm, until March 13, 2016.

Year of the Monkey (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Followers of my blog probably realize I see nearly everything produced by Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group.  I'm proud to say several folks associated with this theatre call me friend.

But I try my best to be objective.  This show, Year of the Monkey, however comes across as something deeply personal--a kind of theatrical Happy New Year card from ZJU to their audience. (For the record, Chinese astrology recognizes not only the 12 totems of the years, but also their association with five chinese elements--earth, air, fire, water and wood.  2016 is the year of the Fire Monkey).  It comes across as another example of what I call "theatre of dreams" at which ZJU tends to excel.  There is something resembling a plot--the triumph of the monkeys over the tyranny of the passing Dragon (2015 was year of the dragon).  But in the hour-long show the cast of monkeys really take us on a journey/quest exploring what monkeys are, what monkeys do, what monkeys want.

And in case you haven't guessed ye, we are the monkeys.

So with music and dance, song and pantomime, the monkey tribe celebrates itself and seeks to over come the Dragon.  They lack the raw power, the ferocity of their adversary--whom the cast becomes as they do everything else in the show.  But they try--and fail.  Then try again, to fail again.

But the cycle declares that eventually they will find a way--a way for monkeys to win (and therein lies the secret of their success--trying to be a dragon cannot help but fail, after all).

If this sounds weird, you're not wrong.  But make no mistake, the show is also very fun indeed.  Not just fun but at times tragic, moving, always startling and yet quietly logical according the logic of dreams.  Heroes die, devoured by a monster, only to be resurrected to help fight again.  Terror gives way to comfort, ritual to courage, experience to insight and wisdom.  From thence, comes victory.

For a time.

Kudos to the entire ensemble, including several ZJU regulars:  Jennifer Ashe, Jeannie Hudak, Gerald McGrory, Olivia M Powell, Dale Sandlin, Elif Savas, Anastasia Serada, Adam Shows, Kevin Van Cott and Roger D. Weiss.  Their performances hint they had a blast putting this show together--and it shows, even overflowing into the audience.

Year of the Monkey plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until February 27, 2016 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.  You can get reservations by calling (818) 202-4120.

The Room (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Initially I was going to write an elaborate kinda/sorta not-quite-review of this production by the esteemed Wooster Group of Harold Pinter's first major play, The Room.  Samuel French, the play publisher, issued a strange demand regarding this production, evidently as a result of some feedback from the Pinter estate.  Maybe.  We don't really know.  Their demand, weirdly enough, was that the show get no reviews.

Well, it really isn't up to Samuel French (nor the Wooster Group, nor the REDCAT theater where the show plays) to make that call.

Now that Samuel French has refused to authorize an extension of this production, it hardly matters.  So here is my unabashed reaction.

Pinter rightly won a reputation as one of the English language's premiere playwrights of his era, the master of what some dubbed the "comedy of menace."  The Room pretty much encapsulates this.  A man and woman in a room they evidently rent putter about, chatting about pretty much nothing.  Well, the woman does.  The man remains resolutely silent.  His wife(?) seems a pack of nerves, but fiercely trying to hide it by what might be called "reassuring" talk about how comfortable they are.  Yet she's also afraid--overtly of the room below, evidently recently vacated.

What precisely anyone in the play is afraid of, or what makes them angry (or worried, cautious, excited, etc.) remains unstated and unexplained--deliberately so. Hence the menace, all the more vivid given the period in which the play first appeared, the 1950s when success and conformity were treated as gods.

Herein lies a bit of problem, which director Elizabeth LeCompte approached with an intriguing slant.  We live in a world two generations past that of the play, one post 9/11 as well as the Cold War and dozens of other perception-altering events. How then, make The Room as vivid as in the past?

This production did not change the play as one might think from Samuel French's reaction.  Rather it dove a bit deeper into the text, adding the occasional  stylistic flourish.  Stage directions, for example, were read aloud even as the cast performed them.  The sound effects emerged not from a sound booth out of sight, but from technicians on stage.  Instead of a traditional box set, we got a rather Eastern approach to the acting area.  A few lines were even sung!  So what we the audience experienced hardly resembled that audiences saw previously--yet remained utterly the same text, focusing upon the same issues and ideas, seeking to invoke the same emotions.

Not sure it completely succeeds, at least not directly.  What this production and cast (including Kate Valk, Scott Renderer, Ari Fliakos, Suzy Roche and Philip Moore) did accomplish was forcing me to look at the play anew.  In fact, getting it out of my mind has proven a tiny bit of a challenge.  Honestly, for that alone they deserve plenty of applause!

The Room plays at the REDCAT in the Disney Center downtown 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles at 8:30pm until Saturday February 13 then at 3pm on Sunday February 14.