Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Occupation (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I like to see plays set in the future.  Maybe because that particular surge of imagination appeals to my hopes and fears on some level.  Occupation certain appeals to both.  And that fact helps explain why it touched me so very very much.

The time is "almost now" following a series of terrible events, beginning with some kind of simultaneous terror attack on several American cities.  Sadly the military's reaction was a coup, setting in place a junta, then in effect martial law complete with people being "taken" at the word of informers.

We meet five women.  Tattoo Mother (Jenny Ashe) who longs to see her daughter once more, but that daughter vanished into an underground resistance long ago.  Patriot Mother (Brynn Alexander), a young widow and fervent believer in the new regime.  Garden Mother (Theodora Marcelline) whose efforts have been dubbed illegal--why turns out to be quite a tale.  Then we have Delivery Daughter (Monica Baker) a seemingly tough-as-nails survivor whose status becomes the central point of the story.  Finally Tap Dance Daughter (Olivia Powell) trying with odd awkwardness to retain a connection to that strange, magical world of Before.

Unlike, for example, The Hunger Games, the focus here remains firmly fixed on individuals rather than great movements of history.  The title refers to living under Occupation, until the fist and the censor.  In such a world, how do we survive?  By lashing out?  By withdrawing into dreams?  By convincing oneself what we are doing must be done for some ideal?  All of these or none of them or some combination?

Wonderful stuff from which to fashion a play.  An anti-Illiad in some ways, all about the women in war rather than the war itself or at least the men fighting it.  Stylistically, also very much theatre--the poetry spoken as if that were natural speech, the repetitions used like a chorus, the startling metaphors made concrete--tap shows, tattoos, even flowers or bricks or the beating of a drum.

At first I felt disoriented, but that faded as the mysteries began taking shape.  What had happened to the world?  More, who were these women and what had they to do with one another (it soon seemed obvious they would turn out connected to one another somehow).  Dystopias often tell of the grinding away of humanity and soul, a la 1984.  Then there are the tales of defiance, of victory over the oppressive state in one way or another, such as V is for Victory or maybe Anthem. Occupation focuses on a different victory, at least the attempt--holding on to oneself, to nurturing even the mildest of hopes, not unlike Fahrenheit 451.  That this very talented cast brought to life for an hour and a half (almost), and I left the theatre very moved.

Occupation has one more performance scheduled, for Sunday June 26 at 5:30pm at the Main Space of the Complex 6470 Santa Monica Blvd.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Winter is Coming (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

No one should feel too startled to learn somebody somewhere would do a musical parody of HBO's Game of Thrones.  My suspicion as to why no one else has done it (at least successfully, despite some quite good music videos) is one of scale.

Which brings us to Winter is Coming, the musical parody from MB productions.

Apart from anything else, this show has literally the largest cast of any Fringe show I can recall seeing!  Small wonder, given the sheer number of characters introduced (all from season one of the show:  Ned Stark (M Hayward Scott), Catelyn Stark (Emily Craig), Robb "the pretty one" Stark (Nicholas McDonald), Sansa Stark (Deanna Baker), Arya Stark (Stephanie Sandelin), Bran Stark (Casey Suddeth--who looks like Theon Greyjoy but never mind), Jon Snow (Brice Williams), etc.  And that is less than half the cast!  Other major players include Queen Cersei (Bennett Cousins), her brother Jaime Lannister (Michael Orlandi), her son Joffrey (Tony Celluci) and of course her younger brother Tyrion "The Imp" (Matt Hill).

Halfway done?  Nope.  I'm not kidding.

What with remarkably good costumes, catchy music, generally high production values and a cast that shows plenty of talent, what more could you ask for?

That is precisely what I would ask for.  More.  Because despite all the production managed to do, at just about one hour this musical cannot help but end up too short. If you are telling nothing more than a series of jokes, that becomes dull pretty quickly.  This show does not settle for that, putting it (at least potentially) alongside such successful parodies as Young Frankenstein or A Very Harry Potter Musical. But at a mere hour it doesn't have time to really explore its material.  Most of the characters don't really have anything like an arc save Daenerys (Megan Watt) and the two Stark daughters.  In a comedy and/or parody, a character arc need not make a whole lot of sense, but it still needs to be there.  As it stands, one has to wonder why most of this cast is even in the show?  Jon Snow's story goes nowhere, ditto Cersei and Jaime and even Tyrion! The stuff of character blended into comedy is there, just lacking the time to really develop.

For example, I loved Catelyn's patter song trying to warn her husband of the Lannisters, only to have him pretty much pat her on the head and say she's a woman so doesn't understand these things.  Her reply to this was a great bit on many levels.  But what was going on with Robb and Bran?  Well, nothing but a pep talk really.  Joffrey's diabolical little anthem celebrating his evil was lots of fun, but kinda exists totally on its own.  Daenerys had something like an arc, but it moved by so fast I had to think for a few minutes to realize this made some kind of sense within the context of this musical.

Again, all the elements of something first rate are there.  Some in nascent form, but present!  But this parody needs a second act to stretch out the story so we get caught up in events--especially since the plot remains rather complicated.  I want to see the full length version.  I want to see it quite a lot!  Because what I got was fun, but what seemed to be waiting in the wings of time seemed great!

Other cast members who deserve mention (most played multiple roles): Amanda Newman, Kaitlyn Abendroth, Caleb Cordis, Amber Lawson, Alex Hurren, Jesse Baldridge, PJ Megaw, and Robert Steinberg.

Winter is Coming plays Saturday June 25 at 8:30pm and Sunday June 26 at 2pm at The Actors Company 916 N.Formosa Ave (west of LaBrea, south of Santa Monica).

Sticky Fingers (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

There's a certain format for plays that can pop up fairly often in events like the Hollywood Fringe with a minimum of rehearsal time.  I call it the "serial monologues" in which several characters tell the audience their stories more or less with a similar theme, or kind of event, or a specific topic, etc.  At its best they work just fine, offering what we long for in live theatre--moments of humanity, illuminating our own and others' lives, letting us feel our common humanity.

Sticky Fingers focuses on women who have all (save one) been caught shop-lifting.  It also breaks the format of the "serial monologue" but ultimately turning into a scene where they are all listening to one another, reacting and commenting, offering support and sometimes judgment.  For the record, I like this "breaking."

All the moreso since at first we seem to be meeting well-acted and entertaining stereotypes rather than fully fleshed characters.  Then, it all slowly changes.  Not least because it deals with a more fundamental question than how much of an issue is shoplifting?  Rather, what might we lack that we feel compelled to steal in order to obtain it?  Francine Daniels, for example--there's a gulf there inside her, as she herself recognizes, even if its exact nature remains elusive.  No matter.  There lies the power in the script.  Whether it be Dionne Jones' secretary who longs for more than the most humdrum of lives, Hallie Myers' high schooler's wish to escape an embarassing family into a dream date, Breon Gorman's wife's sudden impulse for more out of her seemingly contented marriage, or Sidney Aptaker's teen with a somewhat obsessive relationship with eyeliner, we come to recognize them in us.  Nobody after all is without some unfulfilled longing, some hunger unsatiated.  We aren't talking about the violent, the dangerous, the deluded after all.  Just the mildly desperate trying to make sense of themselves.

Their stories touch us.  Well, they touched me, and the rest of the audience reacted pretty much as I did.  When Fiona Lakeland's first character--the unrepentant thief--literally runs away from this group therapy meeting, we all seemed to realize she needed more time.  Her second character, who arrives late for the meeting, proves a celebrity (although no one calls her by name, not even "Miss Ryder").  Details, as with the others, remain in most ways sparse--we get a precis of what led them to this, not a full biography.  Enough for us to feel what we all have in common, how we all in one way or another need some healing.

Finally our narrator, Maya Ferrara's undercover security officer, recounts a specific trauma.  Not one to explain her shoplifting--this play isn't ever really that narrow--but of a consequence, one horrible and not even remotely deserved (save in the view of some psychopath).  And the others, they listen.  As we listen.  They, and we, recognize themselves in her.

What more needs be said?

Sticky Fingers has one more performance, Saturday June 25 at 10pm at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

Must Be Comfortable With (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Must Be Comfortable With consists of a series of comedic sketches, all along a theme.  In this case that theme remains focused on the treatment/state of women in theatre and the acting profession especially.  Plenty of grist for the comedic mill there!

Now, my own taste isn't usually for polemic humor unless done extremely well.  You do this now and then.  At its best, the zingers not only hit target but make us laugh and sometimes even think!

The skits in this range from above average to excellent.  Perhaps the surest test of this lies in this fact--I found myself wondering whether in a recent play I'd committed the same gender-based nonsense targeted (for the record--I think not, although it worries me someone could slant a production that way...).  That and the fact I laughed.  When I didn't laugh, I was usually smiling.  Sometimes in a grimace, and/or in discomfort--but then, such does rather remain the point.

Generally the quality of the skits varied a bit.  I don't quite think the (very clever) take on the famous Four Yorkshireman sketch worked, although the audience still laughed.  The casting meeting in a reverse world where women are deciding which male actor is young and attractive enough to be the love interest for Helen Mirren lacked guffaws but made up for it with sharp wit.  Personally, I thought the glimpse into what it would be like if other professions--scientist, accountancy, dentistry, etc.--treated women the way movies do combined best the humor and discomfort.  Some of this quality lies less in the writing (although certainly there) than in the performers--but as a playwright myself that comes as no real surprise.  One rarely sees a really large cast with pretty uniformly high quality, but this one had it, so kudos to Sylvia Lohendorf, Tara Donovan, Dana DeRuyck, Lacy Altwine, Danielle Ryerson, Esther Mira, Lea Matthews, Jessica Shim, Marian Gonzalez, Natalie Ochoa, Dionne Neish and Chevonne Hughes!

Must Be Comfortable With plays Saturday June 25 at 1pm in the Ruby Theatre, part of the Complex 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.