Monday, March 12, 2018

El Nino (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The term "El Nino" refers to part of the weather cycle in the Pacific Ocean which impacts coastal areas all along the west coast of the Americas (as well as elsewhere).  A quick check of Wikipedia notes scientific belief such events go back thousands of years, with at least thirty happening since 1900.

Justin Tanner named his play El Nino presumably as a very neat metaphor.  Essentially the weather becomes more erratic and in the Los Angeles area (where the play takes place) more storms erupt.  A better description of the family at the heart of this show would be tricky to imagine!

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Colleen (Maile Flanagan) begins watching cartoons and eating cereal in her parents' living room.  Overweight and middle-aged, she doesn't seem willing to leave even when her father Harvey (Nick Ullett) and especially her mother June (Danielle Kennedy) hint/suggest/order her to get out. She reveals in spitting rage her boyfriend kicked her out and that she quit her job as an uber driver because it gave her back problems.  Yeah, Colleen is pretty foul-mouthed and full of excuses as well as reasons.  Interestingly, that first scene sets up the rest of the play extremely well.  We think we know what is going on, but not quite.  It feels as if the story is a certain kind, but it proves not to be.  What we get as it goes on is more complex and far more moving.

Soon enough we meet the other characters, including the younger daughter Andrea (Melissa Denton) an opinionated dynamo just returned from a trip to Morocco with a strong distaste for all things Moroccan and a new boyfriend, fellow unhappy tourist and veterinarian Todd (Jonathan Palmer), who "never would have gone" to Morocco if he knew it was 95% Muslim.  Plus of course Kevin (Joe Keyes) the next door neighbor with a very sick, old cat.  The stuff of a zany family sitcom, right?

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Yeah, and no not at all.  Yeah, funny.  Often hilarious.  But more, very human and troubling and complex and very moving.  Like much good drama, this play in many ways revealed important facets of the characters, rendering them equal parts disturbing yet also very human.  In fact their humanity was so perfectly on point I often felt like an invisible voyeur in their lives.  The amazing technical realism of the set, the weather and even the way sets were re-set between scenes increased the impact.

For example, we learn Colleen is a published science fiction author with a severe case of writers' block.  While her family decries her pain as simply being overweight, her doctors disagree and interestingly Kevin once had one of her own ailments and recognizes it. Her ex-boyfriend Toby turns out to have been physically abusive.  Plus we get to see her mother respond to her husband's severe attack as nothing but gas, at first even refusing to call 911 even when Colleen suggests it and Harvey is literally crawling on the floor.  He has a kidney stone, it turns out.  No wonder he literally screams in pain.

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Which doesn't change the fact Colleen lashes out at nearly anyone, that she radiates anger and prone to self-destructive behavior. Or that her parents actually seem to have a really good marriage in pretty much every way.

Likewise we learn Audrey has an autistic son, and struggles to be a good mom to him. Her new boyfriend Todd is thoughtlessly arrogant, ignorant while blissfully certain, yet shows amazing patience and a startling if blase compassion. Honestly the nuances drew me in further and further, with all the characters just increasingly human and (slightly different) humane.

I cannot say the ending is happy, because no doubt the vagaries of storm and calm lie in wait, but also because it doesn't feel like an ending at all.  It feels like the start of a new chapter in these people's lives, most especially Colleen who perhaps needs it the most.  She even begins to write a new book, with a title perfect the way sometimes little things in life are.  Colleen calls it El Nino.

Honestly, kudos to the entire cast and crew, including director Lisa James, for growing this gorgeous flower of a play, complete with thorns.  This marks the second show I've seen by Rogue Machine and I continue to be very impressed!

El Nino plays Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 2, 2018 at the MET 1089 North Oxford Street (east of Western and Santa Monica Blvd), Los Angeles CA 90029.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Odyssey" refers to the Greek hero Odysseus, the most cunning of the generals involved in the Trojan War.  The epic bearing his name tells not of his seeking out adventures or fame, but rather a decade-long attempt to return from war.

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey follows this pattern, more or less.  The title characters (Ed Dyer) of the piece frankly comes across initially as repellent. He begins by abandoning his wife and children, complete with some cynical comments about whether one of them is "really" blind.  Just before leaving he asks if his wildly enraged wife (Laura Lee Botsacos) can spare a few dollars.

Over the top, one thinks.  But the show has barely begun as far as that goes.  In fact, like many interesting but often bewildering pieces of theatre, this work feels very much like a dream. In fact, taking it as a dream (of some kind) helps in understanding what we see and hear.

How else to explain people surrounding Burt killing themselves quite so eagerly?  Well, that one does become clear. Rage permeates many of these characters, rage which seems a shield against despair.  When the shield cracks, enough, the despair overwhelms.  It does for the bartender who cannot stand folk music (Jennifer Nwene), one of the cops (Thomas F. Evans, Christopher Kelly) interrogating Burt, his disheveled and ragtag defense attorney (George Russo) and others.  Along the way we meet a homeless man (Hansford Prince) who survives being shot in the head, a vaguely Arabic immigrant (Nima Jafari) who "freelances" getting rid of those he sees as un-American, a weirdly optimistic if cynical rabbi (Raffi Mauro), a startlingly violent sunglass saleswoman (Hope Bello LaRoux) as well as a rich woman (Kelly Mullis) the former blinds then tricks into drowning herself for misusing the word "amazing."

Plus Ivana and Barron Trump.

All of which seems borderline incoherent, but not quite.  Like the kilted actor (Drew Hinkley) who hasn't worked in years, eagerly looking for his big break even though he is homeless, yet proves willing to follow a weird number and variety of suggestions, the play is a roller coaster.  Imagine a psychodelic blend of Alice in Wonderland plus Waiting for Godot but set in modern New York with a few dashes of Candide by way of the Cohen brothers.

But in the end, Burt comes home.  In a way.  The weird brew coalesces into some sort of whole, not a hodge podge of weird/funny/dark images but rather a piece of abstract art.  After all the illusions get shredded, the lies hammered out of the way--and Burt's poems slowly get better--we and Burt see something else.  Something that seems real.

But he--and we--have to figure out what to do with it.

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey plays Saturdays and Sundays at 7pm until March 31, 2018 at Theatre68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lovecraft's Cthulhu (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

H.P.Lovecraft created what can be seen as modern horror, in which mere humans confront their total impotence and unimportance in the cosmic scale of things, a cosmos both unknowable and by our standards worse than psychopathic.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu marks Zombie Joe's premiere effort to bring something of Lovecraft to the stage. Others have done something similar such as the Visceral, or Chicago's Wildclaw.  To be fair I walked in to take my seat, feeling excitement.  I hoped to be surprised and delighted.

And I was!

Credit: Brandon Slezak
The play--done very much as an elaborate Reader's Theatre event--essentially turned out to be an adaptation of a seminal tale in Lovecraft's "mythos," the long short story "The Call of Cthulhu."  If all this is new, don't worry about pronouncing the title. The word is meant to be pronounced by a being with nothing at all like the mouth of a human being.

Writer/director Denise Devin took this story and made relatively few cuts, then set up a wonderful cast (August Browning, Brian Caelleigh, Ian Heath, Susan Holmstrom, Natasha Krause, Kevin Maphis, Madeleine Miller, Jonica Patella, Enrique Quintero, Elif Savas) to take turns reciting the text, coupled with movements and a few props to create a feeling very like telling a story around a campfire at midnight--only more.  Sometimes they re-enacted highlights of the story, or followed specific characters.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Usually, when cast members talk directly to the audience, this proves problematical.  Usually.  Not this time.  Rather, the power of the story comes across as every single actor clearly tried to explain this horrible thing they--as surrogates/incarnations of the narrator--learned and hopes no one else ever does.  So why tell it?  Because they cannot remain silent.  They must speak aloud.

Must tell of the papers and clippings found in the old language professor's things after his slightly mysterious death.  Of the shocking reaction of lunatics and artists to something one particular week in one particular year.  How the clay sculptures fashioned by one particular artist indirectly led to a horrific story of a violent cult in New Orleans years earlier--a cult worshiping entities they call The Old Ones.

The Old Ones, creatures/beings/gods from beyond the stars, who came to this earth ages past and who now sleep, dreaming.  "Cthulhu" is their high priest, who shall when the stars are right once more, awake with all his wild, unknowable kind to let loose chaos and alien joys onto the world.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Nor was this cult restricted to New Orleans.

In fact, a random chance leads the narrator to discover more, much more, about the fate of a schooner out of Australia, of whose crew only one survived a weird event in the middle of the Pacific Ocean--an event corresponding with that one week in one year the dead scholar had studied.

All this is a challenge to dramatize, since everything "happens" well in the past, with the narrator slowly realizing just what sort of world he lives in--and shudders at the revelation, knowing he will almost certainly soon die because the Cult must have noticed him by now.  Capturing that eerie sense of realization, of seeing oneself as tiny and unimportant, of knowing all human achievement is as nothing, doomed to eventual destruction at the whim of beings beyond comprehension--it makes for a challenge.  That challenge this director and ensemble meet.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until March 18, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The School for Wives (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I really enjoy going to City Garage in Santa Monica, have done since first seeing a fascinating deconstruction of Othello.  This time I wondered what would happen when they did Moliere's The School for Wives, and as usual they surprised me.

Like most of Moliere, this play makes fun of human foibles, especially those who make fun of those foibles in others. In this case, the plot deals with something especially topical, albeit via a farce which lessons the sting. 

Arnolphe (Bo Roberts) is a middle aged curmudgeon who mocks husbands who allow themselves to be humiliated by their wives.  He boasts to his friend Chrystalde (Troy Dunn) of his solution--he adopted a peasant girl at age four and has been grooming her as a future bride ever since.

Yeah, that is indeed almost as creepy as it sounds.  Now that Agnes (Claire Pida) is of age--having been carefully taught nothing of the world, save reading the Bible and sewing--Arnolphe eagerly awaits "teaching" her how to be a good wife.  The lessons he focuses upon are how to slavishly obey and serve her husband.  Of course it all goes wrong, not least due to the arrival of a handsome young man named Horace (Buddy Brown).  He and Agnes meet, falling head over heels at first sight.

Helping matters proceed--i.e. making a fool (or if you like demonstrating the foolishness) of Arnolphe--are a pair of delightfully and entertainingly stupid servants named George (Jaime Arze) and Alain (David E. Frank).  Because The School for Wives is a farce, we know Agnes and Horace will end up together, via an amazing string of coincidences involving Horace's father Oronote (Tom Lasky) and his long lost friend Henriette (Tracey Taylor).

The style prove delightful--an almost dance-like version of modern day.  The acting throughout proves very good--up to and including Roberts' astonishment at how the universe doesn't do what he expects (in other words, even the most innocent and sheltered of young females never stop being human beings with their own desires and agency, IMAGINE!).  The humor is nonstop, yet never bombastic (a common problem with productions of classical comedy).  More, it all fits together like a watch.  Nobody ever seems to be in some other production of this same play. The entire cast and crew remain on the same page.

No small thing.

Do I have any criticisms?  Well, one person's hat kept falling off but this was opening night so I suppose the actor will use  a lot more bobby pins from now on.  And to be sure, while topical and insightful, this hardly counts as  "great" play.  More to the point, it remains a comedy--and when audiences laugh during a comedy, you know it succeeds.  This show had many and different styles of laughter all through opening night.

At the same time, I liked the gentle touch in this satire.  Probably the easily way to do this play would be to make Arnolphe a loathesome idiot.  Under Frederique Michel's direction and Roberts performance, however, he touches our heart.  He is lonely.  He loves or desires and has not a clue how to get his heart's desire, making him a middle aged preteen with his first crush.  Pathetic, yes, but also very much a creature of pathos.  Not evil, but immature, and as a result a terrible fool (who thankfully has little power over anyone by play's end).

The School for Wives plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays (pay what you can at the door) at 3pm until April 1, 2018 at City Garage, Building T1 (across the street from the Bergemont Metro Station), 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.