Saturday, January 14, 2017

End Up Here (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Here it is--my first review of 2017. Something a tad offbeat--a musical performance titled after one of the best of several songs, End Up Here.

As some of you may or may not know Christopher Reiner has done quite a bit of original music for Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group in NoHo.  Here, for about an hour, he shares a variety of songs.  Music being as subject to taste as it is, let me be as clear as I can.

First, I liked this performance very much.  The music itself was very nice, nothing spectacular but good, and punctuated by a lyrics laden with dry wit.  Here, more than the nice tunes and good delivery (with a definite glitter in Reiner's eye) the songs well and truly shine.

Credit: Joe-Reiner
It is hard to describe precisely why I'm so enthusiastic about this--and hard to warn anyone who might not find it their cup of tea.  Yeah, I'm a fan of dry, preferably razor-sharp wit.  Especially when not aimed at someone who doesn't deserve it, but rather at the self.  There's the totally un-self-conscious manner Reiner has as a performer while doing his own songs.

Also, I liked his digressions into stories about life in general.  They aren't very many but make up a nice punctuation and/or cleansing of the palate.  More, they share the same quality as the lyrics.  Neither gives us answers, just stories--histories as it were from which we make what we can.  Some folks don't like that.  They prefer to be told explicit lessons.

But Reiner gives us something else.  Something I found quite enthralling in its own way.  I suppose the best, most visceral comment I can make is to note my reaction as the show came to its close.  It was only an hour, but as it ended I felt startled.  Surely that wasn't an hour?  Surely it was more like twenty five minutes?  Nope.  An hour.

I left wanting more.  If this sounds enticing, please hurry.  Only two performances remain as of this writing.

End Up Here plays Sundays at 4pm January 14 and 22, 2017 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd., (just north of Camarillo, just south of the NoHo Sign)  North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Dozen Best of 2016

No real spoilers to speak on, soooooo...

Been doing the reviewer gig for some years now.  As the number of theatres inviting me to attend and critique their works have grown, so too has my hat size.  Only a matter of time until I did one of these lists then.  However, I refuse to indulge in more negativity than absolutely necessary.  Behold therefore a Dozen Best List for the year about to end.  No Dozen Worst will be forthcoming.  Just don't want to go there.

Luckily for me, so many wonderful programs fall my way I had to limit myself to actual plays.  I mention this because a few shows like the gut-wrenchingly beautiful Girl Gods and Hex aren't really plays per se, which gives the out of allowing me to keep this list a reasonable length...

In no particular order (save perhaps maybe reversed order of viewing, I think kinda/sorta):

Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass at the 24th Street Theatre pretty much contains all I love in theatre.  It manages to tell a story in a way only theatre itself can, sparking the imagination first and foremost while at the same time using a dazzling (yet unintrusive) multimedia set of tools.  Yet at its heart remains a fantastic cast of actors bringing a kind of myth--in this case a fairy tale--to life in a brand spanking new way.

Ajax in Iraq counts as similar revelation--a tour-de-force of different theatrical styles across the ages as a modern story of US soldiers in Iraq play out intertwined with the tale of Ajax in the Trojan War, as told by Sophocles.  One of the most powerful pieces of theatre from the entire year and hopefully to be staged again before long.

The Suitcase as the Echo became one of the most fun, most heart-warming (in the deepest sense) theatrical efforts of 2016.  A softly presentational tale about a middle age man's revelation on his father, a man he never knew and never was told much about, yet for whom he quietly yearned for decades.  Not a story of nations, but of the connection between souls across time--and the ripples such connections can leave in their wake.

Othello at ZJU was a remounting of a production from last year so I almost didn't count it. Yet it remained one of the most powerful productions on many levels.  Dizzying in it re-imagination of Shakespeare's rather sordid murder story -- honestly, most productions of this play fail to entice me for this very reason -- Josh T. Ryan's direction and a wild, wonderful cast brought new life to this work in ways that never failed to at the least provoke a powerful reaction.

A Gulag Mouse may be cheating, since both playwright and director are friends of mine, but that doesn't change the fact this show fascinated me from the first image, then hit me in gut before the play's end several times.

Women Beware Women, a somewhat obscure Jacobean tragedy, proved the second time the Yours Is Mine theatre company took a classic work then rocked my world with it.  While the performances across the board reached wonderful heights, the entire production overall made my jaw drop.  In a single room, they made us feel as if we were simply there with these characters, watching it all by candlelight, with all the intimacy of a private party.  I eagerly await their next production!

The Dryway at Son of Semele was, I think, the first play I reviewed in 2016, and still haunts my memory. A three-woman musical retelling of a medieval legend, about three mermaids banished from the ocean by their mother, this single hour of theatre sucked me in the way I long to happen every time I take my seat.  It also managed to both surprise yet feel inevitable--a tricky feat yet often turns out a hallmark of the best theatre.

Lunatics and Actors by Four Clowns continued in that company's tradition of always doing something new, always making it different, always making it superbly.  Laughs and tears, horror and revelation were in store as a Victorian (?) scientist proceeded to lecture on the brain, using theatre and the insane as his milieu--with troubling, hilarious, insightful and very disturbing moments piling up one after another into our nervous systems.

Tempest Redux quite simply is the best version of this Shakespeare play I have ever seen, bar none,  Quite apart from the technical wonders going into the production, its central conceit digs deeper into the human soul than any other production of this play--or indeed of most plays--I have ever seen.  Were I drawing up a Top Dozen Plays for my entire life, this production would be on the list.

Occupation at the 2016 Fringe Festival has stayed with me, a genuinely challenging piece that in restrospect maybe should be staged again, perhaps even expanded in the wake of the election.  Taking place amidst a dystopian (but not, just to be precise, totalitarian) future America, it follows a group of women in that future time trying to make their way, heal their souls, make peace with the world, and decide for themselves the right thing to do.  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  Yet the depth of how this one-hour play explored that idea reminds me more than anything of a really profoundly beautiful haiku.

One of the Nice Ones, again at the Echo, is an extremely difficult play to describe, in the same sense and in some ways for similar reasons as it is hard to describe The Usual Suspects to those who haven't seen it.  I was definitely shocked, multiple times.  I laughed too many times to count, from barely suppressed giggles to out loud guffaws!  And I cried, not because someone tugged at my heart a la Timmy and his favorite dog were reunited etc.  No, I found myself feeling the yawing pain that might warp a human being, twisting them yet bestowing a strange power.

The Superhero and His Charming Wife makes for a rare but treasured kind of theatre--the more or less deliberate creation of a Myth.  What maybe proves most impressive, and startling, is how it focuses upon modern iconography, modern myths to tell its take.  Instead of a Knight in shining armor, we have a Superhero!  The danger that threatens is no Evil Ring or Dark Lord, but rather an existential question whose answer must prove terrifying.  I utterly adored this show, and frankly hope to see it staged once more!

I'm not going to mention a bunch of honorable mentions, because that would just go on and on forever.  My enormous good fortune is getting to see so much excellent theatre here in Los Angeles, for which I feel deep gratitude.  Thanks for reading these pretentious but sincere words.  Here's to more of the same in 2017 (including perhaps news of one or two plays I may be directing...!)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Cherry Orchard (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Note:  When I attended this performance, the understudies were 'up' and so you may see a different set of actors.  Mentioned for accuracy's sake not as anything like a criticism.  

Anton Chekhov's plays usually come across as somber dramas about hopelessness and despair.  In fact he himself didn't see them that way.  Rather, he saw them as very funny comedies about hopelessness and despair.


The Loft Ensemble's production of The Cherry Orchard successfully renders the very character-based humor of Chekhov, which so often gets interpreted as drama.  In fact they play more like dark sitcoms, a blend of soap opera with shows such as Cheers! than angst-driven tragedies a la Eugene O'Neil. Yeah all these people are pretty much losers, fools trying to get by who--for the most part--refuse to correct their own circumstances by making uncomfortable choices.  Lifeboats await them, the waters rise, but they keep hoping someone else will save the ship.  That way they won't have to change their clothes and choose which of their favorite toys and books they'll have to leave behind.  So, they ultimately drown, looking on with bewilderment as others abandon them in order to survive--said others often yelling over and over "Come with us!  Save yourselves!"

If that isn't the stuff of dark comedy, what is?

What adaptor/director Jared Wilson chose was to transpose events from turn-of-the-century Imperial Russia to modern day Texas.  Kinda/sorta.  The names remain the same--  --but costumes and accents pretty much scream "Texas."  One of my few complaints is how a more specific world doesn't quite emerge from this.  The talk of "dollars" for example amidst all the Russian names, coupled with the startling references to slaves in living memory, jar a bit.  But only a bit.  Mostly, I found myself sucked into this world--at first with the fascination of a seeing a car wreck, but eventually with a melancholy sense of affection for these...well, losers.

Renee (Jennifer Christina Derosa) and her brother Greg (Stephen Rockwell) function as the center this mini-society of a country estate, where one finds the title character, owned by Renee and Greg's family for generations.  The former has a surviving child, a daughter Anya (Dayeanne Hutton), who now accompanies her mother's return from Paris after five years.  It says something about this family that their nanny is a sometimes magician called Charlie the Mysterious (April Morrow).  Vanessa (Ainsley Pearce), the very religious adopted daughter of Renee, rounds out the family proper but of course the servants count in some odd way.  Firs (Mitch Rosander) especially, the ancient family retainer who knows no more of life than work and fondly remembers days before "The Freedom," i.e. when slavery was abolished.

In the original Russian setting this referred to serfdom, still part of the living memory of Chekhov and his contemporaries.

Central to the whole story lies Lenny (Maxwell Marsh), son and grandson of slaves, whom he hates yet whose respect he still desires.  Crude, trying far too hard, full of energy which has led him to acquire genuine wealth, Lenny hopes to save Renee and Greg--well, mostly Renee--from their debts.  He has a workable plan.  Sell the estate to make condos.  Simple, he insists.  Neither will listen.  Neither will even consider listening.  The whole idea -- the only way in fact of saving themselves from extreme poverty -- remains beyond comprehension.  Yeah, the ship sinks and they just hope somehow the water won't reach them.

As you may gather, the play's plot isn't really the story here.  Rather, it becomes a portrait of the characters and their world.  Rather than an over-arching story, Chekhov focuses on all the individual stories and how they intertwine, or at least happen in easy reach of one another.  Vanessa's hopeless love of Lenny, coupled with his fascination/obsession with Renee.  Estate Manager Yepi (Leon Mayne) and his unrequited passion for Patty (Barbara Ann Howard), who in turn has an affair with Yasha the driver (Shane Tometich).  Plus the neighbor Bill (Tor Brown), forever borrowing money from anyone who'll help but a good ol' boy in the best sense.  Then of course there is Anya's flirtation with Peter (Daniel Manning), her late brother's former tutor, the eternal student sure he knows all the answers without having really lived much in the world.

Even the various retainers at the estate--Joseph Bills, Madison Charest, Marryn Landry--make up part of the sinews, the blood and tissue of those who dwell, perhaps haunt, the old and beloved cherry orchard.  Yet despite all the absurdity, the casual and often deliberate cruelty, not to mention a tiny mountain range of foolishness, we laugh.  Perhaps to keep back the tears, because while sooner or later everyone does something hateful, we never end up hating them.  Rather, we grow fonder and fonder of these nice, stupid, petty and complex people.

The Cherry Orchard plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm until January 22, 2017 at the Loft Ensemble, 13442 Ventura Blvd (across from the Psychic Eye), Sherman Oaks CA 91423.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Telenovela Christmas Carol (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

'Tis the season--for eggnog and decorating the tree, for Santa Claus and songs of Frosty, Rudolf, Bells and Little Drummer Boys.  Also, time for new iterations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Because new versions abound, with successful ones returning at least for a time.

A Telenovela Christmas Carol, from Force of Nature Productions, emerged from the fertile imagination of Sebastian Munoz with Adam Neubauer.  Munoz appeared in as well as directing last year's Telenovela introducing us to these characters.  This year he also stars, which ultimately worked but must have left the man exhausted.  (I spoke to him afterwards--yeah, he was tired, although it never showed onstage)

The plot?  Pretty much what you expect.

Bitter rich tequila manufacturer Pedro Azucar (Munoz) makes life hell for his family, including sons Gerardo (Neubauer) and Mike (Gloria Galvan), daughter Palomita (Leah Wasylik), his worker Henry (Nicole Craig) and many others.  Especially around this time of year.  He was the villain in last year's play so naturally enough fills the Scrooge role.  The man's fury even extends to a poor child selling chiclets (Mona Park).

Naturally on Christmas Eve he has earned visit from his late wife (Jennifer Novak Chun) whom he murdered, so rather gleefully tells him he's to be haunted by three more ghosts.  What follows is a trip down memory lane to show the error of his ways--the details adapted to the specifics of this ongoing story.  Much like any time Dickens' most famous story gets stapled onto something else.  And it works!  That is why people keep doing it!

Of course one reason this works lies in how the show adheres to the style of those wonderful Spanish-language not-quite-soap operas with their over-the-top passions, ridiculous plot twists (especially involving sex), and the thick accents the entire cast uses.  "Yes" becomes "chess" for example.

So we follow the past already established and now fleshed out, his first love (Redetha Deason) eventually lost to former best friend (Brian Felson), amid painful memories of the sister introduced him to tequila!  Along the way lots of zany humor as well as some genuinely moving moments -- such as the Ghost of Christmas Present (Anne Westcott) trying to gently prepare him for "Who comes next."

So there is the essence of this show--fun, with some real emotion on top.  The whole cast is having fun, including Adam Shows, Jessica Weiner, Bianca Flores, etc. almost everyone playing multiple roles, with singing and dancing added to the mix just...well, because!  Why not?  With the added (welcome) announcement another Telenovela story is on its way!

A Telenovela Christmas Carol plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until December 18, 2016 at the Archway Theatre 10509 Burbank Avenue,  North Hollywood CA 91601.