Monday, September 19, 2016

Please Don't Ask About Beckett (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When I walked into the Black Box theatre at Sacred Fools on Santa Monica Blvd, I blinked. Not sure but this might be the first time I begin a review with praise for the set.  Evan A. Bartoletti's design drew me in instantly.  The rock like shapes carefully dotting the floor and some furniture.  The furniture itself clearly doing some kind of double duty, including what looked like (and later proved to be something akin to) a bridge.  The abstract shape made from tiny white christmas tree lights winding along the ceiling.  "A memory" I thought to myself.  "I've walked into a memory."

Here's the most impressive part.  I was right.

Please Don't Ask About Becket by Wendy Graf and directed by Kiff Scholl, focuses on one American family--specifically the relationship between a set of twins and their parents.  It spans decades, in one way or another touches on what seems like the whole scale of humans trying to figure out how to love one another.

The twins are Becket (Hunter Garner) and his sister Emily (Rachel Seiferth) , children of Hollywood producer Rob (Rob Nagle) and his wife Grace (Deborah Puette). Emily serves as guide and narrator--not merely to events but on the emotional journey we share with this family as Becket proves...difficult.

There's no easy way to describe it.  Nor anything like an answer offered as to why or what can/should be done.  Becket proves very charming, very supportive and likable, full of talent.  All through childhood he is the favorite, but doesn't take advantage of this, no more than anyone would.  Probably less.  It would be far too easy to call him a sociopath.  This play refuses to go there.  The cast and director follow the playwright's lead.

So we see Rob and Grace puzzle over Becket's poor grades, his getting into trouble, his drinking (although he really doesn't show any signs of alcoholism).  Emily, struggling with her genuine love of her brother and gentle jealousy of him, becomes aware of same.  After awhile it is hard to miss, following Becket being expelled from school after school.

The parents try to figure out what's wrong.  Every single doctor they can find examines him. Not one of their many theories pans out.  Bob uses vast sums of money to help his son--well, who would not?  It never seems to work.  Beckett--charming, nice, beloved, stunningly immature on so many levels--gets into more and more trouble until a drunk driving incident cranks everything up to eleven.

All of which could be so grim, so tragic.  But while sad, this never stops holding our hearts tight.  The story simply refuses to demonize anyone, nor to sugarcoat them. No one is a saint, but they try their best to do the right thing--if only they (or we) could figure out what that is!  Everyone in the cast captures that terribly human conundrum--which after a while seems to embody all the unanswered, unsolved puzzles of all our lives.

How much they all long for answers!  Even Becket.  Maybe especially him, since it becomes clear he's the least qualified of them all to make any kind of plan or judgment or solve any important question.

Emily tries hardest, but in many ways has the least power.  Her dad Rob is the only one who (sometimes) really confides in  her.  Her mom Grace focuses relentlessly on finding some way to look at events in a way she can handle.  Don't judge--so do you.  So do I.  So does everyone else in this play, sooner or later.  We all experiment with different solutions, as does Bob.  We all act as support, feeling powerless and overwhelmed and maybe seeing things others do not.  Like Emily.  Just as we all sometimes screw up royally without any understanding of how or why we did that!

Like Beckett.

Finally there is not one answer but many.  None complete, not one satisfying or enlightening.  Just different decisions made, for better and for worse.  By everyone.  Perhaps what happens really does represent the best that could happen, under the circumstances.  Which made me bleed a little bit watching all this unfold.

Not sure if I can offer more praise than that.

Please Don't Ask About Becket plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with a 4pm matinee on Saturday September 24 (that evening's show is scheduled as the last as of this writing).  The show is at the Sacred Fools Black Box at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (at Lillian Way, one block west of Vine), Los Angeles CA 90038.

Angel's Flight (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Roughly at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine, a bar/night club called the Three Clubs stands as it has for years.  Within one can find a small theatre, a venue used for shows that don't require a lot of space.  The seats are comfy, the decor very nice, the feel a bit nostalgic for a Hollywood of days gone by.

Which pretty much makes it perfect for Angel's Flight, a one hour musical about a gumshoe, a dame, a criminal conspiracy and a mystery.

Sounds something like the kind of spoof we've seen dozens of times, which is fair in one sense but grossly inaccurate in most others.  Angel's Flight does the one thing that makes a parody really work best--the story essentially works on its own, as an example of the genre no less!  Yeah, some of the details are silly (you cannot overdose on "reefers" for example) for effect, but frankly the plot alone might have belonged to a classic noir film!  On top of that this joint production by Cherry Poppins and Cyanide Theatre does the other thing that proves vital for the best theatre--everyone gives it 110%

The plot centers around Duff MacKagan (Schoen Hodges) a tarnished private eye looking for one more score so he can afford to leave tinseltown and try to live with himself far from the glamor and grime.  One last case.  A missing person, naturally a dame.  Meanwhile crooked cops hint they want to frame Duff for the recent murder of one of their own--an honest cop in Internal Affairs.

Yeah, it all ties together, but what really accomplishes that is not so much the plot as the feel--and part of the feel, the atmosphere, the mise-en-scene are the musical numbers, from the very opening in which the cast is introduced to the finale--an ironic punctuation of what we've just seen.  All of it with at least a hint (sometimes way more than that) of burlesque.  Our ladies, led by Jane (Heath Butler) and Grace (Sarah Haworth) don't so much enter as slink onstage.  When not slinking, they strut and when not doing either they pose--yet as per the 110% comment above, all this done full on, with purpose, with character and emotion put into every lifted eyebrow.  It makes for an intensely entertaining show.

Likewise Big Daddy (Michael Onofri) makes for a wonderfully sleazy coward, the front man for the real Boss, while Murphy (Danny Fetter) and Wallace (Bobby Watson) create a splendid pair of gloatingly crude crooked detectives with LAPD.  Hardly anybody gets a huge amount of time on stage, but all the characters are alive even the one shots like the barber Bette (Kelly Stevenson) or dancers like those played by Brin Hamblin, Sarah Wines and Shannon Glasgow have that "larger than life" facet that makes it all work.  They believe a couple of chairs is a car, so we do.

All throughout we the audience were having a blast! The songs! The dancing!  The sultry dames and soiled souls complete with the oddly sympathetic cynical private dick--all feeling real in the world of the show!  Which makes all the difference between stereotype and icon.

The fish makes for a nice little bit of the surreal.  And foreshadowing.  I'm not going to explain that.  Go see the show.  Really.  You will be very glad you did.

Meanwhile let me praise the skill, energy and stage presence of everyone else in the cast--Madeliene Bentz, Ben Blonigan, Alli Miller et al. 

 Angel's Flight plays on Wednesday nights at 8:30pm until September 28, 2016 at the Three Clubs Cocktail Lounge, 1123 Vine Street, Los Angeles CA 90038.  As of this writing that means only two more performances in the current run. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Medea (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In the last year or so I've seen a resurgence of Greek tragedies, the latest being Medea by Euripedes at Zombie Joe's in North Hollywood.

A word here about tragedy.  We tend to think of that word in terms of Shakespeare, the hero with a tragic flaw, etc.  No so the Greeks.  They saw the universe itself as inherently tragic, and all who live in it ultimately doomed.  Heroism and drama lay in how one meets their doom.

Medea proved ground-breaking, because it turned the usual interpretation of this myth around.  Different versions of Medea tended to see her husband Jason as the hero, the man whose attempts to do right are thwarted by the madness of his wife.

Euripdes, however, took Medea's side.  He saw Jason's betrayal of his bride as the doom with which she had to cope.

Yeah, Euripedes was not unlike the Lady Gaga of his day.

Jonica Patella plays the title character, and as fans of this local actress might expect, she turns in a powerhouse performance.  Here is a woman who fell in love, committed treason for her husband, even killed her own brother for his sake--only to have Jason dump her (and their children) to marry the daughter and only heir to the King of Corinth.  In the face of this, she literally screams to the heavens and decides to enact a most terrible revenge.

Credit: Denise Devin
Denise Devin directed and adapted this play, over twice the age of the language in which we experience it.  Think about that for a moment.  About what it takes for such a work to last!  Its style should feel archaic and difficult to grasp, yet in fact in the tiny black box on Lankershim the story very much comes alive.  A chorus of three women (Cristina Brunet, Dawn Davis, Dicle Ozcer) become Medea's confidants as the Nurse (Louise Claps) explains to them the situation.  Eventually Creon (Dale Sandlin) King of Corinth enters to banish Medea and her children--turning them into stateless refugees.

All this plays out vividly and with precision, but what really brings out the drama of it all is when Alex Walters enters as Jason.  Because Jason and Medea as a couple remain the beating heart of this tragedy.  Not until we see them together do we understand how these events were inevitable.

Credit: Denise Devin
No small feat!

Personally I'm a big fan of both these actors, and while the whole cast (including Larray Grimes in a multiple role as Aegeus, a Messenger and a Dragon) do fine jobs, with nary an off note or wrong gesture, it is Patella and Walters who carry the weight of this tragedy--carry and run with it.  We can see the passion that burned between them still!  More, we see not a deliberate cruelty but an all-too-common myopia on the part of this hero (he is after all the leader of the Argonauts, whose quest for the Golden Fleece proved successful--think of him as a combination of Frodo and Aragorn).  He feels some guilt for his so-called betrayal (that is how he would describe it) but mostly he judges his wife for daring to judge him.  But hatred and love are not opposites.  They are two sides of the same coin, and we can see that in Patella's Medea.  Once wronged so terribly, her seething and ruthless hatred becomes terrible.  She loved Jason.  Maybe part of her loves him still.  So she totally destroys him.  And destroys part of herself in the process.

A fascinating piece of theatre, a horror story not about monsters or serial killers but about the darkness petty and grand of the human heart.

Medea plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until September 11, 2016 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I've had the good fortune of seeing three previous comedies written and directed by Any Shultz, so I approached viewing Don't Go Breaking My Heart with confidence, even pleasure.  When comedies fail, it feels especially awkward.  The silence becomes louder than any gunshot.  Likewise you know a comedy works by echo of laughter in your own ears.

Good news!  I suffered no disappointment at all.  What I did find was a series of surprises--because Shultz does that.  He surprises us with a kind of zany twist on reality, but with a genuine heart behind it all, even at his most farcical.

Although Don't Go Breaking My Heart does not qualify as a farce.  Rather, I'd dub it a romantic comedy--thankfully one that avoids all the cliches plaguing the genre, especially in terms of films.

We begin in the home of Alan (Stephen Anthony Bailey) and his lovely, geeky wife Diane (Emma Chandler).  It is poker night, so Alan's best friend Jeff (Jon Christie)  is joining Diane's brother Mark (Javier Melgar Santovena) in the garage--because Jeff is no longer welcome in the house.  Calling this character a bull in the china shop that is his friends' (and his own) lives captures his personality pretty well.  He causes trouble.  He says things people shouldn't say.  By most standards he is a loser--not least because that summer job at a theme park at minimum wage remains his only source of income years later.  No wonder his wife Susan (Ilona Kulinska) wants a divorce!

Of course Susan is joining Diane in a get-together in the house, which results in one of a seemingly endless gyre of complications--the open conspiracy to not let these two know the other is present!  Adding to the brew--two more couples.  Mary (Samantha Grace Peterson) and Steven (Adam Messana) just moved into the neighborhood--squeaky clean to a degree just inside the bounds of reality.  Then there's cheerful, pretty Becky (Brianne Mammana) and her reluctant boyfriend Joe (Christopher Jewell Valentin) who knows with looming horror Becky expects a proposal any time now.  Believe me, the permutations possible with these ingredients bubble forth, with hilarious results!  And it bears noting a major reason remains how the characters remain real, remain not caricatures but living breathing people--silly, stupid, wise, flawed, delightful and infuriating people.

But wait, you may ask, didn't I say this was not a farce?  Yet the description sure sounds like one, doesn't it?

I know.  And no, this is not a farce--despite having the ingredients of one.  Rather it remains a romcom in the same vein as a lighter, zanier version of Love Actually.  Because in a farce one nearly always laughs at the people, at their foolishness and whether they have anything like a happy ending largely depends on the tone.  Don't Go Breaking My Heart is all about couples connecting, which makes it a romantic comedy, a remarkably successful one.  Each of these couples--and Mark kinda/sorta ends up part of one after he meets a Minister (Tom Jones)--undergo a quite funny trial by fire.  Each confronts issues arising from their personalities, from mistakes and assumptions made, finding hope in self-awareness and emotional courage.

Which could be maudlin as hell.  Instead, the script and actors together offer what too often gets little serious attention--the charm and importance of the ordinary.  Maybe that is why tragedies have historically so often been about the powerful in our society, but comedies increasingly deal with our neighbors, our classmates and the like.  The fellowships of the mundane, where the vast majority of human happiness and misery take place.  Not a huge drama about an arrest for murder, but the repercussions of a discovered lie between people who love one another. Not madness, but the frantic efforts of someone trying not to admit they have failed big time.  All, in this case, with a light and loving touch that looks unwincingly but also forgives.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart plays Thursdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until August 28. 2016 at the Archway Theatre, 10509 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601.