Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Astroglyde 2015 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm a little unclear about the rules involved in ZJU's annual event Astroglyde. At heart though, the premise is simple--and daunting. One performer who writes their own piece (a few minutes in length only). Someone else directs them. The lights rise, and we see the performer on a small platform. They speak. And we laugh. Or cry. Or bleed a little. From our souls. It all depends.

Interestingly, rather more performers than you might expect choose to play other-than-human characters. This year Melissa Munoz played a dog in "The Joint." The title refers to the dog pound, in which Munoz is a senior fellow as it were, a exchange that changed in mood (kinda sorta) 180 degrees in about three seconds.

Nicole A. Craig's "My Own Damn Hero" began a little vague, until we realized exactly to whom and under what circumstances she was speaking--then it seemed as specific as laser surgery.

Dorian Serna's "I The Amender" begins as a seemingly insane prayer by a hermit, possibly a serial killer. But rather than a sociopath, we slowly see this man as merely an outsider, whose few powerful connections to his fellow humans baffle but awe him to the bone.

"Such is My Love" by Elif Savas was one of my favorites--a monologue to someone (a nice man, evidently) who rescued her. Turns out she is playing Ophelia, and with great but simple power in every word.

"Betty Buys a Bikini" from Lee Quarrie proved more contemporary,  as the title implies. No surprise it deals (as several do this time) with women confronting expectations as well as judgments. Well, a woman, and doing it in a simple, powerful way.

Amy Kooiman's piece, "Im Mother Fucking Wonder Woman" turns out to be something of an anthem to individual if quirky power.

"This is Me" by Olivia Spirz is an utterly charming (as well as slightly heartbreaking) one-sided conversation at the start of a dinner date.

Jason Britt's "Shadowboxer" was a technical tour-de-force, a startlingly fast but meaningful monologue emerging from somone clearly in severe mental distress. And I do mean severe--his occaisional bursting into song only the mildest of symptoms.

"Over The Rainbow" by Margaret Glaccum proved one of those that kinda ripped my heart out. In the first non-comedic role I've seen her do--as a desperately unhappy woman ascending (?) into fantasy--her performance totally sucked me into her situation, even sans almost any details (any shared anyway).

Jesse Lee's "North Pole" might be the most surreal offering, only in part due to the setup--an Elf offering as suggestion of how to improve Christmas, presented to his fellows and of course Papa Noel--but also to the deliberately off kilter delivery.

In the end it all proved a fascinating little corner of the human mosaic, one I heartily recommend. Alas only one performance remains as of this writing. Astroglyde 2015 plays this  Firday November 20 at Zombie Joe's, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA. Tix are $15. Reservations can be made at (818) 202-4120.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cake (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Comedy, so the story goes, is harder than dying. I tend to believe as much, especially when going to see comedies on stage. To successfully generate a laugh requires vast precision. Cake, the new production at Theatre Unleashed in North Hollywood, is just such a work. Honestly, I rarely laughed. But I did smile a great deal. More importantly, I ended up caring quite a bit about these characters (frankly more important).

Wendy Gough Soroka is the playwright, creator of this ensemble of characters in and around a college--a English professor and her husband, their playwright daughter, some students of the professor, a co-worker, a husband, a member of the audience of the playwright's latest work.

At first, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the variety of characters and scenes, but as their interconnections became clear the more this 'world' felt real and even familiar. Teh network of how all these characters fit together grows before us at a very nice pace, enough so that eventually when events happen "off stage" we know who did them. Likewise it was nice to see a logical kind of progression happen, at the same time without anything as complex as over half a dozen human lives wrapped up in a tiny bow.

More, I especially loved it when someone discusses genuine issues without it coming across as a lecture. Really. Kudos for that.

Criticisms? Well, shifting the scenery too often distracted (although at times this was handled with a style and theatricality that warmed what is left of my heart). I felt the play itself sort of stopped rather than ending, but the rhythm of the scene changes methinks had a lot to do with that.

My greatest praise goes to the cast in general, but especially to Sammi Lappin in the role of playwright/daughter Cynthia. She was standing in for the talented Kire Horton, a marvelous actress I've seen before at TU. Lappin was great, script in hand--although I frankly hope to see Cake once more and get to see Horton.  Elisabeth Fenning as a reluctant mother as well as once (and future) theatre teacher was outstanding as ever (her earlier run in Ligature Marks at the same venue make me expect as much). Courtney Bell, Tracey Collins, Brad Griffith, Bobby McGlynn, Lee Pollero, Jacob Smith and Theresa Stroll filled out a cast that--this is very high praise when coming from me--never once stopped being equal parts truthful and human.

Lisa K. Wyatt directed, and I had a lovely chat with her after the show. She confirmed the play had been written for the Hollywood Fringe--and a very nice example of what kinds of shows the Fringe puts out there.

I feel this review hasn't given as much detail as I'd like. Readers cannot have much idea of the plot, for example, and I haven't addressed the themes or issues of the play much if at all. Yet while I have my own opinions on these, I increasingly suspect those are best left to individual audience members. This play is very much like history rather than a sermon.  We see lives lived, mistakes made, realizations arrived at, arguments pursued, accidents horrible and lucky occur, turning points reached, lessons learned (or not), and quite a few questions left  unanswered. To us, anyway.

Methinks the characters will get around to answering for themselves however.

Cake plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until November 21, 2015 at the The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St. at Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91602

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Attack of the Rotting Corpses (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's has several shows it tends to do every few years (as well as its signature program Urban Death). One of these, Attack of the Rotting Corpses, has been re-mounted for 2015. Given the title, one might expect zombies. Well, you would not be disappointed!

A Los Angeles condo falls victim to a mutated virus somehow ending up in the water supply. The virus eats away at its victim, driving them mad with a desire for human flesh to devour. A variety of archetypes that make their home there succumb, making the whole thing among other things a satire about modern society in general. Fairly standard George Romero fare, as far as that goes, but not in any copycat manner. Rather playwright Zombie Joe added his own blend of weird sexual antics and dark humor to the mix--augmented by director Josh T. Ryan. The previous production reminded me (via some roundabout psychological roller-go-round) of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  This one reminds me more of some hybrid child of Dawn of the Dead with maybe Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Kinda/sorta. And not just because of the increased gore, or even the homo-erotic subtext simmering between the two condo consierges (usually a man and a woman, this time two men).

photo credit: Josh T. Ryan
What really turns this from some kind of goofball set of horror skits into a play is the manner in which everyone involves takes it seriously--yes, including the humor. Especially the humor in fact. As Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in A Miracle on 34th Street) is reputed to have said with his last breath, dying is hard but not as hard as comedy. Timing and attitude have to very nearly perfect, and much of this show demands alot of the performers. Vanessa Cate, for example, plays a voracious sexual beast who manages to remain sexy in her almost-there costume even as decompositon sets it. More importantly, she comes across as a character, not a caricature. Likewise Michelle Snyder very nearly steal the show, and certainly every scene in which she appears as a faded star (or starlet) who frankly seems the least wretched of all the zombies in the end because so many of her parts are probably not original.

Michael Blomgren returns to the stage in three roles, including a random victim of a married couple of starving zombies as well as a dog. Other cast members include Tyler Coster and Wynn Harris as well as Lauren Velasco, plus Josh T. Ryan himself.

It all melds into a weirdly grosteque and hilarious hour of theatre!

Attack of the Rotting Corpses plays Sundays at 7:30pm through November 1, 2015 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91601 (just south of the NoHo sign). Tickets are $15 and you can make reservations by calling 818-202-4120.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Feminist Dracula (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The NoHo Arts Center is a very nice theatre complex on Magnolia, where I saw a splendid Dracula way back in 2009. Now a new adaptation of Bram Stoker's most famous novel just opened, a Dracula explicitly referred to as a "feminist take.' Upon hearing of this, I was intrigued!

Elsewhere I've described my reaction to the script. This review focuses upon the specific production happening right now in North Hollywood under the auspices of Theatre 68 which commissioned this script.

Begin with the space. It caught my imagination instantly, not least because of an imaginative, even compelling pre-show (presumably the work of director Sohia Watt). Frankly, the rest of the show had a lot to live up to after following that! 

At times it even did.

Sometimes it did not.

Frankly a big part of the blame for this last (which overstates it a bit, to be honest) lies in the script (see link above) which gives barely a hint as to the characters of Arthur (Diego Maureira) and Quincey (Kenneth James) or their mutual love interest Lucy (Ariel Hart), and a tiny bit more regarding Jack Seward (Jude Evans). Cannot blame the actors for not being given much of chance to show what they might do.  Given how the rest of the cast measured up, I must conclude all the actors were of the same quality, but given unequal attention by the writer.

This Dracula belongs to the character of Mina (Rachel Zink) , with  interestingly many of the other major characters taking turns as enemy and ally to her.  One measure of the actors who play Jonathan Harker (Jordan Wall), Professor Van Helsing (David Caprita), Dracula himself (Robert Homer Mollohan), Mrs. Westenra (Perry Smith) and the bug-eating lunatic Renfield (Kristen Lerner) is how all of them succeed in shifting between those roles. Overall, very well!

Mollohan lacked a little consistency, but that also seems inherent in the nature of how this play interpret the character--as a chameleon in some fundamentally emotional manner. He genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, though, and in a very refreshing change of pace attempted at no time to channel Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella nor Gary Oldman! Bravo! Even his deliciously maniacal laughter proved motivated!

Wall managed the curious balance of Harker, between strength and weakness, anger and tenderness with rather a lot of skill. I never liked him, but then I don't think we were supposed to. Felt sorry for the guy, though.

Caprita's Van Helsing was such an over-the-top misogynist he could easily have been done as a villain from a melodrama. Yet instead he came across as very real, very malevolant in  his way, and yet able enough to prove a useful ally. Sometimes.

Lerner of course got the plum role. Renfield is to Dracula what Gollum is The Lord of the Rings. Small wonder David Manners (who played Harker in the Lugosi film) wanted to play that role--and at least one film adaptation conflated the parts of Harker and Renfield together! Again, the actor involved avoided a trap. Too often in playing madness the temptation exists to create a Batman-eque villain. Lerner avoided that, and (no less impressively) showed a complex set of relationships with those in her time onstage.

Zink really carried the night, though, and did so with a fairly ugly journey of self-discovery. One of the tragedies inherent in this adaptation is the image of two different futures Mina can see embodied in Renfield and in the bitter, almost heartless Mrs Westenra. Because although feminist, this play does not take a Xena-esque approach by turning Mina into a fount of wisdom who puts the vampire lord out of his misery (this has been done a few times, most famously in Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as the Wildhorn musical). Rather, this version is more of a dystopia, a look into a society whose treatment of women makes savagry weirdly attractive.

Along the way, much credit must go to the Succubi (Caroline Henry, Kara Gibson, Isabel Wagner, Anna Yosin) who function not quite as a Greek Chorus--mostly because they rarely speak while literally becoming the set as often as not. It proved a wonderful conceit, giving a dreamlike immediacy to the proceedings!

Yet the nitpicker in me also wants to point out the English accents distractingly inconsistent. Generally the cast did a fine job in that respect (which deserves some applause right there) but the sudden pronunciations shifting from English to American did prove distracting--at least to my ear.

Performances of Dracula are Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm through November 1, 2015. Tickets are $25.