Thursday, January 2, 2020

Top Ten 2019

Damn I am two whole days behind!!!

Here are my choices for the ten very best productions I have seen in the Los Angeles theatre scene in the last year.  Usually a do a dozen, but with directing two plays this year (Richard III as well as Masoch and DeSade) I saw fewer plays than usual.   In no particular order at all:

Nude/Naked by Paul Zoan Hedler, a wildly edgy and supremely well-directed/acted play about a photographer and his complex relationship with the model who is both his muse and daughter.  Even the title becomes a part of the story, as we are drawn into the salacious and scandalous interpretation, even when confronted by what proves very different indeed, if no less disturbing. 

Two Trains Running by August Wilson, part of an ongoing project to produce all of the great playwright's "Century Cycle."  This spectacular production, full of nuanced performances, somehow in this odd little corner of Pittsburgh captures the tensions of that specific era in our history.

Orangutan by Troy Deutch was a one woman show in this last year's Fringe Festival, one of the first I scheduled despite the fact I found the premise baffling.  Something about Bill Mahr's joke about Trump proving he wasn't the offspring of an orangutan?  What I got was a fascinating nightmare brought life on stage, and which impacted me in ways that echo in my nervous system to this very minute.

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl is a retelling of the Orpheus legend from the pov not of the great musician but his wife, her time spent in land of the dead--which in turn becomes a meditation on death and life, on love and mistakes and loyalty plus the blessed virtues of forgetfulness.  CityGarage rarely if ever disappoints, and in fact I had a hard time choosing only one of their productions (for the third year in a row).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley was produced twice for this year's Fringe Festival.  The one I saw grabbed my attention and imagination, never letting go with is powerful series of scenes between two wounded, hurt, lonely people--and finally, using enormous courage, accepting the possibility that hope might not be in vain.  A more powerful and haunting tale is difficult to imagine.

The 7 Stages of Grieving was and is a collaborative work, a one woman show (I saw a lot of fantastic examples of this semi-genre) shown at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz, tracking through one person's life and memories the history of the Aborigines of Australia--the ongoing devastation, the ongoing efforts to heal, the ongoing efforts to earn forgiveness.  In my opinion, we Americans especially may need to see this show many times all over the nation.

Deer Woman by my friend Megan Therese Rippey, who also performed in this one woman show presented at the Son of Semele (there's a remounting coming up at the Whitefire).  In this show, Rippey introduces us to a figure from her dreams, a powerful deity/avatar of her personal mythology.  Again, I had a hard time choosing between this and something else from Son of Semele, but I have my rule.

Last Swallows by my friend Cailin Maureen Harrison (this sounds like an odd kind of nepotism, but I really do know a lot of talented people) proves a wonderful family portrait that seems almost too huge for a tiny stage and mere couple of hours of time.  The scope of humanity shown in this fistful of characters moved me profoundly, and in close to every single way. 

The Last Croissant by Veronica Tjioe, produced by the Attic Collective, gave me absolutely delightful insight into life and love and the quirky nature of my own species for every single moment of its runtime.  Set amid a camping trip, the play proves a combination of whimsy, farce, drama, and forgiveness with lots of gender sleight-of-hand alongside what I have to call "magic." 

Fertile, yet another one woman show written and performed by a friend of mine--Heather Dowling, whose show can be seen one more time here in LA on January 29!  In this case, she offers us the fictionalized odyssey of her attempts to become a mother--in the process introducing us to what seems like dozens of characters, each vivid and informing her heart-felt tale.  An intimate tour-de-force of humanity, dreams, frustration and maybe a little bit of real, practical wisdom.

Friday, December 13, 2019

For the Loyal (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Walking into the Marilyn Monroe Theatre, my heart fell a little bit.  The set looked like a football field.  Not sure if I can make it clear just how visceral my distaste for football truly feels.

Yet I found For The Loyal by Lee Blessing very compelling.  Even beautiful in a heart-wrenching way.  It does what most really excellent drama does, in this case very explicitly.  At the heart of the story is a seemingly simple question--and leaves it up to the audience to come up with their own answer.  But only after we've had all the easy ones stripped bare.

Football just turns out to be a setting, as well as a metaphor.  Toby (Torrey Drake) is an assistant football coach at a university, and in a panic tells his wife Mia (Hilty Bowen) of walking in on a revered senior coach named Carlson (Mark Youngs) with a naked underage boy.  He did what in theory is the right thing--inform their boss Coach Hale (Eddie Alfano).

Hale's reaction is more--and less--complex than one might expect.  He demands Carlson's resignation, pretty much threatening the man with maximum exposure in court if he fails to comply.  Carlson, protesting his innocence (poorly) all the while, complies.  As Hale puts it, now he is someone else's problem.  But of course he's doing nothing at all about the problem of a pedophile on the loose.  That isn't even part of the picture.  Keeping this a secret, not causing a scandal, protecting the university in general as well as the football program in particular, that remains the only real priority. 

Toby, however, had disobeyed his boss and told someone.  He told Mia.  Thus the play moves away from the men into the lap of a woman--an outsider whom they openly mock for her major of Comparative Literature.  Someone without any real devotion to the Program.  Her husband, the father of her unborn child, he is the one whose career remains entwined with the program.  Over and over he begs Mia to not say or do anything to offset that career, for her sake and their child's sake.  At least that is what he says.  Maybe he even means it.  To some degree.  A lot, quite possibly.

Mia, however, feels far more torn.  At some point (exactly when never becomes clear, a good thing in my view) we enter her imagination as she plays out all the different scenarios of what she can do.  What if she shoots the man dead while he's in her home?  What if she tries to go to the various officials of the university, or to the local police?  What if she simply goes along with the Program?  Or what if her husband never ever told her what he knew in the first place?

Along the way we meet the Boy (Danny Martha) in question, homeless and cynical, not caring about the truth because he cannot afford it.  He becomes in time an avatar for all the possible victims of Carlson, taking turns in haunting her with Carlson, like a tag team horrific version of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol.  He becomes the voice of a her best friend in high school, who furiously rejected Mia's suspicions of that friend's father until admitting all in a suicide note years later.  He stands in for Mia's son, who on the one hand despises her as a murderer who has tainted his entire life, and/or becomes the target of Carlson himself or some other such predator.  Director Paul Rush does a fine job of helping this whole dreamscape of the play work, never allowing anything to be totally simple or straightforward.  Mia's impotence before the status quo, the Program, which demands loyalty before law, before justice, before the fate of children, grows like a mountain.  Or at least Mia sees it that way ever more clearly.  Even her experience with her high school friend is not viewed as evidence of her insight, but rather proof of her her prejudice.

Think about that for a few seconds, and shudder.

For the Loyal plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until December 14, 2019 at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90046.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Romeo and Juliet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Shakespeare's second tragedy remains one of his most-produced, so small wonder Porters of Hellsgate would get around to it sooner or later (even without their avowed goal of doing the entire canon). 

Under the direction of Gus Kreiger, this specific Romeo and Juliet focuses on the pointless but pervasive conflict between the families.  Along the way, we are treated to some amazing sword fights on stage--thanks in so small part to fight choreographer Jesse James Thomas.  Really, so many sword fights on stage don't look good at all, but this one clearly shows the cast rehearsed those scenes exhaustively and kept up their practice.  Kudos!  I literally felt myself at the edge of my seat at times!

So that tells you right off this production is exciting!  More, and this could use lots of emphasis, the leads and several key characters end up emerging from some very fine performances.  We believe Romeo (Will Block) and Juliet (Rachel Seiforth) are not only in love, but we believe their full context of their characters' lives.  For the latter we get a vivid sense of the Capulet household, from her onery father (Ted Barton), chilly but obedient mother (Jordann Zbyliski), the latter's hot-headed nephew Tybalt (Evan Lipkin), and finally the kindly but ultimately subservient Nurse (Thomas Bigley--the second time I've seen a man cast in the role, which works very well indeed).  Romeo of course is more defined by his friends, especially the wild and dangerous Mercutio (Dana DeRuyck) and the much more level-headed Benvolio (Amanda Noriko Newman--who also functions as Fight Captain).  These last two give a pair of the best performances in the whole show, vital if we are to understand why other characters around them react as they do.

The whole show ends up very fast-paced, which brings it in at just about two hours.  Among other things the design itself proves clever and extremely practical--clusters of red and blue roses, mirroring the red and blue costume scheme dividing up the cast between Capulet and Montague.  Meanwhile, swords and weapons literally hang all over the set, just waiting to be used.  And they are, of course.  This play has less of a body count than some (Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III for example) but we get to know every single corpse before they die.  Know and not wish their deaths, even the relativeyl oafish Paris (Michael Bigley).  We share the reaction as each living human being is snuffed out, gone forever.

All of which means this makes for a production that works, no small thing!  We feel engaged, even fascinated by the situation and nearly all the characters.  The plot ends up straightforward, amid the emotional roller coaster the characters endure.  Its focus extends to all kinds of nice details, even the reading of almost throwaway lines.  Coupled with the integrated scenic and costume designs by Drina Durazo and Jessica Pasternak respectively, the story and the drama flows smoothly to sweep us along.

Romeo and Juliet plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until December 1, 2019 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 W. Magnolia (east of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Unraveled (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the fourth play production I've reviewed from the Collaborative Artists Ensemble.  I can honestly say each one has proven enjoyable, sometimes even powerful.  Unraveled by Jennifer Blackmer makes for something of a return to themes, in that it mirror's last years' Anatomy of a Hug in tracing a young woman's journey to letting go of the mother, with all complex emotional landscape that involves traversing.

Joy (Meg Wallace), the lead character, is a single professor of physics and philosophy whose intellectualism seems of very little use in dealing with her mother's dementia.  She hires a hospice nurse named Anna (Heidi Shon) but tries fiercely to keep her professional and personal lives distinct, even segregated.  This even dovetails into a personal relationship she's developed with a graduate student.  As if to emphasize the issues with which she's dealing, Joy interacts with two different actors portraying her mother.  Carolyn Crotty plays her as Joy remembers her, a vivacious and beautiful woman full of spit and vinegar.  Kathy Bell Denton has the (frankly) more fun job of  the dying version, the half mad but determined and extremely confused remnant of what was once there.

This rather sounds, does it not, like what used to be called a "Movie of the Week" or a "Lifetime Movie"?  Well, there is some justice in that.  To take what feels or at least looks like very melodramatic fare and elevate it to drama takes a great deal of concentration on pretty much every level.  For this reason doing larger than life characters, even insane ones, in many ways are easier for talented actors.  Unraveled seems to have those challenges in spades.

As a result, the whole production feels more spotty, less consistent.  Flashes of moments, often good ones, end up sprinkled amid perfectly workmanlike blocking and reasonable line readings.  The women in the cast seem to get all the good scenes and lines, but (and this seems on par with the subject matter) a lot of those are on the nose. 

So I walked away, thinking I'd seen better from this company (which involve several of the same actors).  Honsetly, I cannot say it was anywhere near bad.  Nor can I call it mediocre.  But it rarely excited me.

Unraveled plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sundays at 7 p.m until December 8, 2019. at the Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd. (east of Lankershim), North Hollywood, CA 91601.