Monday, October 15, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group likes to do Shakespeare.  Sometimes straight.  Sometimes on some kind of probably illegal substance.  Much Ado About Nothing (running through December 2) emerges as the former.  One of the Bard's four big comedies (the others being As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew), this one was made into a very good film some years back starring then-married couple Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson.

Therein demonstrates a key to the play and making it work.  You need a good set to play the primary romantic leads.  Beatrice and Benedick are mismatched lovers, but with a refreshingly realistic (also hilarious) obstacle to their united bliss.

They hate each other.

Or, more accurately, they are each far too witty and too sure of themselves to let the other get away with anything.  Every conversation has become notorious among their many mutual friends for turning into fencing matches with their tongues.  And so their friends, led by Don Pedro (Gino Costabile), resolve to trick them into falling in love.  It works, amid some lovely set pieces involving overheard conversations and misunderstandings.  But if we don't believe these two as a couple, the whole thing collapses.

Fortunately, that proves no problem.  Jennifer Kenyon and Amir Khalighi capture these two with all the intelligence and foolishness, the passion and arrogance one could ask.  These two are precursors of Sam and Diane, Batman and Catwoman, Rhett and Scarlett--couples that go at each other tooth and claw, mostly because in the end how else does a strong person find a mate? They long for an equal.  So it becomes a matter of who survives the contest.  Beatrice and Benedick begin with sneers, contempt, public declarations of insult after insult.  Reminds one of kindergarden, really.  And they are in perfect counterpoint to the younger couple of the play--Claudio (Philip Rodriguez) and Hero (Stefanie Ogden), a pair of nice stupid kids whose angst-strewn drama touches on sex, politics, deceit, humiliation, the threat of death, etc.  Yet their story remains totally upstaged by Beatrice and Benedick.  Indeed, imagine for a moment the play without the two slightly older lovers and it seems so bland!  Despite all the props of drama!  Because the characters remain all important.  Their reactions to each other would eclipse a minor war.  At least that is how they're written.

Kenyon has in some ways the toughest scene, when she overhears a staged conversation about how Benedick loves her to the point of becoming sick.  Yet also, so they say, no one will tell her because they think so highly of him and will not subject their friend to the pain of her rejection.  She has little time and few lines to change her tune, declaring this love shall be requited.  But we won't accept it if we didn't sense something of that before hand.  Which we do!  Khalighi on the other hand gets more time to convince himself, which turns into quite the nice comic monologue.  In fact he gets several, plus the more dramatic scenes.  One really important moment in the play, which we must believe or it just doesn't work, comes a little over halfway.  Claudio, deceived as to his fiancee Hero's virtue, denounces her publicly in the Church where they are to be wed.  Beatrice demands Benedick, who has declared himself in love with her, kill his good friend Claudio.  When Benedick agrees, that's when the whole play deepens.  He loves her.  For real.  And will kill a man, a friend, on her say-so.  Nice?  No.  But real.  And passionate.  And a fine comparison to the young, pleasing, naive and jealous idiot Claudio whom we see early on jumps to easy conclusions.  Not so wise as Benedick.  Under the same circumstances, Benedick one feels would remain loyal.  Demand far more proof.  Instantly suspect the accuser.

One suspects this is a story of Romeo and Juliet if they each had an old and wiser sibling, who in turn also fell in love and managed to prevent the tragedy.

The overall production itself is remarkably fast and lean.  Every trace of fat has seen an editing pencil, while the tone ends up rather frenzied and veering towards comedia del arte.  But not quite there.  Never seen this play done quite such a manner, but the proof is in the pudding--I was both moved and I laughed.  Nor was I alone.  Some nuances got lost, even opportunities for humor amid the steady and quick pace.  But then, there's never a perfect production of any play.  Every one must make choices.  I'll admit a bit of opening night jitters showed up in the first few minutes but they evaporated before long so I suspect subsequent performances will get even better.

But one curious thing also popped up.  This play contains one of Shakespeare's very best Fools, not least because Dogberry doesn't actually have that job.  He is no jester, at least not knowingly.  He instead is an official, the equivalent of a small town sheriff.  But so full of himself, so charmingly lazy but good-hearted, so earnest in his duty while so ridiculous of pretension he makes for arguably the third most coveted part in the play.  Here lies the odd thing.  Nicholas Thurkettle who plays Dogberry, frankly hams it up.  Well, this part can work with that, but I didn't feel he quite hit all the marks.  Make no mistake, he was still funny and the laughs involving the character grew as he appeared on stage.  But at least at first he wasn't so much a character as a collection of quirks.  Yet the same actor played a second role, a small but pivotal role of Friar Francis who comes up with the scheme by which all is ultimately made well.  This is precisely the kind of part Shakespeare's plays abound with--small, important, all too often given to lesser members of the company.  Yet Thurkettle did this part splendidly!  He outlines a subtle plan onstage using the heightened language of the Bard, does so with skill and such simple honesty for a few moments he upstaged everyone!  Kudos to him!  Yet his Dogberry qualifies as almost a misfire.  Almost.  Not quite the correct note.  He was funny, but I didn't care about him.  I always cared about Dogberry before in some weird quirky way.  But--a good actor.  Demonstrably so.  And he accomplished the most important thing about Dogberry--made us laugh at the antics and speech of this odd, worthy Fool who ultimately saves the day.  So kudos again!

Much Ado About Nothing plays Sundays at 7pm October 14 through December 2, 2012 at 4850 Lankershem Blvd, North Hollywood (818) 202-4120.  Directed by Denise Devin (who also did the same company's very fine Hamlet earlier this year). All Photo Credit: Denise Devin & Zombie Joe

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Fainting Couch (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in North Hollywood premiered an original play this weekend, titled The Fainting Couch.  Honestly, I had zero notion what to expect.  When I walked in, the stage did indeed have a couch upon it.  Lying there, sprawled really, I saw a young lady in striped tights and pink tutu.

This indeed proved the character The Ballerina (Natalie Hyde) one of four characters in this play by Robert Riemer.  Almost immediately we meet the second character, a diminutive figure known as The Small Fool (Donna Noelle Ibale) who enacts a little scene of doomed love with the Ballerina.  Entering into the scene then is The Big Fool (Ricky LaCorte) followed by what we know instantly to be the antagonist of the piece.  They call him both The Boss and The Magician (Rehyan Rivera).

Most obviously, people reading a review want to know what the show is about.  Here that gets a bit complicated.  In a nutshell, one can call it a tale of tyranny.  The Magician somehow made the other three characters and keeps them as slaves.  He sexually abuses The Ballerina (portrayed fairly graphically at one point) while controlling and torturing all three.  Naturally, they seek to distract themselves and eventually a plot emerges to achieve freedom.

Which sounds many times more straightforward than it in fact is.

First, and this doesn't seem immediately obvious, that comment of about his making them proves important.  As I left the theatre and dwelt upon what I'd seen (btw, a good sign I was so inclined) the more vital certain hints seemed to me.  The biggest was how each of these three were a part of him.  Some aspect of himself.  He seems to most loathe The Little Fool, the weak and most cowardly of them.  Yet he finds The Big Fool, whose greatest characteristic is a stupidity so vast he worships a coconut, quite acceptable.  He is the physically strong one, the one who also lusts after The Ballerina and calls it love.

So what is going on here?

I think trying to figure it out in any realistic context remains hopeless.  If anything I'm reminded of Sam Beckett's Waiting For Godot or maybe Edward Albee's Tiny Alice.  Kinda sorta.  One initial thought was Theatre of the Absurd but the story, odd as it was, made far too much sense.  Rather what unfolded for the hour-long show seemed to me an existential dream or fable.  And therein lay a bit of the problem.

My prejudices about acting and writing and story-telling in general tend towards general principles.  One of those remains specificity.  I maintain it is an actor's job to know precisely what it is they are doing when in character.  They needn't know it intellectually.  Intuitively will do nicely.  But nothing kills a performance's quality than lack of focus.  Much of stagecraft consists of honing that focus.  For example, certain choices tend to be vague by their very nature.  Anger is one, mostly because the concept lends itself to generality.  Anger about what?  Indignation is better than mere anger, just as righteous indignation (or for that matter self-righteous) is better still.  Weeping rage, with its implication of fury arising from pain, again is better than the generic "anger."

Half the cast of The Fainting Couch, specifically The Ballerina and The Small Fool, used specificity with great skill amid what is a very symbolic, even surreal work.  Even a kind of remoteness in the former eventually proved to presage her story's end.

But the rest of the cast, while showing some really excellent physical technique, didn't come up to the same level when it came to creating characters.  The Magician was ultimately all attitude, someone pretending to be The Joker.  I never felt his emotional connection to the others, which is really odd when you consider these beings are part of him!  (At one point I wondered if maybe this was taking place inside the mind of someone with multiple personalities)  He seems to be a sociopath, but that I deduce from the writing not the performance.  Likewise The Big Fool had loads of energy, but he sprayed it in every direction.  He naturally got much better at the end when an almost-normal conversation takes place.  Well, yeah.  In a "realistic" context acting is easier.  Mr. Riemer's play, written in such an arch style, requires stylized acting -- a much trickier form than what we see on film or television or most stages these days.  Two achieved it.  Not perfectly but well.  But two others did not, and so the quality of their performances varied quite a bit.  At times they were spot on, but others they missed the target by a mile.  The other two at least hit the target throughout.

The Fainting Couch will play Saturdays at 8:30pm October 6 through November 3, 2012, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood.  Call (818) 202-4120 for more information or buy tickets.  If your taste is for the edgy and experimental, I recommend this work.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Theatrical Double Feature for Halloween!

Spoilers ahoy!

The Visceral Theatre in Los Angeles has a double bill going on this 2012 October, one I can highly recommend!

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James classic ghost story has inspired movies, t.v. shows (like Dark Shadows) and even an opera!  A production of Jeffrey Hatcher's stage adaptation runs through the rest of October-- Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm until October 27, 2012.  This version runs approximately 75 minutes.

A black box theatre with room to seat a two or three dozen people, the Underground Theatre at 1312 North Wilton Place in Hollywood has a basic set for this production.  It reminded me of the artwork of Edward Gorey.  Paneling, floorboards, a staircase railing, even a door and hallway beyond rendered in irregular black and white.  An equally two-dimensional gargoyle atop a wall.  Chair on one side.  Piano and stool upon the other.

Nich Kauffman has the first line.  Amelia Gotham has the second.  These two comprise the cast entire.  For those who don't know, The Turn of the Screw may be the most acclaimed ghost story in literary history--quite possibly because one cannot be sure there are any ghosts.  Or at least any supernatural ones.

A young and inexperienced governess finds herself hired by a dashing older gentleman.  His brother and sister-in-law both died, leaving him with two children to care for.  He has no real interest in taking care of them (in and of itself there lies a mystery) but wishes a governess to watch over the children in his Essex estate called Bly (I adore how British homes so often have names).  An isolated place.  Her primary instruction--not to contact him for any reason whatsoever.  She will have total authority.   The Governess agrees.  A second mystery.  Why?  But she also inquires about any predecessors.  There was one.  She...left.

A third mystery.  They continue to mount onto the last word of the play as well as the novella upon which it is based.

Karffman plays all the roles but one, a neat tour-de-force of acting techniques as he shifts mostly between Mrs. Grose the housekeeper and Miles, the ten-year-old nephew of Bly's absent master.  Flora, his younger sister, remains mute throughout.  Gotham as the unnamed Governess begins with an overripe eagerness to love her child wards.  She adores the gothic mansion at the heart of Bly.  The nearby lake she calls "our little sea."  Something telling in that, and in the details we gradually learn of her life.  Beyond doubt hers is the lead, a multi-layered brew of needs and hopes and preconceptions that shapes every single action in the play.  The Narrator explains she had been his sister's governess and what follows comes from the pages of her diary.  We follow her as still more mysteries reveal themselves--increasingly having to do with her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned in that very "little sea" and her lover the clever but corrupt Peter Quint, also dead.  Have their wraiths returned, to seek out some new consummation?  Or is it merely the governess herself going in some sense mad?  Or--maybe--is it both?  That all three possibilities remain intact to the last moment remains to the credit of all.  But mostly to Gotham, who seamlessly shifts between aspects of Jane Eyre, Ophelia and Lady Macbeth!  Both she and Kauffman demonstrate not only powerful stage presence, but vast focus and (far more rare) the ability to convey characters at their most contradictory.  A child that goes from cynical to terrified and back again.  A young woman trembling with terror who openly wishes (sincerely) someone could be here to see her courage!

It all makes for a wonderful evening of nightmare, the kind that crawls under your skin and nestles in your heart and conscience.  Many a production of different Turns of the Screw I've seen but this easily ranks among the best.

Ghost Light
At 10:30pm each night after the cerebral fugue earlier in the evening, one can also see Ghost Light, an original one act play by Visceral Company artistic director Dan Spurgeon (who directed Turn).  But is it a play per se?  I'm tempted to say not.  It feels more like a carefully scripted visit to the haunted equivalent of one of those Murder Mysteries.

Kelly (Stacy Snyder) a college student in a sorority (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Harmony on Buffy The Vampire Slayer) joins her semi-boyfriend Josh (Nick Echols) in an old theatre on a storm-filled Halloween Night.  They're meeting up with their friend Mike (Curtiss Johns), a drama major and his date Julia (Stefani Davis).

Given the tropes of the genre, I immediately Julia would be the center of the story--the quiet psych major who doesn't smoke and whom Mike clearly really, really likes while the other two barely tolerate her (in the way "beautiful people" in schools everywhere look down their noses on the quiet brainy types).

For the record, I was right.  However, she did not turn out to be the long-lost daughter or sister of the serial killer student who died on this very stage exactly 25 years ago.  What followed was really fun and frankly more interesting than my initial expectations.

Initially, I felt some disappointment.  The characters might as well be listed as tropes.  The bitchy cheerleader type.  The thoughtless jock.  The sarcastic guy with a slightly sensitive side.  The troubled quiet one who figures out what's going on.  Blah blah blah.

But as Mike tells the story of Weird Wesley, I was drawn into the night's entertainment, and by the time the Ouji board made its appearance call me hooked!  The darkness and sounds and lights made for a wonderfully spooky time and one I recommend for this most wonderful season of the year!