Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mystery Plays (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Mystery Play" has a long history, one largely unknown unless (like me) you happen to have earned a degree in theater at some point. Many might see this title of the Visceral Company's latest offering and think "Poirot" or "Sherlock Holmes" or maybe even "Columbo." Not unreasonably. Part of the raw cleverness of this show is how (to some extent) both intertwined one-acts that make up The Mystery Plays fulfill such hopes. After all, crimes have been committed, and detection does take place. But playwright Robert Aguirre-Sacasa also harkens back to the medieval works which enacted a religious or mystical mystery. Appropriate for a holiday season centered around a profound example of such, yes?

I think so.

At first the whole thing feels very Twilight Zone-esque. A narrator (Frank Blocker) in a shadow-laced dreamscape intones about life and mysteries. This dovetails (in a bit of humor I shall not ruin by describing) into the first play--that of filmmaker Joe Manning (Daniel Jimenez) confronted with deepeningly strange events one Christmas season. En route to visit his family, he strikes up a conversation with a stranger named Nathan (Michael Mraz). Minutes later, he wanders off the train during a stop--he doesn't know why--and fails to get back aboard in time. Soon, the train has some kind of horrible accident. Everyone on board dies. Everyone--except Joe. Who begins having strange experiences, like Nathan speaking to him, and his vision starting to fail. Worse, the police want to talk to him about what happened--noting there's an extra body in the wreckage no one's managed to identify. It matches
Joe's description.

Cue the spooky music, were this an episode of The Night Gallery or The Outer Limits. But this isn't television. We don't get a break for sponsors selling something reassuring like soap or mouthwash, with the comforting assurance that what's wrong can be fixed with the right product. No, the mystery only deepens as Joe himself grows physically more uncomfortable, feels increasingly (and fairly accurately) out of control from  his life. He asks for help from different people, including a friend and lawyer named Abby Gilley (Devereau Chumrau). Remember her.

The whole first act, titled "The Filmmaker's Mystery," builds to a series of answers--disturbing and strangely hopeful as well as horrifying.

The second act, "Ghost Children," follows Abby Gilley, whom we last saw getting on board a plane for Oregon. Now another mystery, just as deep, unveils before our eyes. Abby travels back to the town where she grew up, for the first time in years and  years. Why? To see her brother Ben (Alex Taber). Or maybe not. Certainly to come to terms, however, with memories of him and the reason he lives in a prison. One of the telling points is that never before has Abby read any of his letters to her. Yet she still has every single one. Unopened. Till now.

For her, the mystery plays out as she visits places she  used to know, memories spilling into the present and on stage. Exactly what happened that night? Why? Will Abby even agree to see Ben? Can she bring herself to? The supernatural makes a briefer appearance in this one, but it is there. Indeed, that fact ultimately adds a strange weight to the whole proceedings. We know, somehow, there's more at stake than the success or failure of a legal appeal. Well, we know that anyway. But the hint of preternatural forces swirling in the shadows, in the distance, gives a gravitas to this story of a soul trying to understand, and so to maybe heal.

Six actors do a marvelous job of portraying several different characters each, often of wildly different ages and types. Mraz for example does an extremely fine turn as a cab driver hired to take Abby around. And much should be said of Laura Julian who pulls off something very tricky indeed--playing very similar characters (middle-aged Jewish mother types) who nevertheless come across as quite different people!

Quality of performance and design and direction as well as writing made for a very moving and spooky tale of Christmas, of a darkness that only can exist because there's light, of forgiveness in all kinds of forms, but mostly of people wrestling with...mysteries.

The Mystery Plays can be seen each Friday and Saturday evening at 8pm until January 4, 2014. Two special matinees will perform at 3pm on December 29 and January 5. Performances are at the Lex Theatre, 6769 Lexington Avenue (near Highland and Lexington).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Astroglyde 2013 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!
Zombie Joe's Underground Theater's latest, but very short-run, offering is their annual Astroglyde evening. For those unfamiliar with the series, this consists of monologues written by the actors--usually (as in this case) some new-comers as well as faces seen before at ZJU. Each emerges as a deeply personal glimpse at someone's life, the whole scale of it. The theatrical equivalent of a haiku.

Remember My Name performed by Ann Hurd easily ranks as the funniest piece of the night. Giving the details why would be a real pity but let us say it has to do with sex. And Star Wars. 'Nuff said. The narrator simply explains to someone what happened. Like many funny tales, it contains all the elements of tragedy. Yet we laugh. A lot. And while the costume helps, pink tights and a tutu do not a full ten minutes of giggles and sympathies make. Not now, nor ever. On a stage the size of a coffee table we see exactly what went wrong, at least from one person's point of view. When you really think about it, one feels this person's life went off the rails long before walking down the aisle.

Morning Jo by Courtney Bandeko proves more...ambiguous. Because despite our narrator says, she doesn't reveal much detail about her past nor hints about what the future might hold. Yet we do get a sense of what this person's present tends to be, with an ever-strengthening suggestion that ultimately is more important. Not in a New Age kind of way, but as a template by which she's going to face every day remaining. It seems sweet. Friendly. Nice. But one wonders if anything other than searing tragedy can await her in the end? Unless some Luck Angel literally takes her under wing?

Whistling For Goats, despite its title, seems almost mundane by comparison. But also, closer to home for exactly that reason. Olga O'Farrell plays a woman very uncomfortable in an subpar evening gown about to compete in a whistling competition. The reasons she's wearing the gown, getting ready to whistle classical music for ten minutes, and how goats figure into all this emerge over the course
of her nervous monologue. Like what she did to end up in this women's prison.
Again, given how short the piece is we're left most often wondering about the unchronicled details. Her exact relationship with her cellmate for example.Or whether she wins!

The aptly named Rock Bottom by Caitlin Carleton captures a moment when someone ends up caught and tries to justify themselves. Bit of a tour-de-force, actually, as she recounts events both funny and skin-crawling. But what makes the whole thing more funny is her reaction to her own words. This is no planned speech on her character's part, but what comes out of her mouth under the circumstances.

The Monster in Me on the other hand, performed by Chelsea Rose, creeped me out the most--in part because
I'm not sure exactly what is happening. She seems prisoner, and the identity (or presence) of her jailer remains ambiguous. Is she playing two characters, or is she practicing for when this psychopath comes back to do God-knows-what? Or is she herself her tormentor, a case of fissioned
personality? Worse, is it some combination of all of the above? I don't know. For that I'm almost grateful, but her eyes very nearly gave me nightmares.

Interestingly, Nightmare by Frannie Morrison was next. And that is precisely what it seems to be--a straightforward experience of a personal terror wrapped in the narrative form of a dream. So simple, so easy to get wrong by not committing to the full truth of your character's personal terror. Not a problem here. I was left feeling maybe, just maybe I was glimpsing a few moments of a soul trapped in hell.

15 by Jahel Corban Caldera is unique in this  year's presentation. He's the only male presenter this year. Make of
that what you will. He also wears the least clothes. Fortunately he has the body for it, and it make sense he should be almost naked since that essentially is what his character becomes. Emotionally naked. Realizing some hint in his stream of consciousness ramble of why precisely he's done what he has to all fifteen of those people.

Pitch by Cimcie Nichols on the other hand is the only performer who doesn't seem to be playing a human being at all. Rather she's an avatar, an icon, an incarnation as much as Uncle Sam. And she's trying to sell you (or anyone) something (herself) of great power. What? Suffice to say her costume is a brilliant little visual pun, and makes for a kind of almost SNL-esque humor.

Tsunami is done by Ellen Burr, and again breaks the mold of what one expects by this time. Imagine if you will a woman at the beach who experiences (as the title suggests) a tsunami. What would she think? What would she feel or notice? Not in terms of her life flashing before her eyes, nor any imminent ghost-like regrets, but the fear and pain and then the eerily beautiful details. More than any other as well, this piece is physical,
with the actress showing us as she reacts to the huge, unforgiving wave.

Finally Not Your Style by Anne Westcott builds around an idea I suspect doesn't really exist--but I'm not at all convinced happen. It focuses on that most simple, challenging and potentially most heart-wrenching idea of a grotesque metaphor for ourselves. Who of us has not longed to find someone just right? And felt nothing but impatience at a world that doesn't fulfill that aching desire A.S.A.P.! Or what we think of as possible, anyway. So we try to become someone new, something new. Which can be growth, after all, but can also mean turning yourself into a preztel about as natural as a moebius strip. And in the moment of struggle, of disappointment and focus, might not we have an epiphany?
Astroglyde 2013 I'm sorry to say has only two more performances--at 8:30pm Fridays December 13 and 20. Given the SRO status of opening night, I recommend folks hurry. Performances are at Zombie Joe's 4850 Lankershim (across the street from KFC). You can order tickets at (818) 202-4120

Monday, December 2, 2013

Zombie Joe's A Christmas Carol (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

December ushers in many things, including lots of different versions of the perennial fave A Christmas Carol. So many versions one might rightly wonder how else might one do the story? We've seen musical versions, all female versions, US modern versions, Great Depression versions, various styles of animated (including Mr. Magoo), the Muppets, a one man stage play (with Sir Patrick Stewart no less), even Doctor Who did a version!

Now Zombie Joe takes a shot, and finds yet another way to act out Dickens' most beloved story. It should surprise no one this production never once forgets this remains a ghost story!

Perhaps the average theater-goer might suspect ZJU would transmogrify this classic into something fascinating and grotesque but not really the tale people love. Well, no. At least not this time. What we experience instead fully meshes with the spirit of Christmas, but through a Halloween lens. In fact the whole show begins with a "Steampunk Chorus" singing Christmas Carols--but with a spooky edge. The effect often proves
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
hilarious! Not least for the sense of character each performer brings--not simple nice people who barely know life contains shadows. Rather this chorus might, just might have been composed of family and friends of the Addams Family!

Once they've set the mood, the story commences--and at what seems like a breakneck pace! Almost everyone plays multiple roles, all save Sebastian Munoz as that most famous miser of all time, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Which makes perfect sense. This remains his story after all. In fact, the whole production rests squarely on his performance. If we don't believe in Scrooge, then at best we're distracted by the other characters and their antics. The heart of the tale lies in his redemption, in our seeing him as a human being who was not always the nasty old man we meet, and who might yet find again the power of compassion and joy. Because here lies the secret of A Christmas Carol's power--we all are Ebeneezer Scrooge. Or so we fear in the deepest part of our hearts. None of us retain the hopeful innocence of childhood. We all feel ourselves warped by life's pains and disappointments. No one
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
reaching adulthood doesn't feel regret for choices made, paths taken, a word or action we'd take back if only we could!

Munoz succeeds bringing that very truth to life on stage. No small feat since he only rarely leaves it! The trap with Scrooge is to play the miser as a nothing more than a caricature. Easy to see why--the meaty scenes all come later as the worst aspects of the man begin to shed away. One of the hallmarks of the best Scrooges is that one feels the emotional truth of him from the start. Not someone playing at being a miserable old man, but who actually is exactly that. Munoz (who did such a marvelous job in The Raven earlier this year) gives us both.

A word here as well about pace. This production proceeds at a breakneck speed. It fairly zooms along. Yet it retains a natural rhythm, including moments of pause and reflection. Indeed, those moments become more powerful simply because they stand out in sharp relief from the rest. Amidst the roller coaster ride of young Ebeneezer coming home from school, Mr. Fezziwig's party and the like, the simple pause that lets Scrooge react as he sees his younger self make a titantic, stupid error--one that ripped all chance of happiness from his life for decades--stands out very much indeed. Like
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
a lighthouse in darkest night.

Let us not forget the rest of the cast as well, who do a fine job in a virtual blitzkrieg series of performances. A few stand out most--top of the list being Zombie Joe himself! Never having seen him perform before now, let me note he almost steals the show as the Ghost of Marley, as Mr. Fezziwig and as the venal Undertaker (treat in and of itself that left me wanting more). Likewise Vanessa Cate did a lovely job in her roles, including the relatively straightforward one of Belle, the woman Scrooge loved and let slip away. She created a lot of depth with that tiny part. Annalee Scott played guitar for the Steampunk Chorus as well as playing several other parts, changing a lot with each role (including a waiter that stuck in my mind for some reason, as well as Scrooge's beloved sister Elizabeth). Jason Britt made a fine Bob Cratchit yet managed to keep the seemingly similar roles he played also distinct (kudos for that!). Redetha Deason was his Mrs. Cratchit, with Corey Zicari as a strangely attractive Tiny Tim (not her fault--she's a very pretty young woman, and helped add that tiny touch of weirdness one expects at Zombie Joe's!)

Denise Devin follows up her Witch of Endor in Whore's Bath with all three Ghosts of Christmas in this one. Honestly this seems such a good idea I'm a tad startled never having seen it done before! Given the speed at which this show proceeds, it also serves as a nice anchor point for the audience to not loose track of things along the way. Just as having David Wyn Harris play not only young Scrooge but his nephew Fred serves the same function (and helps on a visceral level explain his intense dislike of the young man).

Is this a perfect production without a flaw or hiccup? No. Hardly any theatrical performance I've ever seen qualifies for that! Frankly, I'd call that an unrealistic standard. One can spot a stumbled line here, a beat missing or a (very few) ones unneeded. But this show, it flows. It works. We understand the story and emotionally respond. Not to mention we laugh as well as cry, just a bit. More than once the audience (at last this member) spend long periods fascinated. Kudos to the entire cast and crew for that achievement--include Gloria Galvan and Sandra Saad.

A Christmas Carol shows at 8:30pm on Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays until December 22, 2013 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood 91601 (just south of the NoHo sign, across the street from KFC) 818-202-4120