Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Life, Death and the Middle (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the second performance I've seen from the True Focus Theater. I adored their previous show and now looked forward to something a bit different.  Life, Death & the Middle was billed as "An Evening of Staged Poetry." In my experience, a problematical idea.  Hardly an impossible one, but...tricky.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
Co-directors Vanessa Cate and Natalie Hyde took this idea and did things I've never ever seen before, things that entertained while bringing the stylized words of poetry to life.  No small task.  Poetry tends to end up a fundamentally literary form--working best on the page, where one can savor each syllable if need be, certainly re-read said poem again and again.  Dramatic forms on the other hand simply happen.  You experience each moment once, then vanishes forever. Bridging the two often focuses upon a single performer, looking effectively into the audience's eyes and speaking words from their very heart.  Not all poetry proves amenable to that, although in this case several did--"Katsu" by Cate, performed by Crystal Salas, likewise "I Would Take the Skull First But I am a Coward" by Pete Holby and performed by Tucker Matthews (in a refreshing
change of tone from the brilliant extremes he as a performer does so well).

But then, there are the less-linear or less individually effective pieces.  The night's first poem, "The Gathering" by Joseph Nichols, became a choral piece in terms of not only voice but movement--a flow of words and bodies which immediately got my attention. Likewise "Untitled" by Matt Kellegrew, performed by Cheryl Doyle and Collin Lee Ellis, performed their piece as an entwined couple--not the only time as "Excuse Me: I Am Lost" by Cate and performed by Cheryl again with Robert Walters used the same idea but with wildly different effect!  "Returning is arriving for the first time again" was another duo, friends sharing a common realization and experience performed by Matthews and
Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
Walters (with, let it be said, a delightful cameo from Hyde and Doyle).

So the hour-long show continued--one somewhat startling rendition of poetry after another.  Hyde did Angie Hoover's "Never Have I Ever" in a touching enactment of the central image.  James Han spoke Mark Hein's simple "Mortal Tenderness (or, River's End)" with other members of the ensemble becoming a kind of scenery, or shadow.  Just as Mariana Goulart did Salas' "Basket (A Poem About Eggs)" with a single interaction from one other cast member.

I could go on, without really (despite the warning atop this review) giving much away about the content of the poems themselves.  An hour's worth of poetry with such a title?  You can guess it covers a very broad range of
Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
feeling, realization, comment, pleas, remembrance and questions.  Better, far better, to see the show yourself and see these works brought to life than for me to seek to describe each one somehow.  I simply note my own pleasure at the entire ensemble, with hints and teases about what I liked--from Reilly Loaya's use of prop while reciting "More Than Seven Questions To Ask the Boy on Fire when Holding a Pail of Water" by Kelly Grace Thomas, or the vivid simplicity of Lauren Peterson joined by Hyde and Han in "Forever Their" by Danny Pierce.

Precisely how did the show impact me?  Rather than analyzing each one, let me share this.  At the end, I was shocked.  An hour, was my first thought.  Really?  Have I really been sitting here an hour?  Because on some fundamental level I just didn't feel it had been that long.  Which makes for about as much praise as I can offer, honestly.  

Life, Death & the Middle plays four performances only, Sundays at 7pm at ZJU (4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601--across from KFC and just south of the NoHo sign).  Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here or by calling 805-791-1503

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