Friday, March 18, 2016

Hot 'N' Throbbing (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Paula Vogel has a reputation as one of the edgiest American playwrights writing today.   Hot 'N' Throbbing, currently produced by the Illyrian Players in association with the Watts Village Theater Company, makes the case for just how disturbing--and moving--her creations can end up.  In a word, extremely.  On all counts.

This play, written in direct response to Senator Jesse Helms' 1989 amendment requiring those applying for NEA grants to forswear "obscene" art, actually explores exactly what in fact deserves that title.  Obscene.  What is that exactly?  Is it like beauty, entirely in the eye of the beholder?  Perhaps.  But might we as citizens and simply human beings come to overall working consensus on the subject?  Again, perhaps.

No easy answers here, folks.  Although, in the end at least one act portrayed in this play certainly qualifies.  Or should qualify.  What may give Hot 'N' Throbbing its greatest power is that some will argue on that point.

Which frankly counts as far more disturbing than anything on stage.

The plot deals with a very troubled family.  Single mom Charlene (Robyn Gabrielle Lee) writes erotica for a living, slipping into a trance as she pounds out scripts on her tabletop while dealing with issues involving her two children--rebellious teen "Layla" (Niki Mejia) and withdrawn bookish Calvin (Jason Caceres).  Other than Charlene's job perhaps this seems in anything very ordinary, yes?  No!  For one thing, two other characters share the stage with Charlene, seemingly unseen by her offspring.  Voice Over (My-Ishia Cason-Brown) and The Voice (Stephen Tyler Howell) appear at first to be Charlene's muses.  They even look like avatars of glamorous danger laced with lust.  As she composes, they provide the words, very nearly acting out the emotions described.

It cannot be that simple, though.  For one thing, sometimes Layla and Calvin see or hear them--but when they do, no one else does.  More, sometimes they offer advice--especially when Charlene's drunken ex-husband shows up in a rage over the restraining order she's had issued.  Clyde (Thaddeus Shafer) frankly embodies almost ever single stereotype of what used to be called a Male Chauvinist Pig. He self-righteously proclaims the most crude of gender roles, feels entitled to his wife's respect after doing all he can to lose it, thinks his violence should be instantly forgiven because he apologizes and sees all women purely in terms of sex.

Except--he isn't just a set of stereotypes.  Really.  The man has issues, sure, but his pain is real.  So too the connection with Charlene.  It is there, we see it.

Honestly, that is almost the least disturbing of many threads of desire and complexity explored in this family, with hints of incestuous desires for example (from and in directions you might not expect) and also the kind of primal sexual feelings over which we have little enough control--yet for which our society alternately condemns and fetishizes.

At the end, however, The Voice and Voice Over reveal what they are in burning fuse of real horror.  They appear to be the thoughts and fantasies of every single one of the characters in tandem.  Some alas do not listen to them.  Others, alas, do.  Nor is it as simple as saying certain types of thoughts are wrong or bad or obscene, especially when it comes to what we're told qualifies.  Yet one act is beyond any doubt in this play obscene.  One act that is sickeningly common, although the perpetrator (in a not uncommon nuance from real life) knows it and cannot live with that act.

Then we are left with a hint of an aftermath no less complex and disturbing than the rest of the play--all brought to life by an amazingly truthful cast.  Really, this kind of material involves the emotional equivalent of slicing open a vein to write a deeply held secret onto a placard.  Director Carly D. Weckstein evidently excells at creating the kind of "safe" space for actors to unsheathe so bravely.  She did it in the previous two plays of hers I've seen.  And here was yet another example.

Hot 'N' Throbbing plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm through April 10, 2016. Performances take place at Studio/Stage 520 North Western Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90004.

From the Production: Throughout the run of Hot ‘N’ Throbbing we will be collecting donations of tampons, pads, moving boxes, packing tape, coloring books, markers, crayons and colored pencils to bring to the The Good Shepherd Shelter for Battered Women with Children. Bring in items to donate and you can get a free beverage!

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