Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Lady Was a Gentleman (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Given how much I loved a previous production of Broads Word Ensemble, little wonder The Lady Was a Gentlemen proved so pleasurable.  Barbara Kahn's play proved both a gentle and cutting romantic farce set in the 1850s (the text mentions "President Buchanan") about a grand actress on a tour and the ladies in (and out) of love who surround her life for a few days.

Photo: Alex Moy
Charlotte Cushman (Dawn Alden), making her latest "farewell" tour of the United States, confronts a series of problems--not least the fact her best friend/manager Sally Mercer (Sonja Inge) is a free black woman, and in the South must be on the streets alone nor without her papers.  While mentioned--and felt--this ever-present danger never takes center stage.  Rather, Charlotte's tempestuous love life does, in oh so many ways!

First the Juliet to her Romeo on stage is one Mrs. Deirdre Ryan (Tara Donovon), and some very uncomfortable sexual chemistry rears its head.  Charlotte feels no trepidation at loving a woman, not at all, but a fellow cast member?  No!  Now if only those feelings were one sided...

Next we have Emma Crow (Maikiko James), Charlotte's latest and most intense fan--one who has fallen in love with Charlotte's performance of Romeo and likewise with Charlotte herself.  The fact her father manages the actress's financial affairs allows the two to meet--and (just to make things a tad more complicated, since Charlotte has a long term love interest whom she even calls Wife) for the two of them to click.

Photo: Alex Moy
Add to this Marie Louise Yvette L'Amour (Chantal Thuy), a mail order bride who has just met Jane Partridge (Lacy Altwine), the woman to whom she is betrothed but thinks is a man.  How these too get involved arises from the kinds of coincidence and misunderstanding which dot the best of farces--from A Midsummer Night's Dream to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Honestly, although the writing is witty, the cast very good indeed, the directing (by Kate Motzenbacker) smooth and 'on point,' methinks an undeniable part of the play's appeal remains how it ventures into a world forgotten and denied by history.  Honestly, one sometimes gets the impression lesbians suddenly appeared out of nowhere to star in deliciously trashy novels in the 1950s.  Or that same sex marriage was invented in our lifetimes.  I mentioned this play to a co-worker, describing the little I knew at the time regarding the plot, and this person replied "There were actresses way back then?"

Yeah.  True story.

Photo: Alex Moy
Which is not a criticism!  Rather a comment on something which gives a frisson of the forbidden, a spotlight into a part of life consigned to shadows, plus a celebration of both past and present.  All the more welcome since November last!

Me, I find myself hoping for an extension--because we all could use something to make us smile and laugh and even shake our heads at the juicy silliness while reclaiming some lost history.

(Our history, I should say--because even though I am neither female nor gay this is about humanity, not gender or orientation.  Not really.  After all human foibles and human desires remain...well, human.  Okay, rant over.  For now.)

The Lady Was a Gentleman plays at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays until April 27, 2017 with extra performances on Monday April 17 as well as Thursday April 27, at the Dorie in the Complex Theatre 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Pure Confidence (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I went into the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s production of Pure Confidence by Carlyle Brown very nearly blind.  Didn’t know the company, so felt eager to see something by them.  Knew next-to-nothing of the subject matter, save it had something to do with race relations—and evidently (from the poster) the Civil War as well as horse-racing.  But I like for plays and their performers speak for themselves.

Turned out to be a lot of good things this production had to say.

Horse-racing and slave jockeys in the antebellum South.  A subject about which I knew nothing.  What I saw in the play gave me a glimpse seriously at odds with what I thought I knew in general—mostly about how slaves might buy their freedom in what became of the Confederacy.  Frankly in most states it nearly (sometimes literally) took an act of the state legislature to allow any slave to go free, no matter what.  Was Kentucky really that different?  How delightful if so! 

The play centers around Simon Cato (Armond Edward Dorsey), a hugely successful slave jockey, and Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salvers) who owned not Simon but the horse Pure Confidence upon which Simon won so many great races, rising to what we would call superstardom.  The two enjoy each other’s company, are friends even.  Finally Simon makes the Colonel a proposal—that he purchase Simon and then Simon will buy himself from his share in the winnings (the Colonel regularly shared such winnings, in the play a not uncommon practice to encourage jockeys).  Despite genuine fondness for him, the Colonel proves reluctant.  So the cunning jockey hatches a plan, one with the help of Mattie (Deborah Puette), the Colonel’s wife.

Along the way, Simon meets Caroline (Tamarra Graham), Mattie’s personal maid, and plots to buy her as well—with her consent, marriage in mind.

Now, you might think the shenanigans of Simon to get himself free would emerge as the heart of the play’s story.  In fact it proves a subplot, one that all-but-vanishes before the end of the first act—and, not coincidentally, the arrival of the Civil War.  A gap of nearly two decades takes place before act two, when these four find themselves re-united under an odd set of circumstances.  Some bitterness, some fondness, some hope and some humiliation lies in store for them all.  We watch all this, having gotten to like and care for them.  One of the highest praises I can offer to playwright, cast and director Marya Mazor must be that all four come across as extremely human, each growing with time as well as needing some more growing at play’s end, each having gained and lost a lot.  Their cross purposes and sometimes genuinely bad behavior comes across as human, understandable, forgiveable.  All good!  More than good!

And yet I left feeling the drama pulled its punch several times.  Perhaps the playwright deliberately chose to do that.  For all I know they felt that essential to what they were aiming for.  Without doubt the actual story of these four characters works, because we engage with them and end wishing them the best.  Yet the real and present dangers which would have surrounded them never really come on stage.  Simon and Caroline enjoy extremely exalted status as slaves in the slave-holding South, with the reality of other slaves simply never impinging on the lives of anyone in the play—only mentioned as something unpleasant a couple of times.  In fact the whole outside world never really seems to exist much.  Not only the viciousness of slavery for most, but the rampant fear and rage boiling over as events in 1860-61 turned into a long, extremely bloody war.  Likewise the second act didn’t really offer much of genuine context, which robbed all those scenes of some genuine poignancy (and kudos for everyone in achieving so much as they did).

But I kept wondering where was the meat amid this very nice dramatic meal of fruits, vegetables and some very good sweets?  Where was the blood, at least metaphorically?  If we are to see the real friendships of these four compelling and interesting characters as vivid and special, where is the context to show how special?  How very extraordinary?  Frankly, without that the play reminds me of the excuses I heard growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s and 70s, about how much slaves were cared for by their Masters, about how terrible freedom proved for the slaves, about how much more racist and uncivilized the Union was compared to the Confederacy.  That felt jarring.

Yet—again, because it bears repeating—the play’s story engaged me.  The characters touched my heart, with affection if not love or passion.  I cared about events taking place before me, and quite simply the actors did a magnificent job (especially Graham, who frankly had the least to work with among the leads) with such uniform quality I cannot but praise director Mayzor.

I must also note when I finally got around to reading the program, something became clear as clearest air—this play does not in any way represent an actual telling of real history, despite the fact Simon Cato was a real man and did indeed rise to the top of his profession. Which is fine.  Congrats on making me believe for a time it did!


PureConfidence plays 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 3pm on Sundays until April 30, 2017 at the Sacred Fools ‘Black Box’ Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lord of the Underworld's Home of Unwed Mothers (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When attending Lord of the Underworld's Home for Unwed Mothers at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz, I got gobsmacked.  Someone mentioned it was about Persephone and did I know the story?

For the record, Persephone is my favorite character in Greek mythology.  She is the daughter of Demeter, the Earth Goddess, and she ends up stolen away into the Underworld by Hades judge of the dead.  In ancient times worshipers revered her as the bridge between life and death.

Louisa Hill's script takes the archetypes and templates from Hellenistic religion, reshaping them into a compelling story of a mother and daughter separated by far, far more than mere time, distance or generation--yet remaining connected in some startling ways.

Dee (Corryn Cummings) we meet as a middle aged woman, parent to the intense Corie (Michaela Slezak).  They don't seem to get along.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Act One for the most part consist's of Dee's story, of how as a Roman Catholic girl in the 1960s she got pregnant and the not-so-little Hell she went through as a result.  Betrayed by her parents, rejected by the biological father of her baby, enduring the scorn and pressure--and sometimes torture--leading up to abandoning her child.  In a series of letters to her daughter, left in a file made available when she comes of age, Dee pours out events.  In her own way a rebel, she adored living things--gardens, trees, fruit, flowers.  Her parents, hailing from (and feeling shame for) farm stock, did not understand.  Nor in the end did they seemingly realize they'd driven their child to salt her own garden.

 Act Two--as you perhaps guessed, focuses on Corie, that little girl given up for her own good, in a deep wild hope she would be happy.  In fact, her story turns out even worse than Dee's.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Primly informed she was evil, Corie lost her first home because the man and woman who so wanted a child didn't want her.  The second fell away when she told a terrible truth (and of course was not believed).  Third because by then she was a problem child, with issues and rage to spare.  Little wonder she discovered and fell in love with METAL!  Or the letters from her birth mother left a nauseous feeling behind.

What follows, though, proves the very embodiment of the myth from which the story derives.  Because like Earth and Fire, Life and Death prove but two polarities which naturally coexist.  So Persephone/Corie and Demeter/Dee do in fact find a way to be part of each others' lives--almost against their will.  Because fundamentally they are two women against the rest of the world--embodies in the Chorus (Andrian Gonzalez and Amy Harmon) who between them bring the rest of this world to the stage.  Parents.  Lovers.  Teachers.  Homeless.  Crime victims.  The lot.  Honestly theirs are secondary, sometimes tertiary characters, so they remain almost cyphers on the page.  It is the cast and director who make most the most of most of them. But what we see on stage does become a re-enactment of myth.  Which makes it a ritual, which in turn theatre has always been.

It certainly was when plays based on this tale were first told and performed.

Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers runs at 8:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3pm on Sundays through May 14, 2017 at the Skylight Theatre at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Of Mice and Men (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In the last few months I've seen a pattern--a revival of American classics, those that speak to the issues of our specific times.  Something to do with the election, is my guess.  Well, my theory.

Credit: Lonni Silverman
Of Mice and Men retains its status as just such an American classic.  John Steinbeck's novel, adapted by himself for the stage, echoes our own times sure enough.  Taking place during grim days of the Great Depression, it follows two "bindlesticks" or hobos named George (Spenser Cantrell) and Lennie (Gregory Crafts)--opposites yet best friends in so many ways.  The latter is short, very smart, but uneducated.  Lennie, on the other hand, is huge and clearly mentally challenged.  He is in effect a very large, very strong child.  He can hurt people without meaning too.  Although kind and guileless, full of loyalty and simple good will, Lennie keeps killing the small animals he so loves to pet.  He seems doomed, pretty much from the start.

And he is.  In all the world he has only George as a protector. One man against a whole world.  We know, don't we, he won't be enough?

They make it to a new farm, run by a man we only know as Boss (Jim Blanchette) who seems surly but fair enough.  Before too long we meet others--Candy (David Caprita) who lost his hand in an accident, Slim (Jim Martyka) the natural leader of the men working there, Carlson (Matthew Clay) a farmhand with little or no human sympathy at all, Whit (Ross Shaw) a typical young ranch hand, and Crooks (Twon Pope) so-called for his crooked back who is the only black man present and so kept distinct.

Credit: Lonni Silverman
More to the point, we meet the Boss's son Curley (Lee Pollero) and his Wife (Amanda Rae Troisi).  Not really bad people.  But--not nice.  Just as pertinent, not happy.  Curley's Wife is lonely and looking for trouble/attention, while Curley himself has a bundle of issues he keeps using to lash out at the world.

Keep in mind amidst all this George and Lennie shine as a beacon of hope for several characters, because they have a plan and dream--the tiny farm of their own, with a few chickens and some alfalfa Lennie will feed to the rabbits.  Lennie looks forward to this with as much raw joy as a Saint might greet the face of Jesus.  In fact, we end up as enthusiastic as he as first Candy then Crooks join in on their plans.  It looks as if they might make it, might escape the drudgery and empty future of manual labor without end, without possibility, without hope.

But that isn't how it ends.  We know that going in.  Like a train wreck we simply cannot prevent, accidental events pile upon one another.  No one person's fault really, because even Curley isn't in the end a villain.  He's just vain, resentful and ignorant.  More, he's angry and lacks compassion.

Credit: Lonni Silverman
Sound like anyone you know?  Like--maybe everyone?  Sooner or later?  Maybe there lies the truth behind this kind of tragedy (and no, I don't just mean the play).  We so rarely make that effort to be better than we have been.  Carlson's not a monster, he just doesn't care much.  Wife isn't some kind of sociopath.  She's simply someone not-well-trained (or talented) to deal with much.  Curley himself is more blind than evil, his vision distorted by blood-tinted glasses.

Thus, George does what he has to, because this simple smart man is loyal and compassionate as well as braver than I think I could ever be.

Maybe that is what we should carry away from Of Mice and Men.  Let us try to be more like George, and thus make the world a far better place.

Let us be like George.

Kudos not only to the cast, but director Aaron Lyons, set designer Ann Hurd (the set really worked amazingly well--not least because it wasn't quite real) and of course the music composed/played live by Shane Howard.

Of Mice and Men plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm (No Saturday show April 15, special Monday performances at 8pm April 17 and 22 for pay-what-you-can) until May 13, 2017 at the Belfry Stage upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo Street (next to the Lutheran Church), North Hollywood CA 91602.




Urban Death 2017 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For years and years now Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group’s signature theatrical piece has been Urban Death, a series of vignettes designed to shock, amuse, intrigue, gross out and disturb.  This year’s iteration certainly achieves all of the above.  But since the individual vignettes are so many—many less than two minutes—and depend on shock, describing them in any detail would take away from the experience.  Which is not my job.  Nor would I wish it to be.

So here is what I can tell you.  Each year, Urban Death is different but has carryover.  Certain little scenes return, sometimes after a long absence.  I spotted a few repeats this time, but mostly we are seeing original stuff.

The style varies from year to year.  Sometimes it is more subtle and creepy, other times more in your face, while (and this never ever fails to impress me) usually something pretty topical/universal pops up.  It certainly does here, in a vignette I suspect might be called “Dead Models.”  Maybe.  Those are often my favorite.

Credit: Wimer-Joe-Matulis-Slezak
But overall the 2017 version introduces us to fairly intense but brief nightmare images.  The really gross ones are at the very top of the show.  You’ve been warned.  You’re welcome.  Some were extremely short indeed, just vivid weirdness on a scale of what-is-that to OMGWHATISTHAT?  Plenty of jump scares but good ones.  One or two that proved fairly obvious but worked.  Several were laugh-out-loud funny, mostly touching on gender expectations.

I will mention in passing that last piece would have sent a friend of mine screaming from the room—but then she has a pretty severe phobia of clowns.  And dolls.  Especially when the latter move…

The cast (some of whom do appear naked, just as a head’s up) consist of Patrick Beckstead, Michelle Danyn, Shayne Easin, David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath, Jetta Juiansz, Dasha Kittredge, Iana Neville, James Sanger, Adam Shows, and Matthew Vorce.

Urban Death plays Saturday nights at 11pm Saturday nights until April 29, 2017 at ZJU Theatre Group 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign, just north of Camarillo) North Hollywood CA 91601.


Bellydance Evolution: Alice in Wonderland (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For those who don’t know, I have a background in dance.  Middle eastern dance specifically.  For almost two decades I performed (off and on) doing things like a cape dance or sword dance, with at least half that a member of Troupe Zaghareet.  So I looked forward so very much to Bellydance Evolution’s full length show of Alice in Wonderland at El Portal Theatre in NoHo!  An art form I love coupled with one of my favorite stories.  What more could I ask for?

Well…

Let us be very clear.  The dancers and dances turned out utterly wonderful.  The beauty and skill of pretty much everyone proved a joy to behold.  A great deal of imagination and effort went into this performance, and it showed!  Costumes were fantastic!  Dancing superb!  The lights and (sometimes live) music lent themselves to a fantastical show performed by talented, beautiful dancers.  Kudos to them all, including composer Paul Dinletir.

It had precious little to do with Alice in Wonderland, however.  This marks the fifth theatrical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s work (in one way or another) to appear on a Los Angele stage in the last three years (at least that I’ve personally seen).  They ran a wide range, in budget and length and style.  Bellydance Evolution’s production is the least faithful of them all to the source material.  Costumes suggested characters from the book, a few dances seemed to have a few elements included, but in truth there was no “plot” nor any sense of baffling wonder, hardly any tension between such characters as there were, nor did Alice serve as anything save a character who wandered into every dance sooner or later.  In short I could find no story.  And while Alice was there, I got zero sense of her journey.

None of which takes away from the dancing!  Alice (Heather Aued) proved a beautiful dancer full of energy and sparkle.  I really enjoyed the Mad Hatter (Rin Ajna) as nearly the only character who seemed to almost fit into the supposed story, i.e. her dancing appeared to come from a strange and warped imagination in some way –and like all such in this show, gloriously skilled as well as lovely to experience.  The Caterpillar (Sharon Kihara) had what seemed to me the best costume, with a headdress I hope weighed nowhere near what it might.  Likewise the Queen of Hearts (Jillina Carlano) made a powerful entrance and showed off her considerable skill with very real dash.  Okay, one drum solo went on a tad long for my taste but that is nitpicking.  I liked the White Rabbit (Bryce Moyer) very much, especially my favorite bit when he engaged in a chase with Alice and the Mad Hatter—one that ended up inside the audience!

So the show dazzled and pleased me!  It also disappointed, rather severely, because I really very much wanted to see Alice in Wonderland.   Frankly I wish I’d been warned this wouldn’t really be much of an adaptation at all.  Then I could have simply sat back, smiled and let the dance warm my soul.

As of this writing, Bellydance Evolution’s Alice in Wonderland has closed after two scheduled performances.  However, it is a regular piece of that troupe’s repertoire and will no doubt return.  I recommend it, especially for those who love dance—and especially as an introduction to middle eastern dance!  But don’t go in expecting to see much of the Lewis Carroll.


Note: These photos are from last year’s production of the same piece, which had a slightly different cast and evidently tailored the choreography to that.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Tennessee Williams had a tumultuous life, and watching his plays you don’t get so much a feeling for his details of a biography but a sense of the passions he observed and felt all around him.  That fact helps explain his status as a “classic” American playwright, a status richly deserved.  Hence his famous Cat on a Hot Tin Roof makes its way into the repertoire of the Antaeus Theatre Company (now moved into its purpose-made digs in Glendale).

Please note: Antaeus usually has two complete casts of each play they produce in rotating repertory.  I saw the performance by the “Hoppin’ Johns” cast.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , like most of Williams’ plays, fits into the same semi-genre pretty much invented by Ibsen and Chekhov over a hundred years ago—the family as a metaphor for society.  As such, it does not offer a “message” so much as diagnosis of how this group of people interact at a crisis point.  A particularly fine accomplishment here emerges in the fact I ended up sympathetic with every single member of this unnamed wealthy family, even when I felt some of them (okay, pretty much all of them sooner or later) did something just terrible.

Credit:  Steven C. Kemp
Most assume the character we first meet, Maggie (Linda Park) , the title character.  She describes herself explicitly as a “cat on a hot tin roof” determined to stay as long as she can.  At one point she even dubs herself “Maggie the Cat.”  Of course she’s also one of the most vivid, powerful characters we meet, which says a lot! In fact she dominates Act One so much Williams needed to get her off stage for most of Acts Two and Three, lest she eclipse everyone else!  Park captures this roiling set of passions and determinations with great skill, frankly creating a Maggie I much prefer to Elizabeth Taylor’s in the movie (although that script was mutilated, to be fair).  Here we meet a Maggie routinely and with laser-like focus pursuing her goals, yet with a surprising tenderness following her like a shadow.  Her take on the character is someone quite judgmental of others, but also forgiving in many ways, who feels herself losing that latter quality, much to her dismay.  A subtle but profound choice, one informing almost every breath.

Of course, her larger than life father-in-law Big Daddy (Mike McShane) points out both Maggie and his other daughter-in-law the eternally fecund Mae (Tamara Krinsky) seem like “cats on a hot tin roof.”  Maggie’s husband Brick (Daniel Bess) agrees.  What both perhaps miss is that every single one of this family has earned that title, one way or another.

Credit:  Steven C. Kemp
This counts as one of many insights this specific production, directed by Cameron Watson, offered.  Perhaps most obviously in the set, which (like Baby Doll at the Fountain last year) ignores any attempt at realism in favor of making the setting—Maggie and Brick’s bedroom—a metaphor for the family itself. The windows and ceiling tilt in opposite directions. One corner of the floor warps upward if from water damage, while scraps debris from forests or abandoned homes hug the set on most sides.  Big Daddy’s house is sinking, about to collapse, and no one notices. Kudos to Scenic Designer Steven C. Kemp.

Essentially we get a glimpse of this, Big Daddy’s birthday.  The ex-redneck farmhand who worked his way up to overseer of a huge plantation in the Mississippi Delta, then inherited it when the couple who owned the place died, Big Daddy has been living in terror.  He feared a recent sickness was cancer, back in the 1950s when that was nearly always a death sentence.  Now the news he only has a spastic colon makes him feel alive, more vital, and his personality comes roaring back full force.  Given a chance he puts his wife Big Momma (Julia Fletcher) down, quite brutally.  Distaste for his eldest son Gooper (Michael Kirby), Mae’s husband and the father of their children (Henry Greenspan and Eliza LeMoine) bubbles up.  But most of all he wants to know why his younger, favorite son Brick crawled into a bottle.  He wants to find out, and means to!

What he does not yet know, however, is how the doctors are lying.  Big Daddy does indeed have cancer.  His days can now be counted.  But Gooper and Mae are keeping it from him and from Big Momma until later.  Not out of kindness, not really.  After all, Big Daddy has evidently never shown them much kindness and expecting any in return frankly comes across as foolish.  No, they want to secure an inheritance worth millions.

I find it hard to judge them for that, really.  Poor Gooper has to put up with his parents both referring to Brick as Big Daddy’s “only son,” even though Brick has done nothing but play football then announce football.  Now he doesn’t even do that!  Gooper has a prominent career as a lawyer, has a family.  Truth to tell, their treatment has been shabby.  If Big Daddy or Big Momma wanted loyalty, then they should have given some.  In this production, even Maggie doesn’t seem to hate her brother- and sister-in-law.  Most of the time.  She simply fears seeing her husband disinherited, and herself ending up poor and old—a combination she rightly finds terrifying.

This kind of nuance makes for fascinating theatre, and when a cast this good brings such nuances to the surface, then plays like those of Tennessee Williams get their just due.  All through much of Acts Two and Three, literal fireworks go off in the grounds offstage.  Metaphorical ones upstage them between the characters—and the depth of what constitute those make a riveting production.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, until May 7, 2017 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway, Glendale CA 91205.